Anyone who has ever traveled with a 15-year-old in tow knows a teen can make or break the vacation for the entire family. Or, as travel agent Lynda Maxwell says, "If the teens are happy, everybody is happy. And a great big, fat vice versa."
Teens are often the most enthusiastic of travelers, but their interests -- and schedules -- often aren't aligned with their younger peers or parents. That means that while you might be happiest striking out at the crack of dawn to explore an archeological site, your teen would likely rather sleep in, load up on a huge breakfast and then mosey out around noon.
Those realities make travel with teens a tricky -- but not impossible -- challenge. The key to success, say the experts, lies in what you do long before you set foot on an airplane.
For many families, the hardest part may be finding a vacation time that works for everyone. Working around school and after-school activities can be a chore. Be sure to sit down with everyone before settling on a date.
Beyond setting the date, you'll want to make youngsters a part of the planning process from the start.
"Sit down and say 'what is the best time that we ever had as a family? What was it that we did?'" suggests Maxwell, a national director for the American Society of Travel Agents. "Then ask them if they could go anywhere in the world, where would they choose to go?"
You might find they'd like nothing more than to sit on the local beach for a week. And even if that's not what you had in mind, you're bound to get some ideas you can use in some way. "Maybe there's a compromise in there," says Maxwell.
Once you decide where to go, hand over some of the what-to-do decision-making to your teenager, says Brad Anderson, co-president of America's Vacation Center/American Express. "Most teens are online now, and they're going to start lining up ideas of what to see and do," he says. "I find teens are fabulous at bringing in great suggestions."
A peek at grown-up life
They'll soon be off on their own in the world, so why not give teens a mini introduction now? Take them to a Broadway show, dine at a white-tablecloth restaurant, check out art galleries and broaden their horizons with other decidedly adult outings. Of course, you might want to throw in some typical teen pursuits as well, just to keep them sane.
Cruises are a big hit with parents, thanks to their pre-paid nature and the multitude of supervised activities offered for kids. Many cruise lines now cater to families with children, including teens, presenting them with a host of things to do, from athletic activities to teen-only lounges and dances. The biggest bonus, especially for anyone with always-hungry teenage boys, is all-hours, unlimited access to food. "They can eat all day long, and you don't come home to a credit card bill that's out of control," says Maxwell.
Although family-focused resorts tend to be limited to the Caribbean and Mexico, they do hold some of the same appeal as cruises -- namely, a price tag you settle on upfront, supervised activities and time with other teens. "I like to send people with teenagers to Mexico to the Riviera Maya area," says Maxwell. "Not only are there great water sports, but there are also Mayan ruins. It's a good way to get them interested in history.
One way to keep boredom at bay is to ensure your teens have a fun way to burn off excess energy. Consider building a vacation around activities they love: skiing, snowboarding or surfing, for example. Or try an adventure-travel vacation centered on an activity they've never experienced before. Whether it's a family bicycling tour through France or a week of rock-climbing, chances are you can find options that involve every member of the family.
Find a vacation package that caters to your teen's interests -- and lets you learn more, too. "My 2 daughters and wife just went to Italy to a cooking school near Rome," says Anderson. "They had an amazing time." Other themes might include horseback riding, spelunking, or photography. If there's no package tour, use your imagination and create your own themed vacation.
"It's sort of a rite of passage to go to Disney World," says Anderson. "It continues to be the number 1 family destination literally in the world." And it's easy to understand why: Disney and other theme parks typically offer delights for kids young and old. The biggest drawback is the cost, say the experts, who advise tapping the expertise of a travel professional to get the best deals on lodging, meal plans and more. "There are big savings to be had, if you know how to find them," says Maxwell.
Your child's teenage years may be the perfect time to head to a once-in-a-lifetime destination. "Take them to see the big things in the world that they won't get to do once it's on their own money," says Janet Turner, president of Turner Travels.
Maybe it's a trip to Rome, Paris or London. To cut costs, Turner suggests planning your trip during the school year (although she admits your child's teachers might not welcome the plan, and some schools will flat-out forbid it). "Let them see these things and spend time with you and then write a report on it."