10 Tips For Traveling With Teens And Tweens

by Erin Gustafson
Originally Published: 
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Oh. My. Gawd. Seriously. Mom. Stop. Stop it.

Eyes roll. Shoulders shrug. Backs turn. Feet shuffle. A few paces away. I do not know you. I am not related to you. Maybe even hoodies pull a little lower over faces. Or beanies down. Heads definitively away. Buried in phones perchance? Anything to disassociate themselves. From YOU.

Traveling with teens in tow? Ever felt like you are suddenly the most embarrassing person on the planet?

Welcome to the club. It’s fun here. Especially when you put teens in a situation that takes them ever so slightly outside of their fragile comfort zone. Immediately that propensity by parents to perpetuate gross affronts escalates. Like instantaneously. Upon landing. (Sometimes even while you are still in the air getting there.) Anytime you maneuver your offspring outside of their bubble, there is potential to exasperate. Both you. And your teen.

Stop trying to speak the language, Mom. Stop pretending that you know where you are. Stop taking pictures of me. I mean it. STOP. NOW. Stop telling everybody everything about us.

I just told them we live in Denmark, not our social security numbers —

MOM. They don’t care.

Um. But I do. I’m engaging here. Interacting with the locals. They asked, anyway. And they can decide if they don’t want to make small talk with me by their own selves. Just like you, my dear teen.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not always like that. But it definitely has been. On occasion. Or two. Or more. Who’s counting? Not me. But here’s my math. (Maths if you’re British.) Currently living under my roof are two full-fledged teenagers and one trying-to-keep-up full-blooded tween. I will have a good five to six years in this zone with all three smack in the middle of this age group. And a good five years after that until they’ve all graduated through teendom. Yay me! How ’bout dem apples.

(P.S. I love my teens. And my tween.)

A million and one posts have been written advocating travel with your children. Start them young — and I concur. It’s cheaper. They take up less room. They’re somewhat containable. They don’t have opinions yet. (Terrible two’s don’t count.) It’s a great time to travel with your littles. When they are just that… little. So by the time they are teens turning into young adults, they will be perfectly compliant, capable and confident traveling companions. Traveling with teens will be a breeze. Right? Wrong. Sorry.

Take your teens traveling and you can possibly exacerbate, irritate and otherwise aggravate your humans in their already volatile state. Hormones are real, people. Learning to navigate their effects while outside a comfort zone can be chaos. But it can be done. And for all the potential pouty faces, mood swings, general apathy and outright egregious offenses to their newly emerging independent identities — I’m here to tell you that traveling with teens can be amazing. I promise.

Teens are interested. (When you figure out what interests them.) And interesting. Truly. Teens have enough life under their belts to be able to make comparisons and understand contrasts. Teens are smart. They know things. They know A LOT OF THINGS. You don’t need to tell me, Mom. And when they share those things — when you let them — you both can learn.

Teens notice things. When you encourage them to look up from their screens. And it’s probably not the same things that you will notice. It is fun seeing the world through their eyes. Through their filters. You, as the ever-protective parent, will still be surveying the area like a ninja anticipating all potential threats, danger zones and subway gaps. They, on the other hand, will be the first to notice the cool guy with the colorful hair and anywhere that sells ice cream or the latest sneakers. I will continue to advocate travel with your potentially temperamental teen. But there are ways to make it easier. For you. And your teen.

I can assure you that all of the following tips on how to enjoy traveling with your teen have been field tested. Thoroughly. We have experienced lots of trials. And errors. Every moment of every trip has not gone swimmingly. But that’s just life with a teen. And tweens, to be honest. It’s a gentle balance of lowering expectations while raising them at the same time. Let me explain.

1. Engage them in travel planning.

From the very beginning. Gone are the days that you can pick, plan, and push your own agenda and expect perfect happy compliance. Believe me. I learned the hard way. Ask them where they would like to go. Make a list. A family travel wish list. Make sure to include potential activities that might interest them while in each location. Give them an idea of budget. More often teens have grandiose ideas of what travel means — being honest about costs can keep expectations in check. Let them suss out what costs what and then prioritize which activities hold highest interest. To them.

2. Keep them up to date on travel plans.

Once settled on a setting and some activities to pursue, keep them posted on what is happening when. If your teens are like mine, surprises can be upsetting. And they get a little suspicious. Wait, wait. Whoa, Mom. Where are you taking us? Is this another ‘Just one more block’ to see some old painting? Where are we going? Mom? I hear that one a lot.

Let them know the plan for the next day and what is set and where there is wiggle room for improvising. I am not a scheduled person per se and travel with much more free flow without kids along. But I have found from first-hand experience that meandering seems meaningless to teens, without some sort of structure.

3. Balance between cultural and physical activities.

My kids’ eyes start to glaze over when I mention the idea of stepping inside one more beautiful church. Even in Italy. But I give. And they give. It’s a balance. Yes, we can go zip-lining through the jungle or scuba diving reefs some days, but after we visit that church. Or museum. Or cultural event. Something to give a little local perspective. We do both. To keep the balance. Mom happy, kids happy.

4. Keep them fed.

This seems simple. You’re a parent. You have always worried about providing well-balanced meals to help your children grow up healthy and strong. Don’t forget this on vacation. I’m serious. It’s easy to do. You get carried away with what to see, how to get there, what you are doing (having a great time, of course, because you have engaged your teens and kept them informed) that you forget to eat.

You are ok. You can handle it. Even if you feel a little famished, you don’t let it influence your perception of a place. But they do. Low blood sugar in hormonal teens is a very bad combination. Keep healthy snacks in your daypack to bridge gaps between meals. Everyone will be more receptive to that medieval castle’s display of gilt chalices that you are dying to get to, if they aren’t hangry. Don’t make your teen hangry. It’s not pretty.

5. Work with their biorhythms.

Make sure they get enough sleep. My teens are notorious night owls. And they definitely sleep in. I programmed them well. From the beginning. Or maybe it’s genetic. But sleepy teens are about as much fun as hangry teens. Again, this seems straightforward, but if your teens naturally sleep in, don’t plan to take the first tour across town. Resistance. Pushback. Humphing. Nobody likes humphing. Let them sleep. Go get a coffee with your partner, pick up some healthy snacks. Come back and then start the day. Less humphing. Usually.

6. Let them connect.

Living in Copenhagen, my children all have phones. In Denmark, and Europe in general, children are afforded greater independence and autonomy than in the U.S. My children make their way to school and activities on their own. I feel safer knowing they have a phone with them. With the phone comes social media apps. Kids want to connect. Let them. Not all the time while traveling. But give them some space and time to share their experiences with their friends.

When you are traveling with teens in close confines, with the entire family jammed in a rental car or sharing a hotel room, that private space that they crave can be lacking. Make sure your accommodations have WiFi, or that you have a huge bank of data. Giving our teens some time each day to plug in and tune out or Snap with friends seems to recharge everyone’s batteries.

7. Use technology to enhance travels.

For teens who can’t live without the tether of their technology, give them a task. Download site-specific apps and put them in charge. Many cities have apps that make public transportation tolerable. Download before you go and let them help with train routes or the metro or minding the gap. There’s an app for that.

Encourage them to search for what interests them and guide you to it when in town. Do you have a sneakerhead in your house? Have them look up where the local shops are and save them in Google Maps. (You can download specific areas to use offline.) Then let them take you on a tour to find them. We saw parts of Paris I had never seen this way.

8. Don’t ask for a selfie.

But let them Snapchat away. They don’t want to associate with you, remember? This tip applies to photographing your teen anywhere in public in general. In bodies that are changing and growing and taking up more space, being singled out and made to feel even more conspicuous as you attempt your perfect family Christmas card shot can feel like their seventh layer of hell. If you have a selfie-taker and they are willing to take selfies with you — then, lucky you! If you don’t, don’t force it.

9. Arm them with cultural information

Teens can feel massively conspicuous in their own skin. Bodies growing at exponential rates, voices changing, hormones raging. Taking them to a foreign country, or even to a different city or state, can make that feeling grow by a factor of ten. Helping them blend in by understanding some background about where you’re headed will help. Give them a few phrases in the local language. Yes. No. Please. Thank you. No thank you. Excuse me. Start there. Helping them respect the culture you’re visiting will make them feel more comfortable and open to experiencing.

10. Respect their perspective

Your teens aren’t you. What? I know. Hard to believe. But get over it. They aren’t. They have opinions and feelings and approaches to life that you may not understand or even agree with always. I have to consider three very different approaches from my three very different kids. What is deemed a parental offense by one, may not bother the other. What one is willing to try, may mortify the other. Trying to be conscious of these differences is important. Challenging. But important.

Traveling with teens is definitely worthy and can be wonderful. Cheers to exploring more with your teens in tow.

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