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TRIP REPORT (long): what worked for neurodivergent and teen travelers

We (me- turned 39 yesterday, 15 & 13 yr old) just returned from Italy (with a stopover in Paris). Between us, we’ve got someone on the spectrum, ADHD, and clinical anxiety in active treatment.

I can’t really give advice because I’m just a me, but I can tell you what worked for us. Some of it might work for anyone, and some of it is specific to “alternative thinkers” (haha).

What Worked:

-1. A simpler wallet than I carry at home with a light-colored lining
-Only bringing basics: travel credit card, backup CC, our bank card, ID, health insurance cards, and cash (leaving behind every store credit card, punch card, loyalty card, etc…)
I can’t emphasize the light color enough. Typical bags and wallets become black holes or mental soup for me and, while lots of pockets or slots sound great for organization, they are too much visual stimulation and elevate anxiety when flicking through them for things, especially in rushed situations.

-2. A lanyard with a vaccine card protector. In Italy, historical and cultural sites required our vaccine cards without fail. Some looked at it quite closely and checked ID; others took one glance and waved us through. When holding boarding passes/passports/day bags/event tickets, it was great to have the card in a protector on a neck lanyard. My daughter found it helped her to slide her current event/transport ticket into the opposite side of the card protector. In Venice, she had her transportation pass (with a QR code) opposite to the side showing her vax record, and could just scan it on the machine as we walked by instead of digging around for it or risking losing it. We all followed suit. It was especially helpful with bus tickets in Rome where the tickets are good for 100 minutes. As soon as we validated our bus tickets, we would tuck them in the lanyard. Then when we went to return on the bus, we had the tickets right there, already distributed and not mixed in with unused tickets.
Note: The small metal clasp of a lanyard never set off metal detectors for us.

-3. A passport/ticket case that zips completely closed and without excessive compartments. We used this.

We have a tendency to shed papers, so it was a relief, on windy train platforms or after my day bag being shaken around while we dashed about, to open my bag and have the ticket case totally zipped closed.

Ours had a pocket on the front and I moved the current boarding pass or ticket into the pocket so I didn’t need to unzip or flip through as we boarded.

I always put the vax card lanyards in it when they weren’t being worn, so everything we needed to enter anywhere was in the same place and the lanyards never got left at home when taken off at night.

-4. Perhaps obvious, but we printed our train tickets then stapled all 3 of ours for a single leg together, then paper-clipped a full trip, with all the legs in order. We then placed all of the trip bundles in the order we’d need to use them in our ticket/passport case and just pulled them out as we went. Using the method of moving the current leg to the front pocket, we could easily refer to the train number and check the schedule at the station to find our next platform quickly. (We booked directly through Trenitalia and they gave us only 9 or 12 minutes a few times, so we needed a quick turnaround in stations we’d never been in.)

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-5. A completely clear zipper pouch- the key was that it is also flat, so I can see every single thing inside without digging. We lined up blister band aids, tissues, ibuprofen, prescription meds, moleskin, tums, sunscreen stick, and extra masks so I could open my daypack and identify the item immediately.

-6. I made folders in my iphone to back everything up. For instance, a full folder labeled “Trenitalia Tickets” with screenshots of every ticket in order of schedule. I only had to use it once, but it was a relief to have it. I wouldn’t trade it for paper tickets because, sometimes my phone would die on a train without a working outlet or something. It actually was cumbersome to scroll to the correct thing on my phone instead of pulling out a paper ticket since we had to have paper vax cards and ID anyhow.

-7. Bookmarking links in my phone. We had a lot of things that we wanted to do but could not book ahead because tickets were only released weekly or we didn’t know if we’d have the time. I booked tickets to the “Crazy” exhibit in Rome in 3 minutes once we decided to go, topped off my Italy e-sim in a sec, and pulled up the link to our online-proctored Covid test without digging through confirmation emails. I bookmarked the bookings for our accommodations too.

-8. I saved the customer service/membership/rebooking lines for our airline(s) in my phone in my contacts. It was needed.

-9. I kept a laminated paper itinerary of the main things. Scrolling can become frazzling and mentally soupy for us so an analogue itinerary was grounding and my girls and I could look at the same time, so we could get on the same page.

-10. The tripit app. Perhaps the most helpful part was loading the events ahead of time because it gave me a real feel for our plans, but I turned notifications on and it prompted when a flight or train journey or event was coming up. In addition, I didn’t realize my tripit pro trial would get auto updates on flight delays and notify me. We had a lot of delays and the airlines sometimes only emailed. It was easier to have the app notification. I added links to each item so that I could quickly refer to details or change something if I needed to.

-11. It’s said a lot here, but packing less and packing strategically. We checked the weather before we left and made an outfit plan for every single day to eliminate decision fatigue. (I mean, c’mon, we needed to save all that decision making for gelato flavors, right?) We did switch up clothes as necessary, but it was more helpful than I expected, after a long day, to glance at my list and check it against local weather, then set those items on the dresser before falling into bed instead of combing the items of my bag and arranging something each night or, as my daughter would have done, holding us up all morning. We shared a number of clothing items including jackets, so the plan also eliminated conflicts there.

-12. Carrying fold-flat water bottles/bags. Italy has fountains everywhere and the water is as good as bottled. It was so much easier to just fill up when we saw a fountain than to find a place, wait in lines and pay too much for a bottle every time we got thirsty and we didn’t waste plastic or money, especially when we had to pour it out to enter a museum or something. Every retail stop we made wore down their interest and energy a little, so this was invaluable.

-13. Leaving the TV off in the hotel/airbnb. The days were already so stimulating, we needed to wind down at night, so we just never turned it on and found we fell right into much-needed sleep after long days out. Sometimes we needed that type of white noise or distraction, in which case, we used earbuds to listen to music during train rides or when laying down before bed.

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-14. Packing day bags and laying out clothes each night before bed. Likewise, packing everything the night before changing locations and adding pjs to a single bag before leaving. Also taking out the trash the night before, then leaving one small grocery bag to collect any odds and ends. We carried that one back to a public trash can when we locked up and left for a new destination.

-15. Categorized zipper pouches. One held everything I needed to go to sleep and I set it on the nightstand in each place (in this case, an eye mask, ear plugs, melatonin, my contact case). One was the “tech” bag that contained phone charger, power adapter, power bank and charger cable for that. It was so nice to pull out that little bag every time we were on the train and plug everything in, then put it all back in the same bag. Also helped when a phone died and we could locate the power bank instantly. The same person kept the tech bag in their day bag for the entire trip so we didn’t have to search.

-16. Only packing one (hanging) toiletry bag for the group. Rolling up a single bag of toiletries in each location simplified the checkout process and the hanging bag prevented the mental-soup-bag-issue I described previously.

-17. Taking both airbnb/hotel keys when we left but always in two different day bags.

-18. Buying food before train journeys instead of relying on train station takeaway or vending. We were not hungry before leaving a couple of times, but still grabbed a panini or something in town and packed it. It always, always came in handy and we would have been so stressed trying to grab food and changing trains. We packed granola bars which the girls swore they wouldn’t use and 2 did come allll the way back the the US with us, but 10 got eaten to repair low blood sugar along the way.

-19. Tactile experiences. One of my daughters is not what you’d call a beach babe and can be fussy about textures, but Cinque Terre was a favorite for her. She was least stressed, of the entire trip, when she was wading and letting water sift sand over her fingers, leaving rocks behind. She also loved climbing the boulders of the jetties and then watching the waves slam them. I even caught both girls at 3:30 am, side by side with their elbows on the window sill, staring at the ocean. We didn’t do a pasta making class, but in retrospect, I might have. The markets were not crowded in March, so those were great for her (both of them) too. Watching pasta go through machines, pastries rolled, donuts fried, etc, all appealed.

A ghosts and mysteries tour in Rome was a favorite for both (walking outdoors instead of inside a specific site, at night, with streetlights and brief, but exhilarating stories). In our case, it was the perfect activity for all the neuro divergence we experience. Sacro Bosco elicited a similar response.

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What did not work:

-1. Trusting that since public transportation is more ubiquitous in Europe, it would also be relatively user friendly. In a lot of ways, it is, but I think it takes 24-72 hours to get a grip on the public transport system in a city, and we only had that much time total on a number of occasions. Example: In Rome, every tobacconist/newsstand has bus tickets. In Pisa, the tabacchis bristle at the mention of them. Some places you could buy a ticket as you got on the bus, others, you could not. We never missed a flight or train journey, but we did lose the first or last hours of our time in a city to stress and panic and cut it close more than once.

-2. In the same vein, I did not find google maps or moovit or rome2rio to always be accurate. A combination of asking someone and using google maps was most reliable in the end, but the MOST reliable were other tourists who’d been in the city or were heading out as we came in. It’s not that they were more knowledgeable, but they knew exactly what our issue would be without much explaining and, while locals automatically know not to do certain things (and therefore never think to warn people), tourists know what mistake you’re about to make and warn you off.

-3. Planning. I know I hype planning in “what worked for us”-- and it did! But it was a double-edged sword. The best day we had the entire time was a day with no timed tickets or hard deadlines. Now, we had a list of stuff we wanted to do, but it was way more relaxed, and here is the kicker, we did WAY more on our “easy” relaxed days than on the days where we had a guided tour with a hard start time or other obligations.

The timed tickets were completely necessary, as getting tickets to the colosseum or vatican on the same or even previous day can be impossible or cost multiple times the face value and we couldn’t get to Sacro Bosco without a reserved rental car. But I would do a couple more days with lots of options and nothing set in stone in the future.

-4. Guided tours that required additional meet-up destinations. Sure, the tour offices are often close to the attraction, but it’s just another step in an already complicated process of getting to somewhere you aren’t familiar with and you waste time and add steps. It was way easier when the guide met the group at a predetermined location near the entrance and held a sign.

-5. Expecting to sleep on planes. Sometimes the kids did, sometimes they didn’t. I never did. I did not expect to sleep long or well, but I hoped to sleep a little.

-6. Relying on airbnb hosts and hotel staff for help, recommendations or communication. It was nice if we got it, but it led to panic if we relied on it. We had two doors that were near impossible to open (old buildings, antiquated/multiple locks) and we just had to make up our minds we weren’t going to hope the host answered or sit on the stoop waiting. We only stayed at 2 hotels and got recs that cost us in both cases. I’m an excessive researcher, but I have a flaw of assuming my research is not as good as the opinion of a local. That, of course, can be true, but it bit us when I assumed that was the case.

-7. Not following my gut and going to the bank as soon as we got to Italy to get change for my larger bank notes and arranging it into envelopes of exact change for VAT for each place. I wanted to, but put it off and the exchange I used in the US wouldn’t give me small notes. Should have just done it. It added stress to figure it out each time and try to find exact change.

Posted by
3231 posts

What a wonderful, detailed, and honest report of trip planning from a different perspective than many of us deal with. I am in awe: of your report AND your foresight AND your trip..

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724 posts

I think that there are many of us without "on the spectrum, ADHD, and clinical anxiety in active treatment" who have experienced exactly what you did. Your perspective, hindsight, planning ahead, etc. were very informative.

Will you share your retrospective with your daughters and get their take?
I congratulate you on grabbing the bull by the horns and making this trip as the only adult. Here's hoping the girls appreciate all that you did and also enjoyed themselves. Mostly, I hope you had a great time.

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295 posts

Apologies I had a technical difficulty and accidentally deleted part. The forum is renumbering my points, which is why they don't make sense.

Here is the missing part of What did not work for us:

-8. Art museums go into both what worked and what didn’t. Though I could’ve stayed in a single room at the Uffizi for a whole day, I’m glad we did not do any extended museum days. I cannot speak for anyone else on the spectrum, but for my person, the art did not “register” as anything different than any other pretty image. She still got a little kick out of the idea of seeing something like the Birth of Venus in person (or watching me and her sister fangirl), but the actual experience wasn’t meaningful to her and elicited shrugs. She was exhausted after the Vatican museums, while my art student was both energized and exhausted. We found that she enjoyed looking for details in the art related to her interests, so at the Uffizi she was engaged the whole time looking for dogs in the works. (She found so many, lol!)

-9. Willpower/Expectations/Imaginary Equations. I prepared myself by tempering my expectations and not dreaming of a fairytale scenario. I expected the girls to act like they do at home and not become angels that don’t fight or are endlessly appreciative. A more reasonable expectation would have been to expect them to be at the low end of their typical threshold. Jet lag, over stimulation, new environments, not having anyone else to talk to or take things out on, all contribute.

While I did a lot to mitigate stress and to choose things for their interests and needs, wonderful gelato does not repair a bad experience elsewhere. It’s just wonderful gelato in addition to the bad experience. At least for us, a day of wonder can make you grateful and still leave you grumpy and irritable going to bed after missing two buses and walking home with a blister.

I also expected too much of myself. I’m used to sacrificing for my kids or not getting offended by teenage ‘tudes, but at home, I can walk away and catch my breath. There’s no break from each other when you are traveling (especially on a budget). I hoped to talk and hang out even on the trains and planes, but everyone ended up needing that time to decompress. I should have anticipated that and made even more room for it.

I also should have allowed myself to let them have a bad time if that’s what they wanted to do, lol. There were a couple of times we were doing something or seeing something amazing and one of them was too cranky or myopic to “get it”. It was too much mental pressure for me to tell myself everything I put into it wasn’t working or that they were missing out on something irreplaceable. Even if elements of those statements hold truth, they were not helpful.

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3400 posts

Congratulations for a successful trip. No mean feat during the best of times; and with teenagers, whew. We traveled with our teenage daughters to Europe, once. And they didn’t have issues other then being teenagers. Your next trip with be even better!

Posted by
1417 posts

What wonderful tips--good for anyone, not just neurodivergent people. (I am one, myself, though, and do some of what you did, but you have given me a couple of new ideas, too. Thank you.)

I have found the best app to help me find my way around in a city is CityMapper. Unfortunately, it isn't available everywhere, but it is for larger cities and even some smaller ones. What I like about it is it is good on transit, too, and will warn you when a stop is coming up. I set up the cities I'm going to in it ahead of time, and put in the addresses of my "home" location in each city and the places I know I'm going to visit. My only issue with it is that I sometimes get confused about which direction I'm facing relative to the map/directions in the app.

I know exactly what you mean about Sacro Bosco. Some people here suggested I skip it, but I KNEW it would be an enjoyable stop for me, and it was. Not only did I find the "ruins" to be fun and interesting to look at, but it was a lovely, peaceful break from city touring. I loved the birdsong, the smell of the woods, and the fresh air.

Anyway, thanks again for your thorough report on what worked and didn't work for you and your family.

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3652 posts

"allowing them to have a bad time"

Just priceless, a long with your entire report. Thx so much for sharing!

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1972 posts

So much good stuff to learn from your report.

Having traveled with our teens, I can relate to many of your successes and frustrations. As travelers (and parents), my husband and I have had to shift away from a “must-see” list of sights, toward the idea of having unique experiences. Let’s be honest, by the 3rd or 4th church/castle/museum, they all begin to look the same, even to adults.

We also learned that if our kids aren’t used to “going-going-going” 16 hours a day at home, they will not enjoy it on vacation. No matter where or what we’re doing/seeing, etc. Everybody needs a break. Isn’t that was a vacation was, before “we” decided we had to “see it all”?

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1180 posts

Thank you for a wonderful list of what did and did not work for your family. I traveled in Europe with each one of my now grown young adults during their teenage years and wish that I had read your report years ago! I especially appreciate the advice to just let them be them, and if something doesn't work, then all of my planning and wishing that they would appreciate it won't change their attitude. Your ideas and experiences will no doubt help many readers here! I hope to travel with grandchildren in a few years, and hope that I can keep some of your advice in mind.

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2932 posts

We have traveled with our kids and have enjoyed it, but it definitely had it’s moments like you so aptly said. One thing that worked for us, was getting them some fast food for dinner and then leaving them at the hotel while hubby and I had a fine dining meal out. We enjoy traveling just my husband and I these days. Easier on the wallet too. We will travel with them again “someday”

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155 posts

Ditto on the light coloured bag. I left my carry on in the dark footwell of our car when my wife dropped me at the airport once. I did make the flight, but barely!

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12607 posts

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this up and post! What a wonderful time you had!!

Your organizational tips are excellent for anyone!

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991 posts

This is a brilliant report, Sleight, thank you. I live and travel with two neurodivergent people myself, so the three of us cheerfully share my brain’s executive functioning. We have learned lots along the way, but you shared some outstanding tips. And it sounds like you did have a good time, aided by your planning.

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50 posts

Sleight - thank you so much for the tips! They will definitely help me.

Nelly - your comment made me smile. My daughter & I both have inattentive type ADHD, so we have trouble remembering important things. We always say that her Dad has to be the memory for all three of us.

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12 posts

Thank you for sharing your tips! The what didn't work was especially instructive and I will keep those in mind with my teens. Thanks again.

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1056 posts

Thank you, Sleight, for your detailed report. I will be taking my 16-year-old granddaughter on her first trip to Europe this summer. She lives in a different state, so we don’t see each other all that much. Generally she’s pretty low-key, but I can anticipate some of those teen moments that you mention. Thanks for giving me some strategies.

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929 posts

Wow. I have the unfortunate experience of growing up with the traumatic stress from a parent who has aspergers, who has a problem with loosing possessions/ fear of losing things/ having scary panic attacks about misplaced items, fear of forgetting to do actions or plans, and so on. Traveling alone as an adult, the stress is absent. I'm happy to see that you managed to find a list of techniques to manage your and/or your kids neurodivergency.

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295 posts

I just wanted to stop in and say thank you for all of the kind and affirming replies.

@BB As I was writing a more detailed trip journal I noticed a theme with google maps and disastrous incidents. I will try CityMapper. Thank you for the recommendation! And Yes! Sacro Bosco was weird and interesting, but also- soothing almost!

@Pat I'm still having trouble with it now that we are home, but I hope I've at least started to learn my lesson? I keep saying curiosity could save the world and I hope to learn to sit back and observe and learn instead of jumping in to fix things so quickly.

@travel4fun Your name matches your ethos! :). Thankfully, we weren't trying to vacation so much as adventure or it might have been an utter flop, but I think more down time is pretty much always a good idea. Kind of like cooking... you can always add, but it's awfully hard to take away.

@jmaulinuu Lucky grandkids! All your experience and thoughtfulness will benefit them so much. Where will you go first?!

@Tammy Why is it that kids still want fast food in Rome or Paris, haha!? Since I was solo with the girls I had no interest in eating out alone, but I did leave one of them in the apartment at their request while the other one had a little photo shoot. I was iffy, but glad I didn't insist on participation. (I wasn't desperate for participation so much as nervous about leaving a teen alone in a foreign country, but other than unfamiliarity, it really isn't less safe than home.)

@phoffen2001 When we were in Cinque Terre, we saw a Trenitalia agent greet a man getting off our train with a black backpack in her outstretched arms. The man's wife was taking a video on her phone of the reunion! There was some amusing chatter about what good friends they all were after the ordeal. I'll never know what was in that bag, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was passports or a laptop or camera! All I could think was, "There but for the grace, go I"!

@Pam and @marsh I never know, haha, but I'm glad if so!

@Nelly Well, I don't know how we survived with the scant scattering of executive function between us! Everything was so stimulating, the anxiety ended up causing more problems in the end!

@Susanna Same, girl, same. People say to my daughter, "But you aren't bouncing around the room?" and I'm like, "No, of course not... she's staring into space, about 9 corridors deep into whatever house of thought she opened the door to."

At least three lovely Italians handed me back a scarf or glove or somesuch while we were there this time but when I first got married, I was only 18 and my 19 year old husband and I sold his ancient Honda and bought a package trip to Italy. We were so stupid. With the travel time, we barely had 4 days. In any case, I tried to use the jetted bathtub in the hotel and the bubbles were about 5 feet high out of the tub and we could not get them to dissipate. I was carrying armfuls to the window and trying to covertly "release" them. At one point a pair of older ladies staying at our hotel walked by and giggled, one in a thick Russian accent, "Ooooh, bubbles!"

My new husband came in and slapped his forehead and said, "Oh my god, I've married Lucy Ricardo." He wasn't all wrong, I don't think.

@Patricia I hope it's absolutely wonderful! If she doesn't fully realize how lucky she is, know that there are people who realize it for her!

@Mike L I'm sure my daughters won't feel unscathed by my frequent minor mishaps. It is stressful when I can't find the keys that are right there in my key pocket or when I have two sets of parallel plans for the same time and don't realize it, but I hope they don't feel traumatized. I definitely second guessed taking them on such a trip, but I hope it was more good than stress for them.

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1397 posts

Like the other responders, I Loved your report. You are a brave and fabulous parent. I think this trip will get more precious to you as time goes by. I hope you are able to have many more trips with your daughters and enjoy how they each see the world differently.

When my family was young, I usually only had the energy to travel with my neuroatypical husband OR his mildly neuroatypical sons, not both together. We did manage a trip to Montreal, a Caribbean cruise, and a very successful trip to the Florida keys (I was practiced and wise on this trip) together.
Now, my younger son is my nearly perfect travel buddy. We have complimentary skills. We compensate for each other's weaknesses and we have an endless capacity to forgive each other. We enjoy seeing the other one happy. I have the funds and he has the youth.

I hope that you continue to make great memories with your daughters. Travel will add wisdom and texture to their lives.

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16 posts

Oh I feel this in a million different levels. Thank you for sharing all the practical advice, and honest assessments of the challenges. I am particularly struck by the comment (paraphrased here) that sometimes you just have to let them have a bad time. And also that gelato doesn't always fix a bad experience -- sometimes it just becomes a day with a bad experience and good gelato. (One could argue that it's an improvement, at least...)
My kids are 18 and 20 (about to turn 19 and 21) and we have a variety of neurodivergence and mood issues in the mix. While we have had glorious, heart-melting, amazing travel moments, we have also had some seriously gnarly ones. And for a long time I would madly tap-dance and jazz-hand my way around, trying to make everything better. Only now that they are adults am I even starting to be able to cut that out and realize that they will have the experience they'll have, regardless of my most fervent efforts. We leave next month for a 2.5 week trip to Greece to celebrate the younger one's high school graduation. It will be amazing, sometimes, and often less so, but that's okay too.
What lucky kids you have...I hope the next trip, and all the ones to come, are as smooth as possible, and that the inevitable bumps hit lightly.

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336 posts

So many great tips here for everyone, but I must say I have NEVER seen a tip list with the neurodivergent traveler in mind, and I thank you. Really, thank you for the organizational tips and the de-cluttering, de-stimulating suggestions.

Ditto to "letting them have a bad time." In my family, I'm the planner and everyone is more than happy to do whatever I have planned. Except for one thing: timing. I hate crowds so when touring, I want to be the first in line, which means leaving our vacation apt at 8 or 8:15 am, so we are "there" at 9 am. On our family's last two trips, I've been so angry when no one would get up in time! Grrrrr. Upon reflection, should it surprise me that 20 year olds (and my husband!) don't want to get up at 7am and out of the house by 8am while on vacation? It really isn't so unreasonable, many people like to sleep late. Yet I came to this only after much reflection. Our last trip I stormed out of the apt and went to St. Peter's. Not the most appropriate mood to go there, and that's when I realized that MY preference was not shared by all and I was guilty of being a vacation dictator.

I did draw the line when on the top level of a double decker, front seat, the "kids" were looking at their phones----but I also learned to build in screen time, which is VERY important for teens and young adults. And for me too!

Live and learn. Again, thank you. Your comments will help many people.