Planning a Vacation with Teenagers
Teens and Vacation
“Can I bring my Nintendo?” This was my then-14-year-old son’s first question when we announced that we were taking a trip to Malawi, East Africa.
Traveling with teenagers is a completely different experience than traveling with children. Sometimes they seem like a whole different species. Yet you undoubtedly love your own teenager, warts and all—or perhaps I should say pimples and all.
Teenagers can be mini—or not so mini—adults. In a restaurant, they can wait patiently for their food. They say “Please” and “Thank you.” They can listen attentively to a tour guide and even ask intelligent questions. By behaving like adults, they can trick you into treating them like adults. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the needy, pouty child emerges to throw an adolescent version of a tantrum. In our son, that usually means sullen silence and a heavy sigh whenever we expect him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. He’ll do what he’s told, usually, but we’re punished for hours afterwards with scowls and silence.
Traveling with teenagers poses extra challenges:
- They have different sleep patterns from children or adults. While you might be up at first light, anxious to check out the Van Gogh museum as soon as it opens or tour those fascinating stone age ruins, your child refuses steadfastly to budge from her bed, moaning and snuggling deeper under the covers whenever you attempt to wake her up. In the evenings, after a whole day of sightseeing, you’re ready for bed right after dinner. This is when your teenager is most awake, and can’t fall asleep till the wee hours of the morning.
There’s not much you can do about this, other than finding a compromise. Often hotels only offer breakfast within limited hours, and teenagers love to eat almost as much as they love to sleep. Agree that she’ll get up in time to be at breakfast by a half hour before closing. Or, if you want to get up at eight and she prefers noon, compromise at ten.
- They don’t seem to be interested in anything you’re interested in. If you want to see a museum, your son will trail along, slumped, groaning audibly, and barely glancing at the artworks. If you want to lie on a beach, he’s bored within minutes.
That boredom, though, can switch at a moment’s notice to fascination, especially when other teenagers are involved. Your teenager may not even dare to talk to other kids, but he’ll surely watch them hungrily. It’s like dogs circling each other, sniffing and snarling. The fact that he doesn’t dare to speak to other kids will make him even grumpier, yet if you try to intervene and introduce them—gasp!—he’ll be horrified.
My advice: leave them to it. Any involvement on your part will only embarrass them.
- Which leads to another point about traveling with them: embarrassment. This isn’t like when your daughter was a toddler and threw a tantrum in public. Now the roles are switched: you embarrass her.
At home you probably don’t spend that much time with your teenager; she’s at school for most of the day, and even if she’s home she’ll spend most of her time in her room, engrossed in homework if you’re very lucky, but more likely deeply focused on social media. Now, on the road, there are infinitely more opportunities for you to embarrass her. You might find yourself weighing every word you speak in public in your desperation to avoid her angry reaction. And your kid might just spend a whole afternoon not speaking to you to punish you for the heinous crime you committed by embarrassing her.
So what can you do about it?
My advice is to shape your vacation around what your teenager wants to do. Include him in the decision-making. You’re probably afraid that this will mean spending your holiday at late-night clubs or going to the movies, but in reality it doesn’t have to mean you won’t enjoy the vacation too.
If your teenager likes the beach, go to the beach. Choose one that’s near that great museum city you want to visit. If your kid wants to be a veterinarian, by all means go somewhere with lots of animals to see in the wild. My normally non-verbal son on safari in Tanzania uttered the word “Awesome!” more than I’ve ever heard it before.
We’ve done two vacations that were specifically tailored around teenagers. The first one was to the UK, and we were accompanied by our son and our nephew, both 13 at the time. We decided to plan the whole trip around Harry Potter film locations. I did my research on-line, marking points on an outline map of the UK, then plotting out an itinerary.
It turned into a wonderful couple of weeks. We visited Alnwick castle, for example, which was used for some of the external Hogwarts shots. The kids loved trying to figure out where particular scenes took place, and I got to tour a whole medieval castle in peace. There was even a “broomstick flying lesson” for children while we were there. Our teenagers were far too grown-up to take part, but greatly enjoyed watching it.
We visited Lacock Abbey, where some of the interior classroom scenes were filmed. Again, the kids eagerly took up the challenge of figuring out which room corresponded to which scene in which movie, often necessitating extensive discussion and detective work. We rode the Hogwarts Express, also known as the Jacobite Steam Train, which crosses the Scottish Highlands, with breathtaking views. And so on. It hadn’t opened the year we took our Harry Potter trip, but now you could add the Warner Brothers studio tour of the Harry Potter set.
The two boys already had extensive knowledge of the books and the films, so they had plenty to talk about as we drove between locations, and they were eager to see every sight on our itinerary.
The second time we planned a trip around teenagers was a few years later, when my son was 15 and we were joined at the last minute by my niece, then 13. This was trickier, we thought, since they weren’t particularly close and didn’t have similar interests. My son had been studying World War I and World War II at school, and, unusually, showed some interest in it. So that summer we spent a few weeks visiting World War I and II sites across Belgium and northern France.
We didn’t try to “cover” everything—there are literally thousands of sites—but chose something for each day. Highlights for all of us were Ypres, particularly the outstanding In Flanders Fields Museum, and the haunting experience of walking in a reconstructed World War I trench. The kids’ hushed attention at both was remarkable. At my niece’s request, we tacked on a few castles in the Loire Valley to our itinerary, which she loved. My son didn’t, but understood the justice in allowing her some choices as well.
Although neither of these vacations—Harry Potter or the world wars—catered to my interests at first glance, I enjoyed both of them tremendously. I got to see some sights I perhaps never would have chosen on my own. I got to share interests with my son and niece and nephew. And I traveled with cheerful, willing teenagers rather than the miserable wretches I might have been forced to deal with if I’d called all the shots.
For this article, I did a quick survey of the immediately available teenagers (two: one boy and one girl, both 16 years old) and asked what they would suggest for traveling with teenagers. Their response:
- No camping (This comment came from the girl.).
- No historical buildings.
- No long driving trips.
- No spending hours in antique shops. (The girl added that other shopping was fine!)
- No museums.
Despite these responses, we’ve done all of these things (except the shopping) successfully with teenagers. It’s a matter of which historical buildings you choose, which museums, and whether, to your son or daughter, the long driving trip is worth it.
Clearly, planning your trip around your son or daughter is a good idea, especially if you involve them in the planning. I have to admit, though, that one year we did just the opposite: planned a trip without our son. We had always wanted to travel in China, yet we knew our son would be miserable. He hates Chinese food, since he’s never moved past a general dislike of foods that are mixed together. We weren’t planning to be near any beaches or amusement parks or any of the usual things that keep him happy. And we wanted to cover some quite long distances by train or plane, which would bore him to tears.
So you don’t always have to plan around your teenager. In this case, we decided not to bring him along. Instead, we sent him to my sister’s in the US, where he went to sleep-away camp with his cousin. He had a wonderful time, and so did we, exploring China with two other teenagers: our daughter and foster daughter. And he was actually grateful to us that he didn’t have to come along!
It comes down to being sensitive to your children’s needs, rather than just dragging them along to fulfil yours. Teenagers are not adults, but they like being treated as if they are adults, and having their opinions heard.
Author bio: Rachel Heller is a writer, blogger and teacher living in Groningen, in the Netherlands. American by birth, she met her Dutch husband and found her career as a teacher when she joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Malawi. She loves to travel and write, preferably at the same time. Her blog, “Rachel’s Ruminations,” is at www.rachelheller.org and her twitter name is @annesmoeder.