Itching to get out of the house? Ready to travel? Maybe you’re a new single mom trying to figure it all out. Single mom travel with kids is a thing.
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.
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 do.
Single moms, here’s why you should schedule a road trip with your kids
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:
Driving is more freeing
My family's life is so structured. We have a schedule, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
12 road trip essentials for kids
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:
1. 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?).
2. 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 road trips: 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).
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 out Babe 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’s Jackson 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.
7. Bring family road trip games
Nothing can bond your family — and bring out the belly laughs — like a good old-fashioned family game. My family loves Telestrations — basically a combo of pictionary and telephone — where you start by drawing a picture and pass it around for others to guess, usually ending in a truly hilarious “result.”
When you’re actually in the car, consider old standbys like “I Spy” or the Alphabet Game, where you have to name things in alphabetical order for a specific category (think animals, foods, movies, etc.).
If your kids are a little older, you can also play the Celebrity Name game, where you have to name a celebrity that starts with the first letter of the previous celebrity’s last name (i.e. Tom Hanks, Heather Lochlear, Lance Bass — you get the idea). Naming a celebrity with the same letter first and last name reverses the list back to the previous person. If you can't come up with a celebrity, you're out!
You can also buy a set of car bingo cards to allow your kids to mark off sites they see along the way.
8. 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 road trip I pack a soccer ball and frisbee for a rest stop spaz-burn.
9. 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 expensive amusement parks?
10. 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.
11. Start by searching for “road trips near me”
If you haven't taken a single mom road trip with kids before, it might be best to start with a short weekend getaway. Search for “road trips near me” or ask in a local Facebook moms group for suggestions of fun and easy trips with kids.
Think nearby beaches (lake or ocean), historic sites, and camping destinations. Once you get your feet wet and build your road-tripping confidence, you can plan for longer trips to further away destinations.
12. 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.
Emma's experience with road trips as a 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.
Bottom line: Yes, single moms do travel! Here’s how:
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 are my tips on how to enjoy a family road trip on a budget:
- Make a plan and start saving. Here are my tips for saving up for a vacation (or anything else you want!).
- 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.
- 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 travel credit card or other travel points.
- 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!
- 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.
If you want to take a trip with your kids — by plane, bus, car, or train — consider applying for a travel rewards credit card.
These credit cards allow you to earn points toward hotel stays, car rentals, flights, and more — which means more fun adventures (and less money out of your bank account).