Back in late April, the kids (DS age 3 year 3 mon and DD just weeks shy of 6 years) and I took a solo trip to Budapest, Hungary for 6 nights. DH had to work and had just taken off a bunch of days in March for our Scandinavia trip. BUT, DD’s school was off 5 days over 2 weeks due to Western Easter, Sinai Liberation Day, Coptic Easter, Sham el Nessim, and Labor Day (celebrated here on May 1). So we took advantage of that and she only missed 2 days of schools for a 7 day trip!
This was my first solo vacation with the kids (ok, ok, I know a trip with kids isn’t ever really a vacation! It’s just parenting somewhere else!). I have flown with them alone before on a flight from the US to Cairo via Frankfurt last summer. I will say it was a huge success! They fought a bit and got cranky at the end, so I think a 5 night trip might have been a bit better. But overall, they did great! Here is what I learned for anyone else doing a solo trip with little kids. And all you single parents out there who travel with kids regularly on your own–you ROCK! Most of these also apply if you are accompanying a working spouse on a business trip and will be alone with the kids all day while your partner works.
- Pick Good Flight Times and Routes–it is never fun having a 4 am flight departure or landing at midnight even with 2 (or more!) adults to help. It is even more impossible when you’re the sole adult. This will inevitably be when the kids decide to melt or they both need to be carried. Part of why I picked Budapest for our first solo trip was because it was a 3.25 hour direct flight that left Cairo at 11 am and the return flight landed at 7 pm. No connections. No early morning or super late night departures/arrivals. I had the best chance of the kids being cooperative and they were!
- Pack Only What You Can Manage On Your Own-For 1 adult, 2 little kids and 6 nights, we packed 1 checked suitcase, 2 carry-on bags (one of which was backpack style), my purse, and 1 stroller. Most of the time, DD wheeled one carry-on but if she got tired, I could carry it or put it on DS’ lap in the stroller. I can handle the stroller one-handed, so I could push it and wheel the checked suitcase. Flights make this fairly easy. As long as you can get to the check-in counter, then you can get rid of most of your weight and bulk. But still keep in mind that with one adult, you are all piling into a bathroom with your luggage at the airport. I looked for individual family/handicapped accessible bathrooms when possible so we could all fit. When not available, I’d have the kids use the bathroom, then park them with the stroller and carry-on bags immediately outside my stall door. If you are traveling by train at all, there will be no help. We had a hard time getting large suitcases and a stroller and the kids into the trains in Scandinavia b/c of the big step up and narrow aisles. If I was doing it alone, I’d need a much smaller stroller and a lighter large bag.
- Pick Super Convenient, Right in the Heart of Things Lodging–we did an Airbnb (which I also highly recommend) right in the middle of tourist Budapest. We were across an alley from the St. Stephen’s Basilica, and walking distance to things like Parliament, the Miniversium, Metro stops, bus stops, and more. Not to mention a ton of parks and playgrounds. This meant that we could go out sightseeing in the morning, come back for rest or nap, then go back out again. It is worth a bit of extra money to be convenient and near sights and public transportation. On family trips to Copenhagen and Athens we weren’t particularly close to sites, so when we left for nap we couldn’t go back out again. This led to more time in the lodging or missed naps.
- Stay Somewhere with Plenty of Space and a Kitchen-Sit down restaurants after a day of sightseeing are not my kids’ strength. And I’d imagine they are not many kids’–especially with only 1 adult and no one to take kids off for a walk or remove a tantrumming child while the other waits for food or the check. I have totally bailed with the kids multiple times while DH pays–or even worse, gets our just delivered food boxed up to go! I knew I wanted to be able to cook or eat at home with the kids when we were alone. Our Airbnb had a full kitchen with eat in bar, living room with kitchen table, large bedroom, and a good sized bathroom. This gave us space to spread out and allowed me to cook. Food was not our focus on the trip, so we ate super simple and fairly kid friendly and bland! I had brought a box of our favorite pasta with us, cooked that, and added a plain tomato sauce I bought locally. We did hotdogs one night and hamburgers another. We got fast food and brought it back to eat another. Dinner after a long exhausting day was not the time to get my kids to be adventurous. Lunch time we tried a bit more creativity and I picked a few places where the kids could get something they recognized (like pasta or pizza) and I could get something Hungarian (like goulash). With our own kitchen, I was able to feed the kids about 5:30 and get them to bed and then eat on my own later in peace (and finish a meal!)
- Set a Realistic Schedule–Sure, many people’s ideal vacations include sleeping in, lingering meals, and nights out on the town. And some of you are lucky enough to accomplish that with kids! More power to you! But, my kids are early morning birds. And they have zero patience for nights out strolling around or watching Mommy get a drink somewhere! And if I am paying $12 for a drink, I want to enjoy it! Luckily, I veer more towards morning bird as well. So we rolled with it. We woke between 6 and 6:30, ate breakfast (I made scrambled eggs every morning), got our bags ready, and headed out. We were out of the house between 7:30 and 8 every day. Much of our plans don’t involve going inside places with admission and when they did, we did that later in the day. One day we meandered through the most touristy part of the Pest side, passing by the outside of Parliament, and hitting 3 different playgrounds. We wandered around Margaret Island and eventually caught a tram back to our starting point. Another day we took the bus across to Buda and enjoyed Matthias Church grounds and Fisherman’s Bastion before the crowds arrived and did a playground, all before opening hours. We were often done with sightseeing by noon, had lunch, went back to the Airbnb for a rest and downtime (HELLO, Netflix!), and then in the afternoon went out to find more playgrounds or something super kid friendly.
- Carefully Pick Your Must Sees as an Adult–Realistically, you won’t be able to see everything you’d see if traveling with just adults. DD6 is now at the age where going inside museums and religious buildings is fairly easy and she accepts a good amount of official sightseeing. But DS3 is noisy. Even when he is being behaved, he is loud. His current favorite thing to do in churches and synagogues is to sit in a pew and pretend the seat back in front of him is a control panel. Even better if it has built in hymnal stands. He’ll nicely sit there and be patient. But he’ll be “pew pewing” and “beep beeping” the whole time. Not very quietly. This clearly is not a positive thing in a religious building! And, no surprise, reading signs in museums does not thrill him. So I carefully picked what I wanted to go inside and see. We did Matthias Church (very quickly!), St. Stephen’s Basilica (he was quiet only if I was carrying him. Luckily DD loves taking photos and took over with my photo to do some photographs), and the Dohany Street Synagogue (we went through it and its included museum really really fast. But he was actually content to sit quietly outside in their memorial garden while I talked with DD about the Holocaust. So it was a partial win). Everything else I saw from the outside–Parliament, Buda Castle, other churches and museums, etc.
- Plan Your Day Around Playgrounds–If you’re lucky enough to go somewhere with a lot of playgrounds (and if you’re traveling alone with little kids, this should be a priority!), plan your day around them! Before traveling, I downloaded GoogleMaps offline and searched for every marked playground anywhere near where we might be exploring. I saved the spots. Then when we were walking around (and had no data/wifi), I could still find nearby playgrounds by seeing the dot for me and the marked playgrounds. Our first morning there, I wanted to see Parliament. But instead of telling DS we were going to go see a cool building (which would NOT be cool to him), I told him we were going to a playground that looked like a ship. That WAS cool to him. And we were. But we were walking there via Parliament and we stopped to take pictures. I got my photos and then we headed to the playground. After Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion (Fort)? We did a playground. Over those 7 days we hit at least 17 playgrounds and some multiple times. Some were a quick 10 min break and some we spent over an hour on burning off energy and playing. Budapest had some very cool playgrounds!!
- Plan on Using Public Transportation–picking a city with good public transportation is also key with little kids. Our first full day in Budapest I bought a week long transportation pass–included Metro, buses, trams and trolleys! Kids under 6 were free, so I only had my cost! $20 for a week of transportation for 3 people! Day 1 we used the stroller but it did not fit on the trams without fully collapsing it. Metro stops rarely had elevators. Buses were stroller friendly. But after our first day we just walked and used public transportation instead. I picked up a map that had the entire routes marked and a time schedule. We used that a lot when out and about and I wasn’t sure on timing or routes. At the start of the day I’d use Google Maps to plan out what I thought our route was. Their public transportation schedule and planner is pretty good. We’d walk a lot, I bribed with playgrounds and ice cream, and we jumped on public transportation when a rebellion started.
- Alternate True Sightseeing with Kid Activities–sure, we saw churches and castles and a museum and Parliament. But we also did the Zoo, a Railway Museum/Park thingy, and the Miniversium–a giant model railroad set up where kids can push buttons to make things happen and ends with a playroom. And we ate a lot of ice cream and the kids had a lot of chicken nuggets. Did it slightly pain me that they were eating fast food on vacation? (We didn’t travel all this way just to eat Burger King?!?) Yes. But for them, eating chicken nuggets several times in one week is exciting and fun and a treat. I enjoyed all the “kid” things we did just as much as I did the “adult” things.
- Set a (Realistic) Purpose for Your Trip–Sure, sometimes I felt a little bummed that we didn’t see XYZ because it just wasn’t practical alone with 2 little kids. But then I remembered my goal for the trip–to spend a lot of time outside with green grass and fresh air (both lacking in Cairo) and to take long walks (also hard here). Seeing cool sites was just bonus. And boy did we accomplish our goal of outside time and walks! Success! Your goal might be 3 things you want to see. Or certain foods you want to try. Or an experience to check off.
Traveling with little kids on your own is definitely a different experience! But is is fun and fulfilling and worth while. There’s no need to put travel on hold just because one spouse can’t take off work or you are a single parent! Go for it!