However, I learned everything I knew about traveling with teenagers the hard way. I’ve been on the road with mine for the best part of five years. We are digital nomads-a single father and three teenagers, ages 15, 17 and 19.
I love traveling with my kids. They are curious, energetic and have a dry sense of humor that makes them ideal travel companions. I discovered so much about travel and myself by going with them.
But now, with my oldest son just days from coming out of his teens-he’s 20 this month-I’m in a unique position to issue that warning without I would accept, and perhaps a few words of solidarity, to fellow parents of teenagers. My lessons learned about traveling with teens can save your next vacation.
I would have known that making a schedule is useless if you are traveling with teenagers. They might just snooze on that walking tour of Rome. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that teens ages 13 to 18 need between eight and 10 hours of rest per night. Most don’t understand this, but did you know that vacations are an opportunity for teens to fall asleep? And they have a lot of work to do.
If you’re flying somewhere, that’s where it gets interesting. Jet lag can disrupt your body’s clock, causing insomnia, fatigue and mood swings. And if you think it’s not good for you, wait until you see what it can do for your teens. My daughter’s preferred wake -up time on my last trip to Hawaii was 3 pm to 4 am local time, give or take. We lived in Aloha State for three months, and it never changed.
Beyond ear buds and eyerolls: Nine ways to make traveling with your teen fun
Come to think of it, I want to know that you can never plan travel for teenagers. It’s like you propose an itinerary but give them the power to veto. For example, that nice Vrbo rental in Pringle Bay, South Africa, was very relaxing in March. But not for my middle son; she needed access to the food markets and shopping on the V&A Waterfront, so we chose to be closer to Cape Town. My kids give thumbs-down in towns and even across countries. All right, call me pushover. But I like to think of myself as pragmatic. If your kids aren’t happy, you won’t hear the end of it.
What do your teens do in the waking hours while you’re traveling? I wish someone would let me know that they don’t have to read culture and live like locals. Instead, they sit in their hotel or vacation rental, connected to their devices, chat with friends. My 17-year-old is playing a game called “Gorilla Tag” on his Oculus Rift VR headset, which requires a strong Internet connection.
In fact, the first question my teenagers ask about any hotel is: Does it have a pool? How is 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 packing their suitcases. And recently, they’re starting to make choices about the connection. Aren, my eldest, would log into his speed-test program to check the connection. Anything less than 10 megabits per second of download can make me look dirty. If I told them I felt lucky in the past when my hotel room had a phone, the answer was an eye-roll.
While we’re on the subject of electronics, here’s something I want to know: You don’t have enough chargers. The most angry confrontation between my teenagers when we were on the road involved a charger. I’ve already lost count of the fights I’ve had between two brothers fighting.
“He took my charger!” shout at one.
“No, it’s my charger,” another shouted.
Do you want to take it to the next level? Try an international trip, where none of your chargers will work without an adapter. The 110-to-220-volt adapter is one of the easiest to lose when you’re in a hotel. Honestly, I cheap plug vending machines every time we arrive. But on a recent trip to South Africa, it reached crisis level. The country uses a three-pin plug, and we only have one. Epic fight!
On an international vacation, even unplugged teenagers find Turkish delights
Another thing people don’t mention about traveling with teenagers: You have to feed them! Teenagers are the human equivalent of hummingbirds, often eating what seems to be twice as much as their food weight. But like sleep, travel has an unexplained multiplier effect on food intake. They eat extra meals, such as a second breakfast or an early dinner.
I saw the Jordanian Medjool date boxes disappear within minutes. Teenagers can vacuum pizzas from their plates with speed and efficiency in a competition to eat. Teenage boys are the natural enemy of the all-you-can-eat buffet: When the kitchen staff sees them coming, they run into the hills. On our second day at an all -inclusive golf resort near Antalya, Turkey, my sons ’servers were nervous when they saw them – and I knew I nodded.
The consequences of food loss can be painful. The crew became rebellious. And when I suggested that they declare war on each other because they didn’t have breakfast, they always trained their rhetorical guns on me: “No, Dad, maybe you’re the problem!”
Losing food is not an option if you are traveling with teenagers. I wish I knew that.
You might be wondering how a guy can travel with three teenagers full time 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 tried out at community college. They graduated from the University of Arizona last year and are pursuing master’s degrees. But the wanderings of life are not for everyone. Their sister was bailed, returning to live with her mother last summer. He had just finished his ninth grade year in a regular high school.
So my advice about traveling with teenagers only applies to boys? To find out, I called fellow travel writer Doug Lansky, the Stockholm-based father of three teenage girls. She confirmed that all the things I wrote about will also apply to women, especially the part about WiFi. Her daughters ask the same question my sons do about wireless connections, even if they don’t run speed tests when they get to the hotel.
Lansky says one of the best gifts a parent can have is not having WiFi. The ship on her new Galápagos Islands cruise has no Internet connection, which gives her some quality time with her daughters. The women knew before their vacation that it was without the Internet, so they had time to prepare. That allows the family to connect in a meaningful way, with long conversations over meals and on trips. Lansky said the cruise line will not install hotspots at any hour.
“For me,” he says, “not having WiFi is a selling point.”
The only difference between teenage boys and girls, he added, is the preparation time. Lansky has learned to add extra time each morning to the schedule to allow her daughters to prepare for the day. Teenage boys need the same amount of time, I assure him. Sure, my boys can bathe and shave in five minutes like they did at boot camp. But they will spend another 55 minutes sleeping, so everything will be resolved.
If you’re thinking of taking your teens 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 can influence them as adults, shaping them into curious and compassionate citizens of the world.
But I can’t get the credit for any of that. I think that’s the gift of travel.
Elliott is the Travel section Navigator columnist.
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health directives regarding pandemic before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map that displays travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.