Balancing tweens' and teens' growing desire for independence with their ongoing need for guidance and supervision is a test of parenting skills, and vacations abroad are no exception.
Traveling abroad with your children represents a significant expenditure of resources. Understandably, parents want kids to appreciate the rich opportunities provided. It can be frustrating when teens seem to focus more on which DVD to watch than visiting the Louvre. Still, by following some family-tested tips you can create an experience that's enjoyable and memorable for all.
Plan as a family. The Boyett family of Lake Forest Park -- parents Janet and Jesse and their children Nicole, then 16, and Wes, 10 -- took time to canvass opinions for their first family trip abroad, eventually settling on Belize. "We talked about things we liked to do and tried to get some of each in our trip, like scuba diving, relaxing and sleeping, horseback riding," Janet says.
If the itinerary is set, kids can still help select family activities within that framework, parents agree. Portland attorney Chuck Reynolds travels frequently with his wife, Chris, and young adult children, Margaret and Mackenzie. Chuck recommends checking event listings on arrival. To get the flavor of the culture, he suggests, look beyond museums and art galleries. "Periscope, a guide to activities, is available at kiosks in Paris; it has offbeat or free activities, musical events, things like garden shows or exotic dog shows."
Break the language barrier. Learning even a few words in the local language can instill confidence. Jeff and Lee Evan Belfiglio of Bellevue took classes at Bellevue Community College before taking a family trip to Italy with sons Evan, 20, and Alexander, 14, in July 2005. Alexander loaded Italian lessons onto his MP3 player and listened to them on the long flight. "I made the kids order food in Italian and speak it as much as possible," Lee Evan says. "The restaurant owners were delighted."
Pack appropriately. Teens are often reluctant to travel light, says Petra Rousu, mother of a 17-year-old and owner of The Savvy Traveler store in Edmonds. "Five pairs of shoes are not necessary," she notes. In this era of heightened security, leave clothes emblazoned with U.S. retailers' names at home; let fashion-conscious teens shop for accent items at your destination. Space-saving, zip-off cargo pants are winners, easy to wash and dry.
"Bring practical shoes!" advises Seattle teen Cait Heermans, who visited Spain and Portugal at age 14 with sister Sara, 11, and parents Rose Williamson and High Heermans. "I wore heels most of my trip and was miserable."
Bring those electronics. Remember when all you needed was a plug adapter and power converter? They're still required, but that's just the beginning. MP3, CD and DVD players -- often teen must-haves -- require plenty of batteries. If it seems you're hauling every piece of electronic gear your child owns, bear in mind that older kids need to retreat into their own world occasionally. When you're thrown into close proximity, the virtual privacy conferred by headphones allows teens their cherished space.
Establish security ground rules. Securing passports, ID and money is a must. "Teenagers tend not to pay attention to those things," Petra Rousu says. She recommends kids use money belts and learn to be aware of what's going on around them, especially when using an ATM.
Slow down. Nicole Boyett contrasts her family's busy Belize trip with the laid-back pace of their subsequent trip to a Costa Rican ecotourism lodge. "The good thing about the second trip was that if you wanted to sleep in until noon and be a lazy teenager you could just do that," she says.
With Europe at your fingertips, sleeping in may seem a tragic waste. But, Chuck Reynolds notes, "Just because you're in Paris doesn't mean you have to be up and out by 7:30 a.m." Cait Heermans concurs: "If teens want to opt out of an activity, even just to sleep in once in awhile, let them. It's their vacation, too." A day without scheduled activities permits everyone to recharge sightseeing batteries.
Turn kids loose. Letting older kids explore without parent chaperones can be rewarding. "Depending upon the comfort level of parents and safety of the area, I think giving teens some freedom to move about on their own is very good," says Rose Williamson. "A couple of times, our girls went off on their own and seemed to really enjoy that. We would give them money for lunch or dinner, and that gave them experience dealing with ordering, paying and such."
When the Belfiglio boys ventured out in Italy, each developed his area of expertise. "We would usually stay together. Evan would have the debit card and I would speak Italian," Alexander says. Teens may enjoy visiting Internet cafes, emailing friends back home, shopping and sampling nightlife.
Turn the hotel room over to the kids to order room service and play games or watch a DVD while the adults go out on the town. In the town of San Gimignano, Italy, says Evan Belfiglio, "Alexander and I headed to the torture museum, and Mom and Dad went off to go sightseeing and shopping."
Eat adventurously. Allowing teens to select new restaurants for the whole family can help them get interested in local cuisine, Chris Reynolds says. Don't worry if teens won't venture too far outside their comfort zone. "There are always tons of bakeries where you can stock up on cheese and bread or whatever," Cait Heermans notes.
If you are traveling abroad with your family in Europe, anticipate that wine could be offered to teens. Parents may want to discuss this with kids and decide how to handle it ahead of time.
Expect surprises. "There are so many things for kids to learn from traveling in a foreign country," Rose Williamson says. "Parents can try to tell kids in advance about differences in different countries, but of course they can't think of everything. I think it's important to be prepared for kids to make mistakes, even embarrassing or expensive ones, and to chalk it up to cultural education."
Teenagers are notorious for wearing blank expressions, but that doesn't mean they aren't having a good time. The Reynolds family splurged on a winter trip to Paris in 2004. "While we were there, it wasn't evident from the teenagers that they were gloriously happy," Chris says. Yet later, she adds, "they said, 'that was the best Christmas we've ever had.'"
Nancy Thalia Reynolds, author of three travel books including Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families (Sasquatch Books), travels frequently with her husband and two teenage children.
Tips and resources
- Electronics: In addition to bringing plug adapters and currency converters for items like blow dryers, you need phone plug adapters for personal electronics. Currently, only Cingular and T-Mobile U.S. cell phones can be used abroad, but cell phones can be rented for your destination; easier still, buy international phone cards. The World Electric Power Guide provides information on requirements for specific destinations and sells plugs, and phone and currency converters. Slow Travel provides electronic-access information along with tips and reviews on travel abroad.
- Travel specialty stores carry books, luggage, clothing, maps and travel aids, and offer travel workshops and knowledgeable staff. Try The Savvy Traveler (112 5th Ave. S., Edmonds; 425-744-6076; 1-877-225-1994) and Wide World Books & Maps (4411A Wallingford Ave. N., Seattle; 206-634-3453; 1-888-534-3453).
- Local colleges offer travel-planning classes. Bellevue Community College has beginning classes in 20 languages; North Seattle Community College has a class on keeping a watercolor travel journal.
- Daily Candy, a site for teens with travel tips and events listings for many destinations, is recommended by Cait Heermans.
- Travel essays make great teen vacation reading. Try Bill Bryson, Tony Hawks, Pico Iyer, and Paul Theroux. Not So Funny When It Happened (Tim Cahill, ed.), and Bad Trips (Keath Fraser, ed.), tell hair-raising, hilarious stories of life on the go. Fiction possibilities include Dan Brown’s ubiquitous Da Vinci Code, introducing readers to great Italian art, and Robert Harris’s Pompeii, centered on the ancient eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Anglophiles will enjoy Philippa Gregory’s novels of Tudor England. Ask school and community librarians for more suggestions.