Eleanor writes on many topics, including parenting, single parenting, party and activity ideas, and career and home life.
Travelling abroad with children when you are a single parent might feel like a rather daunting prospect, particularly if you are only recently divorced or separated. Indeed, if you are used to travelling as a two-parent family, the thought of going it alone with the kids might seem too difficult, too much of a hassle, or just plain scary. And the younger your children are, the more overwhelming you might imagine it to be.
Visiting another country, however, can result in some of life's most precious memories. Not only that, but travelling can open us up to new experiences, broaden our horizons and give us a chance to spend quality time together away from the stresses and strains of everyday life. Plus, it can make us feel plain happy.
What's more, if you are a single parent, you have double the workload in 'ordinary' life—so don't you deserve a break even more than most? Of course you do, and if you plan it properly, you will be left with wonderful memories and happy children.
It's Not That Hard
Granted, it might be a bit scary if you are planning on hiking through the Amazon rainforest with your kids in tow, surviving on beetles and fruits. Generally, however, travelling as a single parent is not as daunting as you might at first think. In fact, it is a pretty simple affair once you have found your feet. In many countries, it is no more difficult than at home; all it really takes is a bit of careful planning and that amazing assistant known as the internet, which enables you to investigate every inch of your trip before you've even booked.
So what do you need to consider for the perfect single-parent vacation?
1. Choose Your Destination Carefully
When you are planning a family trip, the destination is everything. Simply taking the time to research an area can be the make or break of any trip abroad. When you are travelling as a lone parent with your children, it is even more important if you want your trip to run smoothly.
Unless you are a seasoned and adventurous traveller (and your kids are too!), choosing somewhere easy to get to is essential. Getting on a plane, then a bus, followed by a boat and then another bus might be too much for a single parent travelling with children. (And that description is not an exaggeration, it is how my ex-partner, 7-year-old son and myself arrived on the island of Brac, Croatia, from London ten years ago—although the final bus was a short journey.) Remember, many small, idyllic islands around the world (including many Croatian islands, and some in Greece) don't have airports, and you have to get there somehow!
That's not to say that you shouldn't consider taking your kids on a bit of an adventure, travel-wise, but just don't go without fully understanding the reality of getting there first. For an easy arrival, choose somewhere reasonably close to a main airport, or at least make sure that you fully understand the procedure you will have to take to get there.
Tip: Make sure your destination, however idyllic it might seem, is not more difficult to get to than you can sensibly handle. Remember, children can get tired when they travel, which can have an impact on mood - getting up early, travelling to the airport and subsequently flying, time spent waiting around and finally transferring to your accommodation in temperatures that they may not be used to, might just tip the balance between your own sanity and a mini-breakdown if you are managing the trip as a single adult.
2. Pay Attention to Transfers
Some transfers from the airport to your destination are short (half-an-hour or so) and some are long (two hours plus). If you are travelling on your own with your children, you might prefer a shorter transfer time, especially if your children are young.
If you book a package holiday, your transfers should be included, but more and more people travel independently these days. That means you usually have two choices - private transfer or public shuttle bus. I tend to opt for the shuttle bus every time - it's so much cheaper and usually frequent. Airports can be busy places and can feel stressful if you've just arrived and don't have the faintest idea where the bus terminal is. It's worth trying to find out this information online before you travel, just to make it easier - it's usually available. You can also often buy transfer bus tickets online in advance - this will be convenient, and also will probably save you a small amount of money. You might have to choose a time when booking, which may be difficult, but you can generally take whichever bus you like when you actually arrive.
Tip: Transfers are a part of any trip involving flights. To make it easier, find out exactly what you need to know beforehand (frequency of buses, location of bus terminal, how to get a ticket) and the procedure will be a lot easier than darting aimlessly around the airport with your kids in tow.
3. Talk to Your Children About Their Own Expectations
To get the most out of your vacation as a family, and subsequently choose the right destination, you first need to understand your children's expectations. For a smooth-running trip, it is important to take into consideration the wishes of every family member (and don't forget yourself!). If one family member isn't happy, then no one will be 100% happy. So, ask your children what they would like to do on the trip (within reason). Here are some questions to ponder:
- Do they want to swim a lot?
- Would they enjoy visiting interesting places, such as historical attractions? My children both used to say they just wanted to go swimming in a pool, but in actual fact, that's not true. In reality, they wanted to go swimming every day, in a nice pool—but not all day. All day was boring.
- Would they enjoy outdoor activities?
The best trips happen when everyone's individual needs are met, so having a family meeting before booking is a really good idea.
Tip: Listen to what everyone expects from the trip. Even young children often have an image in their minds of what they think their vacation/holiday will be like and may be very disappointed if it turns out to be completely different. My nine-year-old neighbour really wanted to go to Rome to see the Colosseum, but unbeknownst to his mother, he took it for granted that there would be a swimming pool at the hotel, which is not common in Rome. Swimming pools, in his mind, were part and parcel of any holiday, though he had not verbalised this beforehand.
4. Research Your Accommodation
Destination might be the most important factor, but accommodation comes in a close second. When you are travelling as a single parent, you won't have another adult to step in if the going gets tough. For a hassle-free vacation with your children, take the time to choose your accommodation wisely and consider these points
The location of your accommodation can be really important. Arguably, it is even more important for the single parent traveller. The very worst thing you can do is to book a trip based on it seeming like a bargain. It might well be a bargain it terms of cost, but that doesn't mean it is right for you and your family. Getting a generally cheaper or smaller hotel in a better location can sometimes be a better option.
Many hotels and resorts look idyllic online and in brochures, but they can often be set away from the town/resort, meaning that getting around is more difficult than you might like. If you plan to spend most of your time in the hotel grounds enjoying the facilities, then perhaps it won't be too much of a problem for you. But if you want restaurants, shopping and local culture and amenities right on your doorstep, then you're probably looking in the wrong place. And exploring the local area is part of the fun of visiting somewhere new.
When there are two adults to look after the kids, you can deal with a less-than-perfect location more easily than when you are on your own. But when you are travelling as a lone parent, the last thing you want is to make life extra difficult for yourself by ending up somewhere lonely or cut off from everything else. Not checking the exact location of the accommodation prior to booking can be a huge mistake.
If you really want to stay in that amazing on-the-edge-of-town complex, research your location thoroughly. For instance, is there a bus that frequently serves the hotel - either a local bus or a service provided by the hotel? Will you have a hire car (good for day trips but not so good for parking in compact towns or if you plan to enjoy a glass or two of wine at a local restaurant).
Sometimes it's not distance that is the problem, but terrain. Two years ago, I stayed in a lovely villa in Crete with my children and some friends. It was only ten minutes from the beach; however, it was only reachable via a steep hill that was not even a proper path but a grassy bank with no lighting! Accessing the villa meant climbing the hill in the extreme heat of the day, or not being able to see where we were going at night. Even the little shop at the bottom of the hill seemed very far away, and although the villa itself was stunning with great views, in hindsight I would not have booked it.
The only other way to get to the villa was to walk on the bendy road (still uphill but on tarmac). But it didn't have a pedestrian path, making it somewhat dangerous at night, and it was twice the distance as the road looped round.
Read Visitor Reviews
If I had taken into account visitor reviews of the Cretan villa before booking, I would have realised that the location was too difficult. Most visitors had a hire car, but I wouldn't have wanted to have to drive to the local taverna, or to the beach and little shops. To me, hire cars are for sightseeing, not for every time you set foot outside. My mistake on that occasion was that I allowed my friend to book the accommodation without conducting my usual thorough research.
In the past, before the internet was really useful, it could be a bit hit-or-miss as to whether your accommodation lived up to your expectations. Now, thanks to Tripadvisor and reviews on accommodation sites, it is possible to obtain a really good view of what an accommodation is like from actual travellers.
Not only that, but TripAdvisor has extensive travel forums where you can ask other travellers questions about virtually anywhere and anything, from the ease of public transport to how to get to a local attraction and when it's best to go.
Remember, Tripadvisor is your friend! Don't rely on the travel company's description - they have a vested interest in getting you to book.
Tip: Research your accommodation before you book and don't just pick the hotel with the best pool if you want to be near the town as well. Travel companies market the best bits, you might have to dig a bit deeper for other information.
Tip 2: If you are travelling with an only child, you might want to search for a hotel popular with families so that your child might find someone to play with when you want to relax—no guarantees, but it happens!
5. Be Careful of Travel Times
When you are travelling with children, especially on your own, it is a really good idea to book travel arrangements that fit in with your children's usual day as far as is possible. That means trying not to book flights or other travel arrangements that require you to be at the airport at 4am, or result in you arriving in a new country in the middle of the night. The cheapest flights are often the ones that depart at ridiculously early hours - if you want sane children (and to stay sane yourself!) this is a less-than-perfect idea.
Depending on where you are going, and how long the journey is, it might not be possible to avoid a bit of disruption, but it's worth bearing in mind for an easier trip.
6. Think About How You'll Get Around
If you and your children plan to visit local attractions, such as historical sites or areas of natural beauty, consider beforehand how you will reach those places. Is the area compact or served by good public transport?
Some destinations are quite compact, in that there is a lot to see within a small area. The Amalfi Coast in Italy is one example. You can visit historical Rome, then take a train down to the stunning Amalfi Coast. The villages and towns on the coast are beautiful and all within quick and easy reach of one another. The frequent public bus runs along the coast road and you just get off when you reach your destination. You can take a boat to Capri from most places on the coast (where you can find the Blue Grotto and chairlift to the highest peak in Ana Capri), visit the Duomo and the Paper Museum in Amalfi, and visit Positano, the poster face of the entire Amalfi Coast. Pompeii is accessible from both Rome, Naples and the coast (train from nearby Salerno), and Herculaneum is easily reachable from the coast as well. Visiting attractions couldn't be easier, and you definitely don't need to book an organised tour.
In comparison, the Greek island of Crete is large and points of interest may be much further apart. We visited Chania, but many attractions, such as Knossos, were a long way from there. We toured the White Mountains (which was lovely) but ended up cancelling our plan to visit the pink sands of Elafonnissi beach, due to the long journey and the lack of easy access in almost 40-degree heat. I would have still gone, but the kids didn't want to make so much effort in the end.
Turkey is another beautiful but huge country with worthwhile sightseeing opportunities such as Ephesus and Pammukale. These attractions are both between 2.5 - 3.5 hours from some of the most popular tourist resorts. I visited them both during the same vacation, but that was as a twenty-something single person with no children, and also no main base to have to return to (we backpacked).
Tip: Think about the attractions you might want to visit, as a family, before you book - and carefully consider how feasible your plans are. You can check the distance between places on Google Maps, and you can often look up local transport options and tour companies as well. Local transport is often the fraction of the cost of a tour (we took a public bus to Pammukale in Turkey and it stopped right inside).
The easiest trips as a single-parent travelling with children are those in which points of interest are close by and practical to reach. One big excursion might be feasible, but more than that could be exhausting and spoil your enjoyment of the entire trip.
Tip 2: In some countries, booking advance tickets for public trains can be necessary as once all the seats are booked you won't be allowed on. Check beforehand (we didn't, and struggled to get on a train back to Rome in Italy, for the flight home!).
7. Pre-book Attractions
Nobody likes queues, especially children. Thankfully, it is often possible to pre-book tickets to overseas attractions, even before you have left for the airport.
During peak times, queues for popular attractions can be huge. When we visited Rome in August, the queues to both the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel were in excess of two hours. But because we had purchased tickets online for the Colosseum before leaving the UK, we were able to walk straight in with no queuing at all.
We did not visit the Sistine Chapel due to the queue, as the children were not interested enough to want to stand in line for such a long time. If we had been staying in Rome for longer we might have been able to book a ticket online and had it printed at the hotel, but we were departing later that afternoon.
Tip: Thinking about where you want to visit, and considering pre-booking tickets in advance for popular places that attract huge numbers of tourists, is really worthwhile. Reading reviews of the attraction on Tripadvisor (especially those left by visitors during peak times of year) will usually give you an idea of what to expect queue-wise.
8. Understand Your Children's Limits
Children don't usually have the stamina of an adult - unless it suits them! What you and perhaps your older children hope to get out of a holiday/vacation might not be feasible for a younger child. For instance, visiting a place like New York City as a tourist can involve vast amounts of walking, in a very busy environment. London can also be very tiring when visiting a lot of its attractions. Whilst some cities, like Rome and Barcelona, are quite compact with many places reached by walking, Paris is more spread out in comparison.
All of these places are family friendly, but a realistic expectation is necessary. As a single parent, subway travel can be very stressful with young children, and even worse with multiple children. If you don't have another adult to help you it might feel overwhelming.
I used the city breaks mentioned merely as an example - your child could struggle in any situation in which a lot of walking is required of them, particularly in heat. And this can result in an uphill battle - all parents know what it is like when a child simply refuses to walk!
Consider Using a Pushchair/Stroller Even When You Have Given It Up
On vacation, we often want children to behave in a completely different way than we do at home. For instance, our desire to visit all of the local attractions within a short space of time usually means that we want our children to walk about a lot more than usual. (This is particularly true if there are older siblings who want to do and see things.) Not only that, but we also often turn our usual rule of sending them to bed at a certain time on its head and instead want them to stay up all night eating in restaurants, partaking in late night souvenir shopping, and watching pretty lights bounce across the water in the harbour (or something like that).
The problem is, younger children often can't handle this sudden change. I can speak from experience - in the past my own young child has almost fallen asleep in his dinner whilst, for everyone else, the evening has only just begun. But there can often be a very simple solution if you have a child who is three or four (perhaps even five) - the basic fold-up stroller.
You might think your child has outgrown a stroller (they probably have, at home), but believe me, it can be a godsend. It gives you the freedom of walking further than your child is willing and staying out later even when they are tired. It's definitely worth it if you have a 'borderline' child when it comes to stamina, particularly when there is no other adult available to help out with carrying.
Travelling with children as a single parent does not have to be difficult or stressful. The key to a great trip is good planning beforehand, which is really easy to do these days using online information.
Visiting another country can be a positive and memorable experience for a child. In my opinion, it is definitely worth it. I can still remember riding through the White Mountains on that little train in Crete with my then eight-year-old. He said to me: "Mum, isn't this amazing? I can't believe we're doing this." For me, that was one of the best moments of the entire trip.