Traveling as a Single Parent: Tried and True Survival Tips

The author, with her son Jack. (Photo: Christine Coppa)

Before I became a single mom, I did a fair share of traveling to Europe, Mexico, Costa Rica, San Francisco, and other hotspot destinations. All I had to worry about was a backpack, a few hundred bucks, a bikini, and good times. These days, I haven’t lost my itch to travel and explore, I just do it much differently with my young son, Jack, in tow. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way when it comes to traveling as a single parent.

Pick a place that suits your lifestyle. Face it: as a single parent it’s not always financially responsible, or even doable, to go on a vacation. Don’t feel bad planning a long weekend to a beach town or an amusement park. I’ve learned that my son can have just as much fun on a beach in the Bahamas as one in Bradley Beach, New Jersey (hello mini-golf, playground, and spray-park). However, if you are looking to plan a resort-style vacay, the good news is that the travel industry gets it and there are more options than ever for single parents. Beaches offers all-inclusive packages that waive the single supplement and include a variety of activities like outdoor movie nights, bonfires, and gaming electronics for the room. You’ll also meet other single-parent families and your child will have peers to play with—which means you can take a break from building sand castles.

Travel with someone. Single-smingle! I always let family and friends know about our travel plans well in advance and if anyone has the time off and means to join, I welcome them with open arms. My older brother, Carlo, tagged along on our adventure to Hawaii a few years ago and he really came in handy. Not only was it helpful to have someone carry Jack through the airport during an impromptu nap—I got to have peaceful me-time at the spa, because my brother was there to take Jack down the lazy river.

(Photo: Christine Coppa)

Be smart about how you stroll. Sure, it’s great to have someone tag along on a vacation, but that’s not always the case. When you’re on your own in the airport, with a baby or an on-the-move toddler you need a compact, lightweight stroller to get you through security. Plus, it comes in handy when there’s no other adult to help lug your carry-on items. I tucked the diaper bag and Jack’s backpack into the storage space under the seat and opted for a wearable cross-body purse, so my hands were free to push the stroller. When it was time to board, I pushed Jack right up to the gate, unbuckled him, and checked the stroller with the flight attendant.

(Photo: Christine Coppa)

Choose your seat wisely. Jack loves the window seat and I’m fine in the middle, because I use his armrest and mine on the opposite side. However, before we board the plane, I always explain that I’m traveling solo with my young son and ask if there’s someone else in the row with us. If there is, I politely ask if there are any empty rows, since it’s ideal to have extra room to store travel toys and snacks. An extra seat also means your little one can nap more comfortably. Three out of five times, we had a row all to ourselves because I changed seats at the last minute.

(Photo: Christine Coppa)

Rely on the kindness of strangers. In my experience, fellow passengers and flight attendants are always willing to lend a watchful eye. I remember traveling home from Florida with Jack, and well, having to really pee. Jack was sound asleep, and while I didn’t want to leave him alone, I also didn’t want to wake him up and risk having to deal with a meltdown mid-flight. I pressed the call button for the flight attendant and asked if she could watch Jack while I used the bathroom. She was delighted to help me and thanked me for not leaving him alone. While it’s certainly not in a flight attendant’s job description to babysit your kid, there’s no harm in asking for help. Same goes for your neighbor in the seat nearby. Worst they can say is, no—but no one has never said to us.

Be smart about food. If you’re not in an all-inclusive package, don’t waste big bucks at hotel restaurants or on room service. When Jack and I visited Southern California I was thrilled to find a nearby Whole Foods where I could purchase sushi, the perfect size serving of mac and cheese and steamed veggies for quick dinners in our room. It was also nice to stock up on milk, yogurt, and cheese sticks to go with the cereal, crackers, and juice boxes I packed from home. All-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffets are tasty, but I’m not paying 15 bucks so my kid can eat a waffle. Having cereal and cartoons in the room is cheap, familiar, and a smart way to fuel up for the day.

Have a back-up plan. A few years ago my single mom friend took her young son on a four-night Caribbean vacation—and got horrific food poisoning the day they arrived. She was so sick and weak that she couldn’t leave her bed for days, let alone supervise her child at the pool or beach. Thank goodness she chose a resort with a trustworthy kids’ camp. Not only did she utilize the camp, but she requested a private sitter to stay with her son during all of the activities. The resort obliged, because she got sick on their property. To this day, we still talk about how scary it would have been if she were at a small, charming hotel that didn’t host a vacation club. That said, I always file emergency contact info at the front desk.

Request the right room. Face it, your kid is going to need downtime, and if you’re traveling solo that means you might get stuck in the hotel for a sunny hour or two while he naps. That’s why I always request a hotel room with a balcony view of the pool or beach. Splurging on an icy beer from the mini bar, reading, or sunning myself outside steps away from my sleeping child is an awesome way to sneak in a little R&R. Because before you know it, naptime is over and it’s time to do cannonballs in the pool.

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