Yesterday, from the backseat of the car, my three-year-old began to rattle off all of the places she’d been in the just over 1,200 days she’s been alive. “Jamaica, Switzerland, Spain, England, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji . . .” She continued, asking me to fill in the gaps for her, slurring her ‘Rs’ in that endearing way of hers.

We’ve taken our kids a lot of places, and are gearing up for even more in 2018. St. Kitts, Costa Rica, Austria, The Netherlands, and The Czech Republic are on deck this spring, and we’re hoping for one more trip before the end of the year.

Regardless of where we go, there are moments of joy and moments of intense difficulty.

Yes, we’ve learned to read the fine print after finding ourselves sharing a one-bedroom apartment with a family of four in Barcelona, and we found the Swiss healthcare system quite nice on an emergency visit to fetch glass out of our toddler’s foot! But, even if small children aren’t involved, luggage gets lost, flights get delayed, and tempers flare. Even so, certain places have significantly more happy memories than others for us. Museum-heavy trips tend to be less fun for the whole family, but Italy — a place rife with museums — is one of our family’s favorite. Beaches also tend to be family-friendly, but sometimes I’ve regretted bringing our children on a beach vacation where I intended to relax.

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family.” At times I’ve thought he might be right.

If I’m wrangling my children to do something I want to do, or I’m bored doing things they want to do (endless parks), one or more of us is unhappy. You have to strike a balance. The only problem is, I’m not sure what that balance is. The foreign destinations that seemed to work out for us might not work for someone else. But overall, I think these destinations have the potential for a happy family trip because of their flexibility, diversity, and structure.

Here are the places I would take my children back to in a heartbeat:

New Zealand

 view of family sitting at the top of lion rock at piha beach, new zealand

We rented a van much bigger than we needed, equipped with a carseat and a DVD player, and drove from the top of the North Island to the bottom. From there, we hopped on a flight to the bottom of the South Island and made our way back to the center. The thing about New Zealand is that there’s not an ugly spot. Not one. The country is charming and lush, green hills in the north dotted with white sheep. The south is flayed with steep mountains, the fall leaves a blur of warm tones centered by the blue lakes beneath. A friend upon her return told me, “The entire country could be a Windows 8 screensaver.”

When we needed to stop to change diapers and stretch our legs, it was easy. Nearly every turn-off elicited a new view with plunging waterfalls and mossy wet trails. It’s stroller friendly, easy to navigate, and it doesn’t hurt that the locals speak English. We went to Australia and Fiji on that six-week excursion as well, but of the three, New Zealand was the most family-friendly. I found that I actually enjoyed having my daughter there, even in the throes of her terrible twos. She was wide-eyed and curious. She loved the country and it loved her back. It seemed to love us all.

Costa Rica

Family at playa Cocles - beautiful tropical beach close to Puerto Viejo - Costa Rica

Our family loved Costa Rica so much the first time that we are breaking our cardinal rule and re-visiting within a five-year span. It’s just hard to beat the lifestyle that oozes from this warm country and the equally warm people that inhabit it.

A lot of people visit Costa Rica for its extreme sports — the ziplining, rock climbing, and white water rafting. I was initially concerned that there would be nothing for our young children there. But the experience was anything but limiting. We went on a wilderness boat ride, where monkeys climbed aboard the boat and swung through the vines the way they do in movies. The beaches are lovely, with volcanoes dotting the coastline, and tropical fish just feet from the shore. The food we ate was clean and inexpensive. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I was relieved that most restaurants offered chicken tenders and french fries for my picky toddler.

We ended every evening on the balcony at our resort, watching the sunset cram as much color as possible across the sky. Monkeys hooted in the distance. The occasional fruit bat emerged, much to my daughter’s delight.

“Pura vida” they say there. The same way the Thais say “swadiha,” the same way the French say “bonjour.” Pure life, or simple life. And the thing is, it’s not just something they say. They mean it. It’s pure and simple living. It’s gratitude, embodied in a culture. It’s the very attitude I want my children to learn.


Family discovering old Italian treasures in Florence. Portrait of happy mother and child near Palazzo Vecchio

Italy was magical for my family — but possibly because my husband and I have been there together before. If you’re first-timers, you may want to leave the young children at home since there are so many museums and monuments to visit. Since we’d seen all of that, we were more content to move slowly and visit more of the countryside than the city, although we did visit some new-to-us museums as well.

We go to Italy to eat. Pizza, mostly, and gelato too, but mostly pizza. The best we’ve ever had was from one of those tiny convenience stores — the type nestled on the ground floor of apartment buildings with metal gates and rows of soda and chips. Gelato shops are on every corner, and we ended nearly every meal with a cone, attempting to walk the extra calories off by pushing our stroller all over Florence.

Our last three days were spent in Cinque Terre. We woke to the sun and wandered through the cobblestone streets in our swimming suits, pausing at the focaccia shop, and buying a large chunk to share. We walked down to the glistening beach and swam until our eyelashes were crusted with salt. Then we made our way back to the rental for a long afternoon nap, waking, with delight, to discover that we were still in Italy.

On our last morning, we watched a procession of men and women walk through the streets. Some small horses followed, adorned with flowers, as the entire city seemed to emerge from behind their doors to watch. In my terrible Italian, I spoke to some locals who explained that the festival is Ferragosto — a religious holiday celebrating the Assumption of Mary. Young girls walked with white dresses. Musicians played. My daughter watched wide-eyed as people danced and clapped. It was different than anything she’s ever seen in the United States.

I felt then, watching her eyes, that this is why we travel rather than opt for a bigger house, or a newer car, or better clothes. We spend hours working to squirrel money away for experiences like this that are gone in an instant.

These moments are what make up for the long layovers, the restless flights, the jetlag slump. We are given the chance to thrive, together as a family, among a sea of strangers in a new place.

As the Ferragosto parade was ending, my daughter darted forward, into the street. We chased her, ready to scold her, until we saw the pure delight on her face. So instead, we grasped hands and followed the parade to the beach at the foot of the city. We swam together, and then we ate another pizza, and one last scoop of gelato before our flight home.

It was, in a word, fun, for the whole family.

About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.