By Samurai Dad
No matter where you happened to spend your last trip, you likely had sightings of other family vacations: groups navigating their way in single file through a city packed with historic attractions. As the head of our particular formation, I know we look like a line of ducks arranged from biggest to smallest, meandering toward a point of interest. I’ll share a dad secret I’ve learned: there’s a better way to chart your travels.
How do you teach your teen to navigate a new city? Orient teens to a city street map to get your bearings. Identify cardinal directions and major landmarks. Then, compare the city’s transit system and align it to the street map. Use technology like Google Maps or other apps to plot directions, but use a backup printed map if your cell phone use is interrupted.
Whether you’re Mom, Dad or unofficial tour guide, it can be stressful to be the lead duck. Not only are we responsible for charting the course, but we have to keep the flock tight to get across streets, avoid hazards and arrive with all in good shape for sightseeing. Navigation is essential to travel, but acting as permanent tour director can get old. Sharing this role gives the usual leader a break. More importantly, it strengthens the skills and responsibility of the entire family in learning how to get to a destination.
Teaching your teen to navigate both with and without the help of a GPS also encourages them to actively participate in your family vacation. Developing independence? Check. Leadership and problem-solving skills? Yup, those too.
How do we know? During many trips throughout the United States, Central America and Europe, we’ve gradually put our tweens/teens in charge. You can do the same.
To learn about some surprising benefits of travel for teens, check out Samurai Mom’s post.
Getting Your Bearings Before You Arrive
Get a physical street map of the city well in advance of your trip. Nothing beats visualizing the layout and forming a plan about how to get to attractions you’d like to see. For instance, this year was our first trip to Italy (if the Trevi Fountain has anything to do with it, this won’t be our last. Legend has it that a coin tossed over the left shoulder guarantees a return visit to Rome).
A month before the trip, I bought maps of Florence, Venice and Rome.
Once you get your map, study it. Start by marking it up with your teens:
- Add a big X for your home-base or the location you’ll be staying
- Understand which direction you’ll be facing as you exit your accommodation
- Circle the closest metro station to home-base – bus, subway or taxi stand
- Mark your entry point into the city – in our case, after we landed at Florence airport, all our travel between cities was by train. We marked FLR and the main train stations in each of the cities
- Pinpoint the attractions you want to see in relation to your home-base
- Note any areas or roads restricted to pedestrian traffic only (We overlooked this critical step in Florence and lived through a white-knuckle tour of narrow streets in the Duomo area, packed with tourists).
I’m Not in the Woods. Do I Need a Compass?
A compass can be helpful when navigating cities. Even with the best map, you might have trouble reconciling the representation of reality with the real thing.
Look for problems like these:
- street signs may be unreadable or absent
- blocks and blocks of tall buildings can interfere with your sense of direction
- Underground/subway exit points can place you in disorienting locations.
Because our travel backpacks are the same ones we use for a day hike in the woods, our compasses travel with us all the time. A compass makes it easy to get an instant snapshot of cardinal directions and get back in sync with your street map, directions or landmarks.
Samurai Son and I took a meandering walk through Rome and ended up on one of the famous seven hills by the Medici Palace. The afternoon had gotten away from us, and there was little time to meet up with the rest of our troop. From our vantage point, we pinpointed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. We knew it was about two blocks west of our home base. It was easy to set our direction with the compass and continue the walk through piazzas and narrow streets. That compass saved the day by letting us check in on our heading periodically (aka getting our bearings in orienteering). We found our way back together just in time to meet up for dinner.
Compasses are useful in the city for getting a rough bearing, but if you want to dig into the nuts and bolts of teaching your teen to use one, here’s a short and easy tutorial.
We’re finally here! Identify major roads Once you arrive at your apartment or hotel, lay the map out on and use a compass to orient the building to the cardinal directions (N, S, E, W). It’s such a time saver when you know you’ll be taking a left out of the front door to head down the street toward the metro station.
Map Reading: The Bread and Butter of Navigation
Don’t assume that your teen already knows how to read a street map. Basic map reading may be taught in school, but it’s often in relation to human events or topography. Using a street map is still a skill of practical, hands-on learning.
We’re raising a generation of kids that depend almost exclusively on GPS. Navigation, also known as orienteering, is more than just a fading art; it’s a survival skill. Knowing how to read a map can save your bacon when the GPS goes south, no pun intended. And it will. GPS has come an astonishingly long way in a short time, but connections may be lost, batteries lose their charge and barriers can interfere with satellite signals.
For example, something about Venice threw our GPS for a loop. It was comical at first as it repeatedly directed us into brick walls and canals. And it’s fun to be lost in Venice on a beautiful summer evening. In fact, it’s a tradition among visitors to deliberately get lost in the City of Water. But after you’ve wandered for miles and miles….I’ll save you the suspense: I did eventually consult the map.
Study the map together. Use it to orient yourself within the city. Identify major roads. Teach teens the basics of the grid system most street maps use. Point out how the city is organized. Are streets laid out it in a grid pattern? Are there blocks organized in different ways or do they seem consistent? Are there recognizable neighborhoods? Also, show kids how to refer to destinations via major intersections.
Maps will offer insights about a place that you can’t predict. It was through this exact process that Samurai Daughter lamented (what she saw as) the disorganization of Rome compared to New York City. But geography is often a window to history; we discovered that the Romans had invented the city grid system. Faced with that contradiction, she set out to find what had gone terribly wrong in their planning. This led into an investigation into the layering of centuries of Roman infrastructure and how the various workarounds of existing buildings had thrown the best-laid plans off a bit.
Divide and Conquer Using Landmarks and Neighborhoods
Landmarks are a concrete way for your teen to get their bearings. Churches, colleges or major government buildings are all helpful landmarks in orienting yourselves. Our apartment in Rome was located between and a little north of Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican. For the spatially challenged among us (looking at you, Samurai Mom), orienting ourselves both on the map and visually between these two huge landmarks kept us on track during our long walks.
Physical features, like rivers, mountains or parks can also help you orient you to the routes that you set. Set an area of comfortable walking distance and explore near these landmarks first, then expand your route as you become familiar with the area.
It’s far less intimidating if you divide your new city into neighborhoods to explore or areas surrounding a major attraction. As you focus on one area, consider the essential triad of travel:
What will you do? – Try not to pack too much into one day. One activity a day may be enough to keep it interesting and not overwhelming.
Where will you eat? – Read some reviews (Trip Advisor is our go-to review platform) and plot a convenient stop that fits your budget.
Where can you rest? – Don’t neglect this part or you’ll end up with cranky teens.
Let your teen help you plan your next moves to find a place to rest or eat that’s not too far out of the way.
Walking is the best way to orient yourself to your local area, but it’s not the most practical mode of transportation for long distances. Taxis are expensive, so make the most out of the public transportation available.
Lay out a subway and/or bus map next to the street map. Ask your teen to align the metro routes with the stations indicated on the street map. They can follow each line, or at least the relevant ones, to see where they terminate. Often, when you’re out on the street, the easiest way to know which direction a bus or train is headed is to know the last stop.
Google Maps can give great information for local public transit. If you’re visiting a major urban area, Citymapper is also a great app to compare cost and time of travel choices. You can use it offline also.
As an alternative or a backup plan, your teen can write or type out a list of directions or save it to an offline scratch pad-type app on a phone.
Don’t Forget Safety
A major part of any navigation is to plan for safety. It’s all too easy to get distracted in an unfamiliar environment and forget protective moves that were second nature at home.
Despite the eye-rolls you will surely get for this, review these guidelines and others with your teens:
Keep out of the street and on sidewalks as much as possible.
Face traffic and walk on the shoulder of the road if there are no sidewalks.
Always cross a street at a crosswalk or corner.
Look left, right, left and keep aware of all obstacles as you cross a street.
Make eye contact with drivers of cars, trucks and mopeds. Mopeds, especially, will seem to come out of nowhere in cities abroad.
Use special care in parking lots and driveways. Watch for cars turning or backing up.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Trust your instincts; if something seems off in a situation, move along quickly.
Travel in a group.
Ask a Local
Nobody knows an area like those who live there. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s easy to interpret a grim stare of a resident as an unspoken message that you don’t belong. I’ve seen it all over the world. Whether in a foreign country, NYC or small-town USA, people may appear suspicious of you. But often when you ask for something as simple as directions to the local market, most people want to be helpful. And, in a foreign country with a language different than your own, they’ll share so much more if you learn to speak a few words of their language.
Just hours after our arrival in the greater Venice area (Mestre), Samurai Son and I ventured out to hunt and gather food for our dinner at home. Exhausted from a bad night’s sleep, we both got sloppy. We relied solely on our GPS. Like a siren’s song, it dangled listings for 3 grocery stores before our bleary eyes, all apparently within a kilometer – easy walking distance. As we headed out in the direction laid out by the app, the path changed again and again. Finally, our wealth of store options disappeared into the ether.
Before leaving for our trip to Italy, we had studied some simple Italian phrases. Worn down by fatigue and a bit desperate, we were finally brave enough to put them to use. We saw a middle-aged couple walking down the sidewalk on a busy street. As we approached, they gave us the look. Once I hauled out my well-practiced sentence, “Scuzi per favore, dove il supermercato?” the entire tone of our interaction shifted. They came to a stop Their faces lit up. They started pointing in the direction of the market and speaking in rapid Italian. In their enthusiasm to help, both were directing us simultaneously. The puzzled looks on our faces prompted them to continue the conversation using slower Italian and some English words. We were able to navigate to the market in under five minutes using their instructions.
Nothing beats a face-to-face exchange with a local resident for learning your way. The added effort of speaking a few words of their language softens the exchange greatly. Grazie!
Putting Your Teen in Charge
Guide your teen in learning these foundational navigation skills, then get yourself out of the way. You may hesitate to relinquish your lead duckiness, but it is so worth it.
- Let your teen guide you to your destination using Google map, printed map, CityMapper app or a set of directions that they’ve written out.
- Take your walking route at an easy pace, allowing for wrong turns and misdirections.
- Let them know when they stray from the charted course and help make adjustments to get back on track. Experience is the best teacher. Your job is to help keep them calm and let them know mistakes happen. When they do, encourage them to stop, assess where you are and how you strayed from the course. Then, re-chart the path to the destination which may be a simple as going back to the location of the wrong turn and correcting or planning a new path.
- Take a supporting role in keeping the group together and keep your eyes on the physical environment. There may be a sign or directional posting that can be missed because they are looking down at an online or physical map. Keeping the group tight and maintaining the right pace so that everyone can keep up also helps take some of the burden off the leader. It’s especially helpful when navigating through crosswalks, crowds and around traffic.
Stay Close But Not IN the Center of the Attractions
Choosing your home base in the heart of the area where many of the attractions are located has many benefits. You’ll be spending a lot of time there. You and your teen will get to know the neighborhood since it’s more likely you’ll be out on foot. Even better, when you begin to interact with the same people daily, it’ll feel friendlier. Your landmarks become your favorite restaurants, ice cream/gelato shops and produce markets.
That said, a couple of blocks outside the high-tourism area will likely offer a more authentic experience. These streets and plazas are the gems. They can give your family more of a feel for the local culture. Again, being on foot helps you interact with people going about their daily routines.
Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost – J.R.R. Tolkien
Solid planning may be important to you, but make room for serendipity, too. Wandering and taking cues from your internal compass can be fun and take you to interesting, out-of-the-way places.
That’s why we asked our teens in the lead in Venice and followed wherever they wanted to go. It was a good move. We quickly left the largest crowds back at St Mark’s Square and every turn presented another jaw-dropping scene. We found shops, restaurants and hidden churches. We stumbled upon piazzas with incredible Renaissance art. It was amazing and all by chance.
The Big Picture
Teaching your teen to navigate develops confidence and problem-solving. But you may be surprised about the power of the more intangible benefits like the feeling you’ll share when you make a new discovery. The skills required for navigating a new city are also the kind that carve more lasting impressions of each place. So, while you explore together, you’re also making memories that last a lifetime.
If you need any more reasons to travel, Samurai Mom shares some surprising benefits of exploring the world with your teen: How Travel Benefits Teens