Single mom summer travel guide

From Roadtrip 2013 with Grandma in Milwaukee. What's your best (or most hilarious)  roadtrip story?

This weekend I'm coordinating my family's second annual road trip. Last year I defied all naysayers and enjoyed a 10-day driving vacation to see family and friends. No one barfed in the car, maimed anyone or peed in a bed (though there was one incident on a median on I94 in Chicago rush hour that may or may not have involved an empty Poland Spring bottle).

This time it looks like it will be a three-week adventure, the longest vacation alone with my kids. Even though I feel like I killed it last year, I'm a little nervous. So I'm going back to my mental archives to call up last year's successes — and therefor my own confidence.

So here you have it, ladies. Your 2014 Guide to Single Mom Traveling. In the comments, please share your own tips and experience for traveling alone with your monkeys.

Plan. 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?).

Chill. 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.

Keep it within your budget. 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.

Create a tradition. 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).

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.

Find other adults. I built adult-time into this roadrip, since it's organized around visiting loved ones. Make a point to be friendly with other parents at the resort, or chat up people at the water park. Last year at a historic park in suburban Illinois, my daughter palled around with another girl her age. I took one look at the mother and my single-mom radar went off, and our two families spent the rest of the day hanging out. Valerie and I continued to stay in touch and now often IM about our dating lives in the evenings.

Make a point to make it about each other. There are a zillion ways to distract yourself on vacation. Do those things. But also take a breath. Use those days away to recalibrate, rediscover the special things you like to do together as a family, and create new ones.

Taken a vacation alone with the kids? What is the funniest thing that happened? Your hottest tip? Share in the comments! 

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Beck on July 24, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve been on two road-trips with my son so far. Once for a month when he was 6 months old, and the other time for a month when he was 13 months old. It has been pretty ideal since he’s still young enough to do plenty of sleeping in the car! And I got to listen to a whole book on tape each time. It was pretty much “me time” in the car.

    My favorite thing about road-tripping with a kid is being able to leave both the hotel and the restaurant tables messy. It was a really nice break from the constant cleaning up. My other favorite thing is how impressed people are with a single mom traveling alone. It leads to some really great conversations about bravery.

    As far as books on tape that are kid friendly – I would recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. It will lead to some really important conversations too. And I’ve heard really good things about the Harry Potter books on tape. Supposedly the narrator is really amazing.

    • Beck on July 24, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      Also! Bonus: To Kill A Mockingbird features a pretty awesome single parent!

  2. DarthW on June 26, 2014 at 12:05 am

    Emma, as for your friends and family providing lodgings to help cut back on the costs that is great.

    A close buddy of mine, his wife, and their young kids stay with me sometimes on their travels through town. (and they do likewise with their own home when I pass through their way.) I love getting juice boxes, animal crackers, waffles, mac and cheese and other kid-oriented menu items together for his kiddos to make the visits special (all stuff I never normally need, not having kids myself.) I even put mints on the pillows the last time they were here, and a hotel sign on the door as a chance to joke around with the kids. Even his 5-year-old got in on the joke. I bet your family and friends are looking forward to your visits as much as you and your little ones.

    • Emma on June 26, 2014 at 8:58 pm

      That’s really sweet, Darth. They’ll remember that always.

  3. Thea Wood on June 25, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    I’m married but think all these tips are still relevant. We flew to Aspen 2 weeks ago and had a blast. One day we spent walking around town and at the park. The next, we took my 7 y.o. son to the Mammoth Music Fest where he danced and played with other kids for 5 hours. Then he attended a day camp for 2 days while hubby and I had some adult time and went golfing.

    The biggest surprise? I didn’t pack any high heels (!) and it made a huge difference in my experience. Keeping up with a kiddo in the mountains with cobblestone sidewalks would have been frustrating (and silly looking) if I wore my daily 3+ inch lovelies. My Donald J. Pliner slip-ons we’re stylish and did the trick. At night, my suede KORS flats kept my toes warm and still looked super chic. Comfort can be cool — even when chasing little ones around :)

    • Emma on June 26, 2014 at 9:06 pm

      Hi Thea! Glad you had such a good time — and stay away from heels in the mountains!!

  4. Peta Mercieca Lima on June 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Hi, I travelled by plane from Canberra to Perth with my almost 3 year old daughter.
    Best things were chilled out moments on the beach, wineries with playgrounds, she got into a lot of places for free as she was 2 weeks off turning three, experiencing a new city with my angel.
    Worst parts were dealing with a tantrum in an art gallery of an exhibition that wasn’t coming to the other side of Australia, the flight when descending (my daughter is not a fan of that part), judgemental looks during tantrum. My best tip for someone young, cram as much as you can in the morning, have lunch and then head back to the hotel….my daughter had long naps and I would chill out, do some yoga or reading and book an apartment if possible with cooking facilities to save money on food.
    Love the tip about taking a soccer ball to burn off some energy, going to put one in my car right now for the next road trip in a few weeks so I don’t forget :-)

    • Emma on June 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      Peta = great advice re: morning sked with afternoons at a hotel (little kids especially think all hotels are awesome). So wise. I mean, better to do fewer things and actually enjoy yourself, right?

  5. Pepper Tan on June 23, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I now realize that the best trips I’ve ever gone on were those with my daughter. There’s never a dull moment. Even when we found ourselves lost in Hong Kong, we survived. Travels become much more exciting with her.

    • Emma on June 25, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      Agreed, totally different experience to see the world through your kids’ eyes.

  6. Meg on June 23, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Other benefits from teaming up with another mom: taking turns to exercise, prepare meals, do dishes & laundry, etc. Also, if you are a freelancer (as I am) who doesn’t get paid vacation, it can also help with affordability and length of stay as you can fit in some work time while you’re away with another adult there to watch all the kids while you take turns getting a bit of work done while still enjoying a change of scenery.

  7. Meg on June 23, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Just returned from a trip with another mom….and our 5 children ages 8 and under! 3 airports, 4 shuttle buses, a rental minivan, airport terminal train, several (TALL!) escalators and 9 days of beachside adventures! Our tip for airport travel with this crew? Matching neon shirts for the littles with iron on airplane symbols = fun for them, stress-free perpetual head counts for the moms, and many more smiles than grumpy glares from folks who saw us coming their way or – yikes – realized we may seated near them! Also: plenty of electronic devices and special treats to help control unwanted behavior. All-in-all, a true success! (She said, while recovering on her couch for at least a week and a half.)

    • Emma on June 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      >>(She said, while recovering on her couch for at least a week and a half.)

      HAHAH!! Yeah, that will be me this time next month.

      • Qezenfer on July 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

        I told my grahemotndr how you helped. She said, “bake them a cake!”

  8. Ashley Smith on June 23, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I am taking a road trip with my 2 kids from Kansas to Virginia next month! We were planning to go last year, but we’re talked out of it by my relatives. This year, I am so excited to have this time with my kids! They are 15 and 12, and I don’t know how many more times like this we will have! We are staying with relatives. I am nervous, but excited! I love the advice. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    • Emma on June 23, 2014 at 11:32 am

      Ashley can’t wait to hear about it! Have a GREAT time and please share when you get back (or feel free to send and SOS en route:) I’m rooting for you!

  9. Heather -Dallas Single Mom on June 23, 2014 at 10:31 am

    I took all three of my kids to Maui. Flying on a plane for 8 hours with a one year old, a 2 year old and a 5 year old is an interesting experience. We practiced how to check into security and how to sit in our seats and buckle up. Practicing made the whole TSA security process that much easier. I like how you said you talked about it as a family.

    This past weekend I took a roadtrip with my daughter and some girlfriends. For part of the trip I had to attend meetings. So I explained to my daughter what was happening, where she’d be going, who she would be with and when she expected to see mommy – lunchtime. It was great. She bonded with my friend’s 12 year old niece and they were stuck to each other like glue. I’m so excited to read about your trip when you get back.

    • Emma on June 23, 2014 at 11:31 am

      @ Heather – I haven’t flown with my kids for a while, but I found that the newness of the whole process combined with the excitement of flying really kept the kids in check. They loved it!

      Also love how you paired up with another family to travel. Great for you, great for them, makes more memories to share.

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