Tips for Traveling with Tweens

by Lisa Oppenheimer
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So, you're thinking of heading out on a family getaway with a tween, are you? You know, one of those soon-to-be-sulky, 9-to-12-year-olds who isn't quite a kid (in her mind) but not quite ready to hang out on her own yet, either? OK, so vacationing may not be as restful as it was before kids. But, that doesn't mean it can't be any fun. Create an adventure you'll all want to get in on. Here are ten tips for planning a trip your tween -- and entire family -- will love.

1. Bring a friend. So helpful is it to have a tween buddy on board, my friend Debbie refers to the arrangement as "borrowing" a child. Just make sure said child fits the family dynamic (a "three's-a crowd" scenario with a younger sibling solves one problem, but creates another) and discuss ground rules and expectations with parents and child before takeoff.

2. Get two rooms: I find it odd that parents loath to share a room at home opt to do so when trying to recharge on vacation. Two rooms at a four-star hotel are probably going to break the bank. Me? I'd skimp on luxury and get a less plush two-room setup at an all-suites type of place. What you might lose in thread counts, you'll more than make up in sleep. Plus, you won't have to watch endless reruns of SpongeBob Squarepants.

3. Give them something to shoot for. My friend Tammy's lakeside retreat took on a whole new dimension when her extended family got together and hired a water-ski instructor -- boat, rope and all -- for the entire week. Shared by multiple families, it was surprisingly economical. And, the goal gave the group a sense of purpose. By the end of the trip, everyone -- 9 kids of various ages and a few game adults -- had gotten enough turns to ably navigate the wake, some even on one ski. The same would apply for surfing, diving, whatever the group's pleasure. "The best thing we ever did," says Tammy.

4. Create excitement. Who says you have to tell them where you're going ahead of time? Some of my family's coolest getaways kicked off as complete surprises to the kids who awoke to packed suitcases and plane tickets. If you're not that adventurous, make it a mystery. Start dropping enticing clues weeks in advance and let them follow the trail. Just remember, there's got to be a big "wow" at the end of the rainbow; news that "We're going to Uncle Joe's!" will create a giant "thud."

5. Make it pop (culture): Kids who hate museums at home are likely to hate them on vacation too -- unless they get a little help. Rev up an educational foray with some pop-culture inspiration. The Art Institute of Chicago isn't just a museum -- it's where Ferris Buehler played hooky. Be creative. Pick out a famous painting -- like the aforementioned AIC's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat (also in Ferris Buehler) -- and dare the kids to use their wiles to find it in the museum. You'll be surprised how engaging that can be.

6. Let them eat cake. A friend of mine makes a tradition of suspending nutrition rules long enough to allow each child to choose one vacation meal per trip. Anything goes. On one occasion, that meant a "lunch" of ice cream, marshmallows, and gummy bears, a delicacy mom only gingerly consumed. Gross? Definitely. But, it's also one of her favorite vacation memories ever, and left her then ten-year-old completely elated.

7. Make food an adventure. The above advice notwithstanding, no grownup wants to subsist on a vacation diet of only fast food. If the repast doesn't wow 'em, dangle the utensils. On a recent vacation, "Allison was willing to try different Asian cuisines," says my friend, Kim. "But, only because she wanted to master chopsticks."

8. Chill. We've all seen them: the unhappy families miserably traipsing through a theme park or other attraction under the misguided heading of, "We paid for it, we're going to maximize every second." In a word: Don't. Remember, it's supposed to be a vacation. Know when the family has had enough. Even better, known the signs of impending and disaster and take a breather before the meltdown begins.

9. Read up. Skip the travel books. For tween-agers, fiction, even ghosts stories, make the best primers. Lauren Goldenberg of The Family Traveler agency likes unusual folk tales. Just make sure they're not too spooky, or you risk alienating your audience before the vacation gets started.

10. Treat yourself. Happy parents are effective parents, so making your vacation an exercise in martyrdom is self-defeating. Instead of parking the brood at the nearest frenetic, loud, kid-centric water park, consider your own R&R. Are there activities to entertain the kids without you? Will you feel comfortable letting them hang in the room while you grab a non-burger-and-fries meal? With grownups and kids factored into the equation, you'll all be smiling.

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