We did it. We survived a road trip with teenagers.
Three weeks, 6,000 km (3,800 miles), 5 American States, 2 Canadian Provinces, and one 1991 VW Westfalia Vanagon. Without air conditioning. With two teenaged boys.
We’ve done quite a few epic road trips with our boys since they were toddlers. Like Cannes to Paris, France, in a day. (We arrived in Paris near midnight, and promptly got lost in the Bois du Boulogne. Do not recommend.) And from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Drumheller, Alberta. Destination: Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell Museum. They have all been fun, and memorable, and largely successful, as this latest summer road trip was.
Our kids are great travellers, and like any of us, their happiness is based on some key things while on the road, especially on a long road trip. (This year, it was Banff, Alberta, via the Bay Area of California, in the United States. It’s a long story.) The great thing is that you too can survive a road trip with teens. Just follow these nine road trip tips and you’ll be free-wheeling and road trippin’ your teens and tweens in no time.
How to Survive a Road Trip with Teenagers
1. Ensure they’ve had a hand in the trip planning
We’re big advocates for family travel planning, and that’s how we approach roadtrips with teenagers. When we asked our kids where they wanted to go (and how), their replies included ‘Banff’ and ‘road trip’. Their personal investment in helping to plan our family road trips itinerary helped to ensure that; 1. they were keen to travel with their parents (not a given with teenagers!) and; 2. they were travelling somewhere they actually wanted to go. These are both pretty important elements to enjoying a successful family holiday.
Now, along the way there were items that required some negotiating and compromise, but really, it wasn’t much. More along the line of how long to spend in certain places, or whether to seek relief from the desert heat of Nevada in a air-conditioned hotel versus camping (the hotel won unanimously). In learning how to travel well together, the necessity of compromise is an important lesson for everyone.
2. Take a Break
Rest stop yoga, anyone? Driving hours without a break isn’t fun. Keep a lookout for the pullout signs and take frequent stretch (and bathroom) breaks to rejuvenate. Historical sites and markers are also wonderful pit stops, with the added value of educational information. Of course, the power of ice cream parlors to work miracles in boosting sagging spirits in the mid-afternoon is well-documented. In our household anyway.
Looking for more tips on traveling with teens? Read about the best family vacations for teens that will make memories that last.
3. Daily Wifi Access
We’ve tried to fight it, but it’s nearly impossible, especially with older kids. Without fail, the first question upon crossing the hotel threshold was, “What’s the Wifi Password?” Our teens needed their daily connection fix, which usually happened at night time in a hotel room (when we weren’t camping). It is important for kids (especially older ones) to be connected with their friends via social media, though I do believe they can live without it for a few days. The key is to find the common ground of how much is mutually acceptable, without veering into the extremes of either none or all the time.
4. Choose Activities Wisely
It’s so much easier to get kids excited about a trip or particular travel day when their interests have been included. Do your kids enjoy active travel, such as hiking, biking or zip lining? Do they prefer quieter pursuits, museum visits or shopping? Do you have theme-park-crazy, or beach + ocean fans in your family? Plan your travel accordingly, and everyone will be much happier for it. We planned and managed to get three great hikes in during our visit to Banff and Lake Louise, which made our boys very, very happy.
That said, it’s just as important to ensure that everyone’s trip style is met. If that means a cultural/museum visit one day, followed by a beach/hiking/biking day the next, that’s great. Compromise is something that all family members need to understand and appreciate when on a road trip with teenagers.
5. Plan Chill Time
While choosing your activities with an eye towards what your kids (and family as a whole) will enjoy is a must, planning some chill or rest time is equally important. Over-scheduling tired kids and adults after a particularly long day on a road trip with teenagers is a recipe for crankiness, eye rolling or meltdowns – or all of the above! Build in rest days to enjoy at beaches, water parks, or exploring a new city. Breaking up a road trip with multi-day stays at a fun destination along the way also works well. We stayed with friends half way through our trip, and it was a relaxing trip highlight for all of us.
6. Play Road Trip Games
Teens are not too old to enjoy car games. Whether it’s the venerable old punch buggy (pretty rare), fun card games like UNO, I Spy, or 20 Questions, road trip games and play can be surprisingly fun. For our road trip, the License Plate Game ruled. We spotted 47 out of 50 states, including Hawaii!, as well as 7 out of 10 Canadian provinces. Our kids were so into spotting plates that when my son yelled out “Georgia!” while on the highway in Idaho, my happy scream of delight startled my husband so much he thought we’d just seen an accident. Ooops!
7. Stock the Cooler
Ensure your car cooler is packed full of favorite (and healthy) snacks, drinks, and a choice of whatever sandwiches, wraps or pockets that will make them happy. Road tripping should also involve some special treats that aren’t part of your daily menu. Our own treat selections include beef jerky, cheese popcorn, and sour candies. Don’t forget the napkins and wipes, and do pack your own water bottles for refills, to cut down on bottle waste. Winding our way through the desert of northwest Nevada, we stopped often to refill on cold water, Gatorade and cold-brewed coffee, and to replenish ice supplies in the heat. Our 90s-era VW Campervan is not air-conditioned.
8. Tune-out Time is Okay
Even adults can get tired of hours of ‘wow, look at that view!’ window-gazing. It’s okay to tune out of surroundings once in a while and read, sleep, listen to music or audiobooks, or watch videos or game. While we’ve never travelled with in-vehicle entertainment systems, I do understand their appeal depending on kids ages. But I also believe in talking, playing car games (see above), and appreciating the views and surroundings that you’re travelling through.
That is a big point of any road trip, especially on such roads as through Yosemite National Park, or the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper, Alberta. Have fun with road trip activities, and stop to smell the roses, take in the views, stop at roadside attractions and make those memories that kids will remember, always.
9. Share the Wheel
If your teenager is old enough to drive, a road trip with long stretches of driving is a great practice opportunity. Trust is obviously important. But if they’re capable – and you can handle the stress on a long drive – gauge their ability to navigate your route itinerary map and instructions. Use a road trip with teenagers as a confidence boost for their driving abilities, remembering to first check whether their conditional license (if applicable), or your rental car agreement and insurance is valid in the area you’re visiting.
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Have you done a summer road trip with your kids? Where did you go? Share your tips below.