Five Great Family Destinations for Fall 2021 - The Expedition
disneyland Paris at Halloween

Five Great Family Destinations for Fall 2021

There’s still time to plan a family trip or two this year, and more destinations are both open to tourism and feel safe. In fact, this may be the time to travel with kids, as even in some of the world’s most popular destinations, the crowds aren’t back in full force.

Plus, autumn is shoulder season in many locations that are packed in the summer or winter. That means you can find better flight and accommodation deals, more room to roam, and more peace of mind, especially if you’re traveling with unvaccinated kids.

Here are a few places you may or may not have considered for a fall trip, and why we love them for families. They’re all open to U.S. travelers, less crowded in the autumn months and, with the exception of our pick in Virginia, doable without a rental car.

Paris & Disneyland Paris

disneyland paris

Why to Go: Two years ago, we took our then-7-year-old daughter to Disneyland Paris and Paris at the beginning of November. It was cold, cloudy, and rainy —and we had a (bundled up) blast. Disneyland Paris might just be the most beautiful of all the Disney theme parks. If you can get there before the Christmas rush, you’ll find you can walk right onto rides, get a front row seat at nighttime spectaculars, and find plenty of photo ops without having to jockey for position.

What to Do: Disneyland, plus a few days exploring the dreamy, rain-soaked streets of Paris. When we visited, we took in a few sights that were manageable and memorable for a 7-year-old, including the Musee d’Orsay and a chilly sunset boat ride on the Seine.

Where to Stay: We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, the resort’s 5-star option and the one closest to the theme park entrance, and sprung for a package that included park entrances, a character breakfast and a princess lunch with all the heavy hitters – including Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, and Sleeping Beauty. In Paris, a centrally located hotel such as the  Castille Paris in the 1° arrondissement, helps you make the most of a short break in the City of Light.

Switzerland’s Ticino and Valais Regions

Panorama view of Locarno city and Maggiore lake on the mountain, Ticino, Switzerland

Why to Go: Winter cold and fog descend early in much of Switzerland. Yet in the Ticino and Valais cantons south of the Alps, you’ll find crisp, sunny fall days and snow-capped mountains looming over emerald-green meadows and hillsides. For active families, hiking, e-biking, and other Alpine adventures are made easy and accessible thanks to the Swiss Travel System and the Swiss Travel Pass. This comprehensive system of trains, buses, boats, and mountain railways makes it possible to explore almost every corner of the country without a car.  

What to Do: This is postcard Switzerland, complete with babbling brooks, rushing streams and waterfalls, and the sound of cowbells everywhere. In Italian-speaking Ticino, the pretty towns of Bellinzona and Locarno are fine bases for hikes suitable for little legs. The region’s fortresses and castles sure to enchant kids. The scenery gets a bit more dramatic in neighboring Valais, where high-altitude villages like Saas-Fee and Leukerbad are surrounded by the tallest mountains in the Alps. Take the Eggishorn cable car to the viewing point of the 22-kilometer-long (and fast-receding) Aletsch Glacier, the largest in Europe, and prepare to feel really small. For a terrific high-altitude day-hike, take the Gemmi cable car to the top and spend a half-day or so traversing the Gemmi Pass – the entire walk is 9 kilometers. Stop halfway for lunch at the Hotel Schwarenbach, a historic coaching inn, then ride the Sunnbühl cable car down to Kanderstag, where you can catch a bus back to Leukerbad.

Where to Stay: In Locarno, Hotel Belvedere is an upscale choice, with all rooms overlooking the town and Lake Maggiore, plus a nice garden and plenty of old-world charm. If you stay in Leukerbad, which is a thermal spa town, you’ll find a lot of hotels that don’t have to try very hard to sell their rooms. Quellenhof has family rooms and a restaurant, and a nice lawn with a playground and trampoline. The main Leukerbad Therme, an indoor/outdoor waterpark for kids and adults, is nearby. In Saas-Fee, Hotel Allalin has big rooms, including two-story family rooms, a cozy restaurant, and an extensive breakfast buffet.  

Family Safari in Tanzania

zebras and wildebeest in Tanzania

Why to Go: If you really want an away-from-it-all adventure and to avoid crowds and Covid exposure, a safari is one of the most secure ways to travel, says Susan Cathcart of 58 Stars Travel. Tanzania, home to iconic Serengeti National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro, is one of her favorite places to send families. Many safari lodges offer door-to-door service, which includes airport pick-up and air or ground transfers to remote bush camps, which are often anything but “roughing it.” Once you’ve reached your destination there’s no moving around, other than to climb aboard for one or more daily jeep safaris. “You’re in a travel bubble in the African bush,” Cathcart says, “with a high level of personalized service and few, if any, other guests.”

What to Do: Kids and adults will thrill to big-ticket animal sightings, learn from encounters with indigenous Masai, and come back with memories that far outlive the vacation.

Where to Stay: Many safari camps, like Lemala Authentic Camps & Lodges and Thomson Safaris, which only operates in Tanzania, have excellent kids’ programs and dedicated staff to keep children engaged while parents enjoy a spa treatment, gourmet meal, or just a glass of wine with a view of the savannah.

Banff/Lake Louise in Canada

Lake Louise, Banff National Park

Why to Go: Once ski season starts, it’s hard to move around in Banff, much less find a hotel room or dinner reservation. But during the fall shoulder season, Canada’s first and oldest national park is uncrowded and less expensive. Unless there’s an early snowfall, park roadways are open to vehicles, and its many trails to hikers and walkers. (Parks Canada shuttle buses are the way to go here, since parking in the park is so limited.)

Where to Stay: Two of Fairmont’s flagship hotels are here; castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise are both fairytale settings for kids. In charming, pedestrian-friendly Banff town, the Fox Hotel & Suites offers affordable family rooms, many with kitchenettes, all built around a huge hot tub designed like a grotto.

What to Do: The Cave and Basin National Historic Site and visitor center has a great interpretive installation that explains park history and ecology. When it comes to fauna, you’re likely to spot elk grazing right in the parking lot. Family-friendly activities include taking the Banff Gondola to the top and hiking down —or just staying for a great meal at Sky Bistro—and soaking in the thermal pools at Banff Upper Hot Springs. Nearby Lake Louise is eye-poppingly blue and flanked with spectacular mountains; it also has a level hiking trail around most of its perimeter

Colonial Virginia’s Historic Triangle

horse drawn carriage in Colonial Williamsburg

Why to Go: It’s an easy-peasy family vacation that slips in a whole lotta learning. “America’s Historic Triangle”—the combined sites of the Jamestown Settlement, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Yorktown battlefield—is beautiful in the fall and early winter.

What to Do: Autumn comes later in Virginia than more northern parts of the U.S., and these leafy parks and connecting parkways offer plenty of autumn color. The historic sites—especially Colonial Williamsburg—are a bit Disney-fied in their living history perfection, but they do offer fun and educational insights into the earliest days of the United States, as well as interactive learning opportunities. Choose one site or buy a combined ticket that grants entry to all three and is good for seven days.

Where to Stay: Colonial Williamsburg operates several hotels in different price ranges, all within walking distance of the park. With its huge indoor waterpark and themed suites, Great Wolf Lodge is an obvious kid-pleaser. If you want a family vacation that checks all the boxes – history! waterparks! thrill rides! – nearby Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers a few days’ diversion, with a Sesame Street–themed area for little ones and major roller coasters for bigger kids.

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Elizabeth Heath is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Telegraph, Frommers.com, Thrillist, Frommer’s Travel Guides, and many other publications.

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