7 tips for single moms traveling and taking a road trip with little kids

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Itching to get out of the house? Ready to travel? Maybe you’re a new single mom trying to figure it all out.

Even as a newly single mom with very little extra income, and a huge sense of overwhelm, I have still been able to take at least two trips each year—sometimes with my kids, other times with a man or a girlfriend, and often (my favorite), alone.

How do single moms travel?

Here are my tips on how to travel as a single mom on a budget:

  1. Make a plan and start saving. Here are my tips for saving up for a vacation (or anything else you want!).
  2. Hunt for deals, be flexible, and build a vacation around cheap airline tickets or other bargains. I love NextVacay, Secret Travel and The Flight Deal, which you can set to send you emails about travel deals departing from your city. This is how I found $400 roundtrip tickets from NYC to Ho Chi Minh City, and took my kids to Vietnam for 13 days for $2,000 total.
  3. Roundtrip, baby! Map out friends and family who will welcome you for 2 or three days, bring a nice gift (I like a board game, and a photo book from your home city), and make your rounds. Fill in gaps with camping, cheap motels, or free nights bought with credit card or other travel points.
  4. Travel points! I'm not a huge point hoarder, but instead prefer to focus on just one airline (Delta for me, as they fly to cities I frequent like Chicago, where I have family), and one credit card which has a rewards program that works for me (bonuses for business-related purchases, and a 25% bonus for travel redemption). I recently found myself with a few extra days at the end of a roadtrip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and booked two free points nights at an adorable oceanside cottage in Maine — much better than being crammed in a 2-bedroom NYC apartment in July with two kids as a single mom!
  5. Home swap. One of the best tips I can share about single mom travel is to check out HomeExchange, a house-swapping platform that has saved me thousands of dollars and afforded my kids and myself incredible experiences.

Yes, single moms do travel!

I am writing this from a plane with my kids on the way from our NYC home to Chicago, where we will spend two weeks visiting friends and family, and the places where I grew up in a small town in Northern Illinois. 

This pilgrimage has become an annual tradition. It started out as a road trip — a mode of transport inspired mostly by my budget, but turned into an incredible adventure defying all naysayers who said I was insane for being on the road, alone, with a 3- and 5-year-old for two weeks. 

Here you will find tales of past summer road trips, and all my advice about single mom road tripping, and why you absolutely must travel with your kids. It is one of the most empowering things you can

Why road trip with your kids as a single mom

Tomorrow morning I leave on a 10-day road trip with my kids, ages 3 and 5.

I thought of cooking up a clever intro to this post, but the bare-bone facts seem to be plenty compelling to anyone to whom I mention this adventure.

The trip — New York to Chicago, Milwaukee, rural Illinois and back — will be long, yes. And — mark my words — it will be fun! Even for me.

We could have flown. I have flown many times with my kids, and I have to say that they are awesome flyers. Airports are exciting, and they get into the protocol of check-in, boarding, ordering whatever you want to drink from the attendant. Dollar-for-dollar, flying and driving come out about equal — gas, hotel, restaurant meals considered.

But I believe driving will be better. Here is why:

1. Driving is more freeing.

My family's life is so structured. We have a routine, each and every day. As a divorced family, we have even more than others: the weekdays are built around work and school, evenings and weekends split between my house and my ex's. Rushing to catch planes is just one more time-sensitive task that I am compelled to avoid. So I am.

2. I want to reconnect with my kids.

If we flew, we would be going from our crazy New York life to the home of friends and relatives. Sure, I would spend plenty of time with each of my children over a week and a half. But when it is just the three of us on four wheels for days on end, we will get into the groove of it being just the three of us. Otherwise, I can get into the groove of either being without my kids, or looking to the hours when I am without my kids. I want it to be different.

3. Kids need to learn how to just be, and not be entertained.

My neighbor Jen, now in her early 50s, has very fond memories of annual month-long roadtrips starting when she was aged 3 and her brother 5. Her parents took the backseat out of their VW Bug and the kids would play, nap and snack as they cruised leisurely across time zones. For weeks on end, people. True: I am bringing my iPad loaded with two movies: Charlotte's Web and Night at the Museum (I figured out how to mount the device between the front seats with a bungee cord). I downloaded the audio recording of Stuart Little. Then we will pass the time by counting silos and sing 99 Bottles of Beer, just like I did as a kid. Except it will be fun.

4. I want to prove I can do it

I want to feed my ego and thumb my nose at all the people who tell me I am crazy and that I will do a U-ie on Rt. 80 when my kids are pooping in their booster seats and throw half-gnawed organic yogurt-covered pretzels at the back of my head like confetti. Because a) my angels never act like that, and b) if they do, I will just crank up the Feist and continue on with cruise control until the next rest stop. Where I will bind them to their seats with the bungee cord.

5. I want to learn how to indulge my kids.

This is something that is hard for me to do, and I want to get better at it. Do special things, spoil them a little. I don't believe in buying lots of stuff — for adults or kids. My children have never tasted fast food. But we will be stopping at McDonald's PlayPlaces and it better blow their goddamned minds.

5. This scene is rich for material.

I am opting not to video record / seek endorsements / take copious notes on this trip, despite what my colleagues urge, en lieu of taking a proper vacation. You know, a vacation? Like, days and weeks when you do not work? That. In fact, I just turned down a big radio interview, even though I could have figured out how to make sure I was in decent cell service off the freeway in Pennsylvania at 3 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, but that would be stressful. And a radio interview, as fun as it is, is classified under work — not vacation. Instead, I think something even better will come of focusing on my kids. Like living stories to write about. Stories that will make me rich and famous. And so check back here over the next couple of weeks. I don't have many plans, so I can't tell you what you will find. But you may just get reportage from the field. Field of happy vacationing. In a 1999 red Subaru Forester named Rosie. With two kids. And a mom. Whose blood pressure is actually lower than when she departed.

Tips on how to road trip with little kids as a single mom

After returning from a 2-week road trip with my kids, this is my perspective:

Why was everyone I know warning me not to make the trek from New York City to rural Illinois with my two children? Maybe it’s because the kids are ages 3 and 5. Or perhaps they worried my sanity would be tested by the fact that this journey happened by car. Or was it that I did it alone, with no other adult along for the good times?

Despite friends’ and acquaintances’ dire predictions of highway meltdowns and sleepless nights in hotels, I was thrilled to find how fun and relaxing the trip was. Lucas and Helena were remarkably well behaved, and I enjoyed the whole experience far more than I predicted—and despite the naysayers’ shrill warnings, I predicted it would be fun!

I had never done a trip like this with Helena and Lucas, and I learned a few things about traveling with little kids. If you plan on taking a similar trip, here’s what you need to know:

Plan ahead for your travel

Whether it is a vacation destination (think Disney or a cruise), or even visiting relatives, find a few fun things to research, discuss as a family and look forward to. On our list this year includes meeting a new niece, visiting a light house with my mom and  listening to audiobooks on the road (titles TBD — any recommendations?).

Create traditions

One mom I know gives her sons little boxes of Froot Loops when they hit the road, and the kids gnaw on the florescent cereal “like it’s crack, since road trips are the only time they are allowed that treat.” My kids and I decided that white chocolate–covered pretzels (my favorite) and gummy bears (theirs) will be our special road trip snack. Besides food, pick an album or two to sing along with—over and over. Make it music that the family will always associate with the trip.

Here are some traditions we started for roadtrips: White chocolate covered pretzels, gummie bears, I pack kids a special hot breakfast to go on the morning we launch, listen to an audiobook for Stuart Little and let the kids fall asleep watching cable TV (which we don't have at home).

Create an affordable budget — and stick to it

Vacations are supposed to be fun. Nothing fun about stressing about blowing your bank account! This year, funds are tight for me. I'm excited to drive my new car, which gets better milage than my old one, and we're staying every night with friends or relatives (thanks in advance guys – feel free to kick us out when we get on your nerves. Or … don't?).

I've written about a few trips I've taken with my single-mom friend Morghan. It's more affordable, less work and more fun to partner up.

Team up with other adults 

You don't need to tell me you love your kids. I know you do. But kids can be really, really boring (not to mention annoying). Build in time with other adults. I have traveled with another single mom friend, and I always build in visits with friends or family wherever I go. Don't be shy about asking if you can be a houseguest, make a point of calling old friends or even acquaintances in the area you're visiting, or, before leaving for your destination, put out a call on social media for contacts and connections who live in your destination. And when you land, never be shy about chatting with other families at the beach, museum or campground. You never know what magic might happen.

Pack snacks—but not too many

Of course kids (and adults!) need calories to stave off the grumpies while on the road. But don’t rely on sugary or greasy treats to occupy bored minds. Try to keep the munchies few and relatively healthy. Instead, stop for a sit-down meal, which will likely be healthier than fast food and provide a great way to take a break. Sitting face-to-face as a family will allow you to track maps with your kids, look at guidebooks and brainstorm your next stop.

Don’t rely on gadgets

Many parents suggested their favorite Pixar films as ways to sedate restless little road warriors, and I loaded up my iPad with a few. But only on the very last leg home did I bust outBabe and Kung Fu Panda. Research finds that extensive video game playing and small-screen viewing will actually rev kids up, not calm them down. Instead, try to keep them occupied with audio books. We listen every year to E.B. White’s Stuart Little, read by Julie Harris. Also, get into the sing-along songs. Our family loves old country-western, and we belted out June Carter and Johnny Cash’sJackson more times than I can count. Insider tip: If you do go for the iPad, stretch a bungee cord between the headrests of the front two seats and drape the tablet’s cover over for backseat viewing.

Find ways to exercise

I'm used to exercising 5 or 6 days per week. I get grumpy when I don't. Everyone is happier when momma exercises! Tips: do a few laps in the hotel pool while the kids splash at the shallow end; yoga or a workout in the morning while they watch cartoons, a jog around your houseguests' neighborhood.

And get the kids in it! For our roadtrip I pack a soccer ball and frisbee for a rest stop spaz-burn.

Remember: Everything is a big deal when you’re little

The fact that my children are so small made it easy to impress them. Staying in a hotel was totally glamorous. (My daughter and I had a bit of a verbal tussle when she insisted that our ’80s conference center digs were “the most beautiful in the world” and I politely disagreed. Hey, it’s my duty as her mother to teach her taste!). They giddily opted for “special beds,” which were made of folded quilts on relatives’ floors, over an actual bed and marveled at the salad bar at a truck stop. Who needs spendy amusement parks?

Take the slow road

The main reason I opted to drive rather than fly on this vacation was my desire to get off our strict schedule and just chill. Even though we mostly stuck to the highways (as opposed to the more interesting local routes), I made a point of taking it easy. When someone wanted to stop to pee, we pulled over and took a break—even if we’d just lunched an hour earlier (save for the moment when, stuck in standstill Chicago traffic, my 3-year-old son awoke from a nap, screaming for a toilet. Suffice it to say, I was grateful to have an empty water bottle on hand).

At the last minute, I decided to drive straight from Illinois to New York and skip our plans to stay over at a hotel. The payoffs were plentiful: A giant rainbow met us as we rounded the bend in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains just before dusk. And when the sun set, my city kids marveled at the galaxies of fireflies swarming roadside. “I like driving in the car,” my daughter said.

There are so many ways you can control every aspect of your trip – book every meal at a restaurant, detail a daily itinerary. Schedule in some spontaneity. Har har, no oxymoron intended. In my case, we have a schedule around where we will sleep, but leave the days open to coordinate around our loved ones — and take in their suggestions of what to do in their cities.

Just do it 

I know how overwhelming traveling alone with kids can be. It can also be lonely. Hell, I remember feeling so triumphant very early in my single motherhood when I successfully walked 8 blocks to a neighborhood playground with my newborn and toddler. But remember: You are living in a time of unbelievable abundance — as a person, as a woman, and as a mother. Yes, your Instagram #familyvacation pics will not look like you may have dreamed. But that does not mean you cannot do this. It is a vacation, for crying out loud. Not brain surgery on your second grader. Go. Have fun. Embrace the challenge. Even more importantly: Relish the good times, the memories you are making on your own terms, with your own, wonderful and complete family.

More on road trips and the single mom:

For the record, every year my kids and I go on this trip (they are now 5 and 7). We have a small Subaru Impreza hatchback, don't bring a tablet, and spend our many hours on the road listening to audiobooks (Stuart Little is a tradition– great travel story!), podcasts, singing along with the radio and talking. Oh, and being silent. I didn't realize that I am an anomaly in this regard until the Wall Street Journal last year interviewed me about my renegade no-iPad road trip practice.

I realize most people think I am a renegade, and by renegade, they really mean a total moron, for traveling alone for so many hours with children. I'm no moron, and I'm also no hero. All this feigned “admiration” and quizzing/judging only speaks to the general over-parenting/coddling trend that complicates parenting and stresses out adults and children alike. I mean, read Little House on the Prairie. The Engels and their gaggle of girls were on the road for MONTHS. WITHOUT AN iPAD. And while I suspect that Mary and Laura probably took turns beating the crap out of each other with a plastic hairbrush for 15 minutes just like my kids did last night, everyone lived to have bestselling memoirs and a prime-time spin-off created in their likeliness about how normal they all were.

The other point: Everyone assumes that single motherhood is so prohibitively impossible that a meager American rite of passage (the great road trip) is beyond their ability.

To which I say: Eff that.

This trip, just five days in, reminds me how much I love traveling with my kids. How they are really on their best behavior when on the road. With so much to entertain and engage them, with so much of my undivided attention and with a break from our usual (often grueling) routine, they are a delight, hairbrush pummeling aside. In other words, people are full of crap. They tell you that you are crazy for traveling alone with your kids because they don't think they can do it. Don't let others define what you are capable of. You're raising children alone for crying out loud. You've been through a hell of a lot worse than grumpy children whining for McDonalds while a sign reading ‘Next rest stop 40 miles' whizzes by. Let's put things in perspective. Personally, touring around the beautiful upper United States in summer with two of my favorite people is a hell of a lot easier than being cooped up in a Queens apartment with those same people. But that is just me.

This year we started off in the Catskills with my single mom BFF Morghan and her parents rented a lake house and invited us. Despite the perpetual rain, the kids had a great time fishing, beating the crap out of each other and playing board games while Morghan and I caught up on work news, men news and drinking. The kids are like cousins, having grown up knowing each other while their single moms, who are like sisters, got their acts together, and it was a great sendoff for the rest of our voyage. Thanks guys!

Five hours later: Niagara Falls, bitches! Inside scoop: Stay on the Canadian side, which is about 5,000x nicer, cleaner and prettier than the New York side. We did the whole scene in about 18 hours: takeout eaten on a picnic blanket at Victoria Park, taking in the falls, a dip in the hotel pool, an hour of Canadian Broadcast kids' TV, bed. Then breakfast at the hotel, a Hornblower falls boat tour, lunch at Canadian fav Tim Hortons and on the road again. Single mom insider tip: Make sure you get your ex to sign a travel consent form, or else the very cute, ripped, blond Canadian border agent will grill you and make you wish you had. Take it from me.

Last night we landed in Charlevoix, Michigan where we are staying for nine days in a giant, 5-bedroom historic house for free, thanks to my new obsession, HomeExchange.com, which connects travelers who want to swap homes. For free.  So the lovely couple whose house we are trying not to destroy is staying in my New York City apartment and (presumably) feeding our cat and watering the plants. More on this arrangement later.

Two weeks ago I posted about my impending road trip with my kids. I had a hunch that despite the naysayers we would have a great time. Guess what? I was right.

Lessons about traveling alone as a single mom

1. People rise to expectations.

Even little people. Ignoring the meltdown my daughter had at each of the three family members' homes we stayed at, my 3- and 5-year-olds were remarkably well behaved. Lots of explanations, including that everything was new, and my brilliant, curious children were engaged — even on the road (they're city kids, so they aren't in cars that often). Also, I took a true vacation, did not do any work and felt truly relaxed. The herd follows the leader. Finally – I expected that we would have a great time. And we did.

2. If I spoil my kids every now and again, they will not grow up to be Veruca Salt.

When we arrived at my mom's Milwaukee condo after a few days with my brother and sister-in-law in Chicago, we were greeted with the scent of oatmeal raisin cookies wafting from the oven. I initially put my foot down, as dinner was near and Helena and Lucas had just pigged out on my SIL's homemade chocolate chip cookies. Then I reconsidered. “They're on vacation – give them a cookie!” I told my mom. (Translation: “I want a cookie!”). Other goodies: consistently ignoring our 8 p.m. bedtime. An ice cream stop at McDonald's, which was all my idea because my children don't know what McDonald's is and frankly, they were not impressed. And for a bedtime tret before conking out on the final stretch home: A giant bag of gummy bears. Even though they didn't eat dinner.

3. I love sleeping near my kids.

Last year I put my foot down about kids in my bed. Aside from morning snuggles and the occasional illness, everyone is to sleep in their own sack. On the road, we shared a room – hotels, guest rooms. The kids love cuddling into “special beds” made of sheets and quilts folded into mini sleeping bags on the floor. I love having them close and hearing their tiny snores all night — just like when they were co-sleeping infants.

4. The more time I spend with my kids, the more time I want to spend with my kids.

In our daily routine of shuffling everyone here and there and fighting against the clock, I find it easy to count the minutes until I have alone time. When there is no alone time in sight, it was easier to live in the minute. As I write this on Sunday afternoon—a time when I normally enjoy the freedom that comes with shared custody—I miss my monkeys.

This single mom traveled alone for the first time with her kids. It was empowering, devastating and awesome:

I received this letter from a Canadian reader, Samantha. I love the bravery it exhibits — both in her story of mustering the courage to leave a bad marriage, then to venture out into solo vacationing with kids, then again for Samantha's sharing of her feelings about being alone in what feels at times like a world of perfect two-parent families.

Samantha graciously allowed me to publish her note with the confidence that it will resonate with others. 

Hi Emma,

You've helped me a lot over the last two years. More than I can express in an email, but I will try. 

It's been a hellofa ride through the disintegration of my marriage and divorce. You know all about it, Emma. Ups and downs. But I knew I had no choice but to make the best of it for me and my two young kids. I knew I'd screw my kids up more by staying–I need to show them a life with a happy mom who expects more for herself and doesn't eat shit to keep peace. 

Yesterday, my 7-year-old daughter said to me, “You are good at showing your feelings. You laugh and cry. You used to cry a lot around that divorce, but you are happy now.” 

I asked her how she knows I'm happy. She said, “Mom… look at you! Your face smiles and you laugh.” 

“I'm doing OK,” I thought. 

A story for you about my own summer vacation:

I took my kids on vacation this summer — something I did, in part, due to your advice. We flew to Vancouver Island to find mini crabs and sand dollars on the endless beaches, to try kayaking and to walk in a magical forest called Cathedral Grove. I was so proud of myself and naturally, my kids had a fabulous time. But I felt very single. Everywhere I looked, I saw families building memories on their summer vacation. Families with daddies and mommies. The friends we stayed with were perfect nuclear families. I felt very… divorced. Very single mommy. 

My 4-year-old son broke his arm quite badly, which meant a terrifying ambulance ride and stay in a local hospital. Nurses and doctors repeatedly asked about the father (WTF with that anyway?). The nurse asked about custody situations they should know about. I called my ex on the phone from emergency to tell him Alex broke his arm. I felt so single. Alone with my son in the hospital. And really wishing I had someone to be a partner through this scary, new experience. I sucked it up and focused on my son. The fear on his face only softened when I hugged him and told him everything would be OK. His arm would heal and he would play again. In the moment, I pushed away my self pity for my kids. That's what we do. (He's fine now, healing in a cast.)

We had such a wonderful vacation, and created new memories together as a new family. But I bawled my guts out after dropping them at their dad's after the trip. Our vacation made me feel single mommy-ness more than regular daily life. In my daily routine, my world is filled with single and divorcing friends. It feels normal. At times on vacation, I felt a spotlight of divorce and single mommy-dom on me.  I knew deep down, it was all my shit. My feelings of guilt and sadness. No one else was putting that on me. I just felt… less than. Like I would prefer to share this life with someone I enjoy. 

I reminded myself that traveling alone with the kids was much better than traveling with my ex. He hated traveling and passive-aggressively sabotaged simple pleasures like trips to the beach because he would rather be in front of his computer than feeling the sand in his toes. In the hospital, he would have been freaking out more than anyone and I would have to calm him down and my son. I reminded myself that I laughed a lot on this vacation. I saw old friends, felt the sun on my face, watched my kids make new friends and I achieved a goal of taking my kids on a real summer vacation. 

I'm telling you all this because I want to thank you for your article about your summer vacation. I regularly have to tell myself that people's family realities are not what I perceive on the outside. Everyone told me that my marriage looked perfect (something I worked hard at portraying.) No one else writes so honestly about the issues I face as a professional single mom. Thank you! 

Also, thank you for encouraging me to take them a summer vacation. My son is fine now. And most importantly, we had a memorable adventure together. My kids swam in the ocean, made dog friends and held crabs in their hands. We hiked together, picked wild blackberries and found 3-inch slugs in the wet forrest. We watched the ocean sunset and roasted marshmallows. I faced fears and uncovered more truths…. on this wonderful and humbling fucking journey! 

Warm wishes from up north,

Samantha from Canada

How I got $10,919 in free travel with home exchanges

I just did the math that led to that $10,919 figure and it blows my mind, too.

Here's the gist of it … over the past few years I have fallen in love with HomeExchange.com, a home swap platform that allows you to exchange homes with people all over the world. I'd used it once two years ago to stay in a big, old house in a small town in upstate New York, while that home's family stayed in my New York City apartment. Then, last summer, I used the heck out of it — to the tune of more than $10k! That is more than $10,000 of free travel as a single mom.

HomeExchange works a bit like Match.com or OKCupid. Sign up, pay $150, then browse more than 400,000 homes in 187 countries. Each member posts images and descriptions of their home and neighborhood, a bit about themselves and family, and what they are looking for in exchange partners. It is up to you to reach out to potential exchange partners and arrange the dates and terms of the swap (again, like online dating!).

HomeExchange members are as varied as can be. They include:

  • Single people
  • Couples
  • Pet friendly
  • Pet adverse
  • Single-parent families with kids
  • Married couples with children
  • Multigenerational families
  • Friends traveling together
  • Families traveling together
  • Etc.

One of my favorite features of HomeExchange.com is the ABSOLUTELY UNREAL selection of homes that can potentially be yours within a matter of days. Examples of homes (some of whose owners  actually reached out to me for a swap) include:

  • A 5,000-square-foot horizontal, white, hyper-modern home with an affinity pool that ended right on the sandy beaches of Australia
  • A charming-yet-intimidating country estate in Ireland
  • A glamorous 1920s Spanish-style Los Angeles house with a pool and palm trees (of course)
  • A sprawling Beaux Arts apartment overlooking Champs-Élysées in Paris
  • A 4,000-square-foot round villa in a mountaintop coconut grove in Fiji

Seriously, even if you don't sign up, just have a look and drrooooooooolllll.

But I did sign up, and had a killer summer as a result. Here's the run-down of my awesome, free summer with HomeExchange.com.

How to get free travel with home exchanges

First, my two kids and I exchanged our home — a decent-sized and sunny Queens two-bedroom apartment — for an art- and antique-filled 3,500-square-foot historic 5-bedroom, 3-bath house steps from the beaches of Charlevoix, Michigan for 10 days. Our hosts were a lovely older couple whose stash of toys (presumably for their grandchildren) in the cabinet under the staircase are still talked about by my kids. The huge, modern kitchen and adjoining pantry (with a second refrigerator) were stocked with every spice, utensil, condiment, pan and gadget you can fathom. My kids — used to sharing a room at home — opted to cozy up in a queen-sized bed in a room next to my mammoth master suite. Three full bedrooms went untouched.

free travel as a single mom

When we arrived, I called one of the numbers my hosts had left — a woman in town who was also a writer and had visiting grandchildren the ages of Helena and Lucas. She immediately rode her bike across town, sat on our sunny deck and talked about work, love and heartbreak (she was a widow). She immediately offered to lend us her bike, which had attached a two-seater trailer, perfect sized for four little buns belonging to my kids. We were all thrilled.

free travel as a single mom
home exchange single mom

We spent the next week and a half exploring the area, picking strawberries, eating fried seafood by the harbor, playing at the beach and joining my writer friend and her large family on a picnic at the lake. The next-door neighbors invited us by, and my daughter and theirs immediately huddled off to the corner to play as girls do. We ate burgers and hot dogs on the patio and after the kids went to bed, I sipped beer and watched movies in one of the two living rooms. We explored Charlevoix, the village a short walk from our house, with its award-winning public library, darling local shops, including a salt-water taffy store. One of the town's attractions is its collection of “mushroom houses” — quaint, slopey-roofed cottages, each unique and designed by the self-taught local architect Earl Young. Mornings, I packed the kids breakfasts in individual paper sacks, loaded them in the bike bucket, and pedaled around town hunting mushroom houses.

free travel as a single mom
Lake Michigan
single mom travel
Charlevoix mushroom house
How single moms can travel.

Day excursions included the Traverse City cherry festival, and exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes — one of the prized destinations in the whole country.

Sleeping Bear National Park dunes

I estimate that renting that gorgeous house would have cost $6,740, based on similar Airbnb rentals in that town for the July 4 week that we stayed. In all, it cost a few hundred dollars for extra gas to drive there, a few restaurant meals more than normal, several attraction admission fees, and a gift bottle of wine for our bike-lending new friend.

A week after we returned from what would be a 3-week road trip through Chicago, Milwaukee and my home town of Sycamore, Ill., seeing friends and family along the way, my kids flew to Greece with their dad to visit family there, and I flew to Copenhagen where, again, I swapped homes.

This time I stayed in a bright, pretty one-bedroom apartment owned by a single woman who, like me, is a freelance creative person. Her home was full of a mix of vintage, antique and modern art and furnishings, her very modern kitchen equipped with excellent knives and beautiful Japanese pottery, and upon arrival, I was met by her lovely neighbor, who promptly showed me around the building and introduced me to my new friend: A pale-turquoise bike with a leather seat and wooden crate. We jumped on our bikes and headed to the local supermarket, where Cassandra showed me around and translated the variety of fish and explained the recycling system before we packed our purchases into our crates and cycled home.

My Copenhagen apartment
Danish room with a view

The next three weeks were full of dinners with new friends — some friend-of-friend-of-acquaintance introductions, others blog followers who invited me to dinner, and still others, interesting women I found online who graciously invited me to their homes for tea and homemade limoncello cake or to their towns to explore ancient castles and charming streets. Cassandra and I shared meals in our building's courtyard.

New Copenhagen friends
New Copenhagen friends

When I was not writing in my new, pretty home, I rode that bike around and around and around the small and beautiful city that is Denmark's capital. “The town is nearly all beautiful,” remarked my friend Thomas who visited for a few days from his home in Munich. Thomas has traveled to scores of countries. “Most cities have a few interesting neighborhoods, but all of Copenhagen is interesting,” he said.

One of my favorite experiences — biking around Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a water town, and it is a bike town. Everyone bikes, every place is accessible by two wheels, and everywhere you go, there is water — canals, harbors, inlets and lakes. The town is safe and it is rich and there is good food and good-looking people everywhere you look. One of Dane's favorite words translates to “cozy.” The restaurants, bars and cafes are small and cozy. Homes are modest, well designed and cozy. People like to have intelligent conversations at small tables and drink good wine and excellent coffee and eat simple, unpretentious, good food. And that is what I did for three weeks, and it was wonderful.

I could not have stayed in Europe for three weeks if I had to pay $4,179 — the Airbnb value of my apartment for those 21 days. Instead, I stayed for free thanks to HomeExchange.com, while my lovely exchange partner Ellen worked and explored from my apartment. We checked in with one another periodically, asking for recommendations for restaurant, or where to find the Woolite.

free travel as a single mom
Not gonna lie: I had an awesome time.

Staying in someone else's home through HomeExchange.com is an intimate experience. You get to know them without knowing them. So when I returned to New York a few hours before Ellen was scheduled to leave, I was happy not only to find our cat, a ginger named Gala, in top, happy form, and my plants healthier than ever, but to give my guest/host a lift to the airport. Even though we only chatted for the half-hour ride, I found her just as lovely as I expected her to be after living as her pseudo-double for nearly a month. We continue to be in touch today.

Lasting relationships are indeed a possible perk of travel. Of course, I can't write a post that doesn't have a little love and sex in it … so, just like I used HomeExchange.com as a dating site to find vacation accommodation, on one of my last days in Denmark I used an actual dating site to accommodate my need for a date. After a lovely evening and following day together, a special single Danish dad and I continue to know each other, and next week I am looking forward to a second visit to my New York City apartment — the type of visit that I do not advertise on HomeExchange.com.

Have you done a home swap? What was your experience? Share in the comments! 

I'm not the only single mom whose life has changed with a single trip.

How about you? What are your plans for this summer? What have you done recently as a single mom that others said was crazy/impossible/stupid? Share in the comments!

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.


Drove from Montreal, QC to Toronto, ON last summer with my 10 year old daughter. It was a fun trip. We stayed at a Airbnb, she took a taxi for the fist time on top of calling for it like we see in the movies. We saw Mamma Mia and she loved it and she will remember it.

My Mom took her 4 kids on a whole three month adventure in the summer of 1982 in a 1975 VW Bus Westfalia. My twin brother(8,) younger brother(6) and my younger sister(4.) We left Minneapolis two days after school ended and got back to the Twin Cities three days before school started. We spent six days camping and one day in a hotel per week. We went all over but focusing on NY, VT, NH, MA, RI, CT, PA and drove to NC, SC, GA, AL, TN, AR, MO and IA. All I remember was a couple in Fredonia NY were just amazed that my mom could handle driving a VW Bus with 4 kids alone… The Fredonia guy was getting in a argument with my mom that her vw bus was fuel injected. It was pretty hot in the bus without AC and my younger brother was up front with my mom and my younger sister sat between my twin and me…

Thank you so much for the courage and sharing. Next month I am taking a 7 day cruise with my 4 year old twins! First time traveling alone, I am looking forward to the experience. No cleaning, cooking, finding entertainment, I am READY! This single mom is doing great things

this is wonderful, and yes..kids are fascinated by hotels and such!!:0) enjoy this time while you can…they grow up so quickly!!

My kids and I leave next Wednesday for our 4 day trip, and just last week they were asking me what traditions we have!! I will for sure use your ideas when we set out next week!

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