The mother-son trip to Florida should’ve been a total bust. The cool cousins had bailed, the horse-surfing trip was canceled (the horses didn’t show up), the guest room was super-tiny (the son’s giant shoes stayed outside), and the weather was breathtakingly hot — 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity. And yet . . . Connor and Diane spent a happy three days sleeping late, bodysurfing in the Gulf of Mexico, and eating at Mr. Bones, a barbecue-slash-Indian food joint famous for its coffin full of beverages, every single day.
Moo Bishop of Thomson Family Adventures (familyadventures.com) in Watertown has her own teen-trip-with-a happy-ending tale. “I dragged my kids to Alaska one summer, where they had zero interest in going. In no time, they thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever done,” and they even thanked her, Bishop says.
Of course, either of these trips could’ve gone horribly wrong. (Cue slamming doors and teens spending days communing with an iPhone.) It almost makes that screaming infant seem charming.
Travel is always a crapshoot, but the stakes are higher with teens. They can be a tough bunch to please, and some resist the idea of a family vacation altogether. “You’d think I was signing him up for a week of root canals, not a week at the beach,” said one mom we spoke to. (Blame FOMO — fear of missing out — on fun with friends at home.) So we asked the experts for their advice on vacationing with teens. Here’s what they said.
Just do it already
Sure, they can be moody and sullen, but teens can also be delightful traveling companions. “With teens, travel can be especially fun, as they seek adventurous experiences,” says Lissa Poirot, editor in chief of Family Vacation Critic (www.familyvacationcritic.com). “Instead of standing in line to ride kiddie rides, you can choose adventures you both like, such as hiking, horseback riding, scuba diving, and zip lining.”
Shared travel experiences with your teenager can also give you some good memories to fall back on when things get rocky at home. Bishop, who traveled to China with her then-15-year-old daughter, recalls, “Our crazy experiences there gave us things to laugh about and reminisce about over the years since, and this got us through some tougher times. I’ve always been grateful for that trip.”
Know thy teens
Should you get your teens involved in the planning of your trip? That depends on the kid. Jim Kackley, general manager of Thomson Family Adventures, says . . . maybe. “One of my teens tends to say ‘no’ to everything in advance, but when he’s there, he has the greatest experience. We know him and prod him because of this. The other one loves to experience new cultures and new people, so he is very flexible. We all know our kids well and have to decide individually how much to include them in the process.” Other teens are super-opinionated, and know what they want to see and do. Get them involved in planning, and they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Even more important is to plan events that play to your kids’ enthusiasms, Kackley says. That nature-loving teen would probably adore Costa Rica, or Yellowstone National Park, and what teenage Sox fan wouldn’t love to hit spring training in Fort Myers?
Some things are universal
Teens sleep in. That’s just the way they’re designed. So travel accordingly; maybe plan to hit the spa or golf links or a local museum while they snooze in the morning. Also a given: teens like their privacy. Multi-room suites or home rentals can be a great option, Poirot says. “If you can, find ways to give teens their own rooms — it will give everyone some breathing space.”
Allow teens some time to chill and to mix it up with other kids their age, Bishop advises. And give your teen some freedom, if the destination allows. “Allow them to venture away from you, with a set meeting time or curfew,” Poirot says. “They’ll relish the freedom, you get some alone time, and it will help instill confidence when they eventually go off on their own.”
Plan for some spontaneity
Yes, we know how that sounds! But rather than plan every moment, allow some time to just go with the flow. “Leave some decisions to be made while you’re there, to add a sense of adventure and allow you to adjust plans based on the interests of your teen at the moment,” Poirot says. Let your teen make the call. (See: Mr. Bones.)
Action and adventure? Yes, please.
Our experts were unanimous: Trips with active and challenging elements are a hit with teens. Planning too many museums and city tours is a major turn-off. Popular far-flung destinations for this age group are Croatia, Thailand, Peru, Italy, Costa Rica, Baja, Mexico, and the Galapagos, the folks at Thomson say. Poirot likes Costa Rica and the Galapagos for young adults, too, thanks to the adventure options and unique settings. “You can hike one day, zip line through rain forests, and learn to surf and dive,” she notes. Kackley says Thomson’s Tanzania safari is a hit with families with teens, thanks to activities like nighttime wildlife watching, biking, and mountain hiking.
Cruises are a fun option for families traveling with teens, Poirot notes, since you can do onboard activities together and spend some time apart. Pick a cruise line that offers teen-only programs so kids can make new friends and hang with their tribe. Cruise lines known for this include Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and NCL.
Family resorts can offer a similar experience on land. Some resorts pull out all the stops when it comes to teen programming. For example, the Tamarind resort (www.tamarindbarbados.com) in Barbados offers activities like aerial cinematography, a teen spa day, and stand-up paddle-boarding lessons expressly for teens, so they can try something new and fun (and Instagram-worthy). The resort also offers complimentary teen-friendly water sports, like catamaran sailing, waterskiing, kayaking, windsurfing, tubing, and banana boat rides. With this age group, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, we’d say.
Closer to home, a camping or RV trip to one of the US national parks is a fun family adventure at a good price point. Parks in the southwest are especially intriguing to East Coast kids, since the landscape is so different. The parks offer loads of outdoor recreation options, plus “Days can be organized so that the teens can sleep late, and then join the family for a late-morning or afternoon activity,” Kackley notes.
Cities can be surprisingly budget-friendly for families, Poirot says. “They can be fantastic destinations because they have so much to offer, like museums, shows, and historic districts.” Since many families flock to resorts, city hotels can be very affordable, especially on weekends. And if you pick a domestic locale, you might be able to drive there.
If it sounds like we’re recommending several kinds of trips, that’s really the point. As Bishop says, “Teens can love anything new if it is presented in a fun and active way.” They’re keen to try new things, and to be treated like the almost-adults they are, she says. “This is why getting everyone out of their normal routine and into something unfamiliar can work so well to change the family dynamic, if only for a week.” Kackley agrees. “When we take our teens out of the home setting and on the road, we leave behind some of the parent/child issues,” he says.
“We can watch them experience the world as young adults, and not just as our kids.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.