How to Travel With a Teen or Tween (and Stay Sane)
Helpful advice from a mom and daughter who traveled to 20 cities in six months—and still talk to each other.
Over the past six months I traveled to 20 American cities with my 13-year-old daughter (plus 11 other kids and their parents and assorted siblings) as she toured the country with the cast of a Broadway musical. That meant packing up and getting on an airplane almost once a week (with a few bus rides mixed in if the cities were close enough). We ate some truly terrible airport food, drank lot of Starbucks, bought and discarded various neck pillows, and saw the insides of more airport waiting areas and restrooms than I ever thought possible.
At first, it was a real pain. My daughter and I would argue about who should carry which bag, and would often wander all over the terminal looking for food that she would eat. But by the end of the tour, we had traveling down to a science. In fact, I eventually was able to tell if my bag was over or under the 50-pound limit just by lifting it, and we were ridiculously proud of how we could get through security in record time. Here are some tips we picked up along the way.
Packing snacks is a great idea, of course, but at some point you are going to have to eat a meal in the airport, especially if you have to wait between connecting flights or there’s a delay. We discovered a huge range in the quality of airport food options. In Lincoln, Nebraska, for example, the only stop for a hungry traveler was a small coffee shop that looked like it was plucked right out of the 70s. In New York’s LaGuardia airport, however, we dined on fine French pastries and elegant pasta. Knowing what to expect beforehand is a must, especially if your kids are picky eaters, vegetarians, or have allergies. You can do your research online or download the GateGuru app, which lists (and reviews) food options at each airport. Sometimes the best food for your family is in a different terminal—and if you have a couple hours between flights, it may be worth riding the tram for that five-star pizza.
The single best investment I made during our travel odyssey was a new piece of luggage that I could push across any airport almost effortlessly with one hand. At first I thought I could make do with an older bag, which I had to pull on two wheels, but after almost pulling my shoulder out of the socket in an epic trek across Logan Airport in Boston, I tossed that bag and bought a new one. Luggage is so brilliantly engineered these days that even a five-year-old should be able to manage a carry-on wheelie by herself.
Two rookie mistakes every traveling family makes at some point: Packing bags unevenly, so you have to frantically move shoes, books, and other heavy items from one bag to another at the check-in desk to save the “heavy baggage” fee, while angry travelers in a rush glare at you from the line. And forgetting to empty out water bottles or accidentally packing full-size toiletries in your carry-on. It’s never fun when the TSA guy makes you dump your daughter’s favorite shampoo in the trash. Fix this before you get to the airport.
Bring comfortable headphones (not the cheapo earbuds you can buy on the plane) and download your favorite shows (standup comedy specials for me, Friends and Malcolm in the Middle for my daughter) before you go, just in case the flight doesn’t have a movie you want to watch.
Of course, if that tablet or phone runs out of juice and you don’t have access to an outlet, it will be a long, boring flight.
Even if you’re flying from the heat of Florida to the heat of Texas and you can’t bear the thought of anything but flip-flops, throw an extra pair of socks in your carry-on. Why? Because parents and kids get cold feet on air-conditioned airplanes. And, as my friend and fellow tour mom Stacy says, “You really don’t want to stand barefoot on the security line when they make you take off your shoes!”