A dad’s tip for traveling with teens: high-speed internet is essential

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No one warned me about traveling with teenagers, but I wish they would.

Someone should have informed me of the erratic sleep patterns that can thwart even the best-planned trip. Or the insatiable appetite for unlimited high-speed wireless. At least they could have said something about the food.

Instead, I learned everything I know about traveling with teenagers the hard way. I’ve been on the road with mine for almost five years. We are digital nomads – a single dad and three teenagers, ages 15, 17 and 19.

I love traveling with my children. They are curious, spontaneous and have a dry sense of humor which makes them ideal traveling companions. I discovered so much about traveling and about myself being on the road with them.

But now, with my eldest son just days out of his teens – he turns 20 this month – I am in a unique position to deliver this warning that I never received, and perhaps a few words of solidarity, to other parents of teenagers. My lessons learned about traveling with teenagers might even save your next vacation.

I wish I had known that making a schedule is useless when traveling with teenagers. They’ll probably just doze off during this walking tour of Rome. the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says teens ages 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours of rest per night. Most don’t get it, but did you know that the holidays are a great time for teens to catch up on sleep? And they have a lot of catching up to do.

If you’re flying somewhere, that’s where it gets interesting. Jet lag disrupts your body clock, causing insomnia, fatigue and mood swings. And if you think it’s bad for you, wait until you see what it does to your teenage years. My daughter’s favorite wake up time on my last trip to Hawaii was 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. local time, more or less. We lived in Aloha State for three months, and that never changed.

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Looking back, I wish I had known that you can’t really plan a trip for teenagers. It’s more like you’re suggesting a route but giving them veto power. For example, this cute Vrbo rental in Pringle Bay, South Africa would have been so relaxing in March. But not for my second child; he needed access to food markets and shopping at the V&A Waterfront so we chose to be closer to Cape Town. My children have given the green light to cities and even to entire countries. Go ahead, call me a breeze. But I like to think of myself as pragmatic. If your children are not happy, you will never hear the end of it.

What are your teens doing during waking hours while you travel? I wish someone had let me know that they wouldn’t necessarily be steeped in the culture and live like the locals. Instead, they sat in their hotel or vacation rental, connected to their devices, chatting with friends. My 17-year-old son plays a game called “Gorilla Tag” on his Oculus Rift VR headset, which requires a super-fast internet connection.

In fact, the first question my teenagers ask me about a hotel is not: is there a swimming pool? How is the beach? What are the catering options? No, it’s always the same: Does it have good WiFi? My children connect to the Internet immediately after putting down their suitcases. And lately they have started to be picky about the connection. Aren, my eldest, will log into his speed test program to check the connection. Anything less than 10 megabits per second download gives me dirty looks. When I tell them I was lucky when my hotel room had a phone, the response is eye rolls.

While we’re on the subject of electronics, here’s another thing I wish I had known: you can never have enough chargers. The most violent confrontations between my teenagers when we are on the road involve a loader. I’ve lost count of the fights I’ve had to mediate between two warring siblings.

“She took my magazine!” we shout.

“No, it’s my charger,” snaps the other.

Want to take it to the next level? Try international travel, where none of your chargers will work without an adapter. A 110 to 220 volt adapter is one of the easiest things to lose when you’re in a hotel. Honestly, I feel like an outlet vending machine every time we get somewhere. But on a recent trip to South Africa, he reached crisis level. The country uses a three-prong plug, and we only had one. Epic fight!

On international holidays, even unplugged teenagers find Turkish delights

Another thing people haven’t mentioned about traveling with teenagers: you have to feed them! Teenagers are the human equivalent of hummingbirds, normally consuming what seems to be about twice their weight in food. But as with sleep, travel has an unexplained multiplier effect on food intake. They eat extra meals, like second breakfasts or early dinners.

I’ve seen boxes of Jordanian Medjool dates disappear within minutes. Teenagers can slurp pizza off their plates with the speed and efficiency of a competitive eater. Teenagers are the natural enemy of all-you-can-eat buffets: when the kitchen staff sees them coming, they run for the hills. On our second day at an all-inclusive golf resort near Antalya, Turkey, the waiters gave my boys a nervous look when they saw them — and I received a knowing nod.

The consequences of missing a meal can be painful. The crew becomes belligerent. And when I suggest that they went to war on each other because they skipped breakfast, they often aim their rhetorical cannons at me: “No, dad, maybe the problem is you!”

Missing a meal is not an option when traveling with teenagers. I wish I had known.

You’re probably wondering how some guy traveled with three teenagers full time for as long as I did. And school? After we became digital nomads, the boys completed high school online with the help of a tutor and then got tested at a community college. They graduated from the University of Arizona last year and are pursuing master’s degrees. But the wandering lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Their sister bailed out, returning to live with her mother last summer. She has just finished her ninth year in a regular high school.

So, does my advice on traveling with teenagers only apply to boys? To find out, I called a fellow travel writer Doug Lansky, the Stockholm-based father of three teenage girls. He confirmed that all the things I wrote about also apply to girls, especially the part about WiFi. Her daughters ask the same question as my boys about wireless connections, even though they don’t do speed tests when they get to the hotel.

Lansky says one of the greatest gifts a parent can have is the absence of WiFi. The ship on her recent Galapagos Islands cruise didn’t have an internet connection, which allowed her to spend quality time with her daughters. The girls knew before their vacation that it would be without the internet, so they had time to prepare. It allowed the family to connect in a meaningful way, with long conversations over meals and during visits. Lansky says the cruise line won’t be installing hotspots any time soon.

“For me,” he says, “having no WiFi is a selling point.”

The only difference between teenagers and girls, he adds, is preparation time. Lansky learned to add an extra hour each morning to the schedule to allow her daughters to prepare for the day. Teenagers need the same time, I assured him. Sure, my sons can shower and shave in five minutes like they’re in boot camp. But they’ll be spending the other 55 minutes sleeping, so everything will balance out.

If you’re thinking of taking your teenagers somewhere, my advice is: do it. Sure, traveling with young adults can test your patience, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do as a parent. The journeys you take with them as teenagers will influence them as adults, shaping them into curious and compassionate citizens of the world.

But I can’t take credit for all of this. I believe it is the gift of travel.

Elliott is the travel section Navigator journalist.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.

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