Family and Travel

Travel With Teens: How To Prepare for an Adventure Everyone Will Enjoy

This guide has been teen-tested and approved

Christine Wolf
Dec 16, 2019 · 17 min read
With our tour guide at the Normandy American Cemetery. All photos courtesy of the author.

The first time I ever traveled as a parent, I was a new mother in February 1988, fighting postpartum blues something fierce. I flew with my firstborn — then three months old — from Chicago to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Using frequent flier miles from my job, the three-day change of environment was exactly what I needed to reset my perspective. And though it rained non-stop that week, the dreary weather couldn’t dampen my gratitude for the gift of family travel.

Since then, I’ve trekked with my three children to almost every state in the U.S., as well as Mexico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Trinidad, and Tobago.

Most recently, I spent 9 days with my youngest son, age 16, touring through England and France—15 cities and villages in all—and we’re STILL speaking. Here’s how we navigated the journey, including photos and our detailed itinerary as an example.

To be sure, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that took significant saving and planning to pull off. But because it was such a positive experience for both of us (not to mention drama-free), I’m sharing how we did it so you might consider a getaway of your own — no matter where or when.

Here are nine essential tips for a drama-free vacation with your teen:

  1. Identify your inspiration, then hatch your plan.
  2. Invite your teen’s input to help build the itinerary.
  3. Prepare for emotions — including your own.
  4. Flex your flexibility.
  5. Be willing to laugh at yourself.
  6. Try new stuff.
  7. Step back — and let your teen step up.
  8. Build in time for independence — and sleep.
  9. Remember: They’re not kids; they’re young adults.

Identify your inspiration, then hatch your plan.

Every plan begins with a spark of interest, then evolves. As such, identifying the inspiration for your trip is key, so try not to rush this most important step.

For our epic trip to Europe, we spent five years talking, dreaming, saving up, and planning. With so many travel options available these days, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. Identifying your inspiration (a.k.a. why are we going?) helps you focus on efforts and activities that matter most. Asking yourselves questions like What do we really want to accomplish? and What’s most important to see/do/experience? streamlines the process and helps to cut through the overwhelmingness.

It was five years ago that my son, then 11, expressed an interest in seeing the beaches of Normandy, France. Not only has he held a deep personal interest in World War II history, but one of my grandfathers also landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

At the time, I didn’t have the resources for a trip to Europe. To be honest, I didn’t even know where Normandy was (or that it was a region in France, rather than a specific town). Still, I made a point to 1) start thinking about what such a trip might look like — and 2) start saving.

Every now and then, I’d read travel articles, flip through reviews of itineraries, and imagine us there.

I’d peek at travel options online, wondering how and if I might pull off such an epic trip. I was entirely unfamiliar with European travel and felt uncomfortable at the thought of leaving such a big investment of time and money to my own devices. This is what led me to wonder about working with a travel agent — something I’d never done before.

I spoke to an agent who explained that, for a fee, she’d help us build an itinerary, book our flights/train tickets/hotels, secure the appropriate amount of trip insurance, and be available during our trip if any issues arose. Her cost to do all of this was $300.

At first, I wondered if using a travel agent was worth the additional cost. Couldn’t I plan and book everything myself?

I began to think about it in detail. How much time would we want to spend in Normandy? Should we book a guided tour or explore on our own? Would we have time to explore other cities nearby? Should we fly into Paris and drive ourselves from there? Was it cheaper to fly into London? What time of year was best to go? What about currency and exchange rates? What about language barriers and time zones? Was navigating the transportation system difficult? How would we handle any emergencies while traveling?

Considering all my questions about — and unfamiliarity with — the area, I decided the travel agent would be a wise investment, and signed a contract.

In late 2017, the agent and I exchanged a series of phone calls and emails, during which she asked a ton of questions about our interests and budget and schedules, and helped us bullet-point a loose itinerary. With that in front of us, we decided that the best (and most affordable) time for our trip would be one week during the summer of 2018.

And then, life happened.

Not only did the agent inform us of a pending transit strike in Paris, but we also had several unforeseen obligations crop up.

The agent recommended we postpone our trip for another year, ultimately giving us more time to 1) fine-tune the itinerary, 2) find even more travel deals and (most importantly) 3) continue to save.

The agent said she’d keep our file in a drawer and told us to contact her whenever we were ready.

I wondered if we’d have to pay her another $300 at that time, especially if we decided to significantly alter the itinerary.

“No!” she said. “You’ve paid me to help you plan your trip,” she said. “My job is to work with you until you return.”

The Louvre, Paris, France

Invite your teen’s input to help build the itinerary.

Based on the many questions posed by our travel agent, some of the things I asked my teen were:

  • What do you want to get out of the visit?
  • If we go during [these specific dates], is there anything you’ll be missing out on at home?
  • Is it more important to see a little of a lot of things — or do a deep dive in fewer areas?

Armed with his input, the agent and I determined early on that a summer trip (versus spring break) would be most economical, allowing us to build in a guided tour in Normandy — as well as some time exploring London and Paris.

At one point, my son, who’s a film buff, mentioned a restaurant in Paris he’d like to visit, in which a memorable scene from the movie Inglourious Basterds was shot. Turns out the restaurant — Bistro la Renaissance — was the setting for at least eight other feature films. Knowing my teen had researched and expressed an interest in seeing this place, I made sure to add it to our “must-see” list.

About a week before the trip, our travel agent dropped off a folder which included:

  • our final itinerary
  • tickets & transfers
  • detailed maps
  • contact info for every one of our stops
  • an extremely helpful packing list, and
  • a reminder to visit our local bank before we left to exchange some American dollars for British pounds and Euros

Half the thrill of travel is in the planning — and the closer we got to departure day, the more excited we got.

The Eiffel Tower

Prepare for emotions — including your own.

Planning a trip can be a magical, wonderful, and sometimes nerve-wracking endeavor; planning a trip with a teen is its own experience. Everyone brings different expectations to the journey.

For my son, spending time in Normandy was the primary focus. For me, I wanted to share the experience of seeing places in which my child had expressed deep interest, and to (hopefully) return with memories of a positive travel experience.

Long before we left, I made the decision to keep an eye on my own emotions. I know myself: I can be an anxious and fastidious planner. Could we actually spend nine days together overseas — a mom and her 16-year-old boy — living out of suitcases, sharing hotel rooms in foreign cities, managing time zone changes and an unfamiliar language and (oh, dear) the unexpected?

Throughout the planning process, I remind myself we can handle all that, and more — especially if I don’t let myself get lost in the details or expect everything to go perfectly. I remind myself we’ll roll with things as they come, and to deal with issues together when they do.

We shared one particularly unexpected, emotional moment on day six while traveling by train from Bayeux to Paris. As the train departs from the station, I am in an aisle seat and my son is to my left, next to the window. Half an hour into our journey, a strange feeling comes over me, one that I cannot understand at first.

And then it hit me. Having survived an Amtrak train accident decades before, I am suddenly flooded with unexpected memories and reflection.

My eyes, which are filled with tears, dart from the left to the right as I think back to the moment in 1993 when my train collided with a propane truck, creating an explosion that shook a town, blew windows out of businesses, killed one man and critically burned another.

My son takes just one look at me as I clear my throat and adjust myself in my seat, and knows something is wrong. God, I don’t want him to see me like this, I think. I was fine on the train ride to Bayeux days before. Why is this happening now? The last thing I want to create is worry…

And then, I remind myself to roll with things, and that it’s okay to express authentic emotions.

I turn to him, apologize, and briefly explain how I was caught off-guard by some intense memories of my prior experience. “I’m okay,” I say, smiling and dabbing my eyes. “Those feelings just really surprised me.”

And with that simple statement, my son looks at me, nods his head, and smiles back. “It’s okay, Mama,” he says, putting his hand on top of mine.

And it was.

Flex your flexibility.

In an effort to pack as much as possible into our nine days without breaking the bank, I looked for creative and unconventional ways to save and spend — which required some flexibility.

For example, we had just a day and a half in London before heading to France; we had to make the most of our time. We landed at Heathrow, excited and jet-lagged, and opted to take public transportation to our hotel in London’s Covent Garden to save money.

Once we checked in, we took the money we’d have otherwise used for a taxi from the airport and hailed a Hackney Carriage — also known as a Black Taxi, its name derived from “hacquenée”, a French Norman word roughly translated as hired horse. We asked the driver to take us around London for an hour and show us as many highlights as possible… and boy, did he.

With our Hackney Carriage driver, who showed us London in an hour!
St. Pancras Hotel, London.

Be willing to laugh at yourself.

To be sure, there were several incidents when I was “that embarrassing parent”:

  • When I couldn’t figure out how to use Google Maps.
  • When I asked what TikTok was.
  • When we boarded a train on the wrong track.
  • When I asked locals lots of questions.
  • Those repeated moments when I stopped to take photos and look at plaques and signs and storefronts and…and…and…and…

Believe me, I’ve been a sensitive, defensive parent in the past, replying to eye rolls with, “What did I do?”

But on this trip, I accepted that I will, at times, be “that parent.” And when I was okay with it, my teen was, too.

Take, for example, the lunch we shared with our tour guide in Normandy. We’d stopped at a restaurant for burgers, salads and frites. I also ordered a small cappuccino. When I mistook our guide’s cup of balsamic salad dressing for my cappuccino — and took a big swig, there wasn’t much I could do except cough loudly, rinse my mouth out with water, and laugh at myself for the mixup.

These are the moments we’ll laugh about forever — the memorable, glitchy little moments my best friend refers to as life’s “broken pinkies”.

Try new stuff.

Whether it’s food or experiences or ways of doing things, you and your teen will both need to step out of your comfort zones and try new things because come on, that’s why you’re doing this after all! Just keep in mind that doing so *can* be like an awkward dance, one that also leads to some memorable moments.

For example, we’d never before been on a guided tour and didn’t know what to expect. Our guide, Magali, drove us through multiple villages, stopping frequently to tell us stories about World War II, answering our questions, and tying the past to the present. Our two eight-hour days with Magali were remarkably intense, particularly when visiting the cemeteries of American and German soldiers, learning about the battles soldiers waged and contemplating so many lives cut too short.

Though we could have toured the area on our own, Magali knew far more about the area, the people and the history than we ever could — and took us to many places we’d have never gone, including a seaside, open-air market where we found some bargains and a stop at her house to say hello to her chats.

Step back — and let your teen step up.

On day six of our trip, in a hotel room in Paris, I couldn’t wrap my head around our location. I could tell I was a bit tired and testy. I opened a paper map and took a deep breath — and that’s when my son offered to take a look.

It was one of those magical moments as a parent, watching my child figure things out, reminding me how important it is to step back.

Another one of these moments happened on day three, in London. We’d seen the Churchill Museum and explored the city, then had dinner at a place my son had heard about — Dishoom, known for outstanding Indian cuisine. We didn’t have any after-dinner plans, so I left it to him to chime in on what he’d like to do. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. And so we did.

Our wandering led us to see St. Pancras Hotel, Kings Cross Station (where Harry Potter fans will appreciate Platform 9 3/4 ), and several remarkable street performers. Moments of discovering a new city in this way — unscheduled and unstructured — was pretty cool.

Build in time for independence — and sleep.

I found myself walking a very fine line trying to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible without coming across like a drill sergeant.

My hope was to balance equal parts fun, meaningful activity, relaxation, bonding, and flexibility. And yet, having been a teenager myself loooooong ago, I recognized how important it was to have time to myself — and to sleep.

When we set out in the morning, it was typically 8 a.m. or later. When we shut down for the evening, we weren’t out past 11 p.m. And when we were in the hotel room, I tried not to ask too many questions, like, “What did you think of the day?” “Did you enjoy X?” “How’d you like X?” I’m a chatty person by nature, but not everyone is… and so, as long as we were in the room, I tried my best to be comfortable with quiet. Aside from the necessary discussion about logistics, I limited my conversations while we were sharing quarters.

The combination of being well-rested and recharged seemed to work well for us.

Remember: They’re not kids; they’re young adults.

Keep in mind that a quiet teen isn’t necessarily being “surly.” They might just be tired, hungry, curious, or contemplative. Give your teen the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming they’re shutting you out.

It’s also good to keep in mind that when we travel, we’re taking in a ton of information. Let the journey sink in for your teen in their own way. They may not be effusive as they process their surroundings, so try to allow space for them to manage the experience in the manner they need.

Our Itinerary: Nine Days through London, Normandy, and Paris

Day 1 — Travel

Key Tips: We packed a deck of cards for layovers (and played Speed non-stop throughout the trip). Give your teens space. Try, if you can, to catch some zzz's on the way to your destination, though I confess we didn’t; we were too excited!

(Author Screenshot)

Day 2 — London (arrive in new time zone)

Key tips: Hit the ground running in a new time zone immediately. Keep busy exploring and pushing through as long as you can, then crash HARD. Start the next day 2–3 hours later than normal if possible, just to catch up on sleep.

(Author Screenshot)

Day 3 — London (exploring)

Key tips: Try to pre-purchase tickets to museums, galleries, etc. before the trip, allowing you to skip lines or miss opportunities to see what you’d like.

(Author Screenshot)

Day 4 — Travel to Normandy

Key Tips: Though spending an entire day on trains wasn’t ideal, we found it exciting to ride the Eurostar (underwater train) for the first time — and appreciated the quiet downtime to continue acclimating to the time change. It took less than 2.5 hours to make the 305-mile journey from London to Paris. We transferred train stations in the Paris rush hour with a basic understanding of French (rather stressful!) but Google Translate and a pocket dictionary helped. Our second train delivered us to Bayeux, in the Normandy region of France — and a setting out of a storybook.

(Author Screenshot)

Day 5 — Normandy

Key tips: We’d arranged a two-day guided tour through the area, though you can certainly get a feel for the area with just a few key stops from the list below.

(Author Screenshot)

Day 6 — Normandy all day, then travel back to Paris

Key tips: If we could do it again, I’d have tried to share a tour guide with another small group like ours.

(Author screenshot)

Day 7 — Paris

Key tips: We had two days in Paris before heading home. Our Eiffel Tower tickets were pre-purchased before we left home, but we still had to stand in some extraordinarily long lines. While waiting, we realized the next day (day eight) called for rain, so we booked two tickets (online) for a tour of the Paris Catacombes and made a plan to visit the Musee d’Orsay. For the rest of day seven, we spent it exploring vintage shops, hopping on and off riverboats along the Seine, and people-watching before having dinner at Bistro la Renaissance.

(Author Screenshot)

Day 8 — Paris

Key tips: When it rains, you simply adapt, spend your time indoors and/or wear your best rain gear!

(Author Screenshot)

Day 9 — Travel home

Key tips: I spent almost the entirety of our flight home jotting notes about where we went and what we saw, just so I’d be able to share the details with you!

(Author Screenshot)
Day 9.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful, whether traveling across the globe or much closer. And please let me know where your travels take you — I’m always in search of inspiration.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Christine Wolf

Written by

Founder/Editor of Women This Way. Writer for Better Humans, The Ascent, Writing Cooperative, Publishous, Post-Grad Survival Guide.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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