Solo Parent Travel With A Baby Or Small Children
Single Parent travelling with children
Although I’m not a single parent, I’ve done my fair share of solo travel with babies and small children. My husband is a pilot and pilots tend not to get holidays with the rest of us because – surprise, surprise – that’s when airlines are busy! If you’re about to embark on a solo trip with your kids read on and learn from my mistakes: I’ve run of nappies/diapers while stranded overnight so you don’t have to, I’ve left the toddler’s favourite blanket in a suitcase that went astray so you don’t have to…
…what I haven’t done is research holiday destinations for single parent families. Most of my solo travels with small children have been to visit relatives in far-flung places, so this article is on the practicalities of getting to your destination in more or less one piece, even if not always totally at peace.
Advice on travelling solo with children
My first advice on travelling solo with small children is: if at all possible, don’t! Seriously, team up with someone else. That way, when you discover your cell-phone isn’t working you won’t have to set the baby down to use a pay-phone, the baby won’t crawl away and you won’t drop your bag when you follow her, sparking an airport security alert. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a little here; truthfully when my baby crawled off, all I left behind was my favourite hat. No alert ensued, but I never saw that beautiful red velvet creation again. If you were the person who found it in Gatwick airport please send it back. I still miss it.)
Easier by Train
Of course, it’s not always possible to team up with someone else, but there are ways to make the journey easier. In the days when British Rail existed, they ran an ad that said, “Let the train take the strain.” I second that when travelling solo with small children. On a train you and your restless toddler can get up and go for a walk: to the buffet car, to the restroom, along the length of all the carriages and back, to a different window where the view is bound to be so much better. And you can play games. It’s far easier to play games with kids when you’re not trying to negotiate the fast lane with traffic slowed to a crawl, which happened because a car has crashed into the central barrier, which happened because the single parent in the front was trying to settle an argument between the two kids in the back, or to get a two-year-old to put his seat belt back on.
(Serious aside: parents distracted by children’s arguments are a major cause of car accidents: some studies estimate as high as 25%, and that it takes between 15 to 30 minutes for children under eight to get restless. I speak from personal experience. So if I seem a little biased against the car, crashing with two tinies in the back seat does tend to put you off!)
The best way for small children to travel by car.
Travelling with kids by car
Assume your journey will take at least twice as long as it did before you had children, if not three times. Plan to stop every hour or so, especially if your children are newly toilet-trained. Even then you can expect “accidents”, so it might be wise to revert to training pants. How well I remember an incident just as we pulled out of a service station (rest area for USA readers) on the M6 motorway, and the glorious aroma that filled the car until we could stop thirty miles further on. Apart from avoiding mess, the other main reason for frequent stops is that it gives your children a chance to run around. Most rest areas in the UK have play areas both inside and out for small children, as do many in other countries. Tire your kids out and then they’ll do that other thing kids do so well (besides making mess). They will sleep.
Some other tips on sleep: Make the most of your children’s nap habits, and leave when one is due. If you can’t do that, try to keep them awake until it’s time to go. Some people like to drive late in the evening or even at night to get more hours of sleeping angels, but it’s never suited me, as I get tired in the evenings too. Besides, if my kids napped in the evening they were then bouncing around at 1am when I so badly needed to sleep. I’d say this method is probably best suited to two adults taking turns to drive and rest, but if you are a late-bird then perhaps it’s worth a go.
Baby’s first airplane trip
Travelling by Plane
For travel by plane with a young baby, the piece of equipment I found by far most useful was a sling. With baby strapped to your front you have two hands free to carry bags and suitcases or to show passports and tickets when required. Besides, have you ever struggled to use the restrooms (toilets for all us non-USA people) with a baby in a pushchair and the maximum sized hand-baggage? Believe me, it’s easier with a sling. That sling comes in even handier in transit or destination airports. Even though most airlines will allow you to keep your pushchair until you board the aircraft, it then goes in the hold and you won’t get it back again until you collect your luggage from the carousel. You’re literally left holding the baby.
Airlines are used to people travelling with babies and small children, so although it may seem scary and new to you, remember staff are aware of the problems you may face. If you need to change your baby in mid-air don’t do it at your seat and then leave the stinky nappy under the seat or in the pocket for airline staff to deal with. (Yes, people actually do this!)
Most airplane toilets nowadays have baby-change facilities. If you have a toddler you can take them with you when you go to change your baby and leave the toilet door open to give yourself more space. Many airplanes have toilets situated near the galley and most cabin crew members will even enjoy amusing your toddler. And if it’s your toddler who needs changing, just watch as the cabin crew queue up to hold the baby!
Diapers, Nappies and Taking the Train
Talking of baby changing, even if you use cloth (and well done if you do) it’s best to use disposables when travelling. Otherwise you could be carrying a lot of poo a very long way. There are many environmentally friendly varieties around. A friend, who was far better at organising her solo trips than I, used to order a bag of Tushies to be delivered to her destination. This works whether you are visiting friends or staying in a hotel – my friend even had a delivery sent to France. Her trips were mostly made by train, which, like me, she found the easiest way to travel. Her advice for long train journeys is similar to mine for cars: break the journey often, take a stroll around to nearby park and give your toddler a chance to run around. She also found it useful to have a small baby in a sling and as he grew to use a baby backpack. My friend even took the sleeper train with her baby, sharing a bed and managing just fine. She booked a first-class ticket on a special deal, which meant she had a cabin to herself. In the UK, the sleeper service now provides a Samsonite travel bubble cot for your baby sleep in. (These don’t seem to be available in the USA as yet.)
The Serious Bit: Some Important Things to Consider When Travelling Solo with Children
Children under 18 travelling abroad with one parent may require additional documentation. In particular many Latin-American countries ask for this. Check with the consulate of your destination.
Confirm with the airline the day before departure that a sky cot is booked for you, if needed.
However tempting it is to skimp on hand-baggage – DON’T! Delays happen, suitcases get sent to the wrong airport and it’s best to be prepared.
Toddler’s favourite toy or comfort object.
Enough nappies/diapers to get through delays, and a change of clothing for your baby or toddler.
Toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste and other toiletries you will need at your destination - in a clear plastic bag to get through security.
Colouring books or other activities your children will enjoy.
Any medication you use, especially inhalers or diabetic medication for yourself or your children. Even if you don’t expect to use this on the flight it’s best to be safe. Contrary to what many diabetics believe, they are allowed needles in their hand-baggage.
Joy, joy, joy
My own overnight journeys when my girls were little were on a ferry, and it was easy. We booked a four-berth cabin for the three of us, the girls had the bottom bunks and I had a top. We roamed around the ship for a while, played in the play area, and then went back to our cabin and got into pyjamas. The girls then bounced on their bunks, on my bunk, on their bunks, on my bunk, on their bunks…
Okay maybe it wasn’t so easy after all.
Here’s what Caledonian Sleeper Trains’ website has to say about taking toddlers on their trains: “A 2 to 3-year old can sleep quite comfortably head-to-toe with an adult in the lower berth, if you can get the little so-and-so to sleep when he’s so excited about being on a sleeper train of course.” The same applies to ferries!
So, maybe, if your journey is long, the plane isn’t such a bad idea after all. Just so long as you do as I say, not as I did, that is! If your travels involve changing airplanes don’t assume you will leave the transit airport the same day as you arrive, especially if it’s snowing, especially if your final destination is on a small island not far from the Arctic Circle where the airport closes shortly after it gets dark. Yes, the airline will put you up in a hotel when you are stuck in a strange city overnight, and they will even provide something to wrap around your baby’s bottom when your supplies have run out, but it might be a bit of a stretch to call it a diaper or a nappy. As I recall, the filling filled and then broke into lumps that resembled sawdust and were visible through the transparent-when-wet cover. On the upside, the hotel provided a travel cot, and my enduring memory of that night is of my nine-month-old baby bouncing in that cot with an enormous grin on her gorgeous face.
And in the end, dear reader, that joy is why we travel with our kids is it not?
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Yvonne Spence