We survived! In fact, this trip with my son was the easiest solo parent travel I’ve ever done, despite a few delays and setbacks. See below my high level takeaways and a few specific tips on solo parent travel. Read our next installment for the play-by-play, or our first installment for packing and preparation.
Solo Parent Travel Big Picture Stuff:
If it’s your first solo parent travel, accept that these parts of the journey will be stressful: connections, takeoff and landing, and the end of the trip when everyone’s nerves are frayed. I found that it was incredibly important to pay a ton of emotional attention to my son during these moments. If he was trying to tell me he had a wedgie, we stopped to fix it immediately. If he was angry that they wanted to take his milk away to test it at Security, I took the thirty seconds to stoop down and explain that he would get it back as soon as he and Mommy walked through the “door,” (metal detector). When he did get it back, I smiled and hooted with him, marking the moment rather than hurrying immediately to our next hurdle. Looking him in the eye, at his level, without paying attention to anyone else in the world for that moment, seemed to calm him down. It also reminded us both that we were in this together.
Freak out three days beforehand. Three days of freaking out was perfect for me: A) I was much better prepared than if I hadn’t freaked out at all, B) by taking care of the major things in advance and doing the rest (packing, shopping, gift buying), immediately before the trip, I didn’t have to spend too much time stressing, and C) the reality never lives up to your freak-out nightmare, which makes the trip a huge success: our plane did not crash into the ocean, David did not get hit by a car while I was away, and Spencer did not spend the whole time crying. In fact, he cried maybe twice, for less than a minute each time.
Help your kids practice keeping their eyes on the prize. Spencer is almost three, which means he’s developing *a little* patience and reason. In day-to-day life, we practice “this, then that” all the time. We also practice getting him excited for the end result. On both the outgoing and return legs, reminding him that we had one more plane to get to auntie, or one more plane before grandpa’s house, was an instant mood reset. Except when we were on the airporter bus in Times Square, and he glimpsed the folks dressed up in Mickey and Minnie costumes. Spencer did not understand why we couldn’t get off the bus and give them hugs. That was his only breakdown. “I’m getting off!” he said, jabbing himself in the chest. He totally would have left me to fend for myself in New York if I hadn’t bodily restrained him.
Relax: Your emotional load is smaller than when you travel with your spouse. You know the math problem about how many handshakes will occur if there are five people in a room and everyone has to shake everyone else’s hand? The answer is 10, or 1+2+3+4, i.e., the more people there are in the room, the greater the increase in handshakes. It’s the same with relationship stress during travel, when you’re constantly checking to make sure everyone is okay. When I travel with David I’m managing him, he’s managing me, we’re each managing ourselves in regard to one another, and of course we’re both managing Spencer, and Spencer’s reading us as well. This is intense, and draining. It’s simpler during solo parent travel. As long as Spencer’s happy, I’m happy. I don’t worry about myself the way I do when I’m with David, wondering if I’m being helpful to him and vice versa. I also don’t expect to get any time to read, or watch movies during solo parent travel. I psych myself into full damage control mode, like a Yellow Alert on the Enterprise. Any time the kid sleeps is a bonus. When David and I trade off baby duty, we’re each subtly paying attention to whether or not we’re pulling equal weight.
Bribes never hurt. Having a small new toy to give him on each leg of the journey, and a baggie of vitamin gummies (“candy”) to give him if I really needed to get him through a short period of stress, was priceless. When I was a kid, travel was a special, magical experience. Now it’s uncomfortable, sleepless, and full of potential catastrophe. I try to remember what travel felt like as a kid, and replicate that experience for my son as best I can. We set a hard boundary between travel privileges, like extra “gifts” and some not-so-healthy snacks, and regular everyday life. For Spencer at least, this seemed to work. Most often, they were inexpensive little toys, and he loved having something to open on the start of each new leg.
Solo Parent Travel Tips: What Worked and What Didn’t
See our next installment for the sometimes delightful, sometimes painful play-by-play of anecdotes that support these conclusions, some of which are new, and some of which are old but were reinforced yet again on this trip.
- The check-in kiosk fails more often than it works, especially for international travel. Always check in before you get to the airport, and store the boarding passes on your person or in your phone. Even if you have time to wait in line, you’re depleting the toddler patience bank. On the return trip from JFK, British Airways had a problem with their computer systems. Spencer and I waited an hour just to check in and get boarding passes, whereas on the outgoing trip, I went straight to security with my emailed boarding passes. The bag drop line is usually separate from, and always shorter than, the check-in line.
- Do not depend on free airport wifi. Airports like JFK and EWR are stuck in the 90s. Other airports charge fees and spam you. International hubs often have free wifi, but chances are that your solo parent travel trip will include at least one crappy wifi leg. For me, this meant an extra half hour of waiting while I couldn’t message the friend who was picking me up to tell her where I was. If you don’t have cellular data, download everything you can in advance, and make very specific meet up plans (like whether you meet at baggage claim, or out on the curb).
- 1.5 hour transfer time is an absolute minimum at hubs like Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, and Schipol. LHR and CDG have convoluted torture gamuts that include busses, trains, and multiple checkpoints, while Schipol has that hateful boarding gate security that pens you up like cattle long before you even board. 2 hr transfer time is ideal for my typical hurried pace. 3 hours is better for people who like to take their time and/or plan for all possibilities.
- Carryon only, if you can swing it, makes everything SO much easier. Arrive at the airport and go straight through security. Arrive at your destination and go straight home. I save 90 minutes on average when I do carryon only. If there’s any delay whatsoever, it can screw with the baggage claim process. It’s also a huge pain to hold your kid’s hand, jockey for space at the carousel, and then grab your bag without injuring anyone. God forbid your kid is sleeping and you’re holding him, it’s nearly impossible. Carryon only makes customs a breeze, often saves you money, and is a tiny tiny bit better for the environment in terms of carbon emissions and energy expenditure. (Not for you, of course, since you have an extra bag to carry, but at this point you can start thinking in terms of calories burned, yay). It’s also pretty doable if you bring about five outfits each, one or two pairs of shoes, and all the baby stuff in a shoulder purse or tote.
- Everyone pities the solo parent traveler. Take advantage of this; it’s a beautiful thing. While fellow travelers sometimes look at you sideways unless they’ve done it themselves, airport personnel are LOVELY, gracious, and patient. This was true in every airport we stopped at: BUD, LHR, JFK, EWR, GEG, SLC.
- If you need help carrying stuff, ASK. If you’re in a position to give help to other solo parent travelers, do GIVE it. I spent 20 minutes to walk 100 feet in a zombie shuffle: carrying my sleeping son and kicking my bag one foot at time to a place where I could sit down. Meanwhile, huge men were passing by me, totally oblivious. I should have just asked one of them for help. Eventually, it was a woman (also alone) who offered to carry my bag to a chair. In another instance, a solo male traveler (whose wife had recently done solo parent travel), helped me in Heathrow. In solo parent travel as in all things, you’ve got to rely on a little help from your friends, and there’s nothing like the instant bond of parenthood to make new ones.