Let Them Plan: 11 Tips for Travel with Teens

Plus, teen dream destination ideas

Teen girl with suitcaseFamily vacations were always fun in the past, but suddenly your 16-year-old has her own summer plans. Some teens get excited about family travel plans, but others roll their eyes and seem bent on draining the life out of your vacation vision.

Even if you have enthusiastic teens who don’t mind separating from friends and Facebook, you’ll likely encounter impatience at points along the way. But with a little upfront planning, you can avoid doing battle on your trip, and even bond a little. Here’s how.

1. Get buy-in on the itinerary

No doubt your family has different interests, and nothing is more frustrating than teens vetoing an activity — at the entrance. Before leaving home, involve your kids in planning the itinerary to get buy-in. Giving them the opportunity to plan outings or entire days grants them ownership and secures a better attitude. Don’t let them say “Whatever” when you solicit their ideas. Also, make sure you mix up the itinerary during the trip, alternating adult and kid wishes.

2. Delegate research

Planning adventures takes time, and seeking teens’ help gets them up to speed on the trip ahead. When our family traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island, my then 14-year-old daughter wanted to know where we would be staying. I pointed her to a VRBO condo website, gave her some budgetary guidelines and turned her loose (with my final say-so). When we arrived months later at the condo, she already knew what to expect and didn’t complain once.

3. Book accommodation with perks

Teens don’t bound out of bed at 7 a.m. like kindergartners do, so make sure your hotel or vacation rental has an extra bedroom where they can sleep in. Vacation rentals save you money with a kitchen and laundry facilities, and the right hotel suite can include a kitchen, too. Extra bedrooms mean you won’t be tripping on those bags bursting with clothes. Kids will also thank you for choosing a locale with free Wi-Fi, a flatscreen, a gym and a decent-sized pool.

4. Plan transportation in advance

If you plan to rent a car at your destination, getting around isn’t much of a mystery, but if you’re intending to use public transportation or expect your kids to walk when visiting cities, be sure to have a conversation beforehand about what they should expect. Hot sun or rain can put a damper on their willingness, and public transportation can feel intimidating if your family isn’t accustomed to it. But taking the metro is an adventure in itself and eliminates the stress of city driving and steep parking fees.

5. Ask them to navigate

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., even just over the Canadian border, you won’t be able to rely on Siri for directions (unless you have an international plan). Give your kids a road map to navigate while you’re driving, or a city walking map to figure out how to get from the science museum to the International District. Teens value being consulted for their expertise. Make it real.

6. Splurge

Teens don’t fall as easily for small treats like a local playground, so have them research a bigger-ticket adventure ahead of time — a zip line course or jet ski rental, for example — or give them a budget once you’ve arrived. Tip: Schedule the adventure for later in the trip so they have something to look forward to.

7. Allow solo exploring

Families don’t typically spend entire days together and teens get restless with close quarters. If you’re visiting an all-inclusive resort, setting them free is a no-brainer, but even in a city, you can turn them loose in a safe shopping district or let them head out for lunch near your hotel. Decide what feels comfortable.

8. Let them sleep in

Tempting as it is to roust kids early for the day’s activities, be flexible. Get them up on some days so your schedule isn’t totally sabotaged, but let them sleep in on other days. Adults can head out early to sightsee or have a quiet breakfast sans complaints while kids snooze. Just be sure not to be irritated when they finally wake — parental eye-rolling is just as much of a downer for teens as theirs is for us.

9. Unplug – at least part of the time

The whole point is together time, right? Free hotel Wi-Fi means kids can scroll Instagram for hours if you let them. If your hotel charges a fee, then you’ve got a gatekeeper, but you may need to enforce unplugging. It’s worth it.

10. Look for sports opportunities

Teens involved in sports may need to keep up training even on vacation. Is your teen a swimmer or a soccer player? Look for a public pool wherever you’re visiting, or find out where the local soccer teams train. Our family has hunted up tracks and unpaved trails wherever we go so my daughter could continue her track training. The upside? The rest of the family ends up working out, too.

11. Be prepared for bumps

Just like tots come down with fevers, big kids can have trouble too. When our family went to Whistler, B.C. my son broke his thumb the first morning of skiing. He and I spent the rest of the weekend in the clinic, riding the gondolas, and strolling the village while the other half hit the slopes. Although my own cross-country skiing was compromised, my son and I had some great chats over cocoa.

Destination ideas for families with teens

Grand CanyonTeens make fantastic travel companions when they’re on board with the plan. They also have energy to burn and will outperform you any day.

National parks: Try the Grand Canyon, Banff National Park, or Yellowstone, somewhere with hiking trails, river rafting, rock climbing, or other activities that allow trying something new.

Theme parks: I always thought of Disneyland as a place for younger kids, but theme parks with teens are a blast. Everyone can ride together (if mom is gutsy enough) and dine without tears. Our trip to Disneyland was one of our best ever.

Active resort vacation: Plan a trip around skiing, surfing or mountain biking. Often, ski resorts convert to a mountain biker’s mecca during the summer. A resort also allows you to let kids go without worrying where they are.

Once-in-a-lifetime trip: Now might be the time for that big trip, either abroad or to a major U.S. city, before your kids leave home. Try New York, London or Paris. Cities take energy, and your kids are ready to take on top museums, famous landmarks and urban excitement.

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