Travelling solo, with kids. It sounds like an oxymoron – how can you be alone when you have little people with you? – but as any parent who has hit the road without a co-pilot knows, it’s very much a one-person show. Being a single-parent traveller will bring a host of unexpected challenges, all of which can be overcome. Believe it or not, travelling solo with kids is even better than travelling solo.
Hitting the road alone
Some parents have to travel solo with kids because their partner is working, not interested in travelling, or are otherwise incapacitated. Others travel with their kids because they’re single parents. If that’s the case, you’re probably used to some of the logistics required, but you might not be prepared for the experiences you’re to have.
When you’re operating on a child’s timeline, dinner is usually eaten early, which means restaurants are empty, with no need to book. Many countries have a dining-out culture that means kids are well catered for with smaller portions of healthy delicious meals (not just chicken nuggets and chips). Waitstaff in many countries are exceptionally kind and friendly to children; you may see them sneak a secret caramel or lollipop at the end of the evening.
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Going out at night is nearly impossible, unless you can find a reliable, trustworthy sitter. But who has the energy to stay up all night after a full day of travelling experiences? Children in bed early wake up early too – so get your rest when you can. If you’re craving some socialising you can also check into accommodation with common spaces, like larger guesthouses and hostels. Striking up a conversation and finding out about other people’s travels is obviously easier in social accommodations than at a hotel or AirBnB.
Getting ill is never pleasant, but it’s something you need to be prepared for. Before you depart make sure you have a well-stocked first-aid kit with all the essential medicine you’ll need if you get struck down by a tummy bug, someone gets a cut or a bruise, or worse.
Old-school as it may sound, a phrasebook is your best friend in a medical emergency when you don’t speak the host country’s language. If all else fails, you can point to the descriptions you need to describe symptoms or request medicine at a pharmacy or a clinic. Unlike phones, books never run out of battery charge or get their screen smashed if you drop them. Also make sure you’re properly insured before you leave, so you can seek professional help without worrying about the cost.
Have some rainy-day activities in your travel kit – not just for rainy days, but for any days you’re on the road and not well enough to go out. Staying at accommodation that also serves food, especially breakfast, is also a good idea, so you don’t need to go out if you’re feeling under the weather.
“Where’s your mother/father?”
Ask any parent who’s travelled alone, and they’ll report being asked this with great regularity. Having a short backstory at the ready will help satisfy nosy parkers. Be prepared for more serious questions when you cross borders, though. You may need to take your children’s birth certificates with you (especially if you do not share a family name with them), as well as a letter from their co-parent saying you have permission to travel with them.
Curiosity may be behind some of the questioning, but child protection is paramount. If someone wants to know why you’re on a bus from Liverpool to London without your children’s mum, try to remain courteous, rather than outraged – there are some kids out there not as fortunate as yours.
Be mindful what you share on social media too. The current thinking for child safety is to hold back any holiday snaps until you’re back home, even if you do have all your accounts locked down to private settings. If you do want to share, be very aware of what information you put out there. A hilarious near-miss tale might be amusing in retrospect, but your co-parent back home may be having heart palpitations.
Will I be lonely?
This is the perennial question for anyone setting off on a solo trip. The answer is always yes and no. There will be moments in life when you will feel lonely. Sometimes these moments arise even in the company of others; while on the road, the company will include your children. Making new memories, enjoying new experiences, and developing new perspectives together is a beautiful way to continue to deepen your lifetime bonds – but you will also meet new people.
Much to my surprise when I’ve travelled with my kids, strangers are usually open and friendly, not hostile and suspicious as I feared – just as they are with solo travellers. Children will play with other children, even without a shared language. They can easily strike up a game of tag or hide-and-seek, or kick a ball around, without needing to understand what the other is saying.
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Adults, both locals and other travellers, are often more than willing to help you out in any way they can, even if you’re coping just fine. In cultures where the care of children is a shared enterprise don’t be surprised if your guesthouse hosts insist on minding your kids while you have a nap or eat a meal in peace.
Be warned, though: in more patriarchal societies, both male and female solo parents will raise some eyebrows – women are not expected to do this work alone, and men don’t often show their parental side in public spaces. You may be a curiosity, and not always a welcome one.
In different places you may also be exposed to parenting philosophies that are at odds with your own. In Hong Kong I was amazed at how well-behaved other children were, and tried to achieve the same with my own kids (‘You will stand in this queue in the cold for an hour without complaint: see how the other kids are doing fine’) but one does not become a strict parent overnight.
In Morocco I was told by a well-meaning but old-fashioned parent that physical punishment was the appropriate response to a fussy eater. I am not sure my high-school French was enough to explain why this was not what I had read in my ‘new age’ parenting handbooks.
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What surprised me the most travelling solo with my kids was the interactions I had with younger adults who were more willing to embrace kids and a solo parent than I expected. After playing my kids at table tennis at a hostel in Australia, a bunch of carefree backpackers reminded me that I once thought family life meant sliding into a suburban dystopia. But in fact, people all over the world keep working, travelling and living life just as they did before they started a family.
If you want to get a feel for travelling with your kids but you’re not ready to go on a fully independent adventure, there are now tours available that will let you having life-changing experiences along with other like-minded families.
If making new friends while getting outside your routine and comfort zone is the only reason you want to do it, it’s the only reason you need. Bon voyage!
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