NEW YORK – Family travel falls into three distinct phases. First, there’s the exhausting period of travel with crying babies who need diapers, bottles, strollers, car seats and naps. Then come the golden years, when kids can handle long rides and long walks, when they actually think scavenger hunts are fun, and when they bask in their family’s love and attention.
But that’s followed by the teenage years, which can be nearly as challenging as the toddler years – because to a teenager, any place a parent wants to go is by definition uncool.
It’s tempting to fantasize about leaving them home (surely they can take care of themselves!), but they might throw wild parties in your absence, so you’ll have to bring them along. Here are five strategies – crowd-sourced and from personal experience – to help you survive. It may not be cool for teenagers to travel with their parents, but you can definitely make it more fun.
Find appealing activities
Teenage brains crave danger. Parental brains crave security. Fortunately, many activities are both thrilling and basically safe, like zip-lining, whitewater rafting and roller coasters.
Teens also like trying new things. Let them try surfing, stand-up paddleboards or snorkeling. No reason mom and dad can’t sit that stuff out, by the way – the kids will surely learn faster than you, and you wouldn’t want to be humiliated.
If activities involve spending money, discuss limits ahead of time. And if shopping’s on the itinerary, don’t forget thrift shops as fun, bargain alternatives to malls and brand-name stores. Like the song says, “Is that your grandma’s coat?”
Let them explore
Let teens explore on their own as much as possible, whether the setting is a theme park, mall, beach, festival or neighborhood. If everyone has cellphones, it’s easy to keep track of their whereabouts, but you also can plan the old-fashioned way: “See you at 4 p.m. at the fountain (or the car or the hotel room).” Casually add that you’re prone to panic and will call the cops, have their names broadcast over public address systems, or write “WHERE ARE YOU?” in shouty-caps on their Facebook pages if they’re late.
Be flexible about itineraries
I like museums, gardens and historic sites. My husband likes 6 a.m. sunrise hikes, preferably up steep mountain trails. Guess what? Our kids sometimes rebel, and we sometimes compromise. Being flexible about itineraries and letting kids help plan is critical to family travel happiness.
We’ve let a kid stay at the hotel while we’ve gone hiking. I’ve done botanical gardens alone while the others went to a zoo. We’ve even skipped alleged must-sees because the kids didn’t want to do them, and really, what’s the point? It’s vacation, not medicine.
There’s also no harm in letting them sleep in or hang out at the pool while you visit an art show or antiques store.
Some families plan trips by letting each person pick one place for the group to visit, alternating adult choices with kid picks, and limiting museums to an hour if kids don’t want to be there. Sure, you want to see the “Mona Lisa” in Paris, but you needn’t spend all day at the Louvre. Another museum strategy: Let teens sit somewhere playing with their phones while you power walk through a gallery or two.
Here’s the good news: Now that my kids are older – 16 and 21 – they think art is cool. What’s more awesome than putting a selfie with “The Scream” on Instagram? And even if you can’t get teens psyched about museums, they might love street art. Many cities have neighborhoods where graffiti – illegal or sanctioned – is a tourist attraction, like Wynwood, Miami, or Bushwick, Brooklyn. Look for walking tours; your guide might even be a cool 20-something who’ll impress the heck out of your kids.
Bring a friend
Friends can make trips more fun and give parents time to relax while kids hang with their buddies. But consider a trial-run sleepover at home first to get a realistic preview of your prospective guest’s habits. Can you handle overly picky eaters, screen addicts and kids who either won’t go to sleep or won’t wake up?
If you can afford accommodations with a separate room for teens – even if it’s just a pullout sofa in a living room with a TV – that might also make everyone happier.
Inviting another family – parents as well as kids – to vacation with you is another option, depending on budgets and logistics.
Give a teen a job
Let them drive on a road trip. Put them in charge of taking pictures. And with all their digital know-how, let them navigate when you’re lost.