If you want to ignite enthusiasm in a bunch of teenagers, try asking them to describe their perfect holiday; it’s a subject on which they’re surprisingly vocal. My first experience of holidaying with teenagers was in my early 20s, when I was invited by a rather spirited new divorcee to accompany her on a family holiday to Ibiza.
Flattered, I assumed she was asking me as a guest. What I hadn’t bargained for was the fact she expected me to entertain her three teenage children, plus accompanying friends, ranging from 13 to 17, while she waltzed off to the other side of the island with her new boyfriend. Some holiday.
They all emerged from their rooms at different hours, and while I’m loath to make generalisations about gender, it was hard to ignore the fact the girls relished long hours lounging by the pool, which left the two boys, aged 14 and 15, bored rigid. They were happier mucking around on the beach with a snorkel. Of course, everyone agreed they wanted to go clubbing, but shepherding a group of underage teenagers through Pacha wasn’t my idea of a good time. Fraught? Absolutely.
Now, a decade and a half later, with pre-teen children of my own, I’m aware the challenge of entertaining teenagers will soon emerge again, as my kids are rapidly growing away from the days when a bucket and spade and an ice cream is their idea of holiday heaven. Ask the parent of a teenager what makes a good holiday, and occasionally you’ll hear the wry suggestion that teens are best left at home, because those transitional years from 13 to 19 are potentially stormy, characterised by mood swings and too much door slamming — and that’s just the parents. But must holidays with teenagers always be a recipe for disaster?
“Quite the opposite,” says Maria Anderson, mother to Callum, 15, Immie, 17, and Ben, 18. “Like all families, the term is demanding and busy, but holidaying together helps us reconnect. Our trips in the past five years, including a cottage in France, camping in Spain, Scotland with friends and a week for my 50th in New York, meant time together with something other than exams and school to argue over.
“And holidays with teenagers are different from holidays with younger children, who need routine. With teenagers you can enjoy a long evening meal in a Spanish taverna, eating octopus and talking about life. Give them space, and a family holiday allows you to discover your teenagers as young adults, not just kids.”
Space is one of the key themes that teenagers and their parents regularly say they want from a holiday, whether the budget covers camping in Wales, a villa in Europe, or a splash-out trip somewhere further afield. David Wickers, editor of website 101 Family Holidays and father of three children aged 22, 19 and 13, believes a successful holiday starts with parents engaging with their offspring.
“Budget is important, but once kids hit their teens they can no longer be fobbed off by the mere promise of ‘a nice family holiday,’” says David. “They want to know what’s on offer by way of shops, clubs, watersports, stomach-churning activities and — not to be underestimated — options to get away from their parents.
“Taking their interests into account is important. There’s no way I’d take my teenagers somewhere very cultural, like a weekend in Vienna, as it’s just hard work, although showing them iconic sites, like the Empire State Building, the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, is popular.”
An easy, crowd-pleasing solution is to combine your trip with another family’s. Renting somewhere big enough for a rowdy gang is always popular. “We’ve had wonderful holidays renting a farmhouse in France and Scotland with a couple of other families,” says Lizzie Pickering, mother to Emily, 13 and Cam, 15. “What teenagers want most is other teens around. Sharing with another family also helps keep costs down.”
Although most teenagers like to remain horizontal in a darkened room until midday, assuming that’s all they want is a mistake. “I was bored to death staying in a remote villa in Portugal aged 17,” admits Sammy Hillier, now 20. “My parents assumed I’d like lying around, but I missed my friends. At one point I got so bored I taught myself basic Portuguese. I really wanted something to do, and that didn’t mean clubbing every night.”
Among tour operators, teenagers have a reputation as one of the hardest groups to satisfy, but one which responds best to a certain degree of independent challenge and adventure. “Don’t underestimate the energy and enthusiasm of teenagers,” says Jonathan Simmons, father to Luke, 14 and twins, Jasper and Emma, 16.
“I’ve found the kids want to do more, not less, as they get older. We’ve given up on villas, as they get bored, and need endless amounts of cash to keep occupied.” In response, the family, including their mother, Kesya, spent two weeks in August cycling the Breton coast in France.
“I wasn’t sure about it initially, but going on a journey that didn’t involve a car was great. I enjoyed learning how to read a map and plan the route, too,” says Jasper. “We cycled most days but also hung out on beaches, or stopped at internet cafes in towns, so I could keep up with friends.”
The highlight for the entire family was three days at the Inter-Celtic Festival in Lorient. “We’d really earned a party and we all enjoyed it,” says Emma. The trip was such a success, they’re planning on cycling in Spain for spring half-term.
The teen years are the time most children start testing their independence, so it might be the time you consider packing them off for a holiday alone. But if that leaves you sweating in trepidation, with images of Newquay in your mind, consider an activity camp, which has long been the secret weapon of working parents desperate to occupy children in the summer holidays.
Do It 4 Real, run by the YHA, organises camps in everything from costume design to abseiling, but the very best action-packed camps are those run by Jocky Sanderson in the Borrowdale valley. Originally set up for younger children, Jocky extended the camps to an upper age of 16, due to demand from the scores of happy children he’s entertained. As well as abseiling, swimming, rafting and paragliding, teenagers complete a survival course and solo camping expedition. “Teenagers really love the challenge of the courses, and the chance to meet new kids and camp in the wild,” says Jocky.
But it would be easy, too, to fall into the trap of thinking all teenagers want to stay out late and escape their parents, because, freed from the pressures of having to impress their peers, Facebook, but that’s not true,” says Camilla Salter, 18. “I like coming home from a holiday having discovered something new. At school, there’s a big pressure to appear un-bothered by things. The best holidays help you forget that.”
Because their offspring are no longer kids who require structure, many parents find the teen years are the best time for some of the most culturally enriching holidays. Research by The Adventure Company found teens enjoyed to travel with peers their own age, engage in genuinely challenging activities, and see unusual sites. It’s one of a number of tour operators, including Hands Up Holidays and Explore, offering a dizzying range of activity holidays for this age group, including riding camels through Morocco, learning to dive in Egypt, whitewater rafting in France and kayaking in Ecuador.
Interestingly, one of the key factors in the success of an adventure trip is often the guide. “A good guide is critical, as they’re with you all the time and a talented one will engage a teen’s natural curiosity,” says Ian Buchanan, who has enjoyed numerous adventure holidays with his children, aged 17, 16 and 13. “It’s great to educate the kids on holiday, and a good guide will bring a country’s traditions and history alive. Technology means they can keep in touch, too — our kids are friends on Facebook with several of the guides they’ve met.”
A trip that educates teenagers about responsible travel and encourages them to engage with an alien culture is popular with both teens and their parents. Harriet Page was 14 when she travelled to India with her parents on a trip organised by Hands Up Holidays. As well as travelling through Rajasthan, she volunteered on Project Why, providing educational support for local communities. Besides working with deaf children, Harriet spent time in a women’s shelter, teaching English. “I was scared beforehand, but my parents wanted to make sure we saw something more than just a privileged tourist holiday,” she says. “Giving something back meant we got so much more out of it.” Genuinely life-changing, Harriet now fundraises for the project.
Of course, a holiday for your teenagers should, in theory, mean a holiday for you too, and if the prospect of entertaining your teens leaves you reaching for the nearest bottle of Chablis, then a club-style break could keep everyone happy.
“Teenagers are too old for kids’ clubs, but we’ve increased the age of our organised activities for teens due to demand,” says Pete Tyler, managing director of Neilson Activity Holidays. It runs activities such as mountain biking, tennis and watersports, for three age groups: eight-13, 12-14 and 15-17, at its clubs in Greece and Turkey, and has found teens play an increasingly active role in driving the choice of holiday.
“Kids meet on holiday, and keep in touch via social media, so return with their families year after year. We’re also finding more grandparents are joining family this is also a brilliant time to share experiences together as a family. “People imagine teenagers want to get drunk, or stay on holidays, as a club break allows you to get away together as an extended family. We see teens thriving in this environment, as they enjoy the freedom, but can join in with family life when they want without getting claustrophobic.” The all-inclusive nature of some club breaks also makes budgeting with teens less stressful.
“We’ve enjoyed Neilson breaks with our kids, who enjoyed doing activities from dawn ’til dusk while we unwind,” says 101 Family Holidays’ David Wickers. “Knowing meals and activities are included makes finances easier to manage.”
While budgeting for a holiday with the kids is a huge consideration for most families, the teen years are also the moment many parents realise, perhaps a little wistfully, their days of family trips are numbered. Many teens become reluctant to join a family holiday once they hit their late teens, so some parents invest in a once-in-a-lifetime trip at this time.
“Safari is expensive, but parents see it as a life-changing experience. It’s very different from simply lying on a beach in the Caribbean ordering endless drinks, after all,” says Alexandra Matts, Africa specialist at Exsus Travel. “Parents love the fact safari gives them plenty of family time, because most camps are remote.”
While malaria-free South Africa is popular for younger families, Alexandra recommends Kenya and Zambia, where lodges tend to be run by owners whose kids have grown up there. “Teenagers are fascinated to meet kids who’ve grown up in a completely different environment. And the owner’s children are wonderful at taking teens off — sitting in caves telling ghost stories is really popular. Teenagers love safaris because it gives them a chance to spread out and go a little wild themselves.”
Being able to spread out, make noise, have time away from parents but not be isolated from family life, and be freed from the pressures of having to be a teenager are the things mentioned again and again.
Perhaps what’s most heartening to parents, too, is the fact this needn’t mean taking their kids to the other side of the world — although that’s always welcome if its affordable. So if you ask a teen what they really want, you’ll find the common theme is freedom, and anywhere that lets them achieve that is a winning destination.
Heartening for parents, too, is the fact Scotland and Cornwall are the names that repeatedly come up as locations where teenagers have enjoyed their most rewarding holidays. “I’m lucky to have travelled a lot, but Scotland is the place we’ve had the best times,” says 18-year-old Camilla Salter who holidays on the Scottish island of Eilean Shona.
“Highlights are big picnics, and escaping from the grown-ups to light a fire on the beach, sit around and talk, or dance and dress up and make a fool of yourself. There’s no technology, and friends who arrive resistant to this are won over, as it means you throw yourself into the moment. If I had to choose between something posh, like diving in the Maldives, or Eilean Shona, I’d choose Scotland every time. It’s heaven — the perfect holiday.”
And as praise goes — particularly from a teenager — you can’t get much higher than that.
ESSENTIALS: 10 ideas for holidays with teens
1. Spain: Inntravel offers four nights cycling on the Catalan Coast from £598 per person, with lodgings, cycle hire, maps and luggage transfers. www.inntravel.co.uk
2. Cosy camping: Thomson Alfresco offers seven nights in a caravan for up to six, at Venice Marina from £240 per person, with ferry crossing. www.thomsonalfresco.com
3. Mountain adventures: Six nights trekking in Bhutan, including the Taktsang Monastery costs from £2,795 per person with flights. www.seasons.co.uk
4. India: A seven-night tour to Kerala from £1,799 per person with flights and a night on a rice boat. www.greavesindia.com
5. A languid villa holiday: Il Trappeto, near Puglia, is a 17th-century olive mill with heated pool, sleeping 12, from £2,450 for seven nights. www.olivemill.co.uk
6. A jungle adventure: Explore’s teen tour in Thailand includes a homestay, one night in a raft house on the River Kwai and four days on Koh Samui. Suitable for 11-plus, from £1,752 per adult and £1,622 per child including flights, accommodation, and guides. www.explore.co.uk
7. Scotland: Rent Eilean Shona island, with eight-bedroom Eilean Shona House, self-catering, from £500 per person for six nights. www.eileanshona.com
8. Safari: Exsus Travel offers a two-week trip to Zambia and Malawi, from £4,250 per person, including all flights, game drives, mountain biking safaris, village visits and a boat trip. www.exsus.com
9. Solo camping adventures: Jocky Sanderson offers a week’s camping and activities from £425, including all meals and activities. www.keswickoutdoors.com
10. India: The 12-day Taste of India tour with Hands Up Holidays includes four days’ volunteering followed by a tour through Rajasthan, from £2,250 per person, excluding flights. www.handsupholidays.com
Lizzie and Hugo Pickering spent a holiday on the Scottish island of Colonsay with children Emily, 13, and Cam, 15, and numerous cousins and friends. “We were 10 teens and eight adults. The kids slept in, leaving us to relax, but at lunch we headed to the beach for a picnic with games, and in the evenings the teens peeled off to light a fire on the beach. It’s also the most amazing parenting workshop, as you learn so much talking to other parents. Mixing age groups is fun, and it gives me time to get to know my kids’ friends.”
Camp it up
Martina Harrison took her son, George, 19, and niece Katie, 11, camping with Thomson Alfresco near Venice marina. “We hired bikes, and as well as the beach next door, there were lots of swimming options. Having activities on hand was great and we were also able to go to Venice. The camp felt safe, so I let Katie go off without worrying, and the nightlife kept the teenagers happy, but not so much it ruined the experience for the adults. The caravan was also large enough for George to have his own privacy.” www.thomsonalfresco.com
Ian Buchanan and his wife Catherine and children Eleanor, 17, Flora, 16, and Euan, 12, travelled to Thailand with Explore on a group adventure tour. “We’re using the kids’ teenage years as a chance to get off the beaten track. Travelling as a group worked well as they made friendships of their own, although we had enough time to spend together as a family, too. Giving the kids really extraordinary experiences — like staying with three generations of a Thai family — is what turned this into an unforgettable experience.” www.explore.co.uk
Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)