NEW YORK — There's only one thing worse than a cranky 2-year-old when you're on vacation, and that's a cranky teenager.
Fortunately, just as most toddlers can be pacified with naps, bottles and clean diapers, I have discovered that my teen and tween sons become charming traveling companions if I let them sleep late and take them shopping.
I learned this simple formula partly from experience, but also from advice I got from Eileen Ogintz. Ogintz, a syndicated columnist and creator of the Web site TakingtheKids.com, has traveled widely with her kids, now 17, 22 and 24. Here are some of her tips for keeping big kids happy on vacation:
PLANNING: "Get teens on board with the idea of where you are going and what you are going to do when you get there," Ogintz advised. "Let them have a say in the planning." You might even have each teen plan the itinerary for a whole day.
Ogintz added that when trips include activities kids choose, whether it's kite-boarding or shopping, "they will be much more cooperative when you want to stop at that historic house or gallery."
Agreed: If I can get my boys to accompany me to a botanical garden without complaining, I am more than willing to take them paddle-boarding — as long as I don't have to get wet.
FRIENDS: "If possible, invite a friend along," Ogintz said.
There's nothing more painful to teenagers than being separated from their herd. Bringing a friend solves the problem. It's almost like having a baby sitter who's the same age as your kid.
In our family, we've also found that everyone behaves in a more civilized manner — kids and adults — when we have company, whether our guest is 13 or 30. Friends of my older son have also been extremely kind to my younger son — sometimes they are nicer to him than his own brother!
On the other hand, if you have a small car, tight accommodations or a tight budget, taking another child on vacation can be an imposition. Some families will offer to pay their child's way; others may not be able to afford it. Ogintz suggests asking hotels for discounts on a second room and other extras necessitated by the additional person in your group.
You can also test compatibility and ease the financial burden by arranging a short back-and-forth trade with the other family: I'll take your teenager to the beach this weekend if you'll take mine next time.
ELECTRONICS: "Negotiate with the kids about time they will be on and off the computer, cell phones, etc.," Ogintz said. "And that goes for you too! You don't want them texting the entire time but neither should you be on your BlackBerry."
Remember when we used to fight with kids about how much TV they were watching? Texting, video games and Facebook are the new TV. And with portable electronics, those fights can now take place at Mount Rushmore.
Of course, how much screen time is too much screen time varies by family. Personally, I hate it when my dinner companion pays more attention to his cell phone than to me — especially when my dinner companion is my teenage son. But when we're relaxing after a long day of sightseeing, if a kid wants to text his friends, "Yo wassup" and other inspiring missives, it's OK by me.
SPENDING: "Negotiate how much they get to spend on souvenirs, on arcades, on frothy drinks per day. You'll be amazed at how careful they are when it's their birthday money they are spending!" Ogintz said.
Amen to that. I avoid gift shops and set spending rules in advance to forestall public whining. But I also find that taking my kids to a mall on vacation makes them happier than just about anything else — even if we have all the same stores at home. I do make them bring their own money, but I'm willing to pay if they're buying basics they need anyway. We've bought coats and boots at great prices in August because we happen to be vacationing near outlets for Timberland and North Face.
SLEEPING IN: "They are on vacation, not in the army," Ogintz said. "If they want to sleep late, that's fine. Just make sure they know how late breakfast is served and what they'll miss."
She added that if you have younger kids who get up early, you could even do something special with them while leaving the teen to snooze.
Another idea from Ogintz: "If they want to skip dinner and have a pizza in the room, be OK with that too."
BOTTOM LINE: "It is really liberating for teens to realize they can make some of their own choices on a family vacation," Ogintz said.
To which I say: Liberating for parents, too.