Life doesn’t stop while your spouse is deployed, in fact, it seems to move faster. The same is true for TDY trips, training and all the other reasons service members are pulled away from their families. Diversions are important – especially during deployments – but vacationing with children, without your spouse’s help, can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Don’t lose heart. With some planning and a healthy dose of realism, you and your kids can have a great trip.
5. Buddy up.
If you can’t go with the one you love, love the one you’re with. (Just love them in a different way, okay?) Find a relative or close friend to share the driving duties and provide you with some grown-up conversation. Ideally, you know another military spouse with similarly-aged children and a hankering for travel. I once took a 10-hour road trip with another Army wife and our combined four children (ages 2 to 5) to New York state, got snowed in there, and all four kids got a stomach virus – and we still had a blast. Seriously. Having friends to travel with will make the trip more fun for you and your kids – and will create some amazing memories.
4. Know your limitations.
This is probably not the time to take that month-long, cross-country drive to see the world’s largest ball of twine. Choose a destination that you can get to fairly easily and that will provide maximum fun for you and your kids once you get there. You don’t want to go to all this trouble and expense only to wish you’d just stayed home!
3. Determine your strategy and plan for it.
Depending on how far you’re going and your and your children’s temperaments, you should decide if you’re a knuckle-down-and-get-there type or a slow-and-easy type. For a shorter drive, say four hours or less, you might prefer to just drive, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. If so, save some time and money by packing a cooler with drinks and snacks for everyone. A longer drive might be best tackled by breaking it into two days, with plenty of stops along the way. There are rest stops usually at every state line and approximately every 100 to 200 miles on the interstates, and most have picnic shelters and green space, which is great for walking a dog or passing a ball around. (Just be sure to bring a leash for the dog.) You can see all the stops here. Consider packing a soccer ball or Frisbee to help you and your kids get moving during a stop. On long drives I tend to stop at every other rest stop, and I insist that everyone visit the bathrooms.
2. Keep the skies friendly.
Air travel can be stressful for anyone, but it can be exceptionally difficult for a parent traveling alone with young children. Set yourself up for success by not booking an evening flight or connection. Aim for mid-morning flights so that you’ll have enough time to get to the airport, but also ample opportunities to catch other flights should yours get cancelled. The very last thing you want is to be stranded in an airport with little children and without what you need to get them through the night. I learned this lesson when my last-of-the-night connecting flight out of Baltimore was cancelled. I was stranded with my then 5-month-old son, no carseat (I was visiting family and planned to borrow one) and not nearly enough diapers or formula. Also:
Carefully consider how you will manage your bags and gear. Rolling bags are great, but if you’re planning to push a baby in a stroller you won’t be able to also pull a bag. Backpacks and rucksacks will leave your hands free, but can be difficult to maneuver when you’re wearing a baby front carrier or sling. Always take advantage of curbside baggage check-in, as well as online check-in and kiosk options, so bring one dollar bills for tipping the skyhops.
Do everything you can to avoid waiting in a long check-in line with children. Do not count on airport personnel helping you with your bags and baby gear. Maybe they will, but it’s just as likely that they won’t, so carefully consider everything you bring.
Pack snacks and empty water bottles, as trying to feed a family in the airport will practically wipe out your BAS. You can fill the bottles at a water fountain after you get through security. If you’re traveling with an infant, be sure to bring an empty bottle you can fill with liquid (formula, juice or water) to help your baby with pressurization issues during take off and landing – just don’t make the bottle until you’re through security.
Don’t forget to also pack diversions for your children during the flight. Tablet computers or handheld video games are excellent options as they don’t take up much room and offer hours of entertainment, but be sure to bring headphones so other passengers won’t get annoyed. No need bringing diversions for yourself. You probably won’t get to use them, anyway. If you do bring a stroller, opt for one that folds easily as you’ll probably have to fold and unfold it by yourself, while holding a baby. Sometimes I’ve been allowed to wear my baby in a front carrier as I move through the security scanner, other times I’ve been told to take the baby off, but I’ve always been allowed to take the baby with me. Sometimes security screeners are helpful and sympathetic, other times, not so much.
Use your military ID instead of a driver’s license, helps. Airport personnel will treat you nicer. And I’m not too proud to play the “my husband is deployed” card to elicit sympathy from airport personnel and other travelers. You gotta do what you gotta do.
1. Be goal-oriented.
This is an adventure, not a ‘family vacation.’ Don’t think of this as ‘the family vacation your spouse missed’, you’ll only get sucked into a pity party. Think of it as an adventure. You are an adventurous parent stepping out of your comfort zone to make awesome memories for you and your children. Lower your expectations, roll with the inevitable challenges and, above all, have fun!
Disney, Solo with Kids
This year I won a two-night hotel stay at the Westgate Villas in Kissimmee, Fla., just a couple of miles from Disney World. When I claimed the prize I had to commit to the dates – and then my husband’s deployment got moved up. (Of course.) I asked around and couldn’t find anyone else who could go with me.
Traveling with kids anywhere can be overwhelming, but traveling with three kids (one was just 10 months old) to Disney World? Fuhgeddaboutit.
I was ready to pass on the free stay when I asked my Facebook friends for their suggestions. Amazingly, almost everyone said I should go. Better, right now Disney is selling 4-day passes for just $156 each. (One-day regular price tickets are $89, for comparison.) Better, you don’t have to use all four days at once, so I could do two days solo with the kids and then return a few months later (with help) to use the other two days.
With kids ages 8, 4 and 10 months, I was concerned that my 8-year-old would get frustrated and angry if I took him to the parks and then told him he couldn’t ride the cool rides because there was no one to go with him. The only rides we’d be able to enjoy were the ones that would allow an infant on board, in other words, the slooooow rides – which are not the ones 8-year-old boys want to ride.
Per a suggestion from a Disney expert friend, we decided to go to the Animal Kingdom and Epcot, where there are lots of things to see and do on foot and numerous slow-moving attractions. A bonus at the Animal Kingdom was that the lines to take pictures with characters are MUCH shorter than at the other parks. We only had to wait 5 minutes to meet Mickey and didn’t wait at all for Minnie or Donald Duck.
We had a great time, myself included. It wasn’t the same as if we’d taken a whole family trip to Disney, but the kids and I made some great memories, ones none of us will soon forget.
Here are a few more Disney tips:
5. Let the kids carry their own snacks. Food in the parks is expensive. I bought each of my older kids an inexpensive fanny pack and filled it with a 8 oz-sized water bottle, some snacks and a map of the park. This gave the kids a sense of control and freed up a little space in my already-full backpack.
4. Make a plan. There are some excellent smartphone apps for Disney, most of them free. They let you plan a schedule for what you want to do and offer information about the attractions, including the size restrictions for the attractions. They also allow you to make dinner reservations.
3. Make dinner (or lunch) reservations. You’ll be waiting in line for everything in the park, don’t wait to eat, too. It’s very easy to reserve a table in advance and you’ll love being able to walk past the queued up people with pagers, feeling like a VIP.
2. Bring your own stroller, and if you’re traveling with a baby, bring a front carrier, too. You’ll want your stroller as you move around the park, both for transporting children but also for a place to stash all your stuff. However, many of the attractions are not stroller friendly, making an easy-to-use front carrier an absolute must. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to hold my squirming baby in a 30-minute-long line without a carrier.
1. Give yourself some peace of mind. Every parent’s nightmare is losing a child and, though the Disney parks are really quite safe, I used a Sharpie marker to write my cell phone number on each of my kids’ arms and then drilled into them that if we were to get separated they were to go to a Disney employee and show that person my phone number.