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Travel With Teens: Road Trip Tips

We've taken dozens of family road trips, but I'd never appreciated how much things have changed from the days when disrupted nap or meal schedules could lead to meltdowns. Still, travel with teens comes with its own challenges.
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Last month we wrapped up our epic summer family road trip through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks with two adults and three kids ages 12 through 17.

This was stunning country, and we hit all the high points we could manage in three days for the two parks, logging more than 1,500 miles total.

At one point we took a shuttle boat across Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons, and a short, guided hike up a mountain to see a secluded waterfall. The scenery took my breath away, but something else also caught my attention.

Along for the hike was a family with three little girls. They were well behaved, but also talkative and precocious. There was little whining but lots of activity.

They reminded me of when our family was younger. Our boys would charge up the trail, all arms and legs and loud voices. If we were lucky, they'd maintain their enthusiasm long enough to complete our hike without complaint. Their dad and I would have been constantly on our guard lest someone shove his brother into a stream, or a bug into his mouth, wander off the path, or collect handfuls of rocks to be found later, rattling in the dryer. We would have fielded endless questions, stepped off the trail repeatedly to root around in a backpack for snacks, reminded people to keep hats on, hands to themselves, voices down.

Today, we have a teen and a tween, and they, with our exchange student, hiked in a fairly orderly line along the trail. They chatted and explored, taking pictures, sometimes raising an eyebrow at the shrill exclamations of the little girls.

We've taken dozens of family road trips, but I'd never appreciated how much things have changed from the days when disrupted nap or meal schedules could lead to meltdowns, when we had to be prepared to change a diaper on a tailgate, or intervene in a "he's touching/looking at/bothering me," argument. The thought only hit me when I saw our family juxtaposed with that of the sweet girls with their lopsided ponytails and dirty hands.

Still, travel with teens comes with its own challenges. For road trip season, I offer up the following to anyone packing a passel of gangly adolescents into a car for a journey of any length:

Pack food - Traveling with teens can mean a hefty restaurant tab when no one's eating from the kids' menu anymore. I'm not a fast food or value meal fan either. We were traveling with kids who represent all points on the picky spectrum, to boot, so even agreeing on where to eat is a pain. But vehicles come with space for coolers, and ours was packed with healthy(ish) stuff for impromptu meals. When we stopped it was for sightseeing, not to wait in line for a table. Most lunches and some breakfasts were at wide spots in the road with beautiful views. This saved money and helped avoid a build up of to-go boxes from that kid who habitually orders a half-rack of ribs he can't finish.

Look for ways to save on lodging - We were traveling in the high season to one of the most popular destinations in the country. Hotels could easily run $500 per night for a room we'd occupy for a few hours. I booked as basic accommodations in the most central locations as I could, several months in advance. I looked for deals on travel websites, and checked for discounts for AAA members. For two nights of our trip, I booked a hostel, with a range of options from private rooms to bunks in a co-ed dorm. The family-sized room we booked shared a bathroom with other guests, and the lodge had a kitchen where we could prepare our own meals. There were no sample-sized shampoos or big screen TV, or even air conditioning, just a place to sleep at a reduced rate. Hostels are something with which travelers from other parts of the world are more familiar than in the US, and our fellow guests hailed from Italy, Belgium and China.

Go big or stay home - The decision to rent a van rather than cram our kids into one of our mid-size cars had a huge impact. There were far fewer arguments about who was taking up too much space. An expense, sure, but one made up for by frugality in other areas.

Get input - I'm terrible about asking for suggestions on a plan. But, if it's one thing teens hate, it's a lack of control. Rather than schlep everyone from one point of interest to another, I tried this time to outline the possible options and take suggestions. We stopped when something looked interesting, and passed a map around the car so people could get their bearings.

Plan on things going awry - On every trip we take, somebody gets sick, and this was no exception. Our kids are fairly prone to motion sickness, so our substantial first aid kit includes provisions for stomach issues (and clean-up). And any one of a range of other problems that could, but thankfully never did, crop up.

Play as a team - I'm not a big one for road trip games (okay, I loathe them), but on a long drive, they can generate discussion and laughter and make for a great bonding experience. We kept a list of state license plates we spotted. As the list got longer, things got more exciting. We collaborated in our search, and speculated on the odds of seeing the rarest plate of all states for that area: Hawaii. Ultimately, we recorded plates for 46 states and five Canadian provinces. We also played versions of 20 questions, and talked about our most memorable childhood experiences.

At the end of our journey, we'd spent more than 20 hours in that rental van, taken hundreds of pictures, emptied the cooler, and were happy to be home, no worse for wear.

... Although if the thermometer stays where it is, I can see another road trip to the mountains in our near future.

Beth Markley blogs about parenting and other topics at Manic Mumbling. A version of this post formerly appeared on her blog.