How to Manage Your First Family Vacation as a Solo Parent
After divorce, separation or the death of a partner, your relationship status changes—but your status as a parent remains. Trying to keep things “normal” for the kids, you might wonder if a getaway could be just the thing to lift spirits and lighten moods. But as a newly solo parent, that first excursion can be intimidating. How will you manage?
“Before you go away, go within,” advises Tammy Daniele, a licensed therapist who helps families before and after divorce. “Be honest about what you can handle, what’s best for your kids and what’s best for the relationship you have with your kids. If you’re stressed out the whole time you’re away, that’s not going to be good for anybody.”
If soul-searching reveals that you’re ready for your first single-parent vacation, here are suggestions for planning the getaway.
Tailor the Trip to Your Family
When creating your vacation plan, consider your kids’ ages and everyone’s temperament—including yours as the sole adult who will keep your family safe, sane and in sync. “Think about how much of you they need,” said Daniele, “and how much can you give them without sacrificing a good experience.”
Transportation and duration are major considerations. Older kids might enjoy a week-long adventure with trains, planes and rental cars; little ones might fare better with a day trip in your minivan.
Kristin Anderson took her two tween daughters to Costa Rica. They first stayed at a hotel she’d visited before and then moved to a place new to all of them. “The best thing I did was go somewhere I had been before,” she said. “And I got help from a travel agent. She made sure every little detail in the actual traveling part of the trip was planned, right down to transportation to and from airports and drivers between hotels. That’s the most stressful part. Once you get where you are going, it’s easy.”
If you don’t have the time, budget or ambition for a big vacation, stay local. Kristin Caputo has been taking her 8-year-old son on short trips for several years. “I do weekend getaways,” she said. “We go far enough to call it a road trip, and I research fun activities before we go.” Caputo sometimes keeps the plans a secret, making the excursion a surprise for her son. “We love it and really get reconnected.”
Plan for Ups and Downs
Once you’ve picked a destination, create an itinerary. “Involve older children in planning so they’ll be invested in the trip,” said Daniele. For younger ones, be mindful of routine. “Toddlers need naps. Stay on schedule so they get them.”
Beyond that, plan a mix of scheduled activities, with flexibility to deal with the unexpected. Spontaneous experiences, like stopping at a roadside attraction or trying a local ice cream shop, can be happy, memorable moments. Be prepared, too, to pause when someone gets a headache, upset stomach or cranky mood.
Above all, build in downtime. Breaks are good for everyone—including you. “It can be exhausting when you’re the only parent on duty, so schedule time for yourself,” said Daniele. Cruises and certain hotels offer childcare and kids’ programs to give parents a rest. If possible, reserve your own room or at least a separate bed. At a minimum, find “alone” time, even if the kids are snoozing beside you.
If solo-parent travel feels overwhelming, recruit support. Maybe you could go with another family; take a nanny; or invite a friend, sibling or parent to join you.
When seeking companionship, be choosy. “You know who those people are in your life,” said Daniele. “Ask yourself, ‘Who won’t drive me crazy?’ Don’t take your mom on vacation if you can’t stand being with her for a couple of hours.”
You could also plan to meet others at your destination—giving yourself the benefits of backup and adult conversation and your kids the gift of more relationships. Michael Bowton is a single dad with full custody of two daughters. He took them via Amtrak for a nine-day visit to his hometown, where they were surrounded by friends and family. “It went very well,” he said, “because we visited people the girls see only about every four years.”
Know Your Limits
Whatever you do, keep it manageable. This applies to all aspects of the trip, from physical luggage to emotional baggage. In that regard, here are a few more tips:
- Share the load. Give kids age-appropriate responsibilities: a bag to carry, a map to follow, a checklist to manage.
- Stay within budget. Don’t buy a vacation you’ll be paying for long after it ends. “What your kids want is you,” said Daniele. “It’s not how much you spend. It’s the time you spend together.”
- Know what’s required. Also know the rules for flying with kids, as they may change and vary by airline or location. "Back in 2008, I learned the hard way that I needed two forms of ID with my children's last name to pass through security on our way from Minnesota to Florida," said Andrea Swayne, who reclaimed her maiden name after divorce. "That little fact almost ruined our first post-divorce trip." Today, children under 18 don't need ID to travel with an adult companion within the US, but they do need a valid passport to travel internationally as well as further documentation when traveling with a lone adult.
- Make it your own. “If you and your former spouse always went to Disneyworld, don’t go there right away,” said Daniele. “Find a new experience that will be fun, and create new memories for yourself and your kids.”
As a solo parent, you can create a vacation experience that’s positive, affordable and memorable. It just takes a little planning and a lot of honesty about what you and your kids can handle. Enjoy the journey.