1. Arm them with knowledge.
Teenagers love to show you how savvy they are. Have yours take on the task of researching your destination and getting to know the area before you go. If you're traveling out of the country, encourage them to learn about the locals and their customs. The U.S. State Department website has Consular Information Sheets for about 170 countries and posts travel warnings and public announcements about serious crime, health risks and terrorism. Even if it's just a new city stateside, have your teen get familiar with the location of your hotel, local transportation and any dangerous neighborhoods.
2. Communicate constantly.
Unless you're planning to have your teenager remain with you at all times (good luck with that if you are), having a reliable way to keep in touch while traveling is imperative -- especially when your teen is traveling alone. If you're traveling domestically, a smartphone will do the trick. International travel gets trickier, with high roaming charges and potential service issues; a cell phone may not be an option. If this is the case, set strict and frequent meeting times if you allow teens to wander, and make sure they have a reliable watch. Tell your teenager: "I don't have to be with you every single moment, as long as I know exactly where you are at every single moment." Communication is key. Choosing a spot to meet in the event you get unexpectedly separated on a busy street, or can't find one another on a crowded beach, is also a good idea.
3. Consider hotels or cruise lines with teen clubs.
A great way for your teen to get out, meet other kids and gain a sense of independence (while minimizing worry on your part), is through an organized teen club at a resort or cruise ship teen program. They tend to appeal to younger teens, but usually welcome kids up to age 17. Many large family resorts offer some type of teen club (which are almost always free at all-inclusive resorts and on cruises, but rarely free elsewhere), where teens can go hang out on the premises away from mom and dad. They're usually supervised, too.
4. Don't be naive about underage drinking.
You probably don't live under a rock, but are you really in touch? Consider this: On our last vacation (a holiday cruise), our barely 13-year-old was offered a beer during a supervised teen party on New Year's Eve. Of course we were upset, but not really surprised. Luckily, we've had that conversation with him, and he knew what to say and do (namely, politely refuse and casually get the heck out of dodge). The point is that it does happen, and eventually it'll happen to your little darling, too. At 13, saying no was easy; but will it be as easy at 16? Prepare your kids and make sure they know the repercussions of underage drinking (and drugs) -- both from a legal standpoint, and from you, personally.
5. Keep them off the roads.
If you can avoid it, don't allow your teenage driver behind the wheel in a new city, and especially not in a foreign country. Even if they know the rules and have a valid license, driving in an unfamiliar place can be nerve-wracking and dangerous. While it may seem exciting to them, a vacation isn't the place to show new drivers the ropes. This advice goes doubly so for scooters, motorbikes and any other motorized vehicle with two wheels. It's not worth the risk.
6. Brush up on street smarts.
Maybe your teenager is legitimately street smart. In any case, if your teen will be allowed to wander alone in a new city, a few simple rules go a long way. Sure, they know them, but they may need reminders. When walking in the city, be sure all backpacks and bags are completely zipped and secured to your body. Never keep your wallet in your back pocket. Be aware of your surroundings and stay in populated areas. Never jaywalk. Don't get distracted -- pickpockets often work in teams in which one creates a distraction while the other robs you. If you get lost or turned around, approach a storeowner or police officer before a stranger.
7. Supervise risky activities.
So, your teenager has been dying to tackle base jumping, spelunking, cragging or kite boarding. There's no reason (unless you can come up with one) to deny them their dream of taking on new challenges while on vacation, but be smart about it. Always book these activities through a reputable resort or on a recommendation from a friend when you can. When you can't, do your homework and read reviews on any company you choose on your own. If it's something particularly risky, or something you're uneasy about, live a little and participate along with your teen -- or at the very least, remain with them and supervise the activity.
8. Keep expensive electronics on the DL.
We know your kid loves her iPhone, GoPro and smartwatch; and there's no reason not to bring them along on vacation. But use common sense. Nothing screams "rob me blind" like a kid flashing around expensive devices in public, especially when mom and dad aren't around. Teenagers these days film everything, and instantly upload to Vine, Vimeo, YouTube and Instagram in hopes of becoming the next Internet sensation. Not familiar with these sites and apps? Get familiar with them and try to discourage this behavior, at least while in popular tourist areas. Leave expensive electronics in the hotel's safe when they aren't being used (not sitting out in the open) or in a closed backpack when by the pool.
9. Remind teens of health risks.
At home, we're constantly reminding our kids to eat healthy and take care of their own well-being. When traveling, the reminders should continue. Don't assume your teenager will remember to keep hydrated at the pool in 100-degree weather, reapply sunblock after swimming, use hand sanitizer after riding the subway or remember not to drink the local water in Mexico. Make sure your teen is aware of destination-specific risks as well. In many locations (and we're not just talking Africa and Asia), mosquitos can be more than just a nuisance; they can carry serious diseases. No one wants to get sick on vacation, especially in areas where health care is questionable.
10. Set an early curfew.
A good way to make sure your entire family gets together time, while also keeping your teenager safe, is to set an early curfew and spend evenings together. If your son or daughter has met some new friends on vacation, great! Encourage them to have lunch together, hang out at the pool or arcade, and then regroup as a family at dinner. Your child might very well be the model of responsibility; but when it comes to teenagers, nothing good happens after midnight.
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