We have always been traveling with kids. First as single parents, respectively, and after Ric and I had met, together as a family.
Our experience ranges from traveling with babies and toddlers, kindergarten and preschool children and school kids – every stage has its challenges, advantages and disadvantages. Now that the boys are 12 and 15 we notice that we have reached a new chapter: hormones kick in, friends are more important than ever and parents are NOT COOL In this article I’d like to share our experience with this new species. Of course we can only speak for teen boys, I know from friends that teen girls can be different in some ways but the core elements are the same.
The need to fit in and being accepted becomes very high priority. They want to be connected to their friends and are afraid to miss out. If they haven’t already now is the time they first fall in luuuuuv with someone. And they want to identify with something or something they think is cool.
Many people say this is not the ideal time to go long term traveling as a family. Yes and no. No because what they don’t see is how rewarding traveling with teens can be if you adjust your way of traveling and take to heart these 5 tips for happy travel with teens!
1) Involve them in your planning, let them be in charge
What do your kids like? Do they enjoy sports and physical activities? Are they interested in design and fashion? Do they like outdoor stuff? Are they into reading and if yes what kind of books? Or what sort of movies do they like? We always try to find stuff to do that the boys think is cool. And we ask the boys if there’s somewhere they have always wanted to go or something they’d really like to see and we try to make it possible. I mean if it’s not Middle Earth or Tatooine.
Since we are not so super flexible with destinations we try to make up with activities. Yannick (16) is really into Western movies by Sergio Leone and as it happens most of these movies have been produced in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios! (And who had these studios built? Mussolini. For propaganda purposes). It’s not a very active studio these days but you can still see some sets and there is an interesting museum. Another spot where many scenes were shot was at the Tabernas desert in South Spain and nowadays there is a little theme park.
And then there are the action activities, of course. We are not so big on the budget so being in the expensive Mediterranean didn’t help. But we are carrying scuba diving gear and Yannick recently got interested in spear fishing. So last year in Spain we went to the kayak store and purchased two ocean going kayaks, Jari was super excited, he had been dreaming of kayaking forever but the new engine was just too expensive! Don’t forget to spice it up with some adrenalin so that they can brag to their friends. Like camping out in the Sahara, driving a quad on the beach, hiking the wild parts of the Chinese wall, diving with sharks… or maybe just manta rays.
A really cool thing to do is then to let them be in charge of organizing. Of course you can look over their shoulder to make sure they don’t just make the whole trip about hip hop concerts and chilling at the beach but this way they will feel very proud because they actually organized an activity.
2) Give them assignments
Since education is one of the big purposes of our trip we try to make use of every opportunity to create „teachable moments“. The good thing about this approach is it makes destinations a lot more interesting for the boys. Before we arrived in Sicily we had them research volcanos and tectonic activities, so when we went up Mt. Etna they could teach US something and apply what they’d remembered. They collected some lava stones and plants and when we came back they were excited to find out more about the things they had found. Not everyone uses their family trips for educational purpose of course, but keep in mind that kids enjoy learning new stuff by nature, even teens (if it doesn’t feel like school)! And it can make any trip to a museum or exhibition much easier if the kids are actually interested because they have an assignment.
One great way to engage them is to prepare a scavenger hunt (Schnitzeljagd) where they have to find certain things that you have picked in advance. Geocaching is another way to get them interested, even our 16 year old still likes it a lot (with premium versions of most of the Geocaching apps you will get offline options which is useful when abroad and without mobile internet.).
When we were in the South of Spain we have talked a lot and watched movies about the Moorish influence but also about the Inquisition. So the boys were excited to go see the Alhambra in Granada and after that visit a museum that exhibited torture instruments of the Inquisition – because they could relate.
And while I’m at it: We rediscovered that TV show from the 80s: „Es war einmal… der Mensch“ – the history of humanity from the beginning until the 1980s in a cartoon and 27 episodes (I think the English title is „Once upon a time… Man“). Even though it’s a little outdated and a bit childish the boys enjoyed watching it and relate whatever historical sight we visited to that TV program.
And of course any historical movie is an excellent excuse to see the real stuff! Even The DaVinci Code was useful as a good base for a Rome tour – the boys had to find these places in the book/movie.
Boat assignments are also a good way to make them feel responsible. Especially Jari is very interested in all things technical and he just loves being pulled up the mast!
3) Support them in connecting with friends and peers
We have made peace with our kids using smartphones. There are rules, of course. No smartphones at the table when we eat. And when we are socializing with other people. I have to say I’m still kind of torn up about this. As convenient as smartphones and tablets might be when you are traveling it still makes you lose connection to who and what’s around you. I see these travelers in backpacker hostels sitting absorbed by their device, communicating with friends back home, researching their next destinations, maybe even working remotely. But I don’t see them communicate with each other anymore. When I used to backpack it was one of the most important things, to get in touch with others, exchange experiences and listen to their stories. It was great not being able to phone home for a while and just be away. Like away away.
Today is different, I realize that, these kids nowadays don’t know it any other way. I recently learned from Wikipedia this generation is called Generation Z or iGeneration, they are very good with technology and familiar with the internet from a very young age. Socializing through social media and messenger services is a big part of their life. Not participating in that can seem threatening. So we let the boys use their smartphones to chat with friends and play games like Minecraft. We make deals with them to also use apps like Duolingo to learn the basics of a new language. We are still in the EU and the phone plan (unlimited calls and quite a big amount of data) makes it possible. Soon we’ll go to Morocco and that will be it with smart phoning and internetting for a while, let’s see how that goes!
The alternative that’s much dearer to me is meeting up with other families with kids the same age as ours. So we go out of our way to find them and stay longer in places when we were successful. Unfortunately not so many families with teens are found among the liveaboards. Facebook groups (another thing I’m torn up about: Facebook) are very useful for that purpose. We are in several groups like Worldschoolers and Kids4Sail where we can find other families and organize meet ups and trips together.
Update 04/2018: If you are a traveling family with kids, check out our new map based platform Cruising Families! You can leave us your email address on the website and we’ll notify you once we go live with the site.
And then there are their friends from home. We always try to make it possible for them to come along or visit, we practice a total open door policy.
4) Give them space
One word: Hormones. Amazing what these chemical messengers can do. They can turn your nice kid into a monster in the blink of an eye. It’s helpful to have enough physical space to ride out difficult moments. Sitting in the same hotel room doesn’t help. If possible let them have a separate room with a door they can slam in your face and where they can cool off. And be messy. You don’t want to know how our boys’s cabins look like. Since it’s such a tiny space it takes them 10 seconds to completely mess it up. And weeks to clean up.
On good days we can have the best time with them. They are interested, polite and a lot of fun. On bad days we will look for the nearest youth work camp where we can leave them – they like to pick fights and they are doing their best to drive us totally crazy. Sometimes successfully but we try hard not to let us be dragged into these quarrels. We also try not to talk too much about it afterwards, more often than not they can’t really explain what’s going on and they will feel trapped when we ask them to explain their behavior, so very often it’s better not to dwell.
Teens need role models they can identify with
This is also the time when they start knocking their parents off their pedestals to look for different role models they can identify with. The year we bought PONYO we went sailing for the summer holidays and Yannick really didn’t like it very much. We had been sailing together before and he had always enjoyed it but all of a sudden being on a boat with his boring parents wasn’t on top of his to-do-list any longer. He was so miserable that it made us worry that we might not be able to do our big sailing adventure at all.
So when we came back to Munich I researched young sailors and I came across Laura Dekker’s book and the documentary that was made about her. For those of you who don’t know – she was the girl that sailed around the world all alone by herself (in sailor speak: single handedly) when she was 15. It sounded quite unbelievable and irresponsible at first but when I learned more about her, her story and her background I just had to respect her achievement. I ordered the movie („Maiden Trip“) and watched it together with both boys and – guess what – Yannick was really interested. Of course he didn’t say it but a week after we had watched it he’d very casually come up to me and ask whether he could borrow it to show to a friend. And only a few weeks later he announced he wanted to do the same: go sailing without us adults, just with a friend. And circumnavigate. We just grinned and nodded.
And of course there is this too-cool-for-school and extremely handsome Aussie couple from „Sailing La Vagabonde“ with their super successful Youtube channel about their sailing adventures that I introduced Yannick to. That was what got his Youtubing started. Now he’s completely back on track, wants to learn everything there is about sailing, feels very at home on board of Ponyo and enjoys making videos.
5) Bend the rules
There is a time to fight certain fights. Holidays aren’t that time. You want your holidays to get yourself a break from rules and routines so let your kids have the same break and be lenient about the rules. Starting with your travel rhythm. Early starts and teens don’t go well together, you’ll end up having to deal with cranky pants all day. There must be a default setting because when both boys turned ten they started sleeping in. When before it was a challenge to sleep any longer the 8 on any weekend („Get up! I’m hungry. What are we going to do today? Come and play Lego with me. Now.“) it’s now us who are repeatedly knocking on the boys‘ cabin doors to get them out of bed. In face it’s 11:30 on a Saturday as I’m writing this and no sign of them yet. The big advantage, of course: so much more time for myself and getting things done. Like blogging about them haha.
Try to plan around their sleeping behavior if possible. If you visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, for example, where you have to book the tickets and the exact time when you want to visit in advance, don’t take the early shift at 8:30. Rather let the kids sleep in a little, go for a walk in the old city center and the Albaicin and have some churros and chocolate, they will call you the coolest parents EVER.
Speaking of food. Teens, especially teen boys, need to eat. A lot. Constantly. We have breakfast and leave the boat for whatever activity and one of the boys will inevitably ask after around 10 mins.: „what we are going to eat now?“ So always bring stuff otherwise they’ll eat you out of house and home.
And then there are the down times. Adults tend to press a lot of things in a short time but kids need downtime and teens need them even more. Time to HAAANG, socialize, play Minecraft and Lego (well, Jari still does, Yannick no way) or watch Big Bang Theory. So don’t plan too much, maybe just one highlight per day. Or per two days. I realize that when you only have 2 weeks you try to make the most of it but you don’t do yourself a favour if you are traveling with teens (there are always exceptions!). We regularly skip things Ric and I would be interested in seeing or doing because we cherish a relaxed atmosphere. And we think that as much as we like visiting historical sights or interesting museums the actual experience to be traveling as a family and just spending time together and being in these fascinating places is rewarding enough. Anything on top of that is a nice-to-have.