Travelling with Teens


As a 13 year old, my parents sold our home in the suburbs and bought a sailing boat. They pulled my brothers and me out of school, and set off on an incredible 12 month adventure to sail the east coast of Australia.

I. Hated. Every. Minute.

Like, never-leave-my-cabin-wish-to-die-how-could-you-do-this-to-me, hated it.

My dad had this incredibly annoying habit of banging on my cabin roof (it was conveniently under where he sat to steer our boat) to insist that I ‘come up and see this’ whenever we arrived somewhere new.

I would be trying to forget my crummy new life by burying myself in my books and pretending I was actually one of the characters (usually the girl with the awesome hair and hot guy interested in her), and his incessant banging was totally ruining that illusion.  So I would grunt loudly, throw my book down, stomp up on deck, flick an eye over some spectacular white sand island paradise and say ‘you’ve seen one island you’ve seen them all’ or ‘whatever’ or ‘I don’t care’ delivered varyingly with a slight snarl, roll of the eyes, or one-shoulder dismissive shrug depending on the day, before disappearing back into my dungeon… I mean, cabin.

And herein lies the challenge of travelling with my teens now.  I remember exactly what it felt like to be ripped from my social life, my friends and all the things I was looking forward to doing as a teenager, to suddenly be thrust into my parent’s ‘adventure of a lifetime’.

There is lots of well meaning advice out their about travelling with teens, how it can strengthen your relationships, teach them valuable life lessons and help them become confident, resilient global citizens with a strong understanding of the world around them and an appreciation for the many different ways people live around the world.

Yeah, sure, there’s that.

But realistically, most parents don’t do a great job of travelling with teens, and usually end up with a grumpy, surly, pissed off mini-adult, rolling their eyes and sighing loudly at every turn, assuming you can get them to look up from their devices.

You don’t have a good time. They aren’t having a good time. It doesn’t strengthen your relationship, or teach them anything. It just pushes you further apart, and pretty much ruins your trip.

So, are you doomed to putting your travel plans on hold until they eventually leave home?  ….(which probably won’t be anytime soon given the state of the housing market, hell, I’d still be living at home if it was a viable option with 3 teenagers of my own…)

Despite my own experience as a teen, I really do think it’s not only possible to do it without screwing it up, it can deliver on all those glossy parenting promises – just maybe not if you follow some of the advice out there.

Thankfully, after a pretty dodgy start, my dad got the idea of getting me to actually sail the boat with him.  This was made more necessary by the fact that my mum had my little sister about six months into our sailing odessey and was pretty busy with that. #planninganyone

But it did achieve something that nothing previously had, I got involved in the trip.  Without even realising I was learning stuff, I learnt how to sail a 48ft catamaran, I learnt navigation, weather prediction, hauling sails and steering a course.  I was on deck with dad rescuing sails in bad weather, helping haul up anchors and generally learning to be the badass sailing chick I am today.  It also strengthened my relationship with my dad, who is still my best friend and the person I go to when I need advice, help, or just a hug.

I would not be the confident, resiliant, capable woman and mum that I am, without the influence of some pretty amazing adventures with my folks as a child.

Because of my great experiences travelling with my folks, I made a parenting decision to make adventure travel with my kids a big part of our lives. I love adventure and I was never going to stop playing and adventuring just because I had kids, so I just had to figure out ways to bring them along too.

We’ve hiked and camped through Karijini National Park. We’ve done backpacking trips through Vietnam by train and local bus.  We spent a month travelling to remote villages to climb volcanoes and free dive on the island of Flores, Indonesia.  We’ve done road trips across Australia, camped for weeks on the Ningaloo Coast, sailed the east coast, and scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef.

So here’s my take on what to do to get the glossy parenting promises and avoid the ‘surly teen in the corner’ on your next adventure.

My first tip is to start travelling with them young. If the first adventure trip you do with your kids is after they’ve turned 13 and you are hoping it will turn them instantly from surly teen into confident, resilient global travellers – you might be setting your expectations a wee bit high.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t persevere if circumstances have prevented you travelling with them earlier. Although we had lots of adventure trips inside Australia – I didn’t really get going on overseas adventure travel with my kids until after I became a single mum. Just don’t die in a ditch over it, if they are not instantly engaged and enthusiastic the first time you try to implement these suggestions.

Before you go:

1. CHOOSE ‘COOL’ DESTINATIONS ……Any destination you chose will not be cool – give them the budget, and the tools, and let them chose your destination. Be at peace with this.

As a single parent family, my budget for taking three teenagers overseas is pretty slim. The most expensive part of the trip is airfares. As a result, our next destination is usually based on where we can get the cheapest possible flights. My kids choose the destination. I’ve shown them how to track down the bargains, like Australia-Singapore return from $218, by signing up to regular newsletters from low cost carriers including Jetstar, Virgin, Scoot, and Air Asia as well as travel sites like iwantthatflight and Webjet that send regular updates on cheap fares. They have the Skyscanner app downloaded to their phones, so if they want to proactively search for cheap flights to a particular destination, they can find the cheapest times to go.  Once they have flights within our budget, we start researching to see if it’s the right place for us.

2. GET THEM READING GUIDEBOOKS AND TRAVEL DESTINATION INFO……Good luck with that! Research for success, but do it the way they like to receive info online and via YouTube

Research is the key for a successful trip with your teen, but if you simply ask them to go research a destination and get back to you, you’ll usually end up with zero engagement. Teenagers are not intrinsically motivated to find out more about a destination, even if they chose it. Also, they don’t read actual books, unless it’s for a school assignment. It’s a fact of life, don’t let it get to you.  To help identify what they want to do, make it less ‘school project’ and more ‘surfing YouTube vids’ with them at the dinner table (forget the rules about no devices at the dinner table, these kids were born with a device in their hands).  When one of my kids suggests a possible destination, we watch Youtube vids and read out sections of blogs at the dinner table, or the kitchen bench, or in the car (they read, I drive) about cool stuff that other people have done in that destination, and discuss it immediately.  This means my teenagers are engaging in the art of conversation with me, while flexing their research skills, and learning how to use their IT devices for more than just gaming.  Plus it is strengthening our relationship by letting them be the knowledgeable party.

3. NEGOTIATE WITH THEM TO LEAVE THEIR DEVICES AT HOME….Are you kidding me?  I’m taking my iPhone and iPad, why wouldn’t they? Use the interface that they are most familiar with for communicating both before you leave and while you’re travelling to stay engaged with your teens.

In the lead up to our trips, I share interesting videos, stories, or ideas that I find online via social media to their Facebook messenger accounts or emails during the day, and then chat with them over these items at dinner.  If they bring up something they have seen that interested them, I ask them to send me the link. As you get closer to departure date, have your teens message you their list of Must Do’s, ideally with the links to where and how you will do them that you can refer to while you are travelling.  While we are there we use sites like Trip Adviser to see where the best places to eat, stay or visit are nearby or at our next stop off point. While we are travelling we leverage free wifi in cafes and hotels and I invest in a few local SIMs with data whenever I can for their devices.  We don’t generally use global roaming.

4. CHOOSE FUN ACTIVITIES FOR TEENS……. Refer to 1. above, nothing you chose will be ‘cool’ or ‘fun’ so don’t bother, instead build your trip around a combined list of Must Do’s.

Our trip itinararies are built around our combined Must Do’s lists.  Must Do lists are awesome for making sure everyone gets a say on a trip with teens.  Depending on how long you will be there and how many people are travelling, get each person to make a short list of their own Must Do’s. As a guide, I like to work on 4 activities per 6-7 days we are away, which is one each for the four of us. This ratio makes sure we are not going flat out every day of our trip.  We have enough downtime (important for travel with teens), and travel days. It also means no one misses out due to running out of time….or loses the will to live after going non-stop for days on end …which mostly applies to me. I usually add my Must Do’s after my teens have given me their lists.  Nine times out of ten, at least a few of the things I wanted to do are already on their lists, so I don’t need to push my options onto them. If there is something I really want to do that they haven’t listed, I’ll add that too.  Always respect their list, don’t try to influence it or change it, but do make sure they know what you are and are not insured for on your travel insurance (it’s not you making the rules here, it’s just that pesky insurance policy).  Seriously though, if you can respect their list and deliver on the things they want to do, you’re also teaching them to respect your list.  You will be surprised (usually happily, and not in a ‘wtf’ kind of way… I hope) by what your teens come up with, and you will learn so much more about what interests them and who they are through this process if you are open to it.

5. MAKE SURE THEY’VE PACKED THEIR CHARGERS….Leave them in charge of packing their own gear, but give them some hints with your own packing list

This is the perfect time for them to learn some #adulting skills.  Whatever you do, don’t pack for them, and don’t nag them about whether they’ve packed this or that.  When I start packing, I use a list so I don’t forget stuff.  This is clearly a good idea and recommended on all sorts of blogs on ‘being awesome’ and ‘adulting’.  I don’t tell my teenagers to do this, because they will ignore me, but I do send my teenagers my own packing list, with a note that usually says something like ‘Hey are you packed yet? Here’s what I’m taking, btw taxi is picking us up at 0330 which is in 5hrs so you probs should pack now’.  This both demonstrates the fact that we really do take cheap-ass flights that are scheduled at horrible times and that I am in fact a hot mess most of the time and never pack until the last minute, and it teaches my teens responsibility for themselves like nothing else.

While you are travelling:

6. GIVE THEM JOBS TO DO…..It’s not so much about giving them ‘busy’ jobs (minding a younger sibling or being the (gag) ‘family photographer’), it’s about giving them actual real ‘adulting’ important sh#t to do –  like managing the money or navigating.

During our trip to Vietnam, I had my 15 year old son hold and manage our day to day money.  He was responsible for carrying the bulk of the day money, and for paying for things as we travelled, from train tickets to dinner. Other than to hand over the daily cash budget to him each morning, I didn’t touch money for the whole trip. He had to learn enough of the language to make the transactions. He kept track of our spending and let us know if we could afford things during the day. He absolutely loved the responsibility and was fully engaged for the whole trip.  On a trip to Malaysia as they were just entering the teenage years, I managed to put us on the wrong train twice in half an hour.  My then 13 year old daughter, took the map off me and insisted she be in charge of directions from there on in.  She absolutely rocked it.  She has been our travel navigator since then and it has given us both confidence to see how capable she is.  It has meant that as we have travelled over the years, if she and her brother want to head off on their own for a few hours exploring, I know they are probably better at finding their way around than I am.

7. KEEP THEM BUSY……Teens need downtime, don’t plan to go flat out every day to ‘keep them busy’, plan for downtime

Teens need downtime, (and you do too) for it to be a really enjoyable trip.  Rushing around from one activity to the next the whole time you are away will leave both you and your teen stressed and tired.  No one does well when they are stressed and tired, especially not teenagers.  Plan to have days in your schedule to just relax.  Let them loaf on their beds with their computer games, watch movies or just chill.  If you’re still feeling energetic, you can always head out alone and let them have some space and responsibility while you are gone.

A couple of final thoughts…..

Give them space 

Just like young children need to engage in risky play, teenagers need space to practice their fledgling adulting skills.  As a parent, in a different country, it is tempting to want to keep your teenagers glued to your side, for fear of ‘what might happen’.  However, the adrenaline rush of being responsible for themselves in a foreign country, if only for short periods of time, is a huge thrill for most teens. Provided they have the basic skills to make it a positive experience, try to find ways to give your teenagers some space while on holidays to be responsible for themselves.

Model the behaviour you want them to learn 

Teens are still watching and learning from you, even if it doesn’t seem like it a lot of the time.  Model the behaviour you want them to learn.  Be interested in the culture. Make the effort to learn at least the basics of the primary language for the countries you visit. Use those language skills while you are there, even if your teens make fun of your pronunciation like my lot do. I comfort myself that at least they are paying attention.  Stay calm if things go wrong, and focus on solving the problem.  Be safety conscious, but take risks.  Talk to them about why and how you make decisions while you’re travelling.  Be respectful and courteous to the locals.  Trust your instincts, and teach your teens to trust their own instincts by listening to them if they raise concerns.

Live in the present moment and enjoy the journey

Take the time to slow down, and take notice of your teens reactions to what they see and experience.  Talk, react, and get engaged in the present moment, and you will find your connection with your teen growing. Even though they are learning to be independent from you at this age, they still need you to be interested and attentive…. Maybe just not right up in their space.

Happy travelling!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s