When I decided to take my daughter to Spain in March of 2008, traveling solo as a woman wasn’t talked about as much as it is today, let alone taking an international solo trip with a child. A number of people told me I was crazy.
But I had been a single mom since Mia was just over a year old; she was 11 by then, so we had lots of experience doing things alone together: moving to Chicago, going out to dinner and to museums, and taking trips around the United States.
Because we’d been doing things on our own since she was a baby — grown-up kinds of things — she knew how to be in those kinds of spaces. I had also trained her in the ways of my budget management: She knew that she had to consult me before she could choose her meal if we went out to eat, and we never, ever ordered anything to drink but water.
Still, it wasn’t exactly easy to take a solo trip with a child to another country. I was the sole navigator for the two of us, responsible for our safety. We traveled in the off-season to save money, so I had to contend with weather and delays (including an epic delay at the end of this trip). And it was more affordable to travel to a smaller city such as Malaga versus a big European capital, but that meant fewer people who spoke English. When we got off of the bus from the airport, the driver gave us directions to our hotel in Spanish, and mine was rough.
But I had already visited Madrid a few years before to see my longtime boyfriend, who moved there to study; and when he dumped me for a fellow student, I moved my second Madrid trip to Barcelona and went with my sister. Driving from the airport after that trip to Barcelona, I called Mia to tell her that I was on my way home, and she asked me if I would take her to Spain. I promised her that I would, and it was a promise kept.
Traveling solo with your child or children is incredibly rewarding. Mia and I share memories of countless adventures together, just the two of us — from our overnight at a cabin in a nearby state park in the off-season when she was a preschooler (and the only other guests were wearing orange jumpsuits), to her graduation-from-college gift, a trip to Hawaii. If you think you’d like to begin exploring the world with your child or children, consider these suggestions.
Before You Plan a Solo Trip with a Child
Practice makes close to perfect. Just as you want to ease into solo travel yourself, it’s wise to attempt a few increasingly complex outings with your children first.
Take them out to dinner. Being able to get through most of a meal is important to a solo trip with a child. But your expectations don’t need to be high, nor your budget large.
Mia and I practiced at Pizza Hut every Wednesday night, when kids paid their age plus a dollar for the pizza buffet. She was only a year old, so it was cheap. And after a long day of work for me and daycare for her, with a long night of grocery shopping ahead (and no oven or dishwasher in our apartment), it was easy. Enjoyable, even. She learned how to engage with a server and how to manage her voice. I learned how to keep her occupied when she got restless. We learned how to talk over a meal, even if it was sometimes about Barney.
Take them to a museum. Most museums have free days for locals and/or families, so it can be very affordable practice. Just prepare to be very vigilant and engaged. Prepare to be brief — start with 10 to 15 minutes, if your child or children are little. And don’t try to cover a lot of ground.
One of my favorite ways to explore a museum even today is to focus on one exhibit, one room or one painting and just talk about that. Ask your child what they see. Ask them what they think about what they see. Take some crayons and a paper pad and let them scribble what they see (on the paper). Hang it on the refrigerator afterward. This is special time with Mommy or Daddy that they will soon look forward to.
Take them somewhere overnight. Again, it doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. I wanted to take Mia camping, but I didn’t have any gear or any money for gear. I rented that cabin at a state park, the one where it was cold and rainy because it was the off-season and thus cheap, and the Department of Corrections had a team at the park cleaning up. It was just an hour’s drive from home (and our daily work/daycare commute was a half-hour each way, so I knew she could handle it). I didn’t have to pack much.
She may have only told her preschool teacher about the giant spider in the shower, but we both learned about preparing to be away from home together without anyone to help.
Really, any sort of grownup place is great practice for a solo trip with a child. The key? Make it a grownup-ish place. Sometimes outrageous behavior is contagious among kiddos, especially when parents feel like they can relax, abandon control and check out. Your goal is to practice being in spaces where people of all ages can exist comfortably. It takes extra work to be a solo parent in these situations, but it pays off in the end. And if all fails, pack up, go home and try again another time.
As You Plan a Solo Trip with a Child
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, your child or your budget for your first solo trip together. This one is less about the destination and more about the experience.
Do your research. Make sure you understand the risks of your destination. In fact, take a look at our solo travel safety blog first, if you haven’t already. The tips there are important times two — you need to be aware of your surroundings while engaging with your child.
Choose comfortable accommodations. Whatever the day brings, you want to feel safe and sound at bedtime. Rather than being in the heart of it all, you may want to find a hotel that’s quiet, with well-lighted parking or regular public transportation nearby. A front desk can make you feel more secure than an Airbnb during a solo trip with a child, and free breakfast solves one mealtime every day. Check out the amenities: When my parents drove from Indiana to Colorado every other summer with three little girls in the back seat, we lived for the motel swimming pool.
Buy trip insurance. Allianz has some affordable travel insurance plans. Choosing a refundable room reservation, car rental or flight is a good idea for your first solo trip with a child too. Ear infections and soccer championships happen.
Travel in the off-season. As long as your trip isn’t entirely weather dependent, you’ll benefit in two ways: Your trip will be cheaper, and you’ll experience fewer crowds. Fewer crowds mean shorter wait times at attractions and restaurants, and fewer people to try to squeeze through and be aware of when you’re navigating for two.
Pack light. Pack smart. Depending on your child’s size and age, you likely will be carrying everything at some point. Probably into an airport bathroom with your child. Leave behind the multiple outfits and shoes. Take the truly important things for your child’s comfort: any sleep essentials, a beloved book, some favorite snacks. Include a basic first-aid kit. And leave the rest at home. Better to buy what you need in your destination or take along some laundry detergent sheets than to fumble with a lot of baggage while you’re trying to keep a close eye on your kids.
Let your child help plan. This is the fun part! Regardless of your child’s age, he or she can listen to a podcast, a story or music about the destination you’re visiting. You can pre-select some appropriate activities and then let him or her choose a favorite or a top three. Talk about how things will be different in your destination, and how they will be the same. This is a wonderful way to share your enthusiasm for travel with your budding wanderer.
Leave behind copies of your itinerary and travel details. Whether you’re traveling alone or solo with a child, it’s smart to leave a thorough list of locations, attractions, accommodations and other details with plenty of people at home. And don’t forget to take along the contact information for your health insurance company, your pediatrician and other important people in your child’s life.
During a Solo Trip with a Child
Lower your expectations. Don’t expect to get to Disneyland before 11 a.m. with a teenage girl. Don’t expect to sit through three hours of an orchestral performance with a six-year-old. It’s the journey, not the destination on a solo trip with a child, right? I’ll confess to failing on that front regularly. But when I managed to relax, we had some of the best times.
Think proactively. Think about your child’s attention span. Think about his or her mealtimes, naptimes and bedtimes. Think about what you need to take with you for the day. Strategically plan places to rest, refill and restore. Especially on a solo trip with a child, try to drape your activities around your child’s routine.
Engage your child in all parts of your trip. Teach your child how to read signs (or if they’re too small, to notice cues). It won’t be long before they’re able to help you navigate, if you tell them what you’re looking for. Encourage your child to speak to adults; after reminding Mia of the Spanish word for “fork,” I made her ask the server for one in Spain. She was shy, and the server’s English wasn’t great, but it worked out, and she felt better for it. Point out interesting sites around you. Some attractions have guides designed for children; if you don’t find one, play “I Spy” or ask your child to be your tour guide.
Help your child create a memento of the trip. Allow your child to choose a souvenir — ideally, from within a selection that suits your budget. Give him or her a disposable camera (just keep in mind that it might not make it all the way home). At bedtime ask your kiddo to write about your day or draw a picture; collect everything and include it in a photo book that you give your child when you get home. A photo book or scrapbook helps your child talk about his or her trip to friends, family and teachers when you get back and becomes a precious keepsake as he or she grows older.
You don’t have to be a perfect parent to take a solo trip with a child. Your kiddos don’t have to be perfect either. My daughter has ADHD of the inattentive variety that posed special challenges whenever we were trying to get somewhere. I have a deficiency of patience that was particularly acute when my daughter was little. I look back at some of my frustrated behavior during our trips and cringe.
There are things that I wish I would have done better, but I’d always take the trips all over again. Traveling with your child, especially as a solo parent, is a bonding experience unlike any other, and a source of incredible memories and growth. It expands your child’s world and allows you to each build confidence. There’s no age requirement for a lesson in becoming brave.
I grew extremely proud of Mia’s poise, street smarts and ability to navigate as we traveled together over the years. And now that she’s an adult I have the perfect traveling companion … one who will soon be able to afford to pay her way to travel with me!
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