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Single Parent Travel Tips
From airplane rides to finding the right hotel, here are some tips on how to keep it all together when you're traveling with kids
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I was really nervous the first time my son JD and I traveled together. As a single mom traveling solo with her child, I think it's totally fair--expected, even. Did I pack enough diapers? (There was no one to make a middle-of-the-night diaper run.) Would I manage to get JD, myself, our stroller and carry-ons through security with only one set of hands? How would I use the bathroom on the plane with no one to watch my child? Here, some tips I picked up on our cross-country and international adventures, plus advice from the experts.
Avoid Check-In Lines
Kids and long lines are always a recipe for disaster, and even more so when there's just you to wrangle luggage and an antsy child. "Check in 24 hours in advance from your home computer and sign up for mobile alerts that can be sent to your cell phone with your flight status," says Barbara Higgins, Vice President of Customer Experience for United Airlines, and a mom herself. "This will bypass long lines at the counter or kiosk."
Strollers are Your Friend
Phew: Car seats and strollers are not counted as bags and can be checked at the gate. Airports are overcrowded and if your toddler is like JD, then he's unpredictable, fearless and fast. As a single mom, with no one else to chase after him (and remember, leaving your bag unattended even to run after a kid on the loose is not recommended), I use my stroller to keep him where I can see him until the two of us step on the plane.
Since some airlines allow families to board after First Class, pay attention to announcements so you don't miss your chance to shimmy down an empty plane aisle--a huge perk when you have a child and carry-ons to lug as you look for your seat.
Ask a Flight Attendant for Help
The flight attendants are there to help, so if you need to use the bathroom, kindly ask one to hang out in your section and keep an eye on your tot while you do your business. I've done this many times and the flight attendants were always delighted (your kid may even score an extra bag of pretzels).
Nail Your Ride Down
On a recent trip, I was lucky to have my brother, Brian, in tow. When the plane landed at our destination, we had no car waiting for us, because I assumed there would be a taxi. Since my brother was with us, he stayed outside on the taxi line while I took JD for a short walk to avoid the meltdown that would no doubt ensue if we had to stand in a line after a 6-hour flight. If my trusty brother wasn't with us, yep, we'd be standing in line waiting for a cab for who knows how long. Now I book transportation from the airport to the hotel before we travel. Whether there's a shuttle, family member picking us up, or reserved car service, I make sure someone is there for us.
Research Hotels Carefully
The hotel choice can make or break a vacation with kids. I love Oyster.com, which features a cut-to-the-chase pro and con list for each hotel, as well as real user images--not perfectly staged publicity shots--so you know what you're really getting. Choose "kid-friendly hotels" from the pull-down to start your search. Also, ask other parents you know for their recommendations; you'll want to know how family-friendly a property really is before you book.
Tell Them You Have Kids
Caryn Kboudi, vice president of corporate communications for Omni Hotels, says to let the person handling your reservation know that children will be staying, since some chains have special programs for kids. For example, Omni Hotels provides a Sensational Kids Program. Young guests will enjoy plenty of kid-minded amenities, including suitcases filled with games and books, a backpack upon check-in, and menu choices prepared especially for young travelers. As a single parent, you know what this means: you can collapse on the bed or unpack while your child digs through a bag-o-goodies. These treats will also come in handy when you need to shower, put on makeup and get yourself dressed.
Request a Room with a Fridge
Be sure to request a room with a mini-fridge. Not all rooms are equipped, but most hotels can bring one in. JD drinks milk in the morning and at night, so it's nice to be able to store a carton--especially when there's no other adult on hand to make an emergency milk run. You can also fill the fridge with fresh fruit, cheese sticks and yogurt for an affordable, anytime snack. I always pack a box of cereal, too, so you can eat breakfast quickly and cheaply, without a long wait. Room service is expensive and it takes time for the food to arrive.
Make Sure You Get Downtime Too
Whenever we stay in hotels I ask for a balcony. When JD naps, I lounge on the balcony, sunning and reading. That's how I fit "me" time in, since there's no one to watch JD while I lay out at the pool or get a massage solo. You probably won't be able to turn on the TV while your little one snoozes so be sure to pack a juicy book, deep-cleansing face mask, needle work, iPod or whatever takes you to your happy place. Remember, you're on vacation too!
Don't Eat Out Every Night
It's hard for kids to sit nicely in a restaurant night after night. And remember: if you're traveling solo, there's no other parent to take the kid outside if he gets unruly. So take some nights off from eating out. Scope out markets close to the hotel, and stock your room with some kiddie meals. When JD and I were in California, I was delighted to discover a Whole Foods nearby and visited it several times for fresh pasta, strawberries and breaded chicken cutlets--all of JD's favorites. We dined in the room or on the balcony, because on some nights he was too pooped to sit through a restaurant meal.
Say Yes to Babysitting
When JD and I went on a Disney Cruise, I left him in the nursery one early evening and grabbed a drink with a friend, which gave me a taste of being on vacay too. It's not easy to leave your child with someone you don't know, but single parents deserve occasional downtime to get a little relaxation in.
Look for signs it's a good sitter service or kids club, like good security with strict sign-in/sign-out procedures, and CPR- and first aid-certified caregivers. Be sure to let the caregiver know about any special dietary needs, says Melissa Underwood, Chief Brand Officer for SitterCity.com. Your day care facility at home may be nut-free, but the hotel accommodations may not. "Since this is not a routine sitter, parents should educate the caregiver on dietary needs and restrictions in detail along with ramifications so the childcare provider understands the importance of following them." Beyond that, "Just go with your gut when determining if the child care setting is right for your family," says Underwood.