Travelling with teens can be challenging at the best of times. Waking and getting them up in time to catch a plane or a train can exasperate the most patient of late bloomers’ parents.
And what about trying local food when you have fussy eaters? Simply dealing with events going wrong can take on monumental proportions, can’t it?
We’ve all had holiday disappointments and disasters so here are a few tips that worked for me, on a recent mother-and-daughter trip to Italy with my 16-year-old.
Consultation is key
So many different places work for holiday destinations with teens. However, everything is down to your teenagers’ interests and personalities: some might enjoy immersing themselves in the wilderness of national parks, and others may prefer exotic sandy beaches or adrenalin-fuelled city visits.
I involved my daughter in the planning from the start. We decided to spend a month travelling in Italy together as a special post-exam treat.
A destination coveted by millions, Italy is a gracious host of teen trips full of soul-stirring and Insta-worthy scenery. As you can imagine, being a typical 16-year-old, my daughter is on social media most of the time, so the ideas flowed from TikTok and Instagram. She wanted to see the Cinque Terre and Venice, end up in Sardinia, and enjoy camping with friends and family. And who wouldn’t?
I was initially sceptical, however, I had to hand it to her in terms of taste. So, the trip became a team effort, with her taking ownership and being invested in the experience, as opposed to me deciding everything and risking getting it wrong.
It’s important to accept that things do go wrong and it can be hard going at times when dealing with unfamiliar places and situations.
As an experienced Travel journalist and a globe trotter, I’m a believer in allowing the local situation to dictate what’s possible depending on the circumstances, so I say be prepared to throw your itinerary out of the window.
We chose Italy in summer, therefore, we knew it would be hot, but this year has been exceptional which made visiting cities tougher than usual. So, I decided that ‘slow travel’ was the way to go and that we were not going to tear around trying to see as much as possible in the least possible time.
We found it best to plan one main activity and then to see how we felt before adding more to the itinerary. Sometimes less is more, especially when dealing with extreme temperatures.
For instance, the northern Italian cities of Padova and Venice are truly beautiful and worth visiting with teens. However, we limited our time to either a morning or an evening visit to avoid heat exhaustion.
Padova, with its ancient porticoes, was perfect and we used them to shelter ourselves from the sun, interspersing a little shopping in air-conditioned buildings with visiting cultural sites such as the Giotto frescoes at the stunning Scrovegni Chapel in Padova. They are a must-see and even the teen agreed.
Our Venice visit was also limited to a few hours in the morning and to make the most of this, we took a ‘Vaporetto’ (boat) down the Grand Canal to St Mark’s square where I had booked an ascent up the Campanile (the Bell Tower).
This decision proved to be good, as no climbing was required as we were propelled up in a modern lift to the top of the tower just beneath the gigantic bells, where we enjoyed 360-degree views of Venice – just to whet our appetites for more in-depth sight-seeing during cooler climes.
Then, we laid the map aside and ambled through very narrow streets called ‘calle’ discovering quirky shops and fascinating interiors along the way.
Travel light and slowly
It’s surprising how few clothes you need. If you’re travelling by train, bear in mind what you’re carrying around and only take what’s necessary. Teens tend to moan a lot about heavy bags and general discomfort!
Also, remember to take games to pass the time. A pack of cards can be a wonderful opportunity to socialise and meet others on your travels. If your teen enjoys reading, load up your kobo or kindle before you go so they have something to occupy them on longer journeys. Download a few movies too, as often wifi connections can be weak in Air B&Bs and immensely frustrating.
Travel with friends if you can
If you have friends and family where you are going, plan some activities with them too. It alleviates the pressure of constantly trying to provide the right activity at the right time.
When left to their own devices in the Cinque Terre in Liguria (five ingeniously constructed fishing villages Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997), my daughter and her friend ended up booking 2 boat trips and a pesto-making class in a fancy restaurant.
Obviously, don’t leave your credit card in the hands of your teens as it could go terribly wrong – but in this case – a cooking class can be a great way to encourage fussy eaters to understand and appreciate local food, as well as a chance to give you a break. For instance, as midlife mums, my friend and I ended up observing proceedings from an exterior terrace and being invited by the staff to join in for an ‘aperitivo’ at the end of the session.
The sunset boat trip was a really magical experience, again, allowing them to enjoy their passion for swimming and giving us a fantastic highlight for the evening where we all enjoyed jumping into the midnight blue velvet water at sun-down all to 1980s pop music in the background.
Allow for rest days
Resist the temptation to organise every minute of every day. Your teen won’t thank you for it. There were a few days when my daughter didn’t want to do anything except chill in a cool room reading and watching movies. I thought this was an enormous waste of time at first, but then I realised that she benefitted from the rest and clearly needed it.
If you can, just make time for ‘chill’ days and general laziness. It’s a holiday after all and there is no need to rush. Teens need their sleep and time to themselves, as we all know well. And you can use the time to go and do what you want.
Also remember that their concentration span may differ from yours, their passions and what makes them tick will differ from you. It’s important to remember this and allow them to face-time their friends at home and spend time on social media however much you’d prefer them to be doing something else.
Be a local
Encourage your teen to observe their surroundings. What do people do at certain times and how do they dress and behave? This is important because the locals understand how to deal with extreme heat in our case. Why you should be out of the sun during the hottest times of the day, and how to spend that time.
For example, in Sardinia, at the lovely campsite where we stayed (called “Le Cernie”) – near the little town of Tortolì, teens used to play volleyball, eat and swim after 5 pm, when the beach was shady.
Hanging out with them, my daughter did the same and immersed herself in this truly ‘Italian’ experience, making new friends and improving her knowledge of the language, too.
Cherish your moments together
When you travel with a teen, 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.
Use the experience to teach them all you know about how to travel, encourage them to look up train or boat timetables and make enquiries themselves. Their confidence and language skills will improve.
My daughter told me at the end how she now felt more confident when travelling and her Italian is practically fluent after a few weeks on the road. We’ll be back again next year, I am sure.
Travelling with teens at a glance
- Encourage them to be involved in the planning
- Allow for lazy days
- Don’t plan every minute of every day
- Lower your expectations in terms of what you do and ‘slow travel’
- Be patient and make sure there is give and take
- Allow for discomfort and for things to go wrong. This is part of life and will serve to build up resilience for the future
- Play to their passions if you can
- Variety is essential during the trip
- Encourage local knowledge and language learning. These are social skills that will serve them well
- Make the journey part of the experience and teach them all you know about how to travel
- Relax the rules from time to time