It used to be that my husband, Scott, and I would decide where to take our family vacation, and our three children would happily go along. But these days, they have stronger opinions. Now that my "kids" are 21, 18, and 15, they each have different ideas of a perfect vacation.
So what is a parent desperate to forge quality family time away from home to do? The answer, I found, is relatively simple: Give your kids ownership of the trip. This is the strategy we employed on our most ambitious family vacation: Costa Rica.
Choosing a destination
We challenged our children to discuss possible locales and agree on a destination, which was no easy feat. Alyson, our oldest and an ultra-liberal college student, was content to head to our usual stomping ground, a house surrounded by unspoiled woods in Northern Michigan near the lakeshore. She nixed pricey locales like Hawaii and the Caribbean where, as she put it, "catering to greedy Americans is the main industry."
My son, Garrett, prefers the comfort of his own bed to any vacation spot, although he said he could be swayed if his older sister was on board — and if there was tennis nearby, as he needed to gear up for his freshman year playing in college. Our youngest, Madeline, is an adventurer with champagne tastes. She craved an exotic trip with activities galore, staying in luxurious accommodations.
My husband and I weighed in with our criteria: We needed to be able to use our miles to book free tickets. We set a price limit of $1,800 for a week's house rental and specified that there needed to be plenty of reasonably priced activities, including tennis, nearby. We also needed access to Wi-Fi.
Our children ultimately settled on Costa Rica, a country popular for its eco-tourism. It has beautiful beaches and resorts, but it also offers rain forests and volcanoes to explore. There are plenty of activities for everyone, including zip lining, surfing, and horseback riding.
Working out the details
In December 2011, after deciding on the location, we handed the reins to Madeline, then age 14, to plan our July 2012 trip. For our previous two vacations, she'd handled lodging responsibilities for summer vacations, since we found that having her invested in the choice prevented complaining once we got there. But venturing to another country could prove to be more challenging.
Her first task was to decide which part of Costa Rica to visit. Realizing that we all prized beaches, she chose the Northern Pacific Coast, which is the drier part of Costa Rica during what is considered the rainy season. Then I had her email a friend of mine, who put her in touch with a friend who lives in Costa Rica.
I let Madeline correspond directly with that person to get her thoughts on the best place to go. She zeroed in on Tamarindo, a small beach town in the province of Guanacaste, and gave us three lodging options. We decided on a property called Casa Ruby, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a modern kitchen, Wi-Fi, its own pool and daily maid service. The house was near the beach and tennis courts, and the rent for the week was $1,500, the same price we had paid for far less luxurious accommodations in the United States.
We did build in a few safeguards. For instance, my daughter used my email address to contact property owners so that I stayed part of the conversation. I corresponded with the rental property manager once we made our choice and was pleased to find this property had free concierge service to suggest a range of activities and answer all our questions.
I also intervened when something seemed too good to be true, as in the case of a car that Madeline reserved for a mere $200 a week. After checking with our concierge, I learned the company was shady and the car would fit only three passengers comfortably. He rebooked us for an SUV with a more reputable company that was, alas, twice the price.
My daughter spent much time on the Internet and reading tour books in the months before our trip, scouring for activities — including turtle and estuary tours, whitewater rafting, zip lining, and scuba diving — and forwarding all of the information to me.
By the time our plane landed, she had already zeroed in on restaurants and destinations for us to try. She even found a nearby yoga studio using the Google Maps feature on her phone.
Bringing it all together
Still, as we drove through some sketchy places on the way to our rental, I began to panic, worrying that this vacation planned by a teenager could turn out to be a disaster. I had been a bit too removed from the planning of this trip and knew very little about the country.
But after we checked in and wandered into the quaint beach town, I breathed a sigh of relief and continued giving the kids ownership, starting with what we ate. Each of our children has different preferences. We struck a compromise where we dined at home — often poolside — for breakfast and lunch, as well as a couple of lavish dinners, and we dined out for the rest of our meals. Because groceries were pricey here, while restaurant costs were reasonable, we didn't mind frequenting restaurants more often than we usually do while traveling.
Madeline's siblings were so impressed with her planning skills that they were inclined to defer to her, with my son even willing to surrender his midday slumbers for new experiences. Any time someone recommended a restaurant or sight to see, she quickly looked up the ratings on TripAdvisor.
I was more involved with the big-ticket items, like the all-day tour at Hacienda Guachipelín. A day full of adventure, beginning at 6:30 a.m., is usually not my oldest two children's idea of a good time. But they agreed to go along with the tour because it allowed us to experience so many facets of Costa Rica. This tour, which Madeline endorsed as well, was an incredible value. For $135 per person, a driver picked us up and took us to the park, a two-hour journey each way on bumpy roads. Once there, we were treated to zip lining, horseback riding, tubing, and a buffet lunch, as well as a mud bath and hot springs.
That night, as we sat around our dining room table eating gigantic burritos from Gil's Place, my son asked everyone to describe their favorite part of the trip. He said zip lining, while Madeline rated the Playa Conchal beach a highlight. My oldest said snorkeling, and my husband said he most treasured the opportunity for the family to be together. I was most grateful for the lack of squabbling. With Madeline taking the lead, she and her siblings owned the journey, so I didn't need to navigate a ship of naysayers.
A valuable experience
While I don't think planning a vacation like ours is the sort of responsibility you should give to children younger than high school age, any teenager can take this on, provided he or she has the interest and passion for travel. They should also be organized, motivated, and willing to finish the task they've started. The Internet certainly makes researching options easier.
Planning the vacation was a wonderful educational experience for our daughter. It allowed her to experience what it's like to work under a budget while exploring a new place. We as adults tend to micromanage so much of our children's lives. Allowing teens to take charge of the family travel experience offers them the chance to be resourceful, a skill they can use in all aspects of their lives.