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How to Travel With Your Sullen Teenager (And Keep Them Off the iPhone)

September 17, 2015

It is not easy to get a teenager to part with her phone. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It inevitably happens to every parent who loves to travel with their kids: those once-docile young children become teenagers, and, when they’re away from home, suddenly become moody, irritable, opinionated, and glum. (Come to think of it, that’s the way most adolescents are at home a lot of the time, too.)

The realization for me—the parent of a teenager who has grown up traveling with her mom—came late last year, when a sunny winter week in Miami was marred by my daughter sulking indoors, attached to her computer, grimacing at the prospect of even a little beach time, a stroll along Lincoln Road, or an afternoon at the Bass Museum.

Since then, I’ve come up with a handful of strategies to keep us both happy, even as adolescent angst has set in. Here are my sanity-saving pointers—all learned the hard way.

Far apart, right next to one another. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Pack the Right Gear: Traveling often includes planes without Internet, television channels that aren’t in English, and train and car rides without cell-phone signals or other kids to hang out with. Just as you’d bring snacks and crayons for a younger child, make sure your teen has plenty of distractions: movies and television shows downloaded into a tablet or computer, books (to plow through summer reading assignments), sturdy headphones, plus age-appropriate munchies (in my daughter’s case, granola bars and small bags of popcorn). And as mature as your 13-year-old may be, candy still goes a long way to make kids of all ages smile.

Keep in Touch: If your teenager’s anything like mine, at home he or she is glued to the cellphone for what seems like 25 hours a day. When we’re traveling, we earmark a time every day—the only time every day—for smartphone or computer use. For us, it’s one hour, strategically chosen to coincide with the time I tend to need a breather from sightseeing, or simply have an energy dip from jet lag (it’s usually mid-afternoon in Europe, late afternoon on beach vacations, early evening on a visit to the Napa Valley). Sometimes we take this break at our hotel, but often—particularly in Europe, where wireless charges can be pricey—we’ll simply pop into a Starbucks or local cafe. Otherwise, her phone is turned off, saving roaming charges and the temptation to spend the day immersed in a group chat instead of absorbing the destination at hand.

Picking one time a day to check devices is a useful tool when traveling with teens. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Hone their Concierge Skills: Since they’re on the internet so much anyway, encourage your teens to research places to check out, whether that’s the beach that other teens will be at or the best local spot to get a cup of chocolate gelato. I’ve convinced myself that there’s academic value in this—it’s almost like doing research for a term paper, right? But, even if it’s just for fun, that virtual legwork is an ideal way to get even the most sullen teenage excited about and involved in an upcoming trip. Finding the best cheap and trendy clothing shops in Madrid? That counts as useful research, too.

Sometimes it’s ok to ditch the museums. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Choose Your Museums Wisely: When my daughter was small, she’d be up for full days in highbrow art museums, providing I’d build in time for lunch, ice cream, and a stop in the gift shop. Now that she’s older, I’ve learned to offset a morning in a museum with an afternoon exploring, shopping, or going to an attraction she loves, like the London Eye.  If I choose the museum, she gets to choose another activity, even if it’s far less cultural. We go out of our way to find museums that are accessible and teen-friendly, like the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden or Paris’s quirky Musée Gourmand du Chocolat

How to entertain a teen with a sweet tooth? A visit to the Musée Gourmand du Chocolat. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Tie in School: Traveling with the family is fun, but—unless you’re planning to just lie on a beach—it can be filled with culture, too. Let your teen’s teachers know where you’re going. Sometimes a trip can be the source of a great report or class presentation when you get home, and prepping for that schoolwork can help engage your teen while you’re away.

Rethink Your Souvenirs: When my daughter was younger, trip mementos would be snow globes, a doll, and usually a T-shirt with each destination’s name across the chest in bold letters. As she’s gotten older, we pick up trinkets that are more subtle—iPhone cases, little bags, a key chain with a bright magenta Eiffel Tower—that all fall within a souvenir budget we figure out in advance. Even if something doesn’t seem site specific—like, say, a plain blue top from Primark on London’s Oxford Street your child will remember its provenance. Since teenagers are so focused on their friends, if you find something cheap and appealing (like the friendship bracelets we picked up on a beach in Mallorca a couple summers ago), buy a few extras as gifts for their BFFs back home.

Who doesn’t love a cheap souvenir? (Photo: Thinkstock)