You can travel with teens – here's how

12/16/2012 12:00 AM

12/15/2012 9:52 PM

For our family of four, planning a high school graduation trip abroad was almost as complicated as negotiating the frequent-flier rules to get our air transportation booked.

But once we had navigated all the different schedules and travel preferences, we took a trip to Ireland and discovered the perfect mix of sightseeing, pub life, great music, excellent dining and day trips that made for our most memorable and enjoyable family vacation ever.

It wasn't just the destination that made this trip special. It was about making adjustments to ensure our son, who was 18 at the time, and our daughter, who was 14, would have as good a time as Mom and Dad.

We had learned to make such adjustments the hard way. Our children profess a hatred for art history after too many art exhibits. They dread long car trips after too many miles of togetherness.

So we consulted with other parents and travel professionals before and after our trips, and found the following Seven Steps to a Successful and (almost) Stress-free Trip with Teens (with the caveat that not all teens are alike, and these may not work for your teen):

Engage them: As painful as it may be, engaging teens in the trip's planning will go a long way to avoiding such comments as, "I never wanted to go on this stupid trip anyway."

Sacramentans Kathy and Heidi Tschudin, their two teens and one preteen have traveled to Italy, Switzerland, Mexico, the Caribbean and U.S. national parks. Before each trip, Kathy Tschudin said they have a family meeting to pick the destination.

"We narrow it down to two to three choices and continue to discuss it until everyone is happy with where we are going," she said. "If the teens are part of the decision, they are more likely to be happy about the trip and retain the information they learn about the places they see."

Ellen Regenstrief, owner of ChildTours, a full-service travel company specializing in education and resources for traveling families, also encouraged parents to consider all the family members' personalities in making those plans – from who likes to be in charge to who is likely to be an anxious traveler.

Seek adventure: For most teens, zip lines are infinitely superior to museum lines, bicycling beats a bus tour, and four-wheeling over hillsides wins out over sightseeing in urban centers.

That was the case for the teenage children of Tracy Rafter and Randal Hernandez.

These two busy Los Angeles-area professionals and their teens spent seven days at an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica last summer.

There, they zip-lined through the rain forest, four-wheeled over mountaintops, surfed and snorkeled in pristine waters and took a boat tour of remote rivers filled with exciting wildlife.

Then they traveled to a luxurious resort in the Bahamas. Midway through the far more expensive stay, the teens had exhausted all the resort's water rides, dolphin swimming, paddle boarding and club amenities. They announced they were ready to go.

While they enjoyed both locations, the teens and parents alike gave the more adventurous Costa Rica leg of their vacation a big thumbs-up.

Embrace electronics: Yes, we hate teens' constant attention to their phone screens and the headphones they seem to wear incessantly to tune us out. But parents and travel experts said that ensuring teens can text, tweet, post and otherwise record their trip will heighten their enjoyment.

In their minds, they haven't truly lived a moment until they've shared it.

We made sure the teens had free WiFi everyplace we stayed in Ireland and arranged short-term plans with the cellphone carriers that allowed for a minimal amount of texting and telephoning. It made them happy and had the added benefit of ensuring we could reach our teens when we were apart or became separated.

Bob Diener, travel industry expert, recommended that parents traveling with teens bring portable chargers and a hot spot to stay online. The Tschudins also recommend downloading podcasts about vacation destinations so the teens can learn more about the places they're visiting.

Accommodate them: Too much togetherness and too many days of packing and unpacking can trigger a teen backlash. Most teens need privacy, their sleep and as few hassles as possible.

We booked a two- bedroom, two-bath condo in Galway, Ireland, to ensure everyone had space, privacy and food whenever they wanted it. We took day trips out of Galway to avoid packing and unpacking.

We then spent two nights in two Dublin hotel rooms, and the kids were more irritable in such confined spaces. But we did stay in the heart of the city, so the teens could easily escape out the front door.

Regenstrief, the owner of ChildTours, said staying near the heart of the action is worthwhile with teens – even if the accommodations cost more.

"Teens want to walk out the door and be immediately engaged," she said.

"It's also not worth saving 50 euros a day if you have to pay to get everywhere."

Take a friend: Several parents cite this as the sure-fire way to enjoy your vacation with your teen. This was our solution to excite our teens about the ski trips their parents love more than they do. We took the teens' friends with us or met other families at the slopes who had children the same ages.

My brother, Don Mecoy, even took his oldest son's girlfriend with his family of six on two vacations to keep his son happy. The younger kids enjoyed her, too, and she helped out with the driving.

"Whoever you take along has to get along with every single member of the family because you are always together," he said.

He also said parents need to be clear with the teen guest about who's paying for what and be ready to accept responsibility for the health and safety of another family's child.

Love 'em and leave 'em: Everyone has different interests and energy levels, so it's nice to occasionally go different ways. As our children became more responsible, we left them in the hotel room or condo with pizza or at a movie while we enjoyed a nice meal or took in sights they'd wanted to skip.

We've also left our teens in bed in the morning so they could sleep in while we enjoyed our own activities. This strategy avoids the early-morning battles and ensures everyone gets to do what they want.

Don't force anything: Your teens can make sure your day or entire trip is miserable. Families and travel experts said letting teens feel they have choices will help increase their engagement in the trip.

We give our teens the ultimate travel choice: If they don't want to join us on a particular vacation day, they don't have to go. It seems contrary to the goal of a vacation, and we do let them know we would really like to have them along. But we know our teens are much more likely to go and have fun if they know they have a choice.

For us, giving the teens the choice is part of accommodating their growing sense of independence, and it helps us accomplish what we consider to be the ultimate goal of every vacation: making wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

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