Traveling with teenagers across Europe can be stressful, but it can be rewarding too. My niece got married last summer in England and I decided to turn her invitation into a 17-day epic European vacation for the whole family. I have two daughters, 14 and 17 who traveled with us the whole time and a 21 year old son, who joined us in London and traveled with us for the last week. Our European vacation included stops in Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris and London. We had an incredible time but there were plenty of challenges too.
As always, I try, as best I can, to practice what I preach. So we did the best we could to make this trip as stress-free as possible. Here's what we learned along the way:
Teenagers have an internal struggle when it comes to traveling with their parents. They truly want to see the world but the last people they want to see it with is you. Getting buy-in before going really helps overcome this hurdle. You may find it more persuasive to promise them you'll be staying in a nice hotel every night (show them pictures off the internet), than seeing an ancient ruin every day. But if the hotels, or the nightlife, or the shopping, gets you to within walking distance of the Roman Coliseum, who cares? (You can sneak out in the morning while they are still asleep . See #7)
So, once you know where you want to go, get them involved whatever way you can. Let them help you pick out hotels or bus tours and destinations within the destinations. Let them Google things to do in the proposed city and see if they come up with something that's as interesting for them to see as it is for you to see.
See if there is something that captures your children's interest at the destination. (Maybe there's a book that they love that is set in that destination. Be sure to take them to that part of town.) Talk about the things you can do in every location. See if there is something on your list that matches theirs. For some reason, my kids were as interested in seeing The Mona Lisa as I was, but not nearly as interested in seeing the statue of Venus De Milo. See how their interests match the destinations. Maybe it's something simple like eating Italian food every night, or going to Harrods in London, or maybe it's seeing places where scenes from their favorite movies were shot. (Don't underestimate the power of this one.) Once you match an interest to the location, be sure to book that activity in advance, so they know you are serious about including them in the planning.
This is tricky given everyone's conflicting needs but I found that if you can pull it off, it really lends itself to a more harmonious time. We grow up with the idea ingrained in our heads that the majority rules. But with a consensus, everyone agrees. And when you do this right, you wind up doing a variety of different things that addresses everyone's needs. You may wind up going to the Louvre one day, and Euro Disney the next. Use your parental wisdom to point out what things are unique to the part of the world you have come to (we can get McDonalds back home but authentic French Bistros are harder to find). Still if someone REALLY wants to eat at McDonalds in Paris just to see what it's like and what the differences are, it's better to agree to do this one day and the Paris bistro the next. Don't use your parental authority to overrule an idea just because YOU don't like it. Be open. Listen. Entertain all suggestions. This is how you arrive at consensus.
And if consensus can't be reached sometimes it's possible to divide and conquer. In London, my older daughter, who's really into acting, wanted to see the Globe Theatre. My younger daughter is a budding artist. As it turned out , The Tate Modern Art Museum in London was situated right next to the Globe Theatre. We divided up by interests and met for lunch at a nearby Jazz club (where my son wanted to go) to compare our experiences.
In order to travel light, we left the laptops at home. But there are a variety of smaller devices, like an iPad, iTouch and cell phones that provide access to the internet. Letting your kids communicate with their friends back home is a huge plus. While it was too expensive for our budget to permit the use the cell phones for voice communication ($.99 per minute to call the US) it was cheap enough for limited texting. And whenever we had time, we would let the kids get on the hotel's computer, and talk to their friends back home. It was surprisingly satisfying to hear them report on what they told their friends about where they were and what they'd done that day.
Remember that kids of any age don't like to wait in line. But in museums all over Europe, you are able to buy tickets in advance, and avoid the wait. This eliminates ALL waiting time in places like the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi Museum in Florence and the Vatican in Rome. Why wait in line when you don't have to? Sometimes, it's as simple as going to the museum the day or even the morning before, and buying tickets for a particular arrival time that day or the next. Sometimes the hotel can take care of this for you. When you walk right by hundreds and hundreds of people standing in line waiting for the attraction your kids will thank you for it. And their patience meter won't run out before you even get IN the museum.
Once my kids reached about the age of ten, rather than argue with them over what they could and couldn't buy in terms of souvenirs, I put them on a budget. Usually I decided what this amount should be based on the length of the trip and what they would probably want to buy at the places where we would shop. I noticed my daughters liked inexpensive jewelry and my son looked for tee-shirts and old records. Most of the things were in the $20 range. So, based on this I gave them a budget and said this is what you have to spend for the whole trip. (If they wanted to spend their own money that was fine too.) It was a friendly way to get them to decide which things they want rather than buying anything and everything on impulse. This has always worked for us, and my kids are great about it.
Go see certain things you know will bore them to tears in the early AM.
You can't make everyone happy all the time. And at some point tempers are likely to flair. When this happens, acknowledge the truth of what's going on. As I said to my oldest daughter, after we had spent six days together sharing a room: (In some cities, like Rome we could afford to get separate rooms, but in Venice the prices for hotel rooms were much higher so we all shared a room) So I told her, imagine if we were home all living in your bedroom (hotel rooms in Europe tend to be small) how do you think we'd get along? The answer to that question was pretty obvious. So of course we are going to get on each other nerves from time to time. And it's OK to be unhappy and sulk once in a while. It was important to allow them to be in whatever mood they were in, and not pass judgment on it. I tried not to let their changing moods affect my mood. And they were equally understanding when I got grumpy too.
We came back to the hotel by 4:30 or 5PM every day, and we all had down time for at least 90 minutes . You could nap or read or shower or use the hotel facilities. The important thing was to relax before going to dinner. Usually our feet were killing us by this time, and almost every time, even when we were all in the same room, we'd just fall right asleep for about an hour. (Recognize that traveling is exhausting.)
My youngest daughter fainted in the Rome train station and the other had a serious attack of claustrophobia climbing up to the top of the dome at St. Peter's Basilica (BTW: there were numerous other people on those stairs in various states of fear, panic and exhaustion.) When you travel with family, problems are going to pop up unexpectedly, especially if you push too hard. Learn to expect the unexpected and go with the flow as much as you can. When you feel like it's a push to keep going, slow down and take a break for a meal or even a beverage. You'll ultimately sabotage your own plans if you push too hard, so don't.
In order to have a "stress-free" or more realistically, low stress vacation, you have to decide in advance what your objectives are. Are you trying to see historical sites and go to interesting places or are you trying to spend time relaxing and rejuvenating with your family. For us the objective was to see the things we all wanted to see, but to have fun doing it. We wanted to come back from this vacation feeling like we had had a relaxing time, but that we had seen a lot, also. And as my daughters were quick to point out, just going to Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris and London, was going to be an incredible experience in and of itself.
But for me, it was just as important to let go of what we didn't have the time to see. We underestimated how much there was to do and see at the Vatican, and as a result, we didn't have time to see the Sistine Chapel, something that was high on my bucket list. But if the objective was to have fun and see things, certain things on my list had to go in deference to the more important goal of having fun. And so with this perspective in mind, it was easier to give up a few things on the bucket list, if it was for the greater good or the peace of mind of my family.
If nobody wants to see the Louvre, but deep in your heart you'll know that someday they'll appreciate seeing the most famous painting in the world, insist on going. But don't do this for more than one activity per day.
I didn't want to conclude this article without a few words from at least one of my children, who are really what this article is all about. So I drafted my 17-year old daughter Sarah, who is a budding writer herself, and asked her to write about how difficult it is traveling with parents!
As a real-life teenager, going to Europe was so cool. Going with my parents? Not so cool. What seventeen year old wants to travel the world with their mommy and daddy?
However, my dad did a great job of creating our "stress-free vacation." It wasn't so overscheduled that I felt as if I had enrolled in boot camp, but it was nice generally knowing where we were going and how we would get there.
I get cranky like a toddler when I'm tired or hungry, so the before-dinner siestas kept me feeling peppy and chipper. I never felt deprived of souvenirs, because I only bought cheap key chains and postcards, things that were well within the range of the preset budget. And best of all, every time we entered a new city my dad looked and my sister and me and asked, "What's something YOU want to see?"
One thing my dad didn't mention is trying to make conversation over breakfast. Personally, I felt like an irritable grizzly bear in mid-December whenever my mom woke me up to eat the complimentary breakfast provided by our hotels. Don't expect your teenager to be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8am as you are. If teenagers want to talk, they will. Otherwise, just let them eat their toast quietly. They won't thank you for it, but they will appreciate it!