How Travel Benefits Teens (Though They May Not Admit It!)

African--American teen boy walks down a street smiling.

by Samurai Mom

Are your teens hungry for independence? You can tap into that drive to help them learn life skills embedded in travel. Nothing teaches teens like lessons learned out on the world stage. If you do a trip right, every day presents a golden opportunity for the stickiest type of learning – experiences that can change a teen’s outlook, or even change the path of their life. Consider the world your classroom.

How will regional or international travel benefit your teen? Travel will teach your teen to: navigate the world; think flexibly to solve ever-shifting challenges; negotiate to achieve goals; develop empathy and overcome cultural stereotypes.

Friends hugging with arms raised in fists.As a teacher, I see the beauty of the flexible, point-of-need lessons of travel. Unlike school, there’s no carefully sequenced curriculum. There’s no skill and drill practice,  no performance tasks that teachers craft in an attempt to simulate real life. 

It’s all real. If that wasn’t enough, traveling applies lessons learned in school to authentic problems, while making the content of school more relevant to your teen. 

And maybe best of all, consequences and rewards for choices made are baked into every day.  

During our trip to Italy this summer, I’ve been thinking about the lessons that Samurai Dad and I have taught and learned through travel with our teens. Unbelievably, these lessons have been delivered with only a few lectures. Just as incredible, there have been fewer sighs, glazed, long-suffering looks or eye-rolls.  Complaints? Yes. But they’re not particularly directed at Samurai Dad or at me.  After all, there’s not as much parental top-down oversight to rail against while on the road. We’re learning along with them about how to travel to different places efficiently, on a budget and with respect for the people who live there.


Understanding where you are in the world and how to get to where you want to go is critical to independence. Yet even many adults (like me) struggle with navigation without a GPS.

Here’s why I’m working on it: how to get from point A to point B represents so much more than a physical relocation of yourself: it is a basic requirement of freedom. Teach your teen to master this skill while you travel and it will change their sense of independence and their willingness to explore.

Some cultures teach navigation early in childhood. I remember reading in “Eat Pray Love” about Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey to self-discovery. It was set partly in Bali, in which kids are taught navigation from the time that they can walk. Balinese culture emphasizes that in any interaction, telling where you’ve come from and where you’re going are part of the exchange. It’s as common as asking about someone’s health.

Unfortunately, unless kids are part of a Scout troop,  learning orienteering isn’t nearly as common in western parenting.

So the Balinese, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts may have navigation covered, but the rest of us have to intentionally teach our children how to plot a course through city subways, over backcountry roads and in the great outdoors.

Boy scouts in a groupIdeally, your practice will include both analog (using a map and maybe a compass) and digital tools like Google Maps or CityMapper to plot your location and destination.

GPS is a wonderful invention, but connections will be lost when a barrier interrupts your signal. I’ll never forget the multiple times that our GPS app lost its (his? her?) way in Venice, urging us to walk straight into the Grand Canal or take a left into a brick wall. Luckily, we had a map or we’d have wandered the back alleys of the City of Water for days. I can think of worse problems, but still, you want to get back to home base eventually.

You need a backup plan. Think like a Boy Scout who knows how to start a fire with sticks when the matches get wet. 

Even if you’re no Magellan, basic orienteering is a skill that becomes stronger with repeated practice. How do I know? I’m getting better at finding my way.

For a step-by-step plan to teach navigation skills, here’s Samurai Dad’s guide to teach your teens how to explore a new city!

Are you ready to go somewhere AMAZING like Italy or Costa Rica? Check out Intrepid Travel for small, family-oriented tours customized for you and your teen.

Flexibility and Critical Thinking

A canal in VeniceTravel teaches teens how to keep their wits in quickly changing and unfamiliar conditions. The very act of leaving home forces your family out of your comfort zone and requires you all to rebuild a kind of routine to meet your daily needs:

What and how will you eat?

Where will you go and how will you get there?

When and where will you sleep?

How will you manage your other physical needs like bathing, going to the bathroom, washing clothes, etc?

How much will it cost to get there?

Of course, your routines will vary depending on the services that you pay for. Some travelers (perhaps anxious about travel) try to create an easy experience. Others want to recreate something close to their home life.

Some will book an all-inclusive resort, only venturing out for short, guided excursions. They’ll have concierge services or tour guides arrange for all their needs. They’ll complain about the heat or the rain or the steep grade of the mountain. They’ll be disappointed when the food tastes different from what they’ve had at home.

I get it. Vacations are important and expensive. We look forward to a trip as an escape from daily life.

two girls on a bikeBut creating a seamless travel experience has a downside. It can isolate you and your teen from really experiencing the people and place to which you’ve traveled. Kinda defeats the purpose of travel, unless you just need mindless R&R. 

Sometimes people describe their trips as a series of checkboxes to be completed. I love to hear about trips. But whenever a trip is presented as a list of activities, I always wonder instead how the experience changed their outlook.

“Yeah, just got back from a weekend in Massachusetts with the family. We did Salem, the House of the Seven Gables,  Plymouth Plantation and the______.”

I call this a vacation blitz. There are plenty of resources out there if this is the kind of trip you dream of.  But if you just want to recreate your home life or check activities off without being touched or changed in any way, why not have a staycation and save the money? 

After all, you can watch Rick Steves tour most of the world right from your living room. 

To help your teen experience the flavor of a place, opt-out of whirlwind tours. Four European cities in 8 days! will probably result in a jumbled series of surface impressions of each city.

It’s ironic that the problem with this type of travel is the very thing that seems attractive: all the rough edges are sanded off. And when there’s too much to absorb, nothing will stick.  You and your teen will be too insulated by the tour structure and the perks to really feel the place or get to know the people.

Consider slow travel, or at least slower travel.

Here’s the model in a nutshell:

Take some time and pick one place to explore. Rent an apartment with a basic kitchen. Settle in. Go to the store. Buy some food. Take long walks. If you’re traveling in another country, or even if you’re not,  learn some words in another language. Observe and listen more than you talk. Be polite. Lower your expectations about what a vacation should be and just be present. Plan one activity to do in a day. Hang out with locals whenever possible

Oh, and this may be the hardest thing: turn off your phone or at least limit the time you spend on it.

To process your impressions, take some time to share what you see. If your teen is interested,  keep a journal or scrapbook together to reflect on your days.  At the very least, build in some time for discussion with your kid(s) to compare how things are different from your home or from other places that you’ve visited.  

Here are some possible questions that you might consider with your teen:

What was the highlight of the day? 

What surprised you? 

What irritated you?

What made you smile or laugh?

What was confusing?

How are the teenagers that you observe different from teens from home? 

What perceptions do you have of the local people? 

Describe new or unique places, activities or food that you experienced.

Teach your teen how to build an efficient itinerary, making use of your location, the weather, local transportation and resources.

laundry hanging on a line in VeniceA slower, more intentional trip will be full of challenges to tackle, from the simple to the thorny. How to solve the problem of drying clothes without a dryer or a clothesline, for example, as my family recently experienced in a rental apartment. Do we drag loads of wet clothes to a laundromat which was blocks away?  Do all the laundry there instead? Our solution: we found a tall aluminum ladder in a dusty storage closet, set it up in the middle of the living room and used it to hang every last piece of clothing to dry. And we settled into a routine of washing at night so there would always be a fresh supply of clean, dry clothes in the morning.  While perfecting this routine, we realized that it wasn’t necessary to drag half our wardrobes around the world!

Lesson learned: Pack light. Think like a minimalist. There’s no need to bring everything you own when you travel.  


Travel provides dozens of opportunities to negotiate, both in your environment and with each other.  You’ll likely have different interests to explore at your destination. How will you divide the time so that your son can go see the race and you get to the historic site with enough time to explore? Every relationship is a continual balance of competing interests and wills, and at no time is this more apparent than parents and teens negotiating adolescence. Parenting toddlers is a close second.

Teach your teen to question every “given” on a trip. Show them how research can help them make better choices under a bit of pressure. What may seem to be set in stone or an accepted process is often negotiable, or maybe even a sales funnel.  In other words, are there alternatives? Take a closer look. 

We had to find our way from Heathrow Airport to a hotel near London City Airport. Getting off the plane in London, we encountered a smooth kiosk representative selling tickets to a high-speed train. He was set up in exactly the right location and with the polished spiel to make it appear that this was the best option to get to our hotel. With a bit of questioning, the rep told us that instead of paying €148 he quoted, we could take the local train which cost about €21. (Whaat??!) If Samurai Dad hadn’t pressed the agent for more information, we would have cut into way into our budget before even reaching the destination.

Research is king, but some decisions will have to be made in the moment, as you encounter each leg of your trip. And you’ll make mistakes, as everyone does in a new environment. Involve your teen in the decisions, or at least share how you analyzed the choices. The more your teen feels in control of the details and direction of your trip, the more invested they’ll be in your daily experience.

 Get Teens Out of Their Own Heads (Develop Awareness and Empathy)

Part of adolescence is a persistent focus on the self. It can be maddening to us parents, but it’s a normal response to the emotional, intellectual and physical changes that teenagers experience.  

Travel can help develop greater empathy and awareness.  An accepted custom, “What everyone does” at home will look different when seen through the lens of another culture. 

Giotto's Tower in Florence, ItalyWhen we visited Giotto’s Bell Tower of Florence, Italy, we climbed 414 steps to the top for a staggering reward: a view of the Duomo cathedral and miles of the beautiful city known as the cradle of the Renaissance. Apart from the majesty of the monument and the view, our teens were elbow-to-elbow to fellow tourists from many nations in close proximity. The stairs wind up, up, up into the tower and many places have room for only one person to squeeze by. The murmuring of so many languages blending together could be heard around every bend. I noticed our teens becoming quieter and quieter with every floor we reached. They finally admitted that they heard some American voices cut stridently through the other low-key voices, drawing a lot of attention. It made them more aware of their own behavior. They were getting real-life feedback about how we Americans sometimes appear to other cultures. There are moments to develop greater self-awareness packed into every day. 

Help Reduce Cultural Stereotypes

Traveling overseas can help your teen to reduce stereotypes that they unwittingly collect. Some communities in the United States and in other countries are relatively homogenous. This prevents teens from interacting with other cultures directly, except through social media. And media may perpetuate stereotypes instead of building bridges between cultures.  

Travel helps teens see firsthand how every human on this planet shares many similar problems. Witnessing how other cultures (or different regions of the same country) meet challenges helps us all see that there are many ways to live. To help kids to understand the ways things work in different cultures and the problems we collectively need to solve, they need a global view. Help your teen see more of humanity as a whole, instead of the artificial divisions that separate us. 

Experience Natural Consequences

Because the brain isn’t fully grown until age 25, teens don’t always foresee the consequences of their choices ahead of time

And they certainly don’t want to hear the advice from you about potential pitfalls. Part of the beauty of travel is that they’ll get continuous feedback from the world on their actions with you by their side. Don’t get caught in the I-told-you-so trap. Try not to raise your eyebrows (like I do; I really need to work on my poker face) when your silent prediction of an outcome comes true. Just support your teen, keep them safe and help them experience the world. 

Some lessons are economic. Here are some examples of lessons learned through our teens’ experiences with their own travel money:

Accountability and Planning Ahead – Forget to apply parent-purchased sunscreen at home base? Teen buys more out of their savings. No kid wants to waste souvenir or treat money on something as boring (but necessary) as overpriced sunscreen brought near an attraction.  Lessons learned: organize your routine before leaving the house; plan your day so that you don’t need to buy essentials near a tourist attraction.

Break something in a rented apartment? Teen pays for it, again, from their own savings.

Lesson learned: be careful with things that don’t belong to you.

Buyer Beware -Samurai Daughter bought a purse which she assumed was leather because it had a leather tag. She looked more closely at it after we had moved on to another city and realized it was vinyl, not what she wanted.

Lesson learned: verify, verify, verify.

Research Before You Choose When you travel on a relatively tight budget, you choose restaurants and activities carefully. Well-researched = a better experience, yummier food, more fun.

Lesson learned: serendipity can be fun, but planning delivers better quality more consistently. 

Some lessons are purely practical. 

feet in sneakersTake Care of Your Feet. A Lot Rides on Them – Samurai Daughter wouldn’t be dissuaded from bringing four pairs of fashionable shoes and no sneakers on a trip. Not only did her suitcase weigh a ton, but a huge blister that formed after walking for miles drove her to buy a sensible pair of shoes, taking money out of her own souvenir budget. And then we had to lug all five pairs of shoes home.  Some lessons learned are literally a shared burden.

Lesson learned: consider the real demands of a situation in addition to fashion.

In every challenge, teens are learning accountability and planning. 

Though teens may not admit it, life lessons are embedded in the everyday experiences of a journey. It’s more effective in adolescence that the tough love they’ll experience – the stickiest of all kinds of lessons – is delivered by the world and not by you. Your role shifts to more of a guide, another important phase in parenting teens. The farther afield you go and the slower you travel, the more eye-opening the lessons will be. 

Get ready for your next trip: here’s Samurai Dad’s guide to help your teens how to explore a new city.

Are you ready to go somewhere AMAZING like Italy or Costa Rica? Check out Intrepid Travel for small, family-oriented tours customized for you and your teen.


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