Travels with Dad Have Their Own Set of Challenges and Rewards

By Paul Banas

Travel with DadAugust is a month often reserved for family travel. Summer is winding down or about to end, and parents yearn for some quality time away with the kids before the rush and chaos of another school year. While nothing beats traveling together as a whole family, dads are increasingly opting to take trips alone with their children for a special, bonding experience.

Certainly, a trip alone with mom is just as special. But moms have long been known to travel solo with their kids, either out of necessity (a trip to the grandparents while a spouse remains at home to continue working), or as a special mom-child getaway.

Many people aren’t as accustomed to seeing fathers traveling alone with their kids. What’s it like when Dad is the lone parent on a trip? I talked with several “well-traveled” dads and gathered these tips and observations.

The Myth of the Helpless Male

First of all, dads luck out just by being different. Everyone thinks we’re clueless, so they give us extra help on the plane, offering to sit with our kids, mix formula – all kinds of stuff that they would never do for those expert-looking moms.

Cliff Edelman, a marketing executive, often travels with his 18-month-old daughter. “I have had great experiences flying with her, mostly because people think of it as such a novelty that Dad has baby alone,” he says. “People have let me ahead in security lines, flight attendants have gone out of their way to assist as we board and deplane, and I have received many interesting comments. For many, their first reaction is that because I’m the dad, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

My own experience is similar. I once traveled with my 4-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son from San Francisco to New York. Everyone treated me as if I had accomplished the most heroic effort of my life – and I certainly didn’t play down my travails when I met my wife at the other end.

Although I enjoy the attention of looking like a helpless male, I’m really not. I have learned a few travel skills since becoming a father that help when I choose to travel.

The first rule of thumb for planning any daddy-and-kids adventure is to figure out what will work for both daddy and the kids. Having children should not hold you back from doing the things you love to do. However, travel experts suggest that family trips, especially if only one parent is available, should be limited to vacations that don’t involve a lot of logistical concerns. The more time you have to focus on each other rather than learning to read a subway map – in a foreign language, no less – the better off you’ll be. Traditional destinations like Club Med are popular for a reason, since a lot of the details are arranged to take the stress out of having a fun time. Many other resorts have activities for grown-ups and kids, with plenty of time to have fun together.

For a dad who lives separately from his children, travel can be a time to really connect with the kids he doesn’t see often enough. Travel specialists, in this case, recommend active holidays that create more lasting memories and stronger bonds in families that don’t get to spend enough time together.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Based on my own, albeit unscientific, research, travel appears to worry dads less than moms. “I’m less concerned than their mom is about the kids getting cold/hot/wet/hungry,” says Alexander Seinfield, a father and a rabbi. “I mean, I am of course concerned, but worry about it less.”

I agree. I often let the kids go out the door without a jacket or let them skip lunch if they aren’t hungry. Especially when we’re traveling, it’s just not worth the fight given the other stress points.

Dads often plan more active adventures and activities that just plain look fun. While my wife and I love museums and galleries, I know my kids and I always scan listings for things that we will enjoy together. I know that they are going to enjoy a museum about magic or space aliens more than an art gallery, and therefore plan accordingly.
In almost all cases, it’s dad who is willing to go on the scariest rides at amusement parks. As Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, explains, “Dads are better at becoming kids again themselves while on vacation.”

I often advise dad friends traveling with kids to make time for doing stuff “we didn’t come all this way to do,” and by that I mean hanging out at a playground, even though you could be seeing yet another attraction. Kids have their own personalities, needs and wants, and you ignore these at your own peril. On one memorable road trip we took through northern Italy, our 3-year-old announced on Day Two that she didn’t want to get in the car again. Surrounded by Tuscan villas and sun-dappled eateries, we spent the next few days sitting at the hotel pool.

Patience Yes, BlackBerry No

What areas are challenges for dads? Many dads say that they either have problems with their patience, or do all they can to “stay patient.” One father, Rick Matcovich, advises to “not get too attached to a timetable and be willing to stop more than you want …whatever keeps the peace.” Dads do seem to lose their patience about different things more than moms, quite often related to their own notions of time and productivity.

Dads also often fall prey to the temptations of the BlackBerry, iPhone or some other gadget that keeps them connected to the world back home. Steven Addis, a father who has experienced this, advises to turn it off. “Kids know when you’re distracted, so get the business calls and emails done after bedtime.”

‘Daddy, I Gotta Go’

Another major concern for traveling dads is how to handle bathroom visits with their daughters. Little girls up to age 2 barely have any awareness of where they are going, so taking them into a men’s room is perfectly fine. By age 3, however, they start to make “observations” and ask questions about what they see. Dads must then develop coping strategies. Some men scout out empty restrooms so that their daughters won’t see men standing at urinals. Others push their kids in quickly to get into a stall as fast as possible.

By age 4 or 5, most dads feel uncomfortable taking their daughter into a men’s room in a crowded area. This can be a two-part problem. Dad feels worried about leaving his daughter alone in a busy restroom, and often the young girl feels insecure going in without help. In this case, some experts recommend sending the girl into the women’s room alone, equipped with a “potty whistle” in case she needs attention. Some dads ask a woman going in at the same time to keep an eye on her. Dads have to use their own judgment on how far to push kids, weighing the risks of letting them out of their sight for a few minutes. Luckily, family restrooms are becoming more common in high-traffic places like airports and stadiums. The larger problem then becomes how dad can find a restroom while leaving his kids outside.

Be Prepared

Many dads say that traveling alone with the kids requires more planning. While dads might like to think they’re more easy-going at facing what happens during the day, kids need to know “what comes next.”  The idea of “going with the flow” doesn’t sit well for children to whom routine is very important.

Additionally, with small kids of any age, you need to carry a full arsenal of supplies wherever you go. Ron Sebahar says he has a ready-prepared backpack filled with water, sunscreen, books, Band-Aids, granola bars, and other supplies whenever he is out with his daughter. “Inevitably, you find yourself waiting with free time or in need of some medicinal items. So, it never leaves my presence.”  

As more dads have risen to the challenge of traveling with kids – handling tough situations with grit, determination and a full diaper bag – some find the solo-parent-and-child vacation a relaxing alternative to the family trip. And for the kids, getting one parent all to themselves for fun and adventure is something they’ll never forget.

MORE: The Daddy-and- Me Vacation Survival Guide A 6-point plan from well-traveled dads.