10 awesome car-free vacations for families

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This is obviously a website dedicated to helping parents travel with their kids’ car seats in tow. But there are lots of reasons why you might want to plan a family vacation that doesn’t involve lugging your travel car seats around!

First, the obvious: carrying an extra 10, 20, or even 30 pounds of gear with you is not an amazing way to start a “vacation” (or “trip”, depending on how your kids behave that week).

Second, renting a car can add serious expense to your vacation budget! We always work hard to find the best deals on rental cars, but they can still cost hundred dollars per week.

Third, most kids don’t love spending time sitting in the car. I know, right? Car-free vacations let everyone in the family relax together all the time – no one is driving, no one is navigating, and no one is sitting alone in the back seat asking if you’re there yet (or, in our family, bickering with a sibling).

So where can you take one of these magical car-free vacations? Obviously there are some big cities in the US that are easy enough to manage, but the range of options may surprise you! In this guide will tell you where to go, what to do when you’re there, and how to get around without your car seats.

Ready?

Best car-free vacations for families

1. New York City

Why you should go & what to do in NYC with kids

It would be hard for New York City not to top the list of places to visit without a car. But the appeal of NYC stretches far, far beyond its transportation options. There are enough things to do in New York City with kids that you’d stay busy for months (or maybe a lifetime).

Our top picks are the Egyptian section of the Met, exploring the Natural History Museum, taking in a Disney on Broadway show with older kids (or taking little ones to Ellen’s Stardust Diner), catching the sunset from the top of skyscraper, strolling through Central Park on a nice day and grabbing a slice of pizza on every corner.

How to get around NYC car-free

If you’re flying, the AirTrain from JFK or AirTrain from Newark is a quick and easy way to connect with the rest of the excellent New York metro system. Once you get into Manhattan (and the close-in parts of the other boroughs) the subway is efficient and easy enough to navigate. Buses can be helpful for some routes like cross-town, but they’re often packed to the gills. Google Maps is your friend!

Where to stay in NYC with kids

Manhattan may not be the cheapest borough of New York to stay in, but it’s the most convenient. If you want to be car-free and love it, try to stay in the heart of it all.

NobleDEN
TRYP Times Square South – can sleep up to 8 per room!
Gardens Suites Hotel
Fifty Hotel & Suites
Shelburne
The Marmara Manhattan


2. San Francisco

Why you should go & what to do in San Francisco with kids

San Francisco may also be a “big city” but it has a completely different vibe than New York! It offers a distinctive West Coast feel and some iconic spots your family will love.

Don’t miss an afternoon at Chrissy Field, taking in the views of the Golden Gate bridge and walking (or riding your scooter!) – there’s even a free shuttle to get you there without a car. Golden Gate Park is fantastic place to spend a day thanks to the numerous gardens, California Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum of Art (which offers a free observation tower).

And it wouldn’t be a trip to San Francisco without a walk along the wharf; we recommend starting at the Ferry Market Building to load up on delicious treats, then heading to the world-famous Exploratorium hands-on museum and continuing as far as little legs are willing to go. If you make it all the way to The Presidio on foot, you can always hop on the shuttle to take you back to where you started. Find more great things to do in San Francisco with kids.

How to get around San Francisco car-free

Both SFO and OAK offer connections to downtown San Francisco via BART. Once you’re in the heart of the city, it’s extremely easy to get around via the Muni trains and buses. Make sure to download the app in advance to save money on your tickets, and consider purchasing a day pass for adults if you plan to ride at least twice on a given day. Kids 4 and under ride free, while kids 5-18 ride half-price.

Where to stay in San Francisco with kids

Union Square may not be the most charming or unique neighborhood of San Francisco, but it’ll work extremely well for families. It has great public transit connections (including BART for your airport runs) and offers a more “G-rated” version of today’s San Francisco. It’s also oozing with festivities and loveliness during the holiday season! Check out these great family-friendly hotels in Union Square:

Hotel Zetta *our top pick for families
Hotel Nikko
Westin St. Francis
Marriott Marquis

3. Washington DC

Why you should go & what to do in DC with kids

Everyone should visit Washington DC at some point. Sure, it’s the seat of America’s government and all that. But it’s also host to more free things to do than you can ever get to and they’re almost all easy to access without a car!

I grew up just outside DC and have visited many times now with my own kids, so I have my favorites to be sure. Many of the best things to do are concentrated around the National Mall so it’s easy hop between them as the mood strikes (and with no feelings of guilt since they’re all free). Our family loves the Museum of Natural History, especially the new Q?rius investigative area and the re-modeled undersea exhibit. The Postal Museum is a hidden gem and the Museum of the American Indian has wonderful exhibits for both adults and kids (plus a great cafe, from what I’ve heard).

You can also hop on a quick metro ride to Woodley Park to see pandas at the free National Zoo or admire the stunning rose window at the adjacent National Cathedral. There’s so much to do in DC without ever stepping foot in a car!

How to get around Washington DC car-free

Getting around DC couldn’t be easier. There are metro train lines running just about everywhere you’d want to go. If you have Google Maps, you can use that to help you navigate public transportation routes.

What’s the best way to get into the city to start your trip? If you’re flying to DCA (which I recommend, as it’s the smallest airport in the area) you can just walk across the pedestrian bridge and hop straight on a blue or yellow train! I’ve done this many times and it’s incredibly easy.

The good news is that Dulles (IAD) flyers have options now too. The metro Silver line extension to western Fairfax County has brought public transportation almost to the airport’s doorstep; a station will be opening at the airport in summer 2020 (so they say). In the meantime, you can take the $5 Silver Line Express bus to the closest station, from which you can get straight into the city.

DC Metro rail can get pricey unfortunately. The fare depends on both distance and time of day – peak runs from opening until 9:30am and from 3-7pm on weekdays. You can buy a one day pass for $13 or a 3 day pass for $28, which may make sense if you’re staying in the ‘burbs. Kids 4 and under ride free, but older kids pay full fare.

A better option if your visit is focused on the main tourist sites is the DC Circulator bus. It has several routes, including one that hits all the major sights on the National Mall. And the price couldn’t be better: $1 per ride, and kids under 5 go free with an adult.

Where to stay in Washington DC with kids

As with many cities, staying in close proximity to good public transportation can make or break your car-free trip. For your family trip to DC, I’d recommend staying close to the National Mall (where all of the museums are located), in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington or in Old Town Alexandria.

Near the mall, the Westin is a great choice for convenience and family-friendliness. You can also find lots of Airbnbs like this one nearby, which is great if you need more space to spread out or want to have a kitchen to save money on meals.

Across the river, try the Hyatt Centric Arlington if you want the most convenient location possible. On a tighter budget, the Hilton Garden Inn is just one stop further from DC but runs some incredible specials.

4. Philadelphia

Why you should go & what to do in Philadelphia with kids

While DC may be our nation’s capital these days, Philadelphia has a lot more history behind it! It’s a great city to explore during a long weekend with kids – as we’ve done several times. There are two types of sights to see when you’re visiting Philly with kids: history tourism and kid tourism.

Whether or not you consider yourself a history buff, take your kids to see the Liberty Bell! There’s an interesting exhibit leading up to the bell that explains its significance, its history and (of course) how it got that crack. If your kids are a little older and have some steam, I recommend a visit to “the room where it happened” at Independence Hall. If you’re visiting outside of winter, be sure to snag tickets in advance.

If your kids have an interest in the American Revolution and the founding of the nation, I highly recommend the Museum of the American Revolution. You could spend hours there and the curators of this modern museum have made excellent use of multimedia displays combined with historic artifacts. You can take your living history lesson a step further on this self-guided trail through Philadelphia’s historic district.

Not into history? Philly still has so much to offer families with kids of all ages! There are three excellent interactive museums : Please Touch Museum (best for babies and toddlers), Academy of Natural Sciences (best for ages 3-7) and the Franklin Institute (best for elementary and middle school). ANS and Franklin Institute are located on the same square and both are members of the Association of Science and Technology Centers – so bring your local museum membership card for free admission! Please Touch Museum is a member of the Association of Children’s Museums and is conveniently located right next to the Philadelphia Zoo and very close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yes, the one with the Rocky steps).

How to get around Philadelphia car-free

Philadelphia is easy to manage without a car! SEPTA runs buses, trolleys and trains that’ll take you almost anywhere you need to go. There’s a dedicated Airport Line in the regional rail system to take visitors between the airport and Center City; depending on which hotel you choose, you might need to hop on a bus or walk a little ways from one of the stations served.

Even better? If you’re visiting outside of January and February (as you should), you can take the Philly Phlash almost anywhere you’d want to go with your kids! This is an absolutely fantastic option but make sure to cross-check your dates with the calendar, as it only runs on the weekend during quieter times of year.

The other thing about the Phlash is that it’s cheap. Really cheap. Kids 4 and under are always free. For older kids and adults you can get a one day pass for $5 or a two day pass for $8 (consecutive days, must purchase online).

We also love walking in Philadelphia. Don’t be afraid to get our there on foot! The entire area around Independence Hall is safe and full of historic charm.

Where to stay in Philadelphia with kids

I recommend staying in Center City along the Philly Phlash route to make your life simple. My top pick for where to stay in Philadelphia with kids is The Windsor Suites. The reviews are exemplary, the rooms are all suites and absolutely enormous and in the summer your kids will love the rooftop pool. Oh, and you can’t beat the location just down the street from the Franklin Institute and Academy of Natural Sciences.

5. Walt Disney World

Why you should go & what to do at Disney World

I’m not sure I need to explain why you should go or what you should do… after all, it’s Disney! They’re in the business of magical getaways for families, and their original theme parks do it well. After a week at the massive Walt Disney World complex in Florida you’ll leave exhausted and happy.

How to get around Disney World car-free

Disney’s #1 priority is hospitality and transportation is no exception. There are a few options to keep on your radar when you’re heading to Orlando.

Magical Express: This free bus service takes you from the Orlando airport to WDW resort hotels. You do need to reserve it in advance and it’s only available to resort guests. They’ll even take your bags to your room!

Minnie Van: The “Minnie Van” is really a Lyft in disguise. For $155 it can take up to 6 passengers from the Orlando airport to a WDW resort or another nearby hotel. The Minnie Van comes with up to 3 car seats free of charge.

Uber car seat in Orlando: Uber doesn’t officially run their “Uber car seat” service in Orlando any more, but it turns out you can still book them! The car seats aren’t standardized like in NYC, but there are rules that drivers have to follow – more details here. You should only bank on one car seat being available with these cars.

Monorail: Once you’re at Walt Disney World, the Monorail will take you around to all the different parks. Remember, WDW is the size of San Francisco and double the size of Manhattan! There’s no way you can walk everywhere. While the monorail is sort of an afterthought at Disneyland, it’s lifeblood at Walt Disney World.

Where to stay at Walt Disney World

There are 10,000 places to stay near Walt Disney World. Let the experts help you pick the right one!

6. Paris

Why you should go & what to do in Paris with kids

Paris is probably the first European city kids know about. After all, they’ve all seen photos or illustrations of the Eiffel Tower! While it seems like such a serious and refined city, as you can see above it certainly doesn’t have to be.

We’ve visited Paris twice with our kids and had a great time. Our favorite thing to do in Paris with kids is go carousel hopping to find our favorites. Add to that a few excursions for macaron tasting and crepe sampling and you’ve got yourself a kid-friendly vacation!

Kids will also appreciate the city’s phenomenal museums, churches and monuments… in doses. Ours loved the Musee d’Orsay (much more intimate than the Louvre) and Sainte-Chappelle (outrageous stained glass).

How to get around Paris car-free

You’re definitely better off without a car in Paris than with one! Getting to the city center from the airport depends on precisely where you’re staying. We found the Roissy Bus to be convenient when we stayed near the Arc de Triomphe, and there are several other lines and stops too. Thankfully the bus isn’t impacted by transit strikes!

Alternatively, you can arrange a car with a car seat here. They’ll pick you up right at the terminal and deposit you at your hotel. Woohoo! This is our pick with after a loooooong flight with kids.

Within Paris, we’ve always found le Metro to be a great way to get around. We use our Google Maps app to get transit directions and then head on our way. Kids under 4 are free and kids under 10 are half off. If you’ll be in town for a few days, you might want to by un carnet of 10 single-ride tickets (which you can split with another adult); there’s even a reduced price carnet for kids!

Where to stay in Paris with kids

The metro is great… except when it’s not. We’ve unfortunately experienced station closures for work and in the last few years there have been some very detrimental transit strikes. I recommend staying in a fairly central location so that you have the option of walking or taking metro. We stayed at one of these apartments and it was fantastic!

7. Greece

Why you should go & what to do in Greece with kids

Greece is at the top of almost anyone’s bucket list, and rightfully so. I can’t tell you how much I loved Greece! There just aren’t words. It’s beautiful, it’s relaxing, it’s welcoming, it’s fascinating.

But Greece isn’t just for lovers, Greece is amazing for families too! There’s a place for every interest; in fact, the choices can be overwhelming. No matter where you go, it’s a great opportunity to introduce your kids to Greek mythology and ancient civilizations.

If you’re coming from the US, your first stop will almost certainly be in Athens. There are a few must-do activities in Athens, but you can probably keep your visit to just one or two days if you’re on a tight vacation schedule.

Hop over to the island of Naxos for the most relaxing, family-friendly Greek island experience you can imagine. The ferry landing is right in town, and from there you can walk to the wonderful hotel where we stayed… which is also walking distance from all the restaurants and a fantastic beach! We rented a car for one day to explore some of the small villages of the island, but if you want to do that you can easily arrange a tour of the island on a bus that is safe without car seats. Alternatively, you can head back to the marina and take a day trip to nearby islands on a catamaran.

How to get around Greece car-free

If you’re arriving at the airport in Athens and need to get to your hotel in the city center, you can take a car service that includes a car seat, the X95 bus or M3 subway. The bus is cheaper and more frequent than the subway but does take a half hour longer. Kids 6 and under are free, while kids 7-18 pay half fare.

Once you get to the center of Athens, I recommend that you explore on foot as much as possible. There are wonderful nooks and crannies like Anafiotika just waiting to be explored. Of course, the subway is also an efficient way to get around if you want to go further.

Take the M1 subway to get to the port of Piraeus. It’s just a few dollars and almost as fast as a car but a lot cheaper than a car service! The ferry from Athens to Naxos is only about 4 hours and will drop you right in the middle of Naxos town.

Where to stay in Greece with kids

You’ll only be staying in Athens for a short while and you’ll need solid access to public transportation, so be sure to book a hotel close to Syntagma Square.

On lovely little Naxos we had a phenomenal stay at Hotel Spiros. It’s the perfect location for a car-free vacation: walking distance to the port, to restaurants and to an awesome beach.

8. Italy

Why you should go & what to do in Italy with kids

If you ask our daughter, you should go to Italy for the pizza and the gelato. Smart girl, eh? Plus there are all those other things like canals in Venice, ruins in Rome, beaches in Amalfi… Your family could spend a lifetime in Italy without discovering all its glories!

There are so many awesome places to explore in Italy with kids that it can be overwhelming to get started. You’ll find some great ideas here, or you can let an expert plan it for you.

How to get around Italy car-free

Unless you want to explore the countryside, nearly all of Italy is accessible by by rail. You can fly into Venice, hop a vaporetto or water bus taxi to the island, jump on a high speed train down to Florence and so on. It’s almost too easy. Besides, most city and town centers don’t even let tourists drive without hefty fines so you’re better off sticking with public transportation.

The only time you’re likely to need to ride in a car is getting a lift to the airport when you’re arriving or leaving the country. If you don’t want to take a bus or train to the airport with all your luggage, this car service will pick you up with an age-appropriate car seat if you let them know your needs in advance.

Where to stay in Italy with kids

Italy is a big country and I won’t pretend to have recommendations for its thousands of cities, towns and villages! But the biggest suggestion I can make is to choose places to stay that are close to sites, close to local buses in the big cities, and generally close to train stations if possible.

We’ve had good experiences using Airbnb in Italy – you can get a discount on your first stay here. Do try to be mindful of the impact on local economies in over-crowded places like Venice, where Airbnb has pushed out local residents. But fortunately there are plenty of other areas of Italy where that hasn’t been an issue.

9. Israel

Why you should go & what to do in Israel with kids

Israel is a trip like no other. It’s about the size of New Jersey, but you can do everything from frolicking in warm Mediterranean waters to exploring some of the world’s holiest ancient sites to floating in the Dead Sea at Earth’s lowest point to… you get the point. We’ve visited Israel with kids twice (and many time without them) and still haven’t explored all the cool things to do.

If you aren’t sure how to start planning you’re trip, I’ve made it simple with this guide – it’s all done for you!

How to get around Israel car-free

Driving in Israel can be a little daunting, but I’ll be honest that we usually prefer renting a car these days – get all the tips here. However, I have visited Israel before without renting a car and it’s very manageable!

When you fly into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, you can take bus, train or a car service with car seats to get to either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The airport is somewhat closer to Tel Aviv, but is in between the two. These days the new high-speed rail makes connections even easier and faster.

Within Jerusalem and Tel Aviv it’s easy to get around on foot or by bus. To ride on buses you’ll need to pick up a reloadable Rav-Kav card and top up as you go (I don’t recommend the daily/weekly passes for most visitors since you’ll probably walk most of the time).

There are plenty of things to do in Tel Aviv with kids and Jerusalem with kids, but what if you want to explore further? There’s a nice train system that runs up the coast from Tel Aviv, though the “last mile” problem can be tricky unless you bring folding car seats to take taxis (and that defeats the whole point of this article!).

Instead you can explore more on excellent day trips – click here to see all the offerings from Israel’s most-respected tour company. In particular, I recommend this tour that covers highlights of the northern coast (Carmel region) departing from Tel Aviv and this day trip to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea departing from Jerusalem.

Where to stay in Israel with kids

I have an in-depth guide to where to stay in Israel that covers the entire country with options for every budget. If you’re planning a car-free trip to Israel, you’ll just need to arrange accommodations for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In Tel Aviv we absolutely loved staying in this apartment and have sent happy customers to other apartments in the same building. There are also tons of wonderful Airbnbs in Tel Aviv to consider.

In Jerusalem I definitely recommend looking into one of these Airbnbs. We also had a great stay at this “aparthotel” in the heart of the action.

10. Japan

Thanks to my buddy Vanessa at Wanderlust Crew!

Why you should go & what to do in Japan with kids

Japan is an excellent destination for families who want to travel car seat free. It has been hailed as one of the most family-friendly countries to travel in and also offers award-winning public transportation that is clean, safe, easy to use, and on time. Japan is an easy gateway country into travel in Asia with kids, and has amazing culture, history, and delicious food.

While most cities in Japan are very family-friendly, I recommend staying in Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima. All are easy to get around and to get between. Tokyo and Osaka are easily accessible by subway and walking and Hiroshima has a light rail system and ferry system (also covered by the JR Pass) that will take you to Miyajima Island where you’ll be greeted by the famous floating Torii gate and the cutest little Sika deer! All three cities have great sites and activities, but each offers something completely different. 

How to get around Japan car-free

The best way to get around Japan with kids car seat free is to use the Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass allows you to travel on most public transit around the country, including the Shinkansen (super-fast bullet trains), subways, light rail trams, and ferries. The great thing about the JR Pass is that it’s half price for kids age 6-11, and kids under 6 ride completely free. Most trains and train stations in Japan are very accessible and stroller accommodating.  While the signage in Japan can sometimes be tricky to read, your old friend Google Maps will never steer you wrong! 

Where to stay in Japan with kids

One of the most iconic family experiences in Japan is staying in a ryokan, a traditional inn. While you can find them in bustling Tokyo, it’s better to seek one out in a smaller city like Osaka.

In Tokyo, you’ll want to choose a family-friendly hotel or Airbnb that’s convenient to the subway. If you choose to use Airbnb in Tokyo, just be sure to book one that includes the license number in the listing (even if you can’t read it because it’s in Japanese!).

Top tips for your car-free family vacation

For a successful car-free trip with kids, the most important thing is to plan, plan plan.

-Airports are often far from city centers, though they may have good public transportation options or reasonable private transfers. If you have the option, arriving at your destination by train or bus can put you right in the city center and minimize local transfers.

-Try to book your hotel or Airbnb in a central location. If you’re planning to visit a major city, consider proximity to both tourist sites and metro stations that serve multiple lines. In our experience, being 5 minutes closer to a really good metro station in a place like Paris or NYC is more important than being 5 minutes closer to a single tourist attraction you might visit once.

-Keep your kids safe on the plane. If you’re flying with an infant, we do recommend bringing a car seat on board the flight and using it. For toddlers, consider bringing the CARES harness (full review here).

While airplane seatbelts are designed to fit passengers over 40lbs, the CARES harness is FAA-approved to provide a safe fit for kids starting at 22lbs (many parents report that it works better beginning at 30lbs; YMMV). The CARES harness loops around the seatback and adds shoulder straps and a chest clip, essentially creating a 4-point harness. Since it’s just webbing and a single buckle, it weighs less than a pound and folds up into even the tiniest purse. Learn more about CARES here.

-If you plan to take a taxi or Uber from the airport, make sure you have an age-appropriate travel car seat. Click here to see the best choices for each age. You can get an Uber with a car seat in a few places, but you’ll find much more extensive options around the world with Welcome Pickups; just request an age-appropriate car seat when you book.

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1 thought on “10 awesome car-free vacations for families”

  1. hi Melissa,

    great blog, keep posting. Yes, here in NYC, public transportation is fantastic and the best way to get around.

    Reply

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