Instead, I learned everything I know about traveling with teenagers the hard way. I’ve been on the road with mine for the better part of five years. We’re digital nomads — a single dad and three teens, ages 15, 17 and 19.
I love traveling with my kids. They’re inquisitive, spontaneous and have a dry sense of humor that makes them ideal traveling companions. I’ve discovered so much about travel and myself by being on the road with them.
But now, with my eldest son just days away from exiting his teens — he turns 20 this month — I’m in a unique position to issue that warning I never received, and maybe a few words of solidarity, to fellow parents of teens. My lessons learned about traveling with adolescents might even save your next vacation.
I wish I had known that making a schedule is pointless when you’re traveling with teens. They’ll probably just snooze through that walking tour of Rome. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says teens ages 13 to 18 need between eight and 10 hours of rest per night. Most don’t get it, but did you know that a vacation is an opportunity for teenagers to catch up on sleep? And they have a lot of catching up to do.
If you’re flying somewhere, that’s where it gets interesting. Jet lag disrupts your body’s clock, causing sleeplessness, fatigue and mood changes. And if you think it’s bad for you, wait until you see what it does to your teens. My daughter’s preferred waking hours on my last trip to Hawaii were 3 p.m. to 4 a.m. local time, give or take. We lived in the Aloha State for three months, and these never changed.
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Come to think of it, I wish I had known that you can’t really plan a trip for teenagers. It’s more like you suggest an itinerary but give them veto power. For example, that cute Vrbo rental in Pringle Bay, South Africa, would have been so relaxing in March. But not for my middle child; he needed access to the food markets and shopping at V&A Waterfront, so we chose to be closer to Cape Town. My kids have given the thumbs-down to cities and even entire countries. Go ahead, call me a pushover. But I like to think of myself as pragmatic. If your kids aren’t happy, you’ll never hear the end of it.
What are your teens doing during waking hours while you travel? I wish someone had let me know that they wouldn’t necessarily be soaking in the culture and living like locals. Instead, they would sit in their hotel or vacation rental, connected to their devices, chatting with friends. My 17-year-old plays a game called “Gorilla Tag” on his Oculus Rift VR headset, which requires a blazing-fast Internet connection.
In fact, the first question my teens ask me about any hotel isn’t: Does it have a pool? How’s the beach? What are the dining options? No, it’s always the same: Does it have good WiFi? My kids log on to the Internet immediately after setting down their suitcases. And lately, they’ve started to get picky about the connection. Aren, my eldest, will log in to his speed-test program to check the connection. Anything less than 10 megabits per second of download gets me dirty looks. When I tell them that I used to feel lucky when my hotel room had a phone, the response is an eye-roll.
While we’re on the subject of electronics, here’s another thing I wish I had known: You can never have enough chargers. The angriest confrontations between my teenagers when we’re on the road involve a charger. I’ve lost count of the fights I’ve had to mediate between two warring siblings.
“She took my charger!” one screams.
“No, it’s my charger,” the other snaps.
Want to take it to the next level? Try an international trip, where none of your chargers will work without an adapter. A 110-to-220-volt adapter is one of the easiest things to lose when you’re in a hotel. Honestly, I feel like a plug vending machine whenever we arrive somewhere. But on a recent trip to South Africa, it reached a crisis level. The country uses a three-pin plug, and we had only one. Epic fight!
On an international vacation, even unplugged teens find Turkish delights
Another thing people failed to mention about traveling with teens: You must feed them! Adolescents are the human equivalent of hummingbirds, normally consuming what seems to be about twice their weight in food. But as with sleep, travel has an unexplained multiplying effect on food intake. They eat extra meals, such as second breakfasts or early dinners.
I’ve seen boxes of Jordanian Medjool dates vanish within minutes. Adolescents can vacuum pizzas off their plates with the speed and efficiency of a competitive eater. 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, the servers gave my boys a nervous glance when they saw them — and I got a knowing nod.
The consequences of missing a meal can be painful. The crew turns belligerent. And when I suggest that they’ve declared war on one another because they skipped breakfast, they often train their rhetorical guns on me: “No, Dad, maybe the problem is you!”
Missing a meal is not an option when you travel with teens. I wish I had known that.
You’re probably wondering how one guy could travel with three teenagers full time for as long as I have. What about school? After we became digital nomads, the boys finished high school online with the help of a tutor, then tested into community college. They graduated from the University of Arizona last year and are pursuing master’s degrees. But the wandering lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Their sister bailed out, returning to live with her mother last summer. She just finished her ninth-grade year in a regular high school.
So does my advice about traveling with teens apply only to boys? To find out, I called fellow travel writer Doug Lansky, the Stockholm-based father of three adolescent girls. He confirmed that all of the things I wrote about also apply to girls, especially the part about WiFi. His daughters ask the same question my boys do about wireless connections, although they don’t run speed tests when they get to the hotel.
Lansky says one of the greatest gifts a parent could have is no WiFi. The ship on his recent Galápagos Islands cruise had no Internet connection, which gave him some quality time with his daughters. The girls knew before their vacation that it would be Internet-free, so they had time to prepare. That allowed the family to connect in a meaningful way, with long conversations over meals and during tours. Lansky says the cruise line won’t be installing hotspots anytime soon.
“For me,” he says, “having no WiFi is a selling point.”
The only difference between teenage boys and girls, he adds, is prep time. Lansky has learned to add an extra hour every morning to the schedule to allow his daughters to get ready for the day. Teenage boys need the same amount of time, I assured him. Sure, my sons can shower and shave in five minutes like they’re in boot camp. But they’ll spend the other 55 minutes sleeping, so it all evens out.
If you’re thinking of taking your teenagers somewhere, my advice is: Do it. Sure, traveling with young adults 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, shaping them into curious and compassionate citizens of the world.
But I can’t take the credit for any of that. I believe that is the gift of travel.
Elliott is the Travel section’s Navigator columnist.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.