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Perfecting the Art of the Family Vacation

Well-traveled parents offer their favorite tips and destinations for a seamless getaway with kids in tow, plus unexpected destinations that provide the perfect place for your family to create new traditions.

I recently returned from a trip to Mexico City that had all the makings of a disaster. My husband started feeling sick on the way and didn’t recover until we got home. He spent the entire vacation in our hotel room, as I navigated the massive city with two kids and a pitiful knowledge of Spanish. Between forays to the pool and museums, we ventured to far less exotic grocery stores and pharmacies, looking for stomach-soothing foods and remedies.

It should have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t. My kids, now 5 and 8, seem to have entered magical ages for travel. They delighted in packing — and pulling! — their own bags (no doubt brand-new suitcases helped), gazing out the plane window even when the movies I thought I’d downloaded failed to play, and practicing their Spanish nonstop. They’re normally quite shy, so hearing them pipe up to strangers with “gracias” and “por favor” was a treat.

Of course, my gratitude was enhanced by my intimate familiarity with how harrowing family travel can be. Overstuffed luggage, bulky strollers and car seats, and embarrassing meltdowns (theirs and mine) aren’t far in my past.

Perhaps the stars aligned for me this time by virtue of my children’s growing maturity. But Jessica Gee, the globetrotting mom behind The Bucket List Family, says there’s another secret to family travel bliss. Back in 2015, Jessica and her husband Garrett set out to travel the world with their children, Dorothy and Manilla (they now have a third, baby Calihan). On any given day, you can find them relaxing on the beach in Bali, cruising the waters around the Galapagos or celebrating a classic New York holiday, so I couldn’t wait to hear how they do it.

But when I ask Jessica for her No. 1 tip, she surprises me. Rather than sharing a list of diaper bag essentials (which she rightly notes you can buy in your destination), she says, “Kids feed off your energy. Be positive and happy instead of stressed out. I tell myself this multiple times during a travel day, and it makes a big difference.” That upbeat feeling is evident in the Gees’ travel photos, but it’s worth noting that it’s a conscious effort on behalf of the parents to set the mood.

Rebecca Karamehmedovic, a New York-based photo/video director and creative consultant whose daughters are 12 and 14, says cultivating a positive attitude is key for older kids, too. “We always incorporate an activity that fits with what they’re currently into,” she says. “My older daughter is a huge sports fan, so we’ll try to see a local soccer or hockey team when we travel.” She also makes sure the kids are part of the research and itinerary planning — and once there, she’s comfortable with a little device time. “I like to find a café with Wi-Fi so they can check in with their friends on social media, and we can enjoy a glass of local wine.”

For your next family adventure, go off the beaten path and discover one of these unexpected family destinations perfect for kids of all ages.

Tokyo’s multitude of skyscrapers are lit up against a dark night sky
Hie Shrine Wedding

Tokyo, Japan

Jessica Gee counts Japan among her favorite destinations, with its futuristic cityscape, ancient sites and beautiful parks. “Japan is incredibly safe and clean, and the people and culture are unique and fun,” she says. While little ones can pose travel challenges, they’re also entertained by the simplest things, like the Tokyo subway and heaping bowls of chewy udon noodles. “We loved Kyoto, too,” she says. “The kids loved riding bikes around town and visiting the shrines.” Transportation-obsessed tykes (and time-strapped parents) will thrill to the futuristic bullet train that rockets between the two cities in a little over 2 hours. And of course, just half an hour from The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo lies Tokyo Disneyland and Sea Park, an epic adventure for kids and grownups alike.

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Arizona

My kids love the desert. From my home base in New York, it’s a very manageable domestic trip, but you arrive in a landscape that’s utterly exotic and spectacularly beautiful. As a bonus, The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain is easily a one-stop destination for families, with an eye-popping pool and waterslide, six exciting dining destinations (kids can pick their own fruit from the resort’s 42-tree orchard, or enjoy gourmet burgers overlooking Wild Burro Canyon) and a stellar Ritz Kids program to introduce them to the natural wonders of the desert ecosystem. When you’re ready to venture out, there’s year-round hiking and trail rides; authentic Native American and cowboy history; and the cosmopolitan city of Tucson. Surprise them with a hot-air balloon ride above the mountains for a trip they’ll never forget.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is one of those bucket-list cities for adults that kids will love too. Far from stuffy, this Turkish city welcomes children to explore its ancient streets, Bosphorus views and veritable paradise of pastries and sweets. Rebecca Karamehmedovic loves it for older kids and teens, like hers, who may recognize many of the historic and religious sites — Topkapi Palace, Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Hagia Sophia among them — from history class. And at any age, she says, “the winding streets in the old part of town are fascinating. You can watch exotic desserts being made and artisans working on their crafts as you stroll along.” Istanbul’s modern pleasures are equally impressive: Jurassic Land, a dinosaur adventure park; Karaköy, a hip harbor-front area replete with galleries and cafés; and Istanbul Aquarium, one of the world’s finest, are guaranteed to dazzle. Like the city itself, The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul strikes a compelling balance between Middle Eastern tradition and beauty and European culture and style.

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