This might seem odd: a family travel blogger posting a holiday gift guide? Absolutely! I have been offering advice and my personal experiences to so many people recently, I thought I would share with everyone.
I am a huge proponent of giving experiences for the holidays instead of material possessions. My husband and I strongly believe that the best gift we can give our children is time together, exploring and learning about our world. I also love the area of supporting my community through museum and nonprofit memberships to further the good work so many places do to preserve history, protect land and wildlife, and give children the opportunity to learn and grow outside of the formal classroom.
I first wrote about "giving experiences" on CTinStyle before I launched Coast2CoastwithKids. Since that time I have both given and received even more experiences as gifts. Regardless of where you live, there are experiences you can share with children of all ages. Here are my favorites:
Children’s Museums: There are multiple types of children’s museums in each state. Many of them are members of the Association of Children’s Museums and certain levels of memberships will give you reciprocity for free or reduced admission rates to museums across the country. Membership will often give you extra hours at museums and admissions to special events and programs, as well as discounts in cafeteria and gift shops. My husband's aunt has gifted us a membership at Stepping Stones Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut for years and we frequently visit on early morning member hours on Saturdays. Whenever I am planning a trip and have a long day of driving, I’ll look for a participating museum to visit to break up the trip. An hour or so of letting the kids run around and explore, grabbing a bite to eat at the cafeteria, stopping for a bathroom break, and we’re ready to hit the road again. Lots of children's museums also have exhibits that tell visitors about the local region.
Science and Technology Museums: Similarly to children’s museum, the Association of Science- Technology Centers also has a reciprocity program with benefits. We especially like the hands on exhibits at science museums and find they often have scheduled programs and demonstrations that we’ll try to time with our visit. When we met friends at EcoTarium in Worchester, we were able to use a friend's membership to the ASTC to get in for free.
National Parks: All of my family’s trips involved stopping somewhere on the National Parks list. I am a HUGE fan of the National Parks System and have been collecting stamps from various spots for six years. The parks always have a visitor center with displays and programs to learn about the history of the area, as well as clean restrooms and places for children to burn off energy. During the summer, my family will stop at a local place for food and sometimes set up a picnic on the grounds of the NPS location. Many of the parks have junior ranger programs where children can attend a workshop, interview a park ranger, or complete a scavenger hunt to earn a badge or other souvenir. When we visited Acadia National Park this summer, the park rangers took our children on an exploration of the beach, looking for sea creatures, while my husband and I relaxed on a blanket nearby. Some parks are perfect for an hour “rest stop”, while other locations requires a full day or multiple days to truly explore the area. There are a variety of America the Beautiful passes you can purchase, from a yearly pass to lifetime passes for seniors and military personnel. Note: All fourth graders receive a free pass (for park admissions) as part of the Every Kid in the Park program.
Aquariums & Zoo: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is another hands on way for children (and adults!) to learn. Most major cities (and some smaller ones too!) have a zoo and/or aquarium, and many of them have special programs that allow you to get up close and personal with various animals. Certain levels of membership include after hours events with smaller crowds, or holiday themed events like "Boo at the Zoo." While memberships for aquariums and zoos typically are more expensive than some children’s museum or science centers, you can also buy single day tickets as a gift, with generous expiration dates.
Botanical Gardens: I love visiting Botanical Gardens in the winter. It sounds odd, as everything usually comes into bloom in spring and summer, and fall brings such beautiful displays of color with the foliage. However, in the winter, where it’s so cold here in the Northeast, Botanical Gardens are warm, with sun spilling in through the skylights, and luscious greenery everywhere. My favorite botanical garden is the New York Botanical Garden and you can read about why here.
Historical Societies: Many large cities, and even smaller towns, have established societies that work to preserve the history of the area, or even specific buildings. We’re heading to Newport, Rhode Island in a few weeks, and Blithewold Mansion, Gardens, & Arboretum is on my “must see” list. When I realized it was less expensive to buy a family membership than separate tickets for two events I want to attend, I decided to purchase the family membership. Even though I live two hours away, the membership will allow me to visit the museum each season, on my way to visit family in Boston, and attend special, members-only events.
One Time Use Gift Cards:
City Passes: A dozen major cities have City Passes that can save your family money if you plan on visiting multiple locations on the pass. When we visited Chicago a few years ago, we planned what locations we wanted to visit ahead of time. When we realized that four of them were on the CityPass, it made financial sense to purchase the pass. While they do not offer gift card, you can purchase a CityPass for someone, with an expiration of one year, depending on the city and time of pass.
Tickets to a local theater or traveling show: Bringing children has so many benefits and a live show is fun for every age. If you're not sure of exact dates or the recipient's schedule, Ticketmaster and Telecharge offer gift cards. There are also hundreds of local theaters with subscription packages for children's programs. It's a great way for a grandparent or aunt or uncle to have a standing date with their favorite child.
Hotel gift cards: If you're a regular reader, you know I favor Marriott hotels (see all the reasons why here) and prefer to stay at a Marriott property whenever we travel. There are literally thousands of Marriott properties around the world with locations close to or in prime locations. Family members have gifted us gift cards, knowing we'll use them each summer on our road trips.