Instead, I learned everything I know about traveling with teens the hard way. I’ve been on the road with my own for the better part of five years. We are a digital nomad – a single father and three teens, ages 15, 17 and 19.
I love to travel with my kids. They are curious, spontaneous, and have a dry sense of humor that makes them ideal travel companions. I found out a lot about travel and myself by being with them on the road.
But now, with my oldest son just days away from stepping out of his teens—he will turn twenty this month—I am in a unique position to issue that warning I never received, and perhaps a few words of solidarity, to my fellow teenage parents. The lessons you’ve learned about traveling with teens may save your next vacation.
I wish I knew that making a schedule is pointless when you’re traveling with teens. Likely to fall asleep during a walking tour of Rome. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that teens ages 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours of rest each night. Most don’t understand it, but did you know that time off is an opportunity for teens to make up for sleep? And they have a lot to do.
If you are traveling somewhere, this is where it becomes interesting. Jet lag disrupts the body clock, causing insomnia, fatigue, and mood changes. And if you think it’s bad for you, wait until you see what happens to your teens. My daughter’s favorite wake-up hours on my recent trip to Hawaii were 3 p.m. to 4 a.m. local time, whether that be or not. We lived in Aloha State for three months, and those things never changed.
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Come to think of it, I wish I knew you couldn’t plan a trip for teens. It’s like you’re proposing an itinerary but giving them a veto. For example, a nice Vrbo rental in Pringle Bay, South Africa, would have been very comfortable in March. But not for my middle child; Needed access to food markets and shopping at the V&A Waterfront, so we opted to be closer to Cape Town. My kids liked cities and even entire countries. Come on, call me easy game. But I like to consider myself a pragmatist. If your kids aren’t happy, you won’t hear the end of it.
What do your teens do during their waking hours while traveling? I wish someone had told me that he wouldn’t necessarily be immersed in the culture and live like the locals. Instead, they were sitting in their hotel or rental location, connected to their devices, and chatting with friends. My 17-year-old son is playing a game called “Gorilla Tag” on his Oculus Rift VR headset, which requires a high-speed internet connection.
In fact, the first question that teenagers ask me about which hotel is not: does it have a pool? How is the beach? What are the food options? No, it’s always the same: does it have good WiFi? My kids log on to the internet as soon as they put their bags down. And more recently, they began to criticize the connection. Erin, my oldest son, will log into his speed test program to check connectivity. Any download less than 10Mbps makes me feel dirty. When I tell them I was lucky when my hotel room had a phone, the response was great.
While we’re on the subject of electronics, there’s one more thing I wish I knew: you can never have enough chargers. The most angry encounters of teens when we’re on the road involve a charger. I lost count of the battles I had to mediate between two warring brothers.
“I took my charger!” one scream.
“No, it’s my charger,” the other stills.
Do you want to go to the next level? Try an international flight, as none of your chargers will work without an adapter. A 110 to 220 volt transformer is one of the easiest things to lose when you’re in a hotel. Honestly, I feel like a plug vending machine when we get somewhere. But on his recent trip to South Africa, it reached crisis level. The country uses a three-pin plug, and we only had one. Epic battle!
On an international vacation, even unplugged teens find Turkish delights
Another thing people haven’t mentioned about traveling with teens: You have to feed them! Adolescents are the human equivalent of hummingbirds, and they usually consume what appears to be twice their weight in food. But just as with sleep, travel has an unwarranted ripple effect on food intake. They eat additional meals, such as second breakfasts or early dinners.
I saw boxes of Jordanian Medjool dates disappear within minutes. Teens can quickly and efficiently siphon pizza off their plates from cannibals. Teenage boys are the natural enemy of all you can eat buffets: when the kitchen staff sees them coming, they run for the hills. By our second day at an all-inclusive golf resort near Antalya, Turkey, servers gave my boys a nervous look when they saw them – and I got a knowing nod.
The consequences of missing a meal can be distressing. The crew turns to war. And when I suggest that they declare war on each other for skipping breakfast, they often train their rhetorical weapons on me: “No, Dad, the problem may be with you!”
Missing a meal is not an option when traveling with teens. I wish I had known that.
You’re probably wondering how one person can travel with three full-time teens for the duration of my stay. What about school? After we became digital nomads, the boys finished high school online with the help of a tutor, and then auditioned for a community college. They graduated from the University of Arizona last year and are pursuing a master’s degree. But the itinerant lifestyle is not for everyone. Their sister is out on bail, and returned to live with her mother last summer. She just finished her ninth grade year in a regular high school.
Does my advice on traveling with teenagers apply only to boys? To find out, I called fellow travel writer Doug Lansky, a Stockholm-based father of three teenage girls. He emphasized that all the things you wrote about her also apply to girls, especially the WiFi part. His daughters ask the same questions as my boys about wireless connections, even though they don’t do speed tests when they get to the hotel.
One of the greatest gifts parents can get, says Lansky, is the lack of WiFi. The ship that was on his last voyage in the Galapagos did not have an internet connection, which gave him some quality time with his daughters. The girls knew before their vacation that he would be offline, so they had time to get ready. This allowed the family to communicate in a meaningful way, with long conversations during meals and during tours. Lansky says the cruise line won’t be installing hotspots anytime soon.
“For me, the lack of WiFi is a selling point,” he says.
He adds that the only difference between teenage boys and girls is the setting time. Lansky has learned to add an extra hour each morning to the schedule to allow his daughters to get ready for the day. I assured him that teenage boys needed the same amount of time. Sure, my boys can shower and shave in five minutes as if they were at boot camp. But they’ll spend the other 55 minutes sleeping, so it all sorts out.
If you are thinking of taking your teenage kids somewhere, my advice is: Do it. Sure, traveling with young people can test your patience, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do as a parent. The trips you take with them as teenagers will influence them as adults, and shape them into curious and compassionate citizens of the world.
But I can’t take credit for any of that. I think this is a travel gift.
Elliott is the travel department navigator Column writer.
Prospective travelers should take local and national public health guidance regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Health Travel Notice information can be found on the CDC’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s Travel Health Notice web page.