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Family Vacation Recap: Trip to Florida's Tampa Bay Area with Toddlers

beach vacation

Anyone who has lived up north knows the winters can be brutal, physically and mentally. My family needed a sunny escape, so we booked a last-minute trip to an area of Florida we'd never been to before. As is typical for most people in the NYC area, we had always vacationed around Miami or Naples. But this time, we chose to enjoy the gulf in the Tampa Bay Area, and it was awesome.

If you're new around here, I currently have a 1 and 2-year-old, and am just over 4 months pregnant with our third child. We recently did a family cruise to Bermuda, and were less than thrilled with the experience, and last summer did a road trip to the Jersey Shore. Quite honestly, I was really nervous about doing a plane ride with kids so young, so I think I was subconsciously trying to avoid it for a while. But we survived! And I'm so glad we did it. I can't say enough good things about this vacation, but I'll try to narrow it down to the best and most important info to share for this post!

Here's everything you need to know to plan a fun family trip to Florida's Tampa Bay Area!

Click & Go Guide:


How We Traveled

After much research, I found an amazing flight option out of New Haven, CT (Tweed Airport - HVN). I'm admittedly a bit of a sleep nazi, so I refused to book a flight anywhere if it would be disruptive to my kids' nap schedules. I had never heard of Avelo Airlines before stumbling upon it serendipitously during my flight search. They are a simple, no frills airline, with lots of direct flights to popular destinations for extremely cheap. We opted to upgrade to the extra legroom seats in the second row of the plane for the roundtrip, included two checked bags, and still got the entire reservation for almost half the cost of flying with another carrier out of a more popular NYC airport! I was super impressed with the experience. It felt like a semi-private flight, because the airport is so small that the only people there at one time are literally the ones on your flight. I booked our parking online in advance, and we literally parked our car about 30 steps from the front door of the airport, with our actual plane a stone's throw away in view - no joke. Bag check was simple and the attendants were friendly, and it was the most functional TSA experience I've had in a long time. I don't think we waited more than 10 minutes before priority boarding (free with little kids!), and the plane even took off a half hour early because everyone was already on board. It was fantastic.

Traveling with two toddlers can be challenging, but it's doable if you're prepared. The airline lets you bring food on board, so we had full lunches and snacks ready for all of us that we enjoyed during the first half of the flight. Avelo does not offer food service or any type of in-flight entertainment, which honestly did not matter to us, as we had our hands full with our kids anyway. I'm sure this is how they keep their prices so low! We brought a backpack full of these small toys and activities to keep the kids busy, and that was sufficient. The staff on both flights were delightful and so warm and helpful with our children too. They passed out waters throughout, and there were also two bathrooms at the front and back of the aircraft. The front one has the changing table in it, so I would definitely sit toward that part of the plane again on our next trip too - plus the boarding was so quick that way, and our stroller was gate checked for free, delivered to us just outside the plane door upon arrival (and dropped off there before takeoff).

We arrived to Tampa International Airport (TPA), and what a lovely airport it is! So much nicer than the ones I've ever flown out of in NYC; quite refreshing and makes you feel like your vacation has begun the second you land! It is quite expansive though, and it takes a long time to get wherever you need to go from the actual plane gate. With the stroller, we were forced to take the elevators everywhere, so it was a constant shuffling back and forth through the long floors, and to and from different parts of the airport via their train shuttle that operates much like the monorails you'd see at Disney.

We rented a car from Hertz through our AAA membership and got an amazing deal. Like, literally almost half of the prices of the same exact car category when I searched it directly through Hertz, Costco, or the airline partners. I don't mess with the lesser-known car rental companies anymore after having a few really bad experiences, and the Hertz pickup and drop-off was super smooth and easy - would definitely recommend. Also worth noting that as AAA members, we got a car seat rental for the entire trip for free - which was a savings of over $100! My entire yearly membership costs a fraction of what they saved me on this trip alone, so something definitely worth considering.

We took a quick 30-minute drive to our house rental in Palm Harbor, just north of Clearwater. It was spacious and beautiful! I really enjoyed having a "home away from home" that was comparable to what we and the kids are used to - as opposed to cramming into a hotel room or townhome for 10 days. The house was in a perfect location to see everything there is to see in the Tampa Bay Area - under an hour from all of the famous beaches, St. Pete's, and Downtown Tampa. Plus the neighborhood is cute and safe, with lots of unique restaurants, shops, parks, and playgrounds nearby.

Where We Visited

We did a lot more exploring during this trip than we probably would have during just a regular vacation, because we are house-hunting! So I did all the fun touristy things combined with neighborhood searching too, and got a real feel for this part of Florida. We absolutely loved it! We enjoyed our immediate neighborhood where the rental home was a lot, and frequented the charming local shops and eateries of Palm Harbor and Dunedin. Clearwater Beach is a beautiful place to spend the day, and St. Pete's you'll probably want to spend a few days in if you can! We would consider renting there next time because there's still so much we wanted to do that we ran out of time for. Downtown St. Petersburg is vibrant and fun, and St. Pete's Beach is stunning. Downtown Tampa might be my favorite U.S. city of all the ones I've been to - it's metropolitan but not overwhelmingly big, tons to do and see, people are friendly, and it is impressively clean and safe. We felt so comfortable walking around with our kids, which rarely happens in a city environment. We didn't venture too far south of Tampa, so I can't speak to those areas specifically, but anything northeast or west we traveled through to look at homes. There's nowhere else that I'd specifically recommend to visit, except maybe an area that has something special going on, like the Strawberry Festival we went to in Plant City. (More on that in the next section.)

What We Did

There is so much family-friendly stuff to do here, I couldn't believe it! I made a big list before we went, and we filled everyday with exploring and fun - plus plenty of new things we can try with more time during our next visit. These were my favorite stops/activities:

  • ZooTampa at Lowry Park - I see why this was voted the #1 family-friendly zoo in the U.S.; this 63-acre attraction features the most incredible variety of animals from around the world (some of which I've never even seen in real life until now), tons of included rides and activities, delicious food options, and a legitimately beautiful, clean, and awe-inspiring environment to spend the day.

  • Honeymoon Island Beach in Dunedin - a picture-perfect beach experience and National Park, with facilities, food, trails, playground, and more.

  • The Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach - we did a "daycation" for my birthday using ResortPass and it was incredible, giving you access to all the luxurious resort amenities at this world-famous pink hotel with so much history.

  • DK Farms & Gardens in Largo - an adorable petting zoo (and mini-golf course!) with the most friendly animals including goats, ponies, pigs, bunnies, chickens, donkeys, ducks, and tortoises.

  • Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach - famous for a reason, this beautiful pier and surrounding beach area has tons of restaurants, activities, live music, entertainment, rides, shopping, playgrounds, resorts, and of course postcard-worthy views with sugar-soft sand along the turquoise gulf waters.

  • The Clearwater Marine Aquarium - lots of cool aquatic animals you don't often get to see, including an expansive dolphin exhibit!

  • The Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater - we used a ResortPass for here as well, and were able to enjoy the famous Sand Key Beach with all the hotel amenities, pool, and restaurant for the day.

  • The Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City - like something out of a movie, this is one of the biggest festivals in North America with tons of unique foods, vendors, animals, live music, rides, and endless entertainment. We lucked out with this going on coincidentally during our stay, but there are a ton of events happening constantly - many of which you will find posted here at

  • Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa - the longest continuous sidewalk in the world with nearly 5 miles of gorgeous water views, perfect for a relaxing family walk with lots of natural marine life to enjoy along the way.

  • Ybor City in Tampa - a historic city filled with rich Cuban and Latin American culture, it has unique neighborhood shops and eateries that truly make you feel like you've left the country. We made a special stop for my husband at the JC Newman Cigar Factory, with a free tour to check out the incredible behind-the-scenes operations at America's oldest family-owned premium cigar company. It was absolutely fascinating!

  • Downtown Tampa - literally so much to do in and of itself. We went to eat downtown, walked the scenic Riverwalk, checked out Amalie Arena, visited the Florida Aquarium (by far the coolest one I've ever been to - plus your visit includes access to the outdoor playground and splash pad!), and enjoyed the expansive, 3-floor Glazer Children's Museum. There's also the TECO Streetcar that is not only totally adorable, but will also bring you all around Downtown Tampa for free!

  • St. Pete Pier - this place is an entire experience with 26 acres of picturesque waterfront full of fun for the entire family! Lots of good food, shopping, live music, unique vendors, art, playgrounds, exhibits, museums, and so much more.

Other Recommendations:

  • We scheduled a Whole Foods grocery delivery to be at the house within an hour of our arrival so we were able to get settled with a stocked kitchen, and avoid unnecessary time at the grocery store on vacation.

  • Our rental house came with a ton of baby and toddler items including a pack-and-play, high chair, toys, beach gear, kitchen utensils, etc. Always include this in your search if it matters to you, as I found many rentals with these options! But my backup plan if I couldn't find a place offering these types of things was to rent from a company like BabyQuip. They aren't super cheap once all the fees are factored in at the end, but they will drop off and pick up a variety of necessary and sanitized items for you, which is very convenient.

  • We used this stroller on the plane and everywhere we went. It's convertible for every stage of life for two small kids, has tons of storage, is easy to clean, maneuvers like a single, and is completely collapsible. Plus it's very affordable!

  • I got our family a CityPass to enjoy the bigger tourist attractions in the area for a crazy low price. It was accepted everywhere with no problem, and they just scan your pass in right from your phone. You can use the pass for 9 days for any of the places listed on their website. Every zoo, aquarium, and museum we visited was included in our CityPass, and we saved hundreds of dollars this way. Plus, young children are free - so we only needed to buy two adult passes for this trip!

  • We got a rental home with a washer/dryer on site, so we were able to pack lighter, clean messy toddler clothes as needed, and do a load before leaving so we could just unpack all the clean clothes back into drawers when we got home!

  • One downside of our rental was that the pool was not heated. I did not know this was a thing because... Florida? But apparently winters are still chilly enough that you will not find an unheated pool enjoyable, so always double check this detail!

  • And if you happen to have a food allergy like me, you will be overwhelmingly delighted with the number of safe and healthy dining options available to you! I don't think there was a single place we went that didn't offer me delicious gluten-free menu items (from ice cream cones to fried shrimp, and everything in between!), and without a funny face or a fuss. The Tampa Bay Area appears to be big on the healthy food and lifestyle tip, so you should have no problem finding places to enjoy eating with the rest of your family and friends. :)

So needless to say, we had the best trip! I hope this helps you plan an amazing and stress-free vacation for your family too. If you have any questions at all about what we did or how we did it, please feel free to DM me on Instagram anytime @XtineElise! Happy travels, friends!


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