Our teens are great travelers, but they’ll be the first to tell you that they hate being tourists. They cringe when they see package-deal-holiday busloads unloading at site entrances. They’ll skittle away from groups in museums, lest someone think we’re with them. After almost a year traveling around the world with a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old, we’ve identified three types of not-so-touristy teen travel by tapping in to our kids’ passions and focusing on immersive activities.
First, consider language learning. In almost every major city we’ve been, from Mendoza to Madrid to Montpellier, we’ve seen language schools for older kids and teens. Many of these offer 1- 2- and 4-week summer camps with options for living in dorms, with homestay families, or in local apartments. This year our daughter, Bella, is studying with LSF in the south of France. She attends daily language lessons and participates in supervised extra-curricular activities nights and weekends. Not only is her French improving, she’s making friends with kids from all over Europe, South America and the Middle East. Similarly, our cousin spent 6 weeks learning Mandarin in China through The National Security Language Initiative for Youth, sponsored by US State Department. As an added bonus, most of the costs of that program are covered by scholarship.
Nervous about sending your language student abroad? Choose Concordia Language Villages in the North Woods of Minnesota. This well-respected immersion-language summer camp is an excellent, affordable, domestic option. In operation since 1961, Concordia offers instruction in 15 languages, and your student may even earn school credit.
Sports are another anchor for introducing kids to a different country and culture. One of our favorite teen travelers, Booker Travels, has been skateboarding, surfing and connecting with locals through ports for years. His popular web series on YouTube documents his international experiences living life outside. Our son, Marco, has participated in soccer camps in both Brazil and Spain, not only upping his game, but improving his Portuguese and Spanish skills along the way. He’s now enrolled in Campus Experience Real Madrid Foundation, where young players from around the world are coached in Spanish for several hours a day, balanced by classroom strategy lessons in English. Snacks, lunch, and pool playtime round out their day.
Not sure your teen will be up for getting coached in another language? Choose a program with instruction in English. Surf Diva based in San Diego provides custom Family Surf Retreats in Costa Rica, which, as they say, “is probably one of the safest and most exciting countries for kids to learn how to surf and experience a new culture.”
We’ve also tapped in to our kids’ hobbies while abroad, booking experiences that we know they’ll love, and taking the time to explore each city with their interests in mind. Marco’s passion for food and cooking lead us to enroll in cooking schools in Florence, Aguas Calientes, and Athens. A self-proclaimed theatre-geek, Bella loved watching tango in Buenos Aires, attended the opera for the first time with “Salome” in Prague, and scored half-price tickets to an original musical production “Ireland Rises” in Dublin.
Short-burst, hobby-centric experiences could be called touristy but you may find something that’s exactly perfect for your family through companies like Viator. (I wish I’d found the half-day fashion tour of Paris for Bella last summer!) Also, read posters, brochures and flyers on city walls, in the metro, and in your hotel or hostel. That’s how we learned about zip-lining through the Tsitsikamma Forest in South Africa. It was most definitely for tourists, but also turned out to be the kids’ favorite activity that week. Perhaps most importantly, leave room in your daily itinerary for spontaneous opportunities that catch your teen’s attention. As film enthusiasts, Marco spent over an hour at the Danish Design Center creating a stop-motion video and both he and Bella raved about the hands-on activities in Prague’s Film Special Effects Museum.
Need more ideas? Find out what other families are doing with their teens on Trip Advisor forums. Select the country and city you’re visiting and search on the keywords teen, tween, or kids. You’re likely to find at least a dozen conversations about what’s interesting for the younger set.
If none of our three picks appeal to your teen, here are a few more options that might be a good fit.
Many churches organize international opportunities to serve and help others. Alternatively, find a volunteer-vacation through organizations like Global Vision International.
Does your teen love to hike, bike, or go rafting? REI offers family adventures on 5 continents.
Consider a literature based itinerary. Rick Steves, for example, offers a list of Harry Potter sites in his Great Britain travel guide. We framed our visit to Greece in mythology and Rick Riordan’s books.
Talk to your school counselor about local, state, and federal government programs for summer learning programs abroad, many offer scholarships.
Reach out to family members living abroad. Would they be willing to host your teen for a week, month or summer? Would you host theirs?
Join a music or theatre troupe. Up With People (age 17+) combines travel, performance, music, and volunteerism.
Be an exchange student! Rotary International, YFU, and AFS, all have long-standing, well-respected foreign exchange programs for teens who want to spend a summer, semester, or year abroad.
Even more: Transitions Abroad is a web-magazine filled with ideas for living, working, studying and volunteering abroad. Their teen section is quite thorough.
With a little patience, curiosity, and imagination you can help your teen avoid tourist traps and thoroughly enjoy traveling abroad. For our family, three types of activities stand out: language learning, sports, and hobby-centric. You may find another niche that suits your family better. Regardless, whether you’re sending them on their own or traveling as a family, there are plenty of options for rich experiences that will hold teens’ attention and help them develop a love for travel.