We have travel in our blood. Each of my children was airborne before he could sit up, and I’ve changed diapers on three continents. For the past fifteen years, we’ve traveled by plane, train and automobile anywhere our hearts desired, and our wallets stretched to afford.
Given my divorce and the complexities of our now blended family schedule, I am often the only adult in our merry band of nomads. Today I’m sharing six tips for successful single-parent travel.
Make and talk about a plan
I write a trip plan before we leave home, including where we’re sleeping, what we’re eating, and what we’re doing in between. I research options online, checking travel review sites and online discussions for local tips and recommendations. I include a budget for each item and back-up options or must-see notes.
Once I have a rough draft in place, I talk about the plan with the travel team. We discuss where we’re spending our money, why I chose each restaurant, and what days we have free time vs. specific plans. Talking about the plan allows for questions at home, and reworking it if parts of it fall flat. It also builds anticipation for our trip, and reduces the questions I get on the road (when my patience with questions tends to be lower).
Making a plan allows us to leave the house knowing what fun lies ahead, and I am comfortable and confident about how we’re going to spend our money and time.
Pack a mission-control backpack
I keep all of our travel documents in a backpack. As a single-parent traveler, I make sure I have copies of the children’s health insurance cards and, when traveling internationally, a notarized letter from their father giving me permission to leave the country with our tribe. We’ve never used either, but I carry them nonetheless.
I also keep emergency snacks, rain ponchos, cash, medicine, and anything else we need in my bag. I pack the bag before we leave home and include the essentials from my purse, which does not make the travel team. The mission-control backpack stays packed and ready to roll for the full trip.
Unlike my diaper bag years ago, this bag is not stuffed with items to entertain the children. Kids on the trip carry their own bags, including snacks, water, and electronics, which leads us to the next lesson I’ve learned on the road…
I mean light. I once packed for a week-long trip for all eight of us in two suitcases. Before we leave, I give the children a list of what they’ll need. We typically pack one pair of shoes per kid, one pair of pjs, and a light jacket. Kids wear pants and shorts more than once, and we sometimes plan to do laundry on the trip if it is easily accessible (something to check during the planning phase). Anyone over four is responsible for his or her own entertainment bag.
I carefully check what the children would like to pack before loading the suitcases. If we’re not absolutely sure we’re going to use an item, it stays home. I’d rather buy something on the road than carry too much.
As the only adult on the trip, I do a trial run to make sure we can carry everything we’ve packed. Seems simple, but I learned the hard way. It only takes a minute at home to strap on the backpack, roll the suitcase and carry a booster seat, and make sure each child can stand under the weight of her essential entertainment items. More than once, after this trial load, a kid has decided that the third Harry Potter book can stay on the bookshelf.
This is a trick I learned from my father. I teased him about it for years, until I started traveling alone with my children. I count kids, bags, and jackets at any stopping point. Security at the airport? Stepping off the train? Returning a rental car? I know my numbers ahead of time and count. In all the years of travel, we’ve only lost one pink Princess roller case.
Enlist the troops
Allow the children to help. Carrying their own bags (even car seats!) is just the beginning. Little ones can count bags, tweens can navigate the airport, and teens can search up driving directions. Yes, these tasks might require your supervision, but involving the children in age-appropriate ways allows them to learn new skills. In my experience, when children own parts of the trip, it enriches their experience and gives the single adult in charge a break.
Enjoy the adventure
When we’re traveling together, I see my children in a different light. Sometimes it feels like they’re growing up right in front of me. Experiencing new cultures, trying new foods, exploring new places together – these are some of my most precious memories with my tribe.
To enjoy the trip, make sure you’re at your best. Leave some breathing room on the trip plan, even if you don’t see everything the area has to offer. Allow plenty of time for travel. Start your mornings late and end your evenings early. Fight FOMO. You may not see everything Amish country has to offer this time, that’s okay. The important thing is to return home more connected to your little people than when you left.