4 affordable dream destinations for families

Searching for a vacation that your family will love and you can afford? There are plenty of options out there ranging from tropical beach getaways to historic national parks.

When the Glaser family of Columbia took a vacation last December, they wanted to plan an unforgettable beach vacation with activities all seven of their extended family members would love.

“With four adults and three kids between us, we wanted the best combination of a good value, a great quality resort and the ability to do day trips, but also the ability to be self-contained if needed,” Matthew Glaser says.

The family reached out to a travel agent, Lynda Maxwell of CTC Destinations in Ellicott City, who led them to Dreams Tulum, an all-inclusive resort on the Riviera Maya that had everything from swimming with dolphins to ruins to explore.

“The Riviera Maya is a great value. There are beautiful beaches and water sports, but the area also presents a cultural opportunity for families,” Maxwell says.

The family took a daylong trip to Chichen Itza to see the ruins and stopped in a local village to enjoy the Mayan cuisine and culture, Glasser says. At the resort, there was always some form of entertainment or activity to keep the kids busy, he says.

According to a recent survey by American Express, the average American family spends more than $4,500 a year on vacation, and most families want to make every dollar count. With the cost of hotels and airfare fluctuating weekly, it can be tough to find a family vacation that checks all the boxes.

Below are four family destinations that promise culture, adventure and spectacular sights — without breaking the bank.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Destination Yellowstone

With remarkable scenery and the highest density of wildlife in any of the lower 48 states, Yellowstone National Park will wow everyone in the family. And there are plenty of ways to make the visit affordable.

Find the best deals through the park’s authorized vacation agency, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which offers tours of almost every sight in Yellowstone as well as Wild West experiences. Go horseback riding, have a chuck-wagon dinner or take the bargain-priced stagecoach tour ($8 for children/$11 for adults). Families can also explore geyser country by rental bike, with half-day rates of $25 per adult.

Lodging: Xanterra handles all of the in-park lodging, which ranges from rustic camp sites at $18.50 a night for six people to luxe options like the Old Faithful Inn, the park’s historic 1903 log and stone lodge which starts at $200 a night.
Getting there: The five-hour flight to Jackson, Wyoming, can be pricey — starting at $500 per person. Then add on 1.5-hour drive to Yellowstone — which requires a car rental. The inexpensive food and lodging options, however, make this once-in-a-lifetime trip affordable.

Riviera Maya, Mexico

Destination WRiviera Maya

Want a four-star vacation on the Caribbean Sea at half the price of the islands? Try Riviera Maya, located on the eastern end of the Yucatan peninsula just south of Cancun. Riviera Maya stretches from Playa del Carmen south to the city of Tulum.

There you can zip line through an archaeological park, explore legendary Mayan ruins, or spend the day snorkeling the clear waters of the Caribbean. Kids will love an excursion to Ecopark Kantun Chi, a set of underwater caverns ($14.50 for kids/$29.50 for adults), or head to Xcarat Park, an ecology-focused park where families can swim with dolphins, walk through a bat cave and see a traditional Mexican folklore show. Visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum or try the lesser-known Coba Ruins, where families can climb Nohoch Mul Pyramid ($3 per person).

Lodging: Dozens of family-friendly resorts offer all-inclusive packages at rock-bottom prices during the summer months. Rates at Sandos Playacar Beach Resort (recently voted a great value by CNN) are just $300 for a family of four per night, all inclusive. Apple Vacations has a seven-night package for a family of five at the four-star Dreams Resorts & Spas starting at $4,000 — including airfare.
Getting there: Southwest flies direct from Baltimore to Cancun with rates starting at $168. It's a four-hour nonstop flight.

Portland, Maine

destination Maine W light

If you’ve ever dreamed of the quintessential New England coastal vacation, look no further than Portland. Maine’s largest city is home to museums, a thriving food and art scene, and some of the state’s best scenery.

Portland is the perfect home base to explore Maine’s mid-coastal islands like charming Peaks Island or wild Monhegan. Visit Portland Head Light, the most photographed lighthouse in the world, and take in some of the state’s most stunning vistas, completely free. Head 30 minutes north to Freeport to shop at the L.L. Bean headquarters or drive to scenic Bailey Island, home of the world famous Cook’s Lobster & Ale House.

Lodging: Rooms at the historic waterfront Westin Portland Harborview hotel start at $150 a night. Families looking for a classic New England lake experience can drive 30 minutes from Portland to the popular Sebago Lake. The Point Sebago resort has a variety of lodging, from camping at $62 per night to resort cottages starting at $200 a night. Oceanfront cottages on Maine’s rocky coast start at $1,000 per week.
Getting there: Fly direct from Baltimore for as little as $65 one way on Southwest — a 1 hour and 20 minute flight, or head north on I-95 for the 10-hour drive.

Florida Keys

Destination KeyWest W

From great fishing in Islamorada to historic landmarks in Key West, the Florida Keys have something for everyone.

Driving through the keys is half the fun, so start in Key Largo and head south to Key West, the southernmost point in America. In Key Largo, visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park ($8 per vehicle) to see 260 types of tropical fish or feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada ($1 per person plus bait.) In Key West, visit Ernest Hemingway’s house or the Shipwreck Museum to learn about Key West’s fabled pirate history. Other sights include the Harry S. Truman Little White House and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, a 200-year-old fortress that played a pivotal role in the Civil War.

Capture the perfect family photo at Mallory Square during one of Key West’s famous sunsets or see the sun set from the water on one of Key West’s many charter sailing excursions.

Lodging: Key Largo has hotel chains such as the beachfront Hampton Inn starting at $160 a night or splurge on the four-star Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, which starts at less than $200 a night during the summer. In Key West, stay at the spacious Sheraton Suites starting at $200 or the Doubletree Resort starting at $175.
Getting there: Fly into Ft. Lauderdale direct from Baltimore on Southwest for just $62 one way (2 hours and 40 minutes) and rent a car for the 3½-hour drive south to Key West.

Why use a travel agent

In the Internet age of TripAdvisor and HomeAway, many families book their own vacations from a computer, but don’t dismiss the value of using a travel agent. Working with a professional could get you the best value.

“Most families don’t realize that using a travel agent is inexpensive, and often free,” says Christi Rogers, owner of Travel Bug LLC in Davidsonville. Most agents are paid through the booking companies they use, so it costs nothing to use their services.

Agents usually meet with a family in person or during a consultation call and then search for the right fit.

“Families save a lot of money for their vacation, so I try to get them the best value,” Rogers says.

Many travel agents have traveled to the properties they book, so they can offer expertise on room selection, location and other considerations. They also communicate with hotel staff in advance of arrival.

“I always email the resort manager to let them know I have VIP clients coming in, and it always makes a difference,” Roger says.

Families should also consider the added insurance of using a travel agent.

“Using an agent is also a smart way to protect your investment,” says Lynda Maxwell, owner of CTC Destinations in Ellicott City. “Agents know the best wholesalers to purchase packages from, and we only use the most reputable travel insurance providers. Many families don’t think about this when they are buying a package off the Internet.”

By Katie Riley

Key West Photos by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau