If the archetypal 20th century vacation was mom, dad and the kids driving to a national park in the station wagon (complete with a Rockwellesque dog, its tongue wagging in the wind), then the 21st century vacation is … well, a little less nuclear.
After all, half of the marriages end in divorce nowadays. So scratch one parent. The dog? Left at home, preferably with the estranged spouse. And the rules? Let’s just say a glimpse at a modern-day getaway wouldn’t inspire Norman Rockwell to paint. Unless he wanted to be Jackson Pollock.
As the divorced dad of three, I know. Taking a vacation means making some adjustments. But being a single parent does not have to make you a jet-set outcast - not if you follow a few rules I’ve developed from my own experiences as both a single father and a travel expert.
Make sure everyone is involved. As a single parent, it is even more important that the kids are involved in the vacation — that means all of them. Just like cruising with the kids , you need to set the expectations and expect the unexpected. Lay down the rules and break them a little. Find out what your kids want to experience and clue them into what you want to do. When you involve everyone, everyone comes home happy.
Pick the right destination. Certain destinations simply beg for traditional families — Disneyworld and Universal Studios come to mind. Not that these places aren’t fabulous, but for a single parent, they may be just a bit daunting with the crowds and masses. Save those destinations when you can travel with grandma and gramps or some other families as a group. Be sure the destination has something for everyone. While some consider Vegas the world’s playground, it is not the playground for kids. Consider the road less traveled. Typically, single parents are on a budget and a vacation is a true luxury. Take advantage of the destinations where the dollar is strong or maybe one where there is an incentive such as an island recovering from a bad storm.
Buck the system. One of the biggest downfalls of being a single parent and traveling is the dreaded single supplement. Most hotels and all cruise lines base their pricing on double occupancy — even though Junior is not costing nearly as much as an adult — especially in the all-inclusive resort or cruise. This is a huge cash cow for the travel supplier. Lately though, enough single parents have been making noise and some resorts and hotels are beginning to listen. Last month one of my agents found a single-parent special at the all-inclusive Hotel Riu Yucatan on Mexico’s Riviera Maya for $1700 through Apple Vacations. This included airfare from Florida and a week’s stay for mom and her two kids. Beaches resorts also have SPF (Single Parent Friendly) months where the single supplement is waived. However, these deals are not around for peak travel times — think hurricane season for the fun in the sun destinations.
Read Up. Your local bookstore or library is a wonderful resource for both parenting books and travel guides. Brenda Elwell has merged the two with the aptly named Single Parent Travel Handbook. Brenda calls on her experiences in the travel industry and as a single mother of two and offers fantastic tips for traveling solo with kids as well as some great suggestions for destinations that may have been off of your radar screen. She even has a list of travel agencies across the country that knows the needs of the single parent. Her book is available (probably by special order) at any bookstore or on her site.
Surf around. While you are over at Brenda’s site, check out the bulletin boards. These are fantastic forums to share your experiences and ideas with people in the same boat. Get the skinny from a mom just back from Mo-bay or maybe find a traveling playmate for your kids and a travel mate for you. The American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) site allows you to research a trip and to find a travel agent in your area who specializes in family travel or single travel.
OMG Dad’s bringing a date! The single dad (or mom) can’t be expected to vacation with the kids all of the time. While a getaway with just the kids is essential, there will come a time when dad might want some adult company, too. I have found that planning that first vacation can rival the stress of a divorce. My advice? Chill out. If your boyfriend or girlfriend also has kids, this is a no brainer — boys in this room, girls in this room, and grownups in that room. When only one set of kids is involved, it becomes a little tricky. It is best to discuss this with your kids before you even begin to plan the trip. But be sure to include everyone — including, of course, your date. The best tip I can offer in this situation is to make sure your date is someone who has been around for a while and is significant in your life and known to your kids. Springing this surprise on your kids at the last minute will ruin your vacation quicker than a bout of Norwalk virus.
Talk to an expert. Single parents need professional advice. The needs of the recent widow and her young daughter are vastly different that the swinging divorcee and her X Box-crazed teen. A good agent will know the needs and match those needs with the trip. Since this is such a niche segment of the travel industry, travel agents tend to have the inside track. Very few mainstream Web sites will know about Single Parent Tours and their annual week long excursion of single parents to Jamaica. A good agent will. Today’s tip: August 21 to 28, 2005 at Beaches Boscobel Resort & Golf Club in Jamaica. $1887 for a parent and child (not including air) and is available by calling (877) 464-6778.
Speaking of the unexpected. With any type of travel, things can go wrong. With kids on the itinerary, the odds skyrocket. Tommy will invariably break a leg at soccer the week before, Mary will have the flu, the twins will come down with some rare malady involving green boogers, and that X Box-crazed teen will have just discovered girls. For traveling with kids, I recommend that not only do you purchase trip insurance , but also the travel supplier’s trip-cancellation waiver. Trip insurance will cover the medical and emergency issues and the cancellation waiver will cover the love-struck teen. Two years ago, I had planned to take my kids JT, Victoria, and Elizabeth to California. After a bout of acute attitude (followed by the prescribed attitude adjustment), I decided I wasn’t going to the 7-11 with them—much less across the country. I cancelled (for any reason) and was able to salvage my investment with vouchers for a future trip.
My travels as a single dad have taken me to Hong Kong, Barcelona, London, Paris, Cancun, Hawaii, Vancouver, Budapest, and most of the Caribbean and the US with my three kids (not the best odds some will say) and we survived them all. I am not sure where we will end up next, but I do know that it will be a memory to treasure…all because I figured out the formula for us all to have fun while trippin’ with dad.
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.