NEW YORK — Family travel falls into three distinct phases. First, there’s the exhausting period of travel with crying babies who need diapers, bottles, strollers, car seats and naps. Then come the golden years, when kids can handle long rides and long walks, when they actually think scavenger hunts are fun, and when they bask in their family’s love and attention.
But that’s followed by the teenage years, which can be nearly as challenging as the toddler years — because to a teenager, any place a parent wants to go is by definition uncool.
It’s tempting to fantasize about leaving them home (surely they can take care of themselves!), but they might throw wild parties in your absence, so you’ll have to bring them along.
Here are five strategies — crowd-sourced and from personal experience — to help you survive. It may not be cool for teenagers to travel with their parents, but you can definitely make it more fun.
• FIND APPEALING ACTIVITIES: Teenage brains crave danger. Parental brains crave security. Fortunately, many activities are both thrilling and basically safe, such as zip-lining, whitewater rafting and roller coasters.
Teens also like trying new things. Let them try surfing, stand-up paddleboards or snorkeling. No reason mom and dad can’t sit that stuff out, by the way — the kids will surely learn faster than you, and you wouldn’t want to be humiliated.
If activities involve spending money, discuss limits ahead of time. And if shopping’s on the itinerary, don’t forget thrift shops as fun, bargain alternatives to malls and brand-name stores. Like the song says, “Is that your grandma’s coat?”
• LET THEM EXPLORE: Let teens explore on their own as much as possible, whether the setting is a theme park, mall, beach, festival or neighborhood. If everyone has cellphones, it’s easy to keep track of their whereabouts, but you can also plan the old-fashioned way: “See you at 4 p.m. at the fountain (or the car or the hotel room).”
• BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT ITINERARIES: I like museums, gardens and historic sites. My husband likes 6 a.m. sunrise hikes, preferably up steep mountain trails. Guess what? Our kids sometimes rebel and we sometimes compromise. Being flexible about itineraries and letting kids help plan is critical to family travel happiness.
We’ve let a kid stay at the hotel while we’ve gone hiking. I’ve done botanical gardens alone while the others went to a zoo. We’ve even skipped alleged must-sees because the kids didn’t want to do them, and really, what’s the point? It’s vacation, not medicine.
If you can afford accommodations with a separate room for teens — even if it’s just a pullout sofa in a living room with a TV — that might also make everyone happier.
Inviting another family — parents as well as kids — to vacation with you is another option, depending on budgets and logistics.
• GIVE A TEEN A JOB: Let them drive on a road trip. Put them in charge of taking pictures. And with all their digital know-how, let them navigate when you’re lost.