Fly-by-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Teen Travel

My son has just left on an epic backpacking trip through Europe starting in Paris. He’s thrilled. I’ve got that feeling similar to when you binge eat a tub of espresso chocolate-chip ice-cream—happy, excited and then jittery with a heap of insomnia.

In my pre-COVID career as a filmmaker, I travelled for much of my work. I was organized, I carried a binder with flights, hotels, directions and often, restaurant recommendations. When things got delayed, it was a scramble to make back the production time. I’ve lost luggage (with audio equipment), got stuck in Belize for an extra week because of snow in Texas (not as fun as most would think), and have been detained in the Philippines. When it comes to travelling, I come with a lot of baggage—literally and figuratively.

My teenager has been insulated from that type of experience. He’s had parents who have kept the trip organized and him entertained and distracted when things went sideways. Hungry? Mama has snacks. Bored? Here is a movie. He’s had the 5-star bubble-wrapped experience.

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He’s jumped into this trip with a general plan and a fly-by-the-seat of your pants attitude that is way outside my comfort zone. Deep down I know that the beauty in his experience is the simplicity and the freedom and I expect that his trip will be a truer cultural experience than anything I’ve ever done, but I’m adjusting to this understanding.

Before he launched, I was a very active part of getting him ready. Here are some things that worked well for us:

Travel with a carry-on backpack so you don’t worry about missing luggage. There are good-sized backpacks that will meet airline specs. Start packing your new backpack weeks before your travel date and think about how much you really need. Repack several times and evaluate the items. Then, at 11pm before your early morning flight, do one last panic purge and repack.

Get all the apps and put in your information at home. Flight information is often updated quicker in the app than in the airport. Many companies have priority calling through their apps.

Do a trial run with your gear. Encourage your teen to practice wearing his backpack and carrying his passport with his wallet and phone with him to get comfortable with the new items. Lack of sleep and jet lag is not the time to start thinking about where your passport is or struggle with how easy it is to carry your backpack through transit.

Research! Things have changed, especially with hostels. Read the guides and find out what you need, and don’t need, on a trip.

Ensure that there is at least 1.5 hours between flights. It is not a great time to count on making tight connections. You can also call the airport to find out if you have to go through security again or how big of a distance it is between gates.

Pack snacks. There is a lot of waiting and sometimes food is not readily available. Teens are hungry every 15 minutes, so having something readily available is nice. My teen had a sandwich, but hummus could be confiscated as it is considered a liquid. Fruits and vegetables would need to be eaten or disposed of before landing in an international location.

The biggest piece of advice is for parents.

Kathy Peterson, a counsellor at Collaborative Counselling, advises that when empty-nest syndrome hits, to remember your role.

“Remember that parents are the compass that will guide their children back home,” says Peterson. “Sometimes as a parent it is hard to let go but stay grounded in the knowledge that you’ve given [your kids] the skills to handle these challenges and they will come back with a gamut of experiences that will shape their future.”

Letting go isn’t easy, but I’m learning to give my teen space to explore without needing to check-in and he is embracing it by only giving me quick one one-line email updates—sometimes one word. I’m working on remembering all the strengths and skills he has, and I am looking forward to hearing his stories when he gets back and seeing how travel has empowered him.

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