Family getaways can recharge relationships and build a lifetime of memories. But you don't have to wait until you find that one week when everyone can get away: A two- or three-day escape can be just as memorable—and much more affordable.
Just look around you: There are incredible getaway destinations deserving of a closer look within a three-hour drive of most Canadian cities. If you live in Toronto, that list includes Niagara Falls (and maybe a few Niagara region wineries), the epic museums of Kingston, the mining city of Sudbury, the beach resorts of Lake Erie or the striking cliffs of Bruce Peninsula National Park.
From Montreal, a short drive will get you to the lofty Laurentians, Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, the ramparts of Quebec City or the charms of rural Vermont. From Calgary or Edmonton, you can head deep into the mountain parks, or raft the Red Deer River through dinosaur country in Drumheller. If you're in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, you can take to the waters at Harrison Hot Springs, cross the Fraser Canyon in a cable car or explore the historic towns of Vancouver Island spread out like pearls from Nanaimo to Victoria.
A little planning will help you get the most from your weekend away. For instance, you can extend that vacation feeling if you're able to leave work early on Friday. This will help you avoid the heaviest weekend traffic and ensure you enjoy more scenery in full daylight. (You may also save money by staying over Sunday night, when many hotels lower their rates.)
If you're staying away for two nights, consider using just one hotel as your home base to save time and reduce unnecessary repacking. Save money by comparing rates—as early as possible—on a few booking websites; lock in when you find your price.
For young families, breakfast-included rates generally offer the best value and give everyone a choice of breakfast foods (a do-it-yourself waffle-maker can be a highlight of the day!). If you're travelling on a budget, booking a room with a fridge and/or microwave can save money and time by helping you dodge a few restaurant meals.
Where possible, shun the copycat chain outlets and make your hotels and restaurants part of the experience. In Niagara, off-season rates make hotels with a view of the falls more affordable—and the view is unforgettable. The Mont-Tremblant region prides itself on lakefront hotels. And in the drumlins near Drumheller, there’s a century-old inn and restaurant that is said to be haunted.
Do your research and bring a list (with maps!) of the most enticing sights and attractions near your destination. Consider two events a day—maybe a hike in the morning and a museum, art gallery or show in the afternoon. But stay flexible if you're travelling with kids; surprise discoveries are often the best part of a holiday. Young children may find an unscheduled playground or beach much more fun than an indoor attraction or petting zoo.
Even if it’s just the two of you, try not to over-schedule: You never know when a local craft store, walking path or pioneer museum will suddenly compel you to stop and explore.
We all know how hard it is to wrest kids (and sometimes spouses) away from their phones. Fight back by inventing games to play. Who can spot the most unusual site along the road? Who can take the most beautiful or wacky picture each day?
Our family enjoyed playing our own trip version of 20 Questions, naming someone we met today or yesterday (or something we saw). Play the game again on the way home or even the following week after everyone has returned to their routines. As family members take turns asking yes or no questions to edge closer to the answer, they will be reliving their favourite trip moments—cementing those special memories forever.
One last thing—take plenty of family photos. Years from now, when you run across your holiday pix, you’ll barely notice the shots of waterfalls, wild deer or professionally composed sunsets. It’s all about the people you're travelling with.