Purpose Drawing on a qualitative study approach using data collected from children in a primary school in Marmaris, Turkey, this study aims to intend to understand children's vacation perceptions and preferences. Design/methodology/approach Students were asked to write a short composition describing where they would love to go for vacation (either in Turkey or abroad), why they would choose that destination(s) in particular and what they would do while on vacation. A task-based research technique was adopted, which is more adequate for research involving children participants. A total of 103 compositions were collected and a thematic content analysis was conducted. This approach has been widely used in tourism and hospitality research. Findings The findings revealed that children can clearly express their perceptions and preferences with regard to leisure activities. The majority of children wanted to visit overseas destinations (specifically, the USA, Germany and France), while a significant portion preferred local destinations within Turkey (specifically, Istanbul and Antalya). The desire for recreation and holiday, exploring new places and trying local foods and visiting families and relatives were identified as key travel motivations. Originality/value A key contribution of the current study lies in the fact that it adds to a research stream that shifts attention to insights gained directly from children rather relying on parents as a proxy. The paper has some theoretical and empirical implications.