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I’ve been traveling with my kids since before my eldest was born. True story: My son would have earned British Airways elite status if we could have figured out how to get his flights credited in utero. My son is now 15 and my daughter is 11 — a full-blown teenager and a tween going on 30. Over the years, the kids have racked up visits 20 countries and more than a school year’s worth of travel time.
Mommy Points says that tweens are the toughest age to please on vacation. And, indeed, traveling with teens and tweens is in some ways more challenging than traveling with a toddler. Yes, there’s less poop to deal with, but there are just as many ways to step in it. When both of your kids are taller than you are, it’s hard to remember that you’re still dealing with kids. Here are my top tips to help you enjoy travel with teens and tweens.
Meet Them Where They Are
Meet them where they are? What on earth does that mean? I’ll give an example. A couple of years ago, my then 13-year-old son and I took a weekend trip to Puerto Rico. We had a jam-packed schedule including snorkeling, zip-lining and other “big fun” activities.
However, where my son was — and where I met him — was wrapped up in the “small fun.” Stuff like scratching the 8 ball at pool. Or taking a “best of three” Ping-Pong tournament to 25 points. Or destroying me at lawn chess. I ended up canceling a kayaking excursion so we had an extra afternoon of resort time. Not only did I save a bunch of money, we ended up having more fun because I wasn’t pushing him where he didn’t want to go.
This also means I’ve spent more time at playgrounds than I care to document. You may be surprised that playgrounds feature prominently in advice for teens and tweens, but in many countries playgrounds resemble army basic training camps rather than places to play duck duck goose.
Another benefit to playgrounds is that the kids get a chance to interact with local kids. Even without a shared language, kids find a way to figure it out.
Last year in Vina del Mar, Chile, my son found a Ninja Warrior-type course on the beach. We ended up returning three times in the week we stayed in Vina. The last day, the kids met a local girl who ended up spending the entire afternoon with us building sand castles, playing chess and enjoying “conversations” over raspberry smoothies.
Recognize the Differences Between Your Kids
My kids are 11 and 15, but it’s been the same since the toddler stomped on the 5 year old’s Lego castle: They get on each other’s nerves constantly, which means collectively they get on mine. When I feel my own temperature rising, I try really hard to remember one thing:
It’s Not (Usually) the Kids’ Fault
Let’s face it, 24 hours a day together on vacation is a lot even for most adult married couples. And they chose each other. Siblings didn’t. My two kids are each spectacular people individually. I love spending time with each of them.
That said, they are two differently spectacular people. They engage with the world in a much different manner. For my daughter, everything is awesome. Her excitement meter goes to 11 and she wants the world to know it! I so admire her boundless confidence and absolute fearlessness. My son is much more contemplative. If you get a “pretty good” from him, the item in question must be a 10. He’s hilarious, thoughtful and engaging, but in a much more analytical way.
As you might imagine, the cheerleader drives the introvert crazy because she just won’t calm down. And little miss sunshine is constantly wondering why her brother is such a jerk. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. It’s my job to understand that and navigate the chasm between them.
So, I try to split them up from time to time. When I travel solo with the kids, I use nature to my advantage. My daughter is an early bird and my son a night owl, so I try to set aside my iPhone and engage with each of them without sibling distraction. If it’s a family vacation, we plan one activity that’s just one parent and one kid. The older kid especially appreciates having solo time and the ability to enjoy an activity his sister isn’t old enough to do.
Bring a Friend
While it isn’t always practical or possible (especially on longer or international trips), if you can afford to bring along a friend for your teen, it can help keep them entertained and engaged. Be aware that this strategy may cause you to become completely invisible at times, so plan accordingly and bring your own traveling friend, partner or a good book. Also think through sleeping arrangements and the financial arrangements — this may be a good time to spread out in a condo or vacation rental.
All-inclusive resorts can also be a great destination when bringing along a teenager’s friend, as they can eat and play to their heart’s content without you worrying about the rising final bill. Assuming you can work out the details, the tween/teen phase can be a fantastic time to let your child bring along a friend of their own on vacation. A word of warning, once you kids know this is an option on the table, expect them to push to bring a friend from now until forever … or at least until they are pushing to bring a girlfriend/boyfriend!
Don’t Be Mom On the Boat
On our “babymoon,” my husband scuba dived while I, seven months pregnant, snorkeled contentedly off the side of the boat. Accompanying us on the boat were several families. Without fail, the dads were out snorkeling or diving with their tweens and teens while the moms sat with their youngest on the boat. I became more and more riled up thinking about the next 10 years — my husband out there gallivanting with our older kids while I was stuck on the boat. By the time he finished diving, I was in a rage. Apropos of nothing (to him), I started bawling that I just couldn’t be the “Mom on the boat!”
“Mom on the boat” has since become shorthand for any holiday opportunities missed because of child care. I see it again and again: Dad rides the roller coaster while mom does the kiddie ride. Make sure you alternate who gets the thrills.
Lean In, but Don’t Surrender Entirely
One thing I’ve learned is that “enrichment” comes in many forms. A prime example is the day last year my kids found a ’90s-era Nintendo Street Fighter video game at a Walmart-type store in Chile. At first, I banged my head against the wall because we flew 12 hours and they were beyond excited about a #@$#@ video game we have on our NES Classic at home.
Thankfully, this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, so I leaned in. Yes, the kids spent 30 minutes playing a video game found at a department store. But I made them get their own change, in Spanish. My son also found a great deal on $3 T-shirts — meaning he’d figured out the currency. And my daughter ordered lunch on her own at the store snack bar. Baby steps.
Carry (or buy) Entertainment
Meals take a looooong time in many countries, so I always carry a deck of cards. I try to make restaurants a device-free zone and a game of crazy eights will usually do the trick. When the kids were younger, I relied on Mad Libs. Once in desperation (and outside), I resorted to an ad hoc science experiment: Each kid put a load of Mentos in his mouth and took a swig of Diet Coke. Hilarity ensued.
Last year in Chile, we had an hour to kill in the small town of Vicuna before our stargazing tour. I popped into the grocery store and bought two balls. That they had Peppa Pig on them was neither here nor there. We played dodgeball on the town square for an hour before giving the balls away. That was $4 well spent.
Bottom Line: Know That They Get It
I always wonder how much of our travel “sticks” and I want to share a story about when it clicked for me that they get it. Although our trip to Vietnam three years ago was memorable, I certainly didn’t think it would shape my kids’ worldview as much as it has. So I was happily surprised when a conversation six months after the trip revealed that my son’s grasp of economics rivaled most adults.
At the time, he was in 7th grade and usually concerned himself with 7th grade issues — who likes who, when is the new Terraria coming out and the like. But on the evening news one night, he overheard then-candidate Donald Trump address fiscal policy: “You never have to default because you print the money.”
Out of the blue, my son exclaimed, “That’s so stupid! Isn’t that why 2,000 dong is worth like 9 cents?”
Yes, it is.
When you travel with a teen or tween, you aren’t just traveling to enjoy the moment as you live it. You are creating moments, experiences and memories that they will take with them — and that is fascinating, enjoyable and worth it — even if you deal with some teenage meltdowns along the way.
Featured photo by Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
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