The sheer diversity and epic scale of the United States makes it great for kids of all ages. From coast to coast across the USA, you'll find superb attractions designed for little ones: bucket-and-spade fun at the beach, amusement parks, natural history exhibits, camping adventures, hikes in wilderness reserves, leisurely bike rides and plenty of other activities likely to wow young ones.
Traveling with children can bring a whole new dimension to the American experience. You may make deeper connections, as locals (especially those with their own children) brighten and coo and embrace your family like long-lost cousins. From the city to the country, most facilities are ready to accommodate a child's needs.
Dining with children
The US restaurant industry seems built on family-style service: not only are children accepted almost everywhere, but usually are encouraged by special children's menus with smaller portions and lower prices. In some restaurants, children under a certain age even eat for free. Restaurants typically provide high chairs and booster seats. Some restaurants may also offer children crayons and puzzles, and occasionally live performances by cartoon-like characters.
Restaurants without children's menus don't necessarily discourage kids, though higher-end restaurants might. Even at the nicer places, however, if you show up early enough (right on dinnertime opening hours, often 5pm or 6pm), you can usually eat without too much stress – and you'll likely be joined by other foodies with kids. You can ask if the kitchen will make a smaller order of a dish (also ask how much it will cost), or if it will split a normal-size main dish between two plates for the kids. Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants seem to be the best bet for finicky young eaters.
Farmers markets are hugely popular in the USA, and every sizable town has at least one a week. This is a good place to assemble a first-rate picnic, sample local specialties and support independent growers in the process. After getting your stash, head to the nearest park or waterfront.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some also have rollaway beds or cribs that can be brought into the room for an extra charge – but keep in mind these are usually Pack 'n' Plays (somewhere between a portable cot and a play pen), which not all children sleep well in. Some hotels offer "kids stay free" programs for children up to 12 or sometimes 18 years of age. Be wary of B&Bs, as many don't allow children; inquire before reserving.
Babysitting for travelers
Resort hotels may have on-call babysitting services; otherwise, ask the front-desk staff or concierge to help you make arrangements. Always ask if babysitters are licensed and bonded (ie they are qualified and insured), what they charge per hour per child, whether there's a minimum fee and if they charge extra for transportation or meals. Most tourist bureaus list local resources for childcare and recreation facilities, medical services and so on.
Necessities, driving & flying
Many public toilets have a baby-changing table (sometimes in men's toilets, too), and gender-neutral "family" facilities appear in airports and larger cities.
Medical services and facilities in America are of a high standard, and items such as baby food, formula and disposable diapers are widely available – including organic options – in supermarkets across the country.
Every car-rental agency should be able to provide an appropriate child seat, since these are required in every state, but you need to request it when booking and expect to pay $10 to $14 more per day.
Domestic airlines don't charge for children under two years. Those two and up must have a seat, and discounts are unlikely. Rarely, some resorts (eg Disneyland) offer a "kids fly free" promotion. Amtrak, America's national train service, offers half-price fares for children 12 and under.
Best things to do in the USA with kids:
Walt Disney World, FL
With four action-packed parks spread across 27,000 acres, Walt Disney World is a place your children will long remember. From ripping roller coasters to character meet 'n' greets with Mickey himself, the Happiest Place on Earth is somewhere the family can return to again and again.
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Gaze across – or descend into – one of earth's great wonders. Averaging a depth of 4000ft across its entire 277 miles, there's something magical about witnessing the vast scope of geological time and sheer immensity that is the Grand Canyon. Kids will love descending into the canyon on a mule or soaring over the landscape in a helicopter.
Freedom Trail, Boston, MA
Summon your inner Paul Revere and follow the red-brick road of the Freedom Trail, from the Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument. This 2.5-mile walking trail is the best introduction to revolutionary Boston, tracing the locations of the events that earned this town its status as the "Cradle of Liberty."
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC
Adults and kids will surely go giddy at the sight of rockets, spacecraft, old-fashioned biplanes and ride simulators that adorn this Smithsonian museum. Take in a showing at the IMAX theater or learn about the birth of piloted flight at the Wright brothers' flyer.
Bronx Zoo, NYC
One of the nation's biggest and best zoos is just a subway ride from Manhattan. Covering 265 acres and housing over 6000 animals from around the world, including African plains and Asian rainforests, this deservedly popular zoo is also the country's oldest.
Black Hills, SD
State and national parks – such as Mt Rushmore – are filled with kid-friendly natural sights and adventures in this region of South Dakota. Drive through the cathedral-like stone formations alongside Needles Highway, or watch buffalo graze in open pastures.
Cedar Point, OH
Cedar Point has some of the planet's most terrifying roller coasters, plus a mile-long beachfront, a water park and live entertainment. The strong-stomached can go for the Top Thrill Dragster, which climbs 420ft before plunging at top speeds of 120mpg. Younger kiddos (or those who prefer to stay closer to the ground) can drive antique cars or splash around in the water park.
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN
Partly housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was shot on April 4, 1968, this powerful museum features exhibits about the Civil Rights heroes who inspired the world. Two rooms inside the old motel have been preserved as they were on the day Dr King was assassinated, serving as a window into the past.
Children's Museum of Indianapolis, IN
Sprawling across five floors of exhibits covering kid-favorites like dinosaurs, space stations and Egyptian tombs, this museum (the world's largest for kids) is THE destination for parents looking for an educational family trip.
Zion National Park, UT
From peering up the crimson walls of Zion Canyon to looking down from the heights of Angels Landing, the natural wonders of Zion National Park are endless. Kids will love the self-guided Junior Ranger programs and splashing around the Virgin River on the Narrows hike.
Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Springfield, IL
The Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum features fun, interactive galleries where you can learn about one of America's greatest presidents. Step inside exhibits dedicated to Honest Abe, such as life-size depictions of his childhood home, or the holographic "Ghosts of the Library," which focuses on historical preservation.
Pacific Science Center, Seattle, WA
Seattle's fascinating museum of science and industry, housing hands-on exhibits, a butterfly house, a planetarium and not one, but two IMAX theaters.
You might also like:
10 US islands you can reach without flying
The best one-day itineraries for 5 US national parks
How to have an epic North American trip without a car