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Six Steps for Solo Traveling with Children

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Juan Manuel Pinale/Navy

My mother instilled in me a passion for traveling. Every bit of extra money we had growing up was used to get out and see the world.

I could imagine myself living in every city we visited. Even now, when people ask me where I want to put down roots, I don't have an answer. There are so many places I haven't lived yet -- how can I trust that I'll pick the right one?

But solo parent traveling with kids ... Sigh. It has to be called "traveling" because it isn't a "vacation."

But just because it isn't relaxing, doesn't mean it can't be fun. My kids and I take a big trip at least every summer, and nearly all of these have happened with me Must-Have Parenting.

Right now, I am writing this column on my phone, sitting on a Washington, D.C., Metro with my 11-year-old asleep on my shoulder. It's 11:36 p.m., and he and I just staged a nighttime photo in front of the Washington Monument so that it looks like he's lifting it up and straining under the weight, and then we ate some pretty incredible pizza, or maybe it just tasted incredible after such a great night.

Which brings me to my first suggestion for traveling with children when you're the only adult:

1. Divide and conquer. If you have the option of not taking all your kids, for the love of God take it. Even if it means settling for day trips and just taking each kid somewhere one-on-one for a few hours.

2. Fail to plan and you plan to fail. Cliché, I know, but things become clichés because they work. Here's the thing: I don't like plans. They make me feel boxed in, imprisoned, confined, or at least they used to, before I started traveling with kids.

Now I have detailed, color-coded binders filled with printed out confirmation numbers, maps and information sheets that tell me things like the opening and closing times of all the attractions we want to visit and whether we can bring our own food and drinks. Yes, I know I can find all this info online. And yes, I know there are apps that will organize it for me and keep it handy on my phone. I have, use and love those apps, but I still like having a hard copy. Sometimes phone batteries die. Sometimes there's no cell signal. Sometimes -- life. If being a military spouse has taught me anything, it's that that little sadist Murphy is always chasing me down trying to wreck my plans with his stupid Law.

3. Make a plan for each day's events ... Then delete half of the things you planned. I've learned that if I plan to do four different things in a day, we'll manage to do two. But it's still a good idea to write down all four so that we have back-up plans ready to go.

4. Pack early, so you don't pack often. At least two weeks before we leave, I move each kid's bag into my bedroom and I put that kid's specific packing list in it. Then, as I fold laundry, I move the laundered clothes straight into the bag. Everyone's clothes have to fit in a bag he or she can carry for themselves, even my 4 year-old. I need my hands for my bag and all the important stuff -- like keys, passports, plane tickets, and wet wipes.

5. Always bring wet wipes. You will need them. I don't care how old your kids are, you will need wet wipes.

6. Pack less than you think you need. I'm an over-packer by nature, but solo traveling with kids is a different kind of trip. For this kind of trip, I don't even try to look cute. I know that I'll be the family sherpa on these adventures -- and there is no such thing as a cute sherpa.

I also know that I will get jelly smears and tomato sauce on my pants. I know that my feet will get stepped on approximately every 17 minutes. Flimsy flip flops will get broken. I know these things, and so I plan for them.

If I pack a dress at all, it's a just-in-case knit black dress. Even then, who am I kidding? I'm not going to be eating anywhere that doesn't serve chicken nuggets.

Besides, on trips like these, as my sister Laura likes to say, my clothes all have to have jobs -- they are not allowed to be unemployed. Unemployed clothes just look cute. Clothes with jobs are wrinkle resistant, stain disguising, have extra pockets, will dry quickly after being washed in the sink.

Clothes with jobs do double duty -- a tank top with a built in bra, pants that zip off into shorts. Space is too precious to be filled with malingering garments.

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Rebekah Sanderlin Military Parenting Family and Spouse Travel

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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