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Traveling with teens

Multigenerational travel can pose some difficult challenges, given the likely spread in interests between adults and younger family members.

As one reader asked, “What about cruising or touring with older teens (17, 18, and 21 years old)? I’m considering either a cruise of Italy and the Greek Isles or more extended touring, or maybe some of each. I have been to Europe several times but my children haven’t. My take on Europe is little outdoor cafes and taking my time going to the ‘local’ places. However, I’m afraid that my kids will get bored with too much history and perhaps the Greek Isles will give us some beach time to relax. We have been on several Caribbean cruises, which we all have enjoyed. I’m still going back and forth in my mind if we should just travel by train and see different stops on our own. My kids are at a funny age group. They like to travel with us still but they like to do their own thing as well.”

I couldn’t provide a definitive answer to that question without knowing a lot more about your family than I do, but I can at least offer something of a framework for you—and others—to make some decisions.

What to do

What do travelers really want to do on vacations to Italy and Greece? I’d suggest these main options:

  • Sightseeing. Italy provides some of the world’s top sightseeing—the Alps and Dolomites for mountains and scenic valleys, the fabulous lakes, the incredible Mediterranean coastlines, and a wide variety of charming villages and small towns—and Greece isn’t far behind, especially for its islands.
  • History and culture. The Parthenon, Delphi, Roman Forum, Vatican, Florence’s museums, San Marco, the Last Supper, Milan Cathedral—what need I possibly say about many of the Western world’s all-star attractions?
  • Lying on the beach. You wouldn’t go all the way to Italy or Greece for just the beaches, but if you’re there already, you have some good options: Italy’s Tuscan, Venetian, and Neapolitan “Rivieras,” and the Greek Islands, all with lots of hotels right on the beach.
  • Living the local life. You won’t find better food anywhere than in Italy’s zillions of ordinary restaurants (although you can also find three-star stuff if you like it better), and sipping ouzo in a Greek cafe is one of Europe’s great experiences.
  • Socializing. In my experience, many teens and young adults are more interested in socializing with other teens and young adults than in going along with their parents. Depending on their back-home relationships, they might even be seeking a brief “summer romance.” During the summer, when students are out of school, your young folks will find Italy and Greece swarming with similar-aged visitors from all over the world, many of whom speak adequate English.
  • Shopping. In my recent experience, it’s hard to find anything useful to buy in Europe that you can’t buy, for less money, here in the U.S. Still, some folks still enjoy the experience of trying.

How to do it

Your travel options are fairly straightforward:

  • Cruising. You spend a few hours in a new port almost every day. The trip is self-contained—no schlepping in and out of hotels, trains, or cars. Also, no real beach time. On any given cruise, it’s hard to predict whether your young folks will find others of their ages. On a big ship, in the summer, the chances are good; not so good in off-seasons.
  • Rail touring. Trains are the best ways to get to/from the centers of Italy’s big cities; they’re frequent, fast, and comfortable. If you want to spend most of your time in the centers of Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, or Milan, rail is the way to go. You’re more likely to run into lots of other young travelers—locals plus tourists from the U.S. and a U.N. full of other countries—in the big cities than anywhere else.
  • Car touring. The only way to visit some of the top natural features and small towns is to rent a car; moreover, you don’t have to multiply many train fares by five before a rental looks pretty good. If you prefer small country inns, you have to drive. But the chances of meeting other teens and young adults are meager.
  • Beach hotel. If you prefer to stay a week on the beach, you really don’t have to worry about how you get around inside the country. You’re likely to run into lots of young people at major beach destinations—but mostly tourists from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia rather than locals or travelers from the U.S.

Sorting it out

Here’s my quick tabulation of how well each type of travel suits the different activity options:

Cruising Rail touring Car touring Beach hotel
Sightseeing Fair Fair Good Poor
History and culture Fair Good Fair Poor
Lying on the beach Poor Poor Poor Good
Living the local life Poor Good Good Fair
Socializing Fair Good Poor Good
Shopping Poor Fair Fair Poor

Don’t guess, ask ’em

At Consumer Reports Travel Letter, our chief technical guy, my wife (and co-editor), and I would sometimes discuss acquiring new hardware or software. Often, in those discussions, the technical guy and I would find ourselves exchanging “she’d like this” and “she wouldn’t use that” comments. This drove my wife nuts; she’d chime in with, “Don’t keep referring to me in the third person when I’m standing right here; ask me!”

The point of this digression is to suggest that you not go into a mystical trance trying to divine what your teens would best like to do. Instead, ask them! Just make sure that, however your family dynamic works, you get them to tell you what they really want, not what they think you’d like to hear. Consider getting them to add their personal rankings to the tabulation above.

Split it up?

Maybe the answer to your trip is to do some of each—or at least try two or three approaches. If you have two weeks, you could easily split your time between a cruise, say, and a week of city touring, countryside touring, or the beach. However, if your time is limited to just a week, you pretty much have to choose.

Again depending on your family dynamic, don’t be afraid to split your party. Maybe your two older kids would prefer to stay in Rome, Florence, Venice, or the beach for a few days on their own, while you and your younger teen tour the Lake Country or drive the Amalfi Coast. That could easily be a better solution than keeping the party together, knowing that two or three of you are unhappy with the decision.

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