10 Underrated Summer Travel Ideas for Families

Explore Fort Williams Park in Portland, Maine. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala
Explore Fort Williams Park in Portland, Maine. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala

When school lets out for summer, families love to hit the road (or the skies) and travel to new places. But while summer journeys can be glorious, they also come with the downsides of peak travel season—higher prices, heavy traffic, larger crowds, and longer lines.

But it doesn't have to be that way. There are plenty of places across the US that offer many of the things families look for in a summer vacation—beautiful beaches, outdoor activities, engaging museums, and more—but aren't as well-known. That means families can make amazing summer memories with far less hassle.

Here are 10 underrated summer travel ideas for families across the US. Our Family Travel Guide includes even more great summer vacation ideas, including our massive list of the 100 best family vacation destinations.


Underrated Summer Travel Ideas for Families: Orange Beach
Relax on the white sandy beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Photo by Melanie Preis

Underrated Summer Travel Ideas for Families 

1. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Instead of heading to the east or west coast for your next summer beach vacation, why not visit Alabama's Gulf Coast? Gulf Shores and Orange Beach boast white-sand beaches with lots of water activities; back bays where families can fish, hike, kayak, and observe wildlife; loads of mini golf courses and arcades; and great shops and restaurants.

Where to stay: Orange Beach's sprawling Perdido Beach Resort features indoor and outdoor pools, marshland education and activities for kids, volleyball, evening outdoor movies, and lots of other family activities.

2. Chesapeake Bay Area

As the biggest estuary in the US, the Chesapeake Bay boasts seemingly endless miles of coastline for nature lovers to enjoy. Virginia Beach and Baltimore are two of the more popular destinations in the Chesapeake Bay area, but there are many charming, smaller waterfront towns that are more laid-back. Families can see the famous wild horses and ponies on the beaches of Assateague and Chincoteague islands, visit the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, tour the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, and more.

Where to stay: Marina Bay Hotel and Suites is a great waterfront hotel on Chincoteague Island. It's located steps from downtown and has an outdoor heated pool.

3. Madison, Wisconsin

With over a dozen beaches on two lakes, a great children's museum and zoo, and 6,000 acres of parkland full of gorgeous hiking trails, Wisconsin's capital city is a great place for families to visit in the summer. Home of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison also features great food, shopping, and culture. Be sure to cool off with some homemade ice cream from UW's Babcock Dairy Store.

Where to stay: The Edgewater Hotel is in the heart of downtown Madison on the water's edge of Lake Mendota, next door to UW. Enjoy concerts and other events in the hotel's lakeside courtyard.

4. Block Island, Rhode Island

New England islands and coastal towns like Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Newport are bustling with visitors enjoying lots of activities in the summer. But for a quieter New England escape that still offers plenty of things to do with kids, Block Island is your spot. There may not be any boardwalks or theme parks, but there are ancient cliffs, towering lighthouses, nature sanctuaries, water activities, hiking and biking, and spectacular views.

Where to stay: Soak up the Block Island charm at the gorgeous 1661 Inn, located across the street from a farm and aviary with a ton of animals for kids to meet.

5. Finger Lakes, New York 

There's a reason the Finger Lakes are one of our favorite Upstate New York getaways for families. The 11 long, skinny lakes offer plenty of opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, and other water adventures. There are also state parks and a national forest for hiking, biking, camping, and more. Add in kid-friendly museums, quaint towns to explore, and great restaurants, and you've got the perfect recipe for an idyllic summer getaway

Where to stay: Greek Peak Mountain Resort & Hope Lake Lodge may be a ski resort, but it also offers loads of family activities in the summer. Kids will love the bike park, mountain coaster, zip lines, aerial ropes course, and indoor water park.

RELATED: Best Family Resorts in Florida 

Underrated Summer Travel Ideas for Families : Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth
Drink from Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Augustine

6. St. Augustine, Florida

For many families, a Florida vacation means Orlando theme parks, Gulf Coast beach towns like Sarasota, or sun-soaked Miami. But America's oldest city, St. Augustine, should not be overlooked. In addition to gorgeous beaches, the city is loaded with historic and cultural sites. Families can drink from Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, zip line over gators at an alligator farm, explore the Castillo de San Marcos, and so much more.

Where to stay: The charming Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront in the Old City features colorful cottage-style buildings with many rooms overlooking Matanzas Bay, an on-site restaurant, and an outdoor pool.

7. Portland, Maine

This pretty port city less than two hours from Boston is home to a top-notch children's museum, gorgeous parks and gardens, and delicious restaurants. Families can stroll the cobblestone streets of the Old Port district, take in stunning coastal views from the Portland Observatory, hike and bike, take a boat ride through Casco Bay, and so much more. Be sure to take a day trip to one of the beautiful nearby beaches.

Where to stay: Located just one block from the Casco Bay Waterfront, Hyatt Place Portland-Old Port has an indoor pool, a fitness center, and free breakfast.

8. Ventura, California

Malibu and Santa Barbara are both popular tourist destinations, which means you'll find plenty of crowds in the summer. But about halfway between those two spots lies the coastal city of Ventura, where families can frolic on gorgeous beaches, stroll the oldest pier in California, shop along charming Main Street, and enjoy water sports in the harbor. You can also stop by Mission San Buenaventura, built in 1782.

Where to stay: The Ventura Beach Marriott is located minutes from downtown and only a few blocks from the beach and pier. The hotel boasts a pretty outdoor pool and an on-site fitness center.

9. Lewes, Delaware 

Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach are popular Delaware family vacation spots due to their plethora of mini golf courses, bustling boardwalks, and more. But for a more laid-back trip that still gives you access to Rehoboth and Bethany (as well as Fenwick Island and Dewey Beach), stay in Lewes. Take a pirate cruise, explore Cape Henlopen State Park, visit the Lewes Historical Society, and lounge on the beach. Check out our list of the best things to do at the Delaware beaches with kids.

Where to stay: The small and charming Inn at Canal Square on Lewes Harbor is close to shops, restaurants, and Lewes Beach. A European-style breakfast and the use of beach chairs and towels are included in your stay.

10. San Juan Islands, Washington

If you visit Seattle in the summer, you may tire of the crowds after a few days. That's when you should hop a ferry to the San Juan Islands, located just off the northern coast of Washington state. Summer is peak whale season there, so take a whale-watching tour to see tons of orcas. You can also visit quaint shops and restaurants, lounge on pretty beaches, take scenic hikes, and more.

Where to stay: Enjoy a cozy stay in a one- or two-bedroom waterfront cabin at Snug Harbor Resort on San Juan Island. Each cabin has a full kitchen, and guests get free use of kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and bikes.

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