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Guide to Single Parent Travel
by Brenda Elwell
If you are a single parent and wanting to plan a vacation with your children, travel agencies are often geared towards traditional nuclear families. To plan a successful trip -- on your own or with the help of a traditional travel agent -- organization and patience are keys.

Central elements to a successful trip:

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Whether you are planning a hiking trip to the American West, a driving tour of the historical sites and theme parks in the East or a trip to Walt Disney World, you and your kids need to do some research to determine where and how you want to spend your time. Make it a family project.

Provide your children with research assignments from a list. Buy a tour book on the Web or at your local bookstore and have your kids research some information on the Web. Unless you work for a dot-com, your kids can probably do the research faster than you. Once you have gathered up enough information, have a family meeting to make vacation decisions. How long will you stay in one area? What trails will you definitely hike? What theme park rides are a must?

Explore rainy day activities in case of inclement weather. Strike a deal that will enable everyone to have fun: spend 1/3 of your time doing activities that the kids will like, 1/3 doing what you like, and 1/3 of your time doing things you all like.

PREPARE AN ITINERARY

The hour or two you spend typing an itinerary with rainy day alternatives will save you hours of time and frustration during your vacation. In all the years I traveled as a single parent with my kids, from kindergarten through college, we never once argued about what we were going to do that day. They simply got up in the morning and asked "What's on the itinerary for today?"

Although you can keep your itineraries flexible, if you set and keep schedules, your kids will take for granted that what was on paper for that day. Itineraries can be as simple as one short page or as long as two or three. By pre-planning and writing down our ride sequence at theme parks, you can avoid waits in long lines, even at Walt Disney World in high season.

Add a page of hotel and rental car information to the itinerary, including confirmation numbers, the local phone number and address of the hotel with local directions to get there in case you have had to find a hotel in the dark with sleepy kids in the car. This helps eliminate difficulties and stress in advance. Detailed itineraries can include research facts, and have make a nice handout for family members staying at home, and a wonderful addition to photo albums.

TYPE UP A PACKING LIST

Keep a family packing list that you can revise for every family trip. Print it out and hand it out to each child who can read. Tell them to check off or cross off each item as they pack it. This makes younger kids feel independent, even though they will need some packing help. It also smoothes the way with teen-agers who prefer minimal verbal communication with parents regarding instructions.

Several weeks before the trip you should start jotting things down on a list and invite your kids to do the same. Put down everything you will need and be very specific - seven changes of underwear, rather than just saying underwear. For teen-agers, mark down batteries for the omnipresent portable CD player and for the wee ones, mark down a favorite toy or teddy and three favorite books.

You will need a simple first aid kit, the contents of which will be determined by your destination and the kids' ages. Carry lots of zip lock plastic bags. You will also need to be prepared for delayed flights, unexpected waits in line, so pack travel games, cards, toys and books, some favorites and some new ones.

Carry a small book bag or backpack on your back so you are prepared with these items. If your kids are old enough, have them each carry their own items, or take turns with the book bag. Include some juice or water and nutritious snacks.

A Few Words About Patience

The best way to remain patient with your kids while traveling is to eliminate in advance as many situations as possible that require patience.

Sound simplistic? It is.

Three common irritating travel complaints can drive parents nuts:

1.) "When do we get there?"
2.) "Can I have some money?"
3.) "I'm tired/bored/hungry."

The first and third items are usually asked in a whiney tone and the second, as sweetly as possible -- especially if it is the sixth request that day.

The suggestions I offer are not foolproof but should reduce the frequency and intensity of the complaints so that your patience does not wear thin.

My suggestions:

COMPLAINT: "When do we get there?"

SOLUTION: For a small child, who has no sense of time, planning a relatively stress-free long motor trip takes a little advance work. There are the usual car games - such as word games, spotting car colors or license plates, story telling, and the "I'm thinking of (a person, place or thing)" game. But small children also need some time guidance.

Several days before the trip, and again the night before, explain how long the trip is and what you will be doing along the way. For example, if it is a six-hour drive, explain that there will be three planned stops, and the lunch stop is the halfway stop. If your children are ten years old or older they can begin learning to read maps and map out the trip.

Train and plane trips are a lot easier, given the speed of travel, and the ability to move about.

COMPLAINT: "Can I have some money?"

SOLUTION:

Single parents are always on a budget so this is a good opportunity to teach your kids budgeting skills, as well as reduce the strain on your patience: For a small child, write down or discuss the amount you will spend each day on treats or purchases and make the child aware of when the limit has been reached or approached.

For kids ages 8 to 15 discuss in advance how much will be allotted to them for snack treats and gifts for themselves or friends. Each day give them a portion of the total allotted cash to spend so they can buy their own treats or gifts. If they are still young and tend to lose money, you may choose to hold the money in a separate envelope for them. Teach them to watch out for pickpockets, especially in areas frequented by tourists.

Having them handle their own money will foster a sense of independence and help them understand budgeting. For teen-agers age 16 and up, chances are they have a part-time job and can bring their own earned spending money for gifts and food treats. Discuss in advance what you expect them to contribute. Traveler's checks are still an option for kids.

If a child's allotment is $100 or more, get a booklet of $20 traveler's checks in their name from your local bank. You hold the checks and let them sign off on a $20 check as they make a purchase and then let them keep the change in their pocket. It makes a small child feel important, plus there is the visual impact of seeing the travelers check booklet get thinner. It is not a bad idea for teen-agers either, and helps prevent pick pocketing for kids of all ages.

COMPLAINT: "I'm tired/bored/hungry."

SOLUTION:

To avoid these issues and keep your patience intact, you will need to do some trip planning and consultation with your kids.

A well-planned itinerary should eliminate this problem, especially if you have obtained previous "buy-in" from your kids regarding daily activities. Reinforce your kids' good behavior by complimenting them when they behave well, and try these tactics:

a.) First, get buy-in. Make it a challenge. "Boy, an all day trip in a car. Not many little kids can handle that. Do you think you can do it?"
b.) Review the commitment. Talk about it on and off before the trip. Focus on the positive - the destination, but remind the child of the challenge of the long trip to get there.
c.) Prepare the child. Discuss where you will be at lunch, at dinner. d.) Praise the child for his or her good behavior as the ride progresses.

About the author:
Brenda Elwell writes a monthly Single Parent Travel Newsletter available on e-mail and is currently writing a book entitled "The Single Parent Travel Handbook." A veteran of over thirty years in the travel industry, her most recent position was Director of Travel Content & Product Development for Amisto.com, a global adventure travel company. Brenda may be reached through her Web site at www.SingleParentTravel.NET, where you may also sign up for her newsletter.

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