You've got your children, and you've got your plans. You've got everything you need -- everything except another adult. How do you turn this adventure into an unforgettable and positive experience for you and your children?
First things first, accept that this is "adventure," not "travel." Embrace your inner Indiana Jones. If you've decided to leave your cocoon and venture out into the world with your offspring sans help, you're already an adventurous type.
I mentioned in the last column that my mother instilled in me a love of travel through the trips she took us kids on as a single mom. That's right -- she did it all as a solo parent. I also mentioned that making a detailed plan is extremely important. Guess what? Rarely did her trips go exactly as she'd planned. Plans are not the 10 Commandments, they're just the skeleton for your adventure. You will deviate from them, perhaps even wildly.
Long before I was a parent, I realized that adventure is rarely fun when you're in it. That's a phrase I repeat to myself when everything seems to be going wrong. Adventure is the cool story you get to tell others later. Never deviating from your plan does not make for cool stories.
So how do you turn mishaps into memories?
1. Accept that your trip is going to have some unexpected twists and then try as hard as you can to embrace those twists as being part of the fun. Your children will follow your lead. If you are worried, frustrated and angry, your children will view your trip as being little more than a series of events that went wrong. If you seem to be rolling with it and having fun, they will too. You are in charge of creating the impression of this journey that gets left on your kids.
2. Decide how you will get to where you're going. I'm a big fan of the road trip, especially when I'm solo parenting. Aside from the obvious economic advantages, driving provides much more flexibility and freedom and, as parents, we all likely drive big, comfortable, kid-friendly vehicles. Even when cheap airfare is available, I don't even consider flying anywhere that I can drive to in six hours or less. Why six hours? Because after factoring in all the extra time needed to drive to the airport, get through the security and fly there (especially if I have to make a connection), it generally takes at least six hours. Also, flying -- particularly with children -- is just stressful.
Case in point, I recently flew alone with my three kids, who are 11, 7 and 4 years old. Twenty-four hours before the flight, I went online to check in, and realized that our seat assignments had been changed. Instead of being side-by-side as I'd booked them, we were all in middle seats, in different rows, and spread all over the plane. Imagine that: Putting my 4-year-old in a row between strangers, where I couldn't even see her.
I nearly broke out in hives. I immediately tried to change the seats online, but the flight was full. I chatted online with an airline representative who was altogether too breezy about the situation. He insisted that the airline representatives at the gate would figure something out.
That wasn't good enough. I called the airline and explained our situation, emphasizing my children's ages. After a lot of time on hold and the help of his supervisor, our seat assignments were fixed, but the trip hadn't even started and I was already stressed.
But roadtrips are, by definition, meandering. They're relaxing, more open-ended and they allow for potty breaks. That's huge. Also, if a child is crying or misbehaving, only the people in the car will know, which alleviates a lot of stress on me as the parent.
3. When traveling long distances, I like to break up our drive with an overnight in a hotel. I absolutely love the Priceline app for this, by the way. My strategy is to wait until after 3 p.m. (when hotels give up on renting rooms at their standard nightly rate) on the day we need a room and then use the Priceline app to bid on a hotel. I regularly score four-star hotels for $60-$75 a night this way. That's winning.
4. Breaking up long driving trips is essential, but it's also fun. Stopping somewhere unexpected is a great way to enforce the idea of adventure. There are so many interesting (especially for kids!) things to see and do along the road. Even in the middle of nowhere, if you've got a smart phone, you can search for, at a minimum, fast food places with playgrounds. A 30-minute stop to let your children run and play makes the drive happier for everyone. And don't stress over them playing and not eating their food while you're there. Just order it to go and take it back to the car with you. They can eat later.
5. If you aren't pressed for time, consider stopping at a park and taking a walk. You can also use your phone to search for nearby park. Many rest stops are practically parks, with nice places to walk or to play a quick family game of soccer (so don't forgot to put a ball or Frisbee in the car). You may not think much of these little breaks, but they'll be the memories that really stick with your children.