By Susan Farewell
One of the many benefits of being a travel writer is that I often get to take my daughter Justine with me on trips. This has allowed me to see and understand the destinations I visit from her perspective as well as mine. Hers is invariably very different, which is why I now feel I travel with two sets of eyes.
I’m not alone. I’ve noticed that more and more parents have also come to appreciate the benefits of traveling alone with one child (especially when the child is a tween, teen or older). On recent trips, I’ve met several traveling pairs. Among them: a dad and his son on safari celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, a divorced father and his recent high school graduate daughter on an expedition cruise in the Galápagos, a woman and her only child traveling to Sweden to explore her side of the family’s roots and a mother who had remarried and now has two kids. She was visiting New York City with the teen while her husband stayed home to take care of their four-year-old son.
No matter when a parent decides to travel alone with his or her only child (or one of his or her children), it’s a phenomenal way to truly get to know each other and to also help each other grow. Having traveled alone with Justine many times since she was an infant (she’s now 14), I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are some tips for making a parent/child trip a meaningful, educational and memorable experience you’ll both treasure.
Before You Go
Mother Doesn’t Always Know Best. I’m not sure if it was all of the Madeline books or the fact that she loves croissants, but when Justine was 9, she was obsessed with going to Paris. I, on the other hand, was thinking “See America First.” She had not yet been to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or many of the major American landmarks I had grown up on. In the end, Paris won out. I’m the one who learned a big lesson. The French city proved to be a mind-opening experience for her, and seeing the city through her eyes was precious for me. Not sure I had ever noticed the cats and dogs lounging around on the barges in the Seine.
Do the Homework Together. As a travel writer, I know that the more research you do in advance of a trip, the more you’ll get out of it. You’ll also save yourself from the anxiety of wondering what to do first and how to get from point A to point B. Well ahead of any trip, Justine and I both start flipping through guidebooks and looking at maps. We discuss which cities to visit, which neighborhoods to see. We talk about the museums we want to go to and she has gotten especially good at pinpointing restaurants we should try.
Discuss Differences. Your daughter loves to sleep in. You’re more likely to pop out of bed at daybreak, eager to start exploring. While your different clocks may work on the weekends at home, it can be very problematic on a trip. Before even going, talk about how you’ll compromise. For Justine and myself, this has proven to be essential. As a travel writer, I want to keep moving, checking out every museum, landmark and attraction I can. But I’ve learned that five days of sightseeing in a row can be too much for a child to bear. This became clear in Greece when Justine said, “Mom, if I see one more ruin, my legs will turn into columns.”
Once at the Destination
Find Your Way Out of the Airport Together. I’ve met many adults who panic when they get off a plane, not knowing where to go first or how to find a connecting flight. When traveling with your child, even the most mundane part of the trip can be a learning experience. As you arrive at a new destination, avoid taking all matters into your own hands. Have you child take the lead. If he or she is tentative, do it together. Show your child how to read the arrivals and departures screen, what to do at customs. Explain the documents (passports and visas) that you are carrying. Even if your child seems bored, he or she will likely learn something.
Find Your Way Around a Destination Together. Generally it’s the parent who reads maps, deciphers train and bus schedules, and figures out what routes to take while traveling. What that means for a child is that he or she never learns how to do these things by him- or herself. Whenever I go somewhere with Justine, I get her in on reading maps and schedules. Not only does it make it easier for me, but it gives her confidence, knowing she can figure it out herself and won’t get lost.
Meet Halfway. Your daughter wants to climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, but you feel claustrophobic in narrow stairwells. You want to snorkel again and again, your son has had enough. On all trips there are many situations that require compromise. Discuss trade-offs so you’ll both be happy.
Be Open to Role Reversals. One of my best travel-with-Justine memories was a thunderstorm in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. As we were dozing off in our tented camp, the most powerful thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced jolted us awake. Imagining us both being struck by lightning—or even worse, me getting struck and she being left in Africa alone—I was terrified. She on the other hand, was quite amused by the drama of it all. For the hours-long storm, she was more of the parent, I the child, as she patiently calmed me down.
Be Adventurous. Even the most jaded teenager will respond to a parent eating blackened worms, or diving from a cliff into a jungle pond. When traveling, step outside your own comfort zone and do things you might otherwise refrain from.
Get Playful. You’re on vacation. Let your hair down. One of the highlights of my trip to Santorini with Justine was cruising along the dusty back roads in a jeep, belting out Abba’s “Money, Money, Money.”
Don’t Be a Clingy Parent. Okay. You’re traveling alone with your child in the Galápagos but she gets invited to join other kids at the dinner table on board ship. While you may have envisioned this to be mother-daughter time, let her go.
Avoid the American Tourist Syndrome. You know what I’m talking about…Americans wearing silly T-shirts and hats and talking loudly when traveling abroad. Having a parent that embarrasses you is a sure way to put distance between you and your child while on the road.
Melancholies du Voyage. Homesickness, disappointment, jet-lag, fatigue. For me, travel is like eating fish. It can be delicious, but it’s full of bones. When on the road with your child, you’ll have countless opportunities to help him or her (and yourself) process these feelings and thoughts that may come up. Talk about things but also keep the very basics in mind. Sometimes having a good meal or getting more sleep can dissolve the travel blues.
Celebrate the trip. The memories of your trip with your son or daughter won’t be easily forgotten. And it’s not just the sights you saw or the people you met. It’s the experience of having shared this together. The stories you tell your friends and other family members, or recall with one another will keep this journey alive. Justine and I often talk about the trips we’ve taken. We both realize that a trip with a mother/father and child is a special experience. Together we have been learning a lot about the world, and more importantly, about one another.
Photos: These photographs are of Susan and Justine. From top to bottom: At Vumbura Plains Wilderness Safari Camp in Botswana; Justine on a boat in Paris; the pair at the equator in Ecuador; in front of Victoria Falls in Zambia; on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.