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Travel with Teens? 5 New Ways to Make it Awesome

If thoughts of spending an entire week in close quarters with your teen makes you think ‘horror movie,’ read on. Yes it’s possible, even fun—and can be tremendously rewarding.

“I’m sorry mom, but for some reason, talking to you these days is physically painful for me,” announced my 13-year-old daughter. How could the poor girl survive these upcoming mother-daughter years? More importantly, how could we get through the cruise I had just booked for our summer vacation, a seven-day sail around the Mediterranean Sea?

“Well, I guess we’d better ask for dinner companions,” I replied. “Or it’s going to be a very quiet week.”

Teens can make for challenging travel companions. They like to sleep late, have a fixed sense of style or music (get ready for fashion boutiques or music stores rather than museums), and like to hang out with other teens whom you’ve barely met. And yet, traveling with them promotes opportunities for a lifetime of discussion. You’ll find that with a little bit of input and a lot of planning, teens will actually display enthusiasm for historical sights, new cultural experiences, and action—whether it’s rafting through whitewater, climbing a bell tower, riding horses across a desert, or embarking on a wildlife safari to see lions.

Vacations With Teens: The Art Of Traveling with Teens

Here’s how to have the best vacation ever with your teens:

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1. Let them help plan the trip

Give your teenagers a role in arranging your trip. “The most important thing when planning a vacation with teens is to involve them in the planning early on,” says Kyle McCarthy, co-founder and editor of the website of Family Travel Forum (myfamilytravels.com). Discuss possible itineraries and activities. “You need to make them stakeholders in the success of the trip so that they pitch in to make every day the best possible day.”

You might even share budget considerations for the trip. Would they rather splurge on an all-inclusive cruise with superstar musical entertainment, or embark on a wildlife expedition in a National Park, allowing money left over for that cool guitar they’d been eyeing?

“Give them the responsibility to plan, arrange things, and even help with the budget,” says Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association, and a parent who has taken his boys around the world. “Say ‘OK, based on this amount of money, here’s what we can plan.’ ”

In our own family, each of the three teens was responsible for one day of vacation. It was up to them to do the research, then present it to the rest of the family, who would all abide by their choices. It’s how we all learned about Italian fashion, rode bikes along a Rail Trail, and snorkeled among turtles in the Caribbean Sea.

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2. Tap into their interests

Whether it’s baseball, beadwork, or blues guitar, teens are passionate about their pursuits. And parents can share some of that excitement. “My son has some interest in airplanes and aeronautics,” says Jenss. “So we’ve gone to air shows and aeronautical museums. This is something new to me. The tables have turned a bit.”

On one of our family trips, my husband and I wanted to forgo a touristy cruise to see glass blowers on the Italian island of Murano. But the teens persisted, and once home, our 14-year-old son declared it was a highlight of his trip. “I never knew that you could actually make glass,” he said. “That was so cool.” Today this son is an engineer.

Dr. Frances E. Jensen, chair of the Neurological Department of the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain, agrees. “Even if they pick something you really don’t want to do, show them that you respect that and participate.” It could turn out to be the most interesting excursion.

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3. Don’t forget the down time

Don’t plan every minute. Leave some hours unscheduled to allow time for wandering, checking the iPad, feeding that bottomless pit stomach, or just hanging out with a new friend. “Parents expect teens to participate in everything, but teens have so many things going on, that you need to give them time on their own,” says McCarthy.

That applies to mornings as well. Think twice about setting the alarm to hit the beach at sunrise. “It’s not just humans,” Jensen says. “All mammalian species need more sleep during adolescence.” The reason? Sleep hormones are programmed to be released two hours later in the teen brain. “Getting a teenager up at 6 a.m. is like getting an adult up at 4 a.m.,” she explains.

When possible, pick activities that are more of a match for your teenager’s sleep needs. Late-night concerts or soirées that include a midnight fireworks show could be just the ticket to round off a perfect teen vacation day.

Girl with surf

4. Keep it active

There is little time (or chance) for teens to grumble when they’re kept active, whether they are riding a horse or riding waves on a surfboard. Teens love action, discovering new skills, and a bit of a thrill too. “It’s an amazing time for discovery,” says Jensen. “They take risks, test the limits. It’s a natural state; that’s part of who they are.”

Often, scary is fun for teenagers. Take 14-year-old Spencer Kelly, whose family set out on a nighttime hike with headlamps through the rain forest of Belize. “We could hear the sounds of animals, and see the eyes of spiders; they were shining in the dark,” he said. “Some were as big as your hand.” He agreed that “adventure is way better than relaxation. A vacation is something you should remember.”

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5. Travel with teens provides lifelong lessons

No matter where you go or what you do, your teens will learn important lessons, including how to get along with each other and their parents. “Teens are ‘jacked up’ for learning,” says Jensen, “A teen brain is a learning brain.”

It’s also a time for teens to watch parent behavior—to see if you, too, brush your teeth and make your bed and how you react if another driver cuts you off in traffic.

And if the trip goes south fast? “It’s up to the parent to stand back, take a breath, count to 10, and not over-react,” says Jensen.

So it’s a learning session for parents, too. What you really want to hear when the teens get home and meet up with their friends is, “That was the best vacation ever!”

As for that girl on the mother-daughter cruise? After trying to sneak into the Vatican wearing shorts, teasing me by throwing three coins into the Trevi Fountain (signifying impending marriage), and sailing past the volcano of Stromboli erupting flashes of orange into the sky, she laid her head on my shoulder and said, “Let’s do this again sometime.” Not so painful after all.

Kate Pocock

Kate Pocock is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. Read more of her work—including for National Geographic, Fodors, and others — at familytravelink.com.