Travel with Teens: Road Trip Tips

Hiking up to Hidden Falls at Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Forest

If you’ve been with me the past couple of posts, you know we just wrapped up our Epic Family Summer Road Trip. At one point we took a shuttle boat across a lake 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 have charged 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 on constantly 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.

Ranger Josh enthusiastically describes the geology of the Tetons
Ranger Josh enthusiastically describes the geology of the Tetons

Today, we have a teen and a tween, and they, with our seventeen year-old 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:

Lower Yellowstone Falls
Lower Yellowstone Falls
  1. Pack food – This will help avoid the hefty restaurant tab that comes when no one’s eating from the kids’ menu anymore. I’m not a fast food fan, so dining out for every meal can seriously run up our budget. 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.
  1. 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. Guests had 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 was no sample-sized shampoo 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 used to than in the US, and our fellow guests hailed from Italy, Belgium and China.
  1. Go big or stay home –This decision to rent a van rather than cram our kids into the back of 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.

    An impromptu stop at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park didn't suck
    An impromptu stop at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park didn’t suck
  1. Get input – I’m terrible about asking for input. And, 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 from the peanut gallery. We stopped when something looked interesting, and passed a map around the car so people could get their bearings.
  1. Plan on things going awry – Every trip of ours, 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 problems that could, but thankfully never did, crop up.
  1. 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 of all states: Hawaii. Ultimately, we recorded 46 states and five Canadian provinces. We also played versions of 20 questions, and talked about our most memorable childhood experiences.
A quiet moment overlooking Craters of the Moon National Monument
A quiet moment overlooking Craters of the Moon National Monument

At the end of our journey, we’d put more than 1,300 miles on that rental van, taken hundreds of pictures, emptied the cooler, and were happy to be home, no worse for wear.

… Although if the thermometer keeps climbing, I can see another road trip to the mountains in our near future.

Have you taken your teenagers on a road trip? What suggestions would you add for staying sane?


The favor of your vote (just click on the banner below), is always appreciated. Thank you.


You may also like

1 comment

  1. So glad to hear everyone came back alive. We\’re going on a cruise (very) soon with one teenager and one preteen. What?? I won\’t have Wi-Fi?? Oh the horror. Wish me luck…