My son is a great traveler - an intention that played out from his first flight at 3 months old and has been in practice over the course of many travels in the nine years since that first trip.
He can get through security more efficiently than a business frequent flier. He can keep himself entertained and is delighted with a "special drink" of ginger ale and overpriced bag of Skittles or Takis. He knows to pack toys carefully - two books in case he finishes the first, Lego guys, a pad and markers to draw, the smallest stuffed babies and his Kindle. He likes to leave room for souvenirs. He reminds me to give him a Dramamine before we take off. He can camel it for a full flight or for long ways in between rest stops. He makes it easy. Delightful, even.
Once the two of us were out on our own and I'd shed the financial constraints and in-law obligations of my marriage, I was determined that my boy and I would travel, that he'd develop a curiosity about the world and I'd grow my own commitment to being near the ocean and away from my laptop.
We took a few trips, mostly to familiar places. We went to Oregon to visit friends and to see the city where I went to graduate school. We flew to Virginia to spend time with my brother and his family. We road-tripped to my parents' lake house, to fairs, to fun events in small towns. We got better and being alone and together in small spaces, hotel rooms, rental cars and airplanes.
And then the time came for us to take a big trip. A really big trip. All the ease and delight and curiosity? All of that was edged by a strange nervousness to go, and not because we'd be on a plane for 9 hours or I'd be leaving a high-pressure job for 10 days or because it would eat up my credit cards. I was worried to travel alone with my child on a big vacation because I wasn't sure it would end up being much of a vacation for me at all.
But I was wrong. So, so wrong. That vacation was full of challenge and triumph, the best sleep I've ever gotten, the most detoxed and relaxed I'd felt in a decade, and even years later, is my favorite trip I've taken since being a parent, maybe ever.
Here is why, and how I've since practiced traveling with such delight, relaxation and fun, all alone with my son.
Read just enough information. I have a tendency to get a little frantic with the research, crowd-sourcing and collecting of information before a big trip. Instead of diving in too deep, take a lower-key approach by asking a few parent-friends for recommendations, then hitting a few websites or bookstores with info you and your old-enough child can digest. When we went to Hawaii, I brought a Lonely Planet island guide with us and read and highlighted activities and sites while I was on the plane. That way, we had things we could look forward to or put on a list to check out without packing a schedule before we even landed. Whatever research you choose to do, skip or procrastinate until you're on board the airplane, check in with yourself periodically to ensure that you're not stressing yourself out pre-vacay.
Taste-test something delicious. My son and I have a tradition inspired from an article on a single-parent travel site years ago - we do a taste test every vacation or staycation. The original piece was by a dad who wrote about his favorite part of traveling through Italy with his tween daughter was trying a new kind of gelato every day, far more rewarding than the historic sites or museums or artwork or language. On Oahu, we sampled one or two kinds of shave ice from stands all over the island. During one staycation, we rated fries at hot dog stands across our city, and during another, the best donuts from a top 10 list in a local magazine. We've rated - and charted! - cupcakes, pizza, burgers and milkshakes, giving points for taste, price, ambiance of the restaurant or stand, and other silly categories we make up on the fly. It is a blast, my son delights in the permission to eat "sometimes" foods over and over, and is one way to make sure we get a delicious treat every day.
Make a pact to try something new together. Nothing will make you and your child feel more "in" the vacation together than trying a new activity, food or city for the first time. It's a reach opportunity to push your courage, creativity and trust, which is a great lesson for both kids and parents to learn from each other. My son is a picky eater for 350 days of the year. But on vacation, he brazenly has ordered octopus, oxtail and other dishes I would have never picked from a menu for him. And if he tries it, so do I. Another time, we chose a big hike to attempt together for the first time, and nothing fueled me more than hearing my young son encouraging me with, "I just know you can do this, Mommy!" We're there for each other in many ways, but those shining moments of going for it on vacation have been the emblem of that tiny-family team spirit.
Sleep on the kid's schedule. Many of my adult vacations have included late nights, clubs, sitting on beachside patios, listening to music. Traveling alone with a child, particularly a small one, pretty much erases all that from the agenda. To be honest, I was a little concerned I might miss that late-night grown-up stuff a little too much. The funny thing is, I never have been. Not on one single trip. When my son is exhausted and ready for bed early (which never, ever happens during the school year), I crawl in bed, too. I might watch a little TV or read, but I'm always asleep far earlier than I usually am. Do you know how good it feels to get a kid's-night sleep? AMAZING. And how much stress, worry and unnecessary adult-life-crap you will release if you add a nap to your vacation days? BUCKET-LOADS. The point of vacation is to let go. Sleep, and tons of it, will make that happen. And trust me, you won't feel sorry or miss out on anything important. (On the off-chance you do long to hit the clubs, it's a great excuse to plan a return trip with girlfriends or a love interest or even solo.)
Sip mocktails at sunset. All those previous rituals you've enjoyed with past loves and partners in travel crime can be replaced with sweet new rituals with your current love and partner in travel crime. No need to venture far or make it too complicated or hyped up. Start or end each day in one special way. Why not head down to the hotel restaurant and sip on special juice drinks? Or seek out coffee or hot chocolate and a croissant first thing in your jammies? Or share a before-bed treat (you're clearly sensing a theme)? Or listen to the terribly wonderful lounge singers for a while? Or run down to claim your poolside seats and try to be the very first splashers in the water? Or play a little frisbee in the dark? You're making moments, even if they are ten minutes in total, and those can easily turn into simple, lovely, silly "things we always do on this trip together."
Choose one (or maybe two) activities per day. Max. Even after keeping casual about your research and sleeping like crazy and focusing on small rituals, it's easy to pack your vacation schedule full. Pick out one, maybe two activities per day, total. My ideal vacation days (now) look like this: Breakfast-activity-lunch-nap-pool or beach-dinner-ritual-DONE. Give up any type-A compulsions to see every single thing and cover all the ground and take in all the sites. Narrow down your top priorities, with each person getting one "must-do" per trip, then slowly, carefully add in other activities. Be sure that you spend lots of time doing what kids love best anyway - swimming, staring at animals, running around a park. And most importantly, don't be afraid to cross something off the list if you are having a fabulous time doing nothing or during your first thing for the day. No hustle, no stress, just enjoy.
Choose a chotchkie souvenir you'll seek out on every trip. Having a scavenger-hunt kind of mission gives some structure and laughs to touristy places you will visit. Plus, it takes the creep off of all those weird souvenir shops your child will beg you linger in over and over. We look for two things when travel together - a magnet and a mug. Whenever I pull out the Puerto Rico mug or he catches a glimpse of the magnet holding up his spelling tests, my son exclaims, "Remember when we went to the rainforest and heard the coquis?!" or some other memory that starts my day off just right. Also, chotchkies are generally cheap and easy to stash in a suitcase, won't shrink four sizes after the first wash and, if all else fails, can be purchased in the airport gift shop along with your $14 bottle of water and those Skittles I mentioned earlier.
Let go of the unplanned turn of events, the chaos, the things that fall through and the delays. The plane will be late. Someone may barf. The one "must-do" museum will be closed for repairs the very week you are thousands of miles away from home to visit. Roll with those punches, reminding each other repeatedly that "THIS IS VACATION! We make our own magic!" It sounds cheesy, but it works. You might begin an epic game of Go Fish that begins on the floor of the airport gate and is continued for four days, over four states. You might discover the most amazing next-scrumptious taste-test treat by running in the closest open door when it hails on your one and only opportunity to kayak. Let the might of vacation get you through the can'ts and won'ts and not-todays. This shift in attitude will serve you and your child very well when the tough stuff strikes at home, too. TRUST.
Make a photo book of the whole fabulous thing. This is something I want to get a lot better about doing and I offer it as a goal, not one more thing to do once you are home and back in the swing of school/work/schedules/visitation/chaos. When I have carved out the space and dollars and energy to gather photos from our mama-kiddo trips into a photo book or album or even a stack of printed (gasp!) pictures or folder of them on my phone, I've been so glad to be able to flip through those memories with my son or during tough times. Recalling how the ocean sounded or being mesmerized by fire dancers or the feeling of triumph at the top of that one big climb has gotten us through middle-of-the-night insomnia, tears after leaving visitation with daddy, bored in-between hours, and crap days when we both just crab and cry at each other.
Why? Because we purposefully took that one journey together. And we made moments that were so blissful and hilarious and crazy and so not-as-we-planned that we couldn't wait to plan another adventure somewhere else. We did that all, you and me. And we will do it again.