Travel’s a great education, and a valuable one in our increasingly globalized world. That’s exactly why family travel is up – and that includes those parents flying solo.
Even if the travel industry isn’t keeping up with the fact that not every family has two parents and two kids, that isn’t stopping single parents. Families headed by an individual now make up almost 30% of families worldwide, and they’re hitting the road too.
Though there can be unique challenges to traveling as a single parent, those who have done it see the benefits far outweighing the costs.
People always told Sylvia Sabes, a France-based writer, that she was brave to travel with her girls as a single parent: “But I was more afraid of limiting their experience. I want them to be global citizens, and I was more afraid of them not being aware of the diversity of the world they lived in,” says Sabes, who visited Marrakech, Tanzania, Spain and Italy with her two daughters starting when they were seven and 10.
Some parents were travelers themselves, and wanted to include their kids in one of their favorite activities. Trey Ellis, a novelist, screenwriter and Columbia University film professor, often took his son and daughter (starting when they were three and six) to Europe during the summer for more than a decade. He didn’t see a reason to stop family trips they had begun when he was married.
“I’d spent summers in France before I was married, then when I was, and kept it up when I became a single parent,” said “My theory is to keep the kids integrated into your life, as opposed to changing your life for them.”
Mommy and me, and me and me
Traveling as the solo parent with a kid or kids has its challenges, of course, from the physical to the psychological.
“Every single thing is your responsibility, plus you have to entertain and engage the child when they’re younger,” says Talon Windwalker, who tracks his adventures traveling the world with his daughter (she was six when they first began), at One Dad One Kid.
“When you’re tired, you don’t have someone else who can take the reins.”
The reality is that a single parent only has two arms.
Luckily, parents report that other people are often happy to lend a hand. Parents credit flight attendants with helping with car seats on planes, while random fellow travelers often assisted with extra bags and making sure kids had all their stuff with them.
Sometimes solo parents might need professional help too, and that’s OK.
“When my kids were younger they couldn’t carry as much – so we’d have to get a cart or a porter for car seats and bags,” Ellis says.
Parents need to give themselves extra time, and let older kids carry their own stuff, which teaches them personal responsibility – an important lesson in travel, and in life.
Some things remain good advice, single parent or not.
“Pack less than you need,” says Ellis. “If you forget something it can be a fun adventure to buy it at your destination. Schlepping kid crap around with you is daunting and gets in the way. Why not go to a French store with your kids for something they need?”
Why it’s worth it
And while there are certainly challenges, the rewards are real.
Susan Moretti is a Sydney-based lifelong traveler who took her tween-then-teen daughter to Bali, New Zealand, Berlin and New York City throughout the 2000s.
She says they found it very easy to have fun together.
“There wasn’t a third person there to put a damper on any ideas we might have or places we wanted to eat,” Moretti says. “She talked to me more when we traveled when I was single. She shared her excitement with me rather than listening to two adults chatting about the places we saw.”
Kate Dillon Levin has a seven-year-old son who she has traveled with four or five times a year since he was small, which is a different – and sometimes better – experience.
“He slows me down – in a good way,” says Levin, a vice president at a climate solutions company. “We treat the trip like it’s a big adventure, so it’s a lot more fun than when I travel by myself for work,” she says.
Include kids in the decision-making process
So what are the best practices when traveling with kids? It certainly varies by age, but there are ways to make it work – for both of you.
Even though he’s young, Levin still talks to her son about “everything” to do with an upcoming trip. When he was younger, she made all the decisions, but they would look at pictures of the place they were going together, and would talk about what fun things to bring for the flight to mentally prepare him.
“The first time I gave him options on where we do summer holidays was this year,” says Levin. “It was either Boston or London, and we made the decision together,” she says.
“Destinations were my suggestion and she would either enthusiastically agree or not,” says Moretti. “I suggested Fiji once and she adamantly didn’t want to go, so we didn’t. I figured there was no use in dragging her to somewhere she has in her head she didn’t want to go to.”
Windwalker also involved his daughter in the planning process: “We very much acted as a team. I did most of the research and would tell her what I was seeing in terms of costs, how much time we could spend there, etc. If one of us had a strong opinion, the other usually considered that,” said Windwalker.
Once you ‘re traveling, kids learn as they go – and those experiences have a big impact, say all the single parents interviewed by CNN Travel.
“I wanted to teach them about how to travel alone as a woman and be safe – we had explicit conversations about that,” says Sabes.
“Marrakech was a great testing ground,” she says, since her girls saw exactly how she handled a private guide who wouldn’t listen to her, or when and how she had to get confrontational with a horse-drawn carriage driver who wouldn’t drop them off where they wanted to go.
Getting kids out of their bubble and playing with local kids their own age can give their parent a break – and time to engage with other parents.
I took my son, who is a soccer player, to the Dominican Republic, and we saw kids his age playing soccer. I kind of pushed him into playing with them, but after two minutes he was having the greatest time of his life,” says Ellis.
Education can include deep dives into a specific subject, like railway routes to learn geography, or seeing famous works of art in person instead of just in a book.
For single parents, taking advantage of the numerous child-friendly amenities at a museum, like headset tours, means the parent has a moment to enjoy the art for themselves while kids get an age-appropriate lesson that’s designed to be engaging.
“I once had to drag my daughter away from some paintings in a gallery in Paris, as the narrative was so interesting and fun,” says Moretti, who says her daughter’s experiences in European museums led her to focus on art in high school in Australia.
Yes, you can actually have fun
Don’t always err on the side of caution – kids want to have adventures too, and traveling can be a great way to let them test out their comfort zones in a healthy way.
“Kids are up for more than you think and can get just as bored as you just playing in the swimming pool. Venture into town, take a local bus, visit the markets and then go back and flop in the pool!” says Moretti.
She also suggests heading out in the evenings.
“Even if it’s to walk a few streets and see the lights and shops, walk along a moonlit beach or have an ice cream by the lake and watch the swans surrounded by mountains,” says Moretti. “Anything at night is usually a hit.”
On the flip side, alone time can be key for older kids – and give single parents time to themselves. Independent time can make other parts of the travel experience more fun and relaxing. “Recognize when they want to be alone and/or want ‘chill-out time,’” says Windwalker, who plans excursions to cathedrals and castles that his daughter isn’t interested in. “She gets alone time, and I get to see what I want without any pressure. It’s a win-win,” he says.
Besides education, single parents talk about the incredible memories they’ve made for themselves, and their kids.
So prepare as best you can – always carry a notarized letter from the child’s other parent that authorizes travel, required at many border crossings – and just do it.
“Nobody expects you to be perfect, let the fear go,” says Levin.
Ellis says he’ll never forget embarking on his European summers with his kids: “I loved the sight of us with our little roller bags – I felt like papa duck going through the airport.”
Starre Vartan’s first travel memory is of the Penglipuran ruins in Bali where she sojourned with her parents as a toddler; she’s been to 29 countries since.