Flying Alone for the First Time Without Children: Weird

No reason to cram yourself into a tiny bathroom to change a diaper. Feels like freedom.

I write this from up in the air, where I am flying for the first time alone, without my son or my husband. We’ve flown, the three of us, across the country to California three times to see family and friends and down to Florida even more frequently to visit my parents.
For the last three years, every trip I’ve taken by air has involved wearing a baby carrier, pushing an umbrella stroller, hurling a diaper bag over my shoulder, frantically cleaning a puked-upon car seat, and awkward diaper changes at inopportune times and in odd-smelling, confined spaces.
Over the past year, these trips have involved lengthy bathroom negotiations that mostly involve me promising I will DEFINITELY not let my toddler fall in, and, in general, the sublimation of my own comfort for the sake of a sort of peaceful ride.
The possibility of work trips have often been dangled in front of me, both ominously and tantalizingly, but none have come to fruition yet. So, here I am, three years into being a parent, and alone on a plane at last.
It’s…weird.
There is no one to account for on either side of me. I can pee whenever. I do not need to yank a snack or sticker book from my bag every 10 minutes, unless of course I feel like it. When I got off the AirTrain and saw that the moving sidewalks to my terminal had been almost entirely shut down, I was not seized with dread over how exhausted I would feel so early on in my journey. Walking several miles with only a backpack and a tote is akin to strolling on a warm beach compared with my other flying experiences of late.
This is so great, I thought, as I printed my boarding pass and eased into the security line, no luggage to check, no small person to corral. I zoned out, at intervals, because I did not need to be paying attention to anything at all.  
Before I went to the gate to find a sole empty chair, I stopped for something to tide me over. I walked past rows of brightly packaged snacks and a doughnut store and a pizza counter and refrigerators filled with every kind of juice and smoothie. But no one’s eyes lit up. No one pulled me toward the shelf of things with sprinkles or took off on his own to procure something he couldn’t even eat, like a nut bar.
There were no food allergies to account for and nothing to say no to, and I suddenly got sad. My own listless walk through this bazaar of consumables felt so inconsequential. I’d gotten so used to managing and, perhaps oddly, experiencing my travels through my son and my husband, too, that I hardly knew what to do with myself in an airport solo.
This feels particularly silly to say because my son goes to school most days. I love working, spending the day doing my own thing, and I’ve never been the sort of person who minds being alone. But I’d gotten out of practice being on my own at the airport – a place that might, it turns out, actually only be fun with all-consuming distractions, like a child who has to pee or wants a cookie.   
Whatever it was that lifted me out of my blissful childless reverie, I was reminded of how easy it is to get addicted to taking care of someone. As tiresome as it can be, it is also a guarantee of purpose. I am needed, I think, either subconsciously or overtly, and when I am not, it can feel like flying, utterly groundless.
An hour after I made a few hugely uninspired snack purchases and forgot to go to the bathroom, I was in my seat and the plane was lifting off the ground. A jolt of panic shot through my stomach. There was no one to hold my hand! I hadn’t flown without having a nearby hand to hold for three years. And for many years before that (before I spent my 20s on many a flight alone), my entire family held hands for good luck on all our flights.
I considered, for half a second, asking the sleeping man next to me if he would oblige a strange request, but we had a four-hour flight ahead of us to Austin, and though its city motto is to keep things weird, I worried I’d be taking it too far.
What I did instead was something my son does when he crosses the street and doesn’t want to be hampered by the patronizing grip of a grown-up. “No, Mommy,” he says, intertwining his fingers together as he barrels forward, “I’ll hold my own hand.”
It was turbulent going up, but I closed my eyes and held my own hand. By the time I pulled my laptop out to write this, we were above the clouds.

On the Trials of Toddler Travel, A Few Words to the Wise

Traveling with toddlers is a special kind of crazy. But if you prepare properly, it’s totally tolerable.

My husband’s family lives just shy of a 15-hour drive from us. We’ve always loved traveling to see them. Sure, it’s not super exciting being in the car that long, but it can be an adventure. You get to take in so many sights and see so many travelers. No two trips will ever be the same.

Two summers ago, we made the trip with our newborn. At just seven weeks old, it seemed crazy to some, but it was honestly seamless. I was still on maternity leave, and our little girl loved to sleep. And sleep. And sleep. We took stops for snacks, stops for our older daughter to stretch and scream, stops for the baby to eat and change diapers, and then, we’d be off again.

Fast-forward to last summer: Our baby was now 15 months old. It was, to put it mildly, rough. Calling it an adventure is akin to the way people call a horror movie a thrill, when really, it’s a nightmare.

We stopped CONSTANTLY. Our girls needed time to stretch. Our oldest just needed time away from her sister. The snacks we brought didn’t last. The toys we brought weren’t entertaining. No one cared about taking in the sights outside the car, because no one could think about anything other than the whining, crying toddler inside the car.

My husband and I were just about to book our summer stay for this year when we realized…we’ll be taking a trip with a two-year-old. Cue daunting thriller music.

We. Are. In. Trouble.

Time to call in the experts. Partnered with our experience, I think we can make this work. We now know a few things that should (fingers crossed) make this trip run a little smoother:

Leave early

Get the car all packed, and check – and double-check – you have what you need. Then load your little ones in the car. They will (hopefully) fall back to sleep, and you can get a good head start on your trip. Plus, the lighter traffic will help you cover more miles. Just be prepared for a quick breakfast and bathroom stop when they wake up. 

Find distractions

This seems like an obvious one, but think of how much goes into one day with your toddler. They say the average two-year-old has an attention span of five to eight minutes. Sure, sometimes they can be distracted by something and then go back to what they are doing, but still, that requires a LOT of activities.

The single best purchase we have ever made, in our life, were DVD players for our car. The set clips to the back of our seats and allows each of our girls to watch their own movie. Our oldest makes it through over half a dozen movies by the end of our trip, and our youngest watches “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episodes on repeat.

Outside of movies? Toys, games, books, and more toys, games, and books. We pack a large beach bag with goodies and stash it on the floor between our girls. Every time someone gets a little bored or whiny, reach into the bag for a lifesaver. Want to draw something? Want to look at this book? (And stash some surprises in there. Nothing turns a frown upside-down like a new coloring book or a snack they don’t get to enjoy at home.)

Convenience is key

Try to find travel-friendly toys and accessories. Snack cups help avoid messes and can help make sure your little one isn’t endlessly eating. A drawing board or dry erase board works much more efficiently than lots of floating crayons. It may even be worth it to invest in a travel tray, if you travel often. This can help kids keep toys contained and have a surface for play.

Don’t forget to make things convenient for you also. Keep baby wipes, tissues, and snacks within reach of your seat. You don’t want to pull over every 10 minutes to climb around in the back of the car.

Plan your stops

Obviously, there are times you have to stop and fuel up or take a bathroom break that you didn’t plan. But try to set up a fun destination for lunch or dinner that your kids will enjoy. It may seem like it’s best to just plug away and get the travel part over with, but that’s guaranteed to make the trip worse for everyone.

Even if you’re just sitting in a fast-food booth, go inside and sit down and eat. Give the kids a chance to run around and get out of the car. Some people prefer to stop at parks to burn some energy, but I give that strategy mixed reviews. What kid is ever ready to leave the park when you are? And that’s after hours of playing.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon at a park and then get back in the car for hours. (I also don’t want to listen to my kids for hours begging to go back to that park.) So while I fully embrace making stops, I definitely opt for pit stops and not mini-vacation stops.

Honor personal space, sleep, and kid rituals

On long car rides, we’ll often end up staying overnight somewhere. It’s worth finding a place with enough space to accommodate your family’s sleeping habits and other needs. Hotel rooms usually do not, unless you want to sleep in a big bed with all your children piled on top of you.

We are not a family that co-sleeps. We don’t even share a room with our little ones on vacation. But in a hotel – unless you want to spring for the executive suite – one room is what you get. This was so out of the ordinary for our toddler that she jumped on the bed and kept trying to run off the end of it. We couldn’t make a big enough barricade. The next morning, everyone was tired and grouchy. It made the last leg of our journey so much worse.

Another helpful tool on this trip would have been a mini overnight bag. It’s not fun to drag four giant suitcases into a hotel that you’re sleeping in for a few hours. All you need are the essentials: some toiletries, pajamas, and clothes for the next day.

Also, if your child has some kind of bedtime ritual, stick with it, no matter where you are. Bring that book you always read or the blanket she has to sleep with. It will help!

Above all, don’t lose out on great family adventures and lifelong memories because you assume it’ll be too difficult to get there. Plan well, and go.

3 Tips for Traveling With Kids and Family

I’m glad I dared to travel with my baby. Here are the top three lessons I learned that I plan to employ for future adventures.

For many of us, the last few months have been filled with opportunities to travel. I traveled twice in November with my almost one-year-old son, first solo to NYC, and then with my husband for a family wedding in Mexico. There was a lot of trial and error during those trips, some successful planning, and a good dose of improvisation.

All in all, I’m glad I dared to travel with my baby. Here are the top three lessons I learned that I plan to employ for future adventures:

Have a plan for your time at the airport and in the air

Planning for one-parent trips make it that much easier and enjoyable when actually accompanied by another adult. I was particularly nervous about traveling solo to NYC with my son, but I ended up doing very well. In the days leading up to the trip, I tried to visualize each step before actually arriving to the airport.
For example, how to push my stroller and suitcase at the same time until getting to the airline counter? Then, in line for security, what to do? My plan was to first take off my shoes, next, take the bottles and formula out of the diaper bag, then put my baby in his carrier, fold the stroller and place it on the conveyor belt, and then do the same with the car seat. I had to presume nobody would help (even though someone always will), and had convinced myself that I would need the physical strength and stamina to do it all.
My son, Solomon, who had just started to walk with help, wanted to explore. And I wanted to keep him relatively active and happy. Yes, airports are no doubt the most germ-friendly facilities out there. But if you’ve already decided that traveling is worth it, go with the flow. I made sure to have wipes ready for his hands and face, and as soon as I arrived at my destination, I changed his clothes and washed his hands. I also wanted to avoid changing a diaper on the plane (except in the case of a major blow-out) and made a point to take care of that about 10 minutes prior to boarding.
Finally, do something nice for yourself. Candy? Nuts? Doughnuts? A little treat (that you can hold with only one hand) goes a long way.

Yes, it’s a trip, but it won’t be a vacation

 Some trips are not designed as vacations. For example, I went to NYC to be part of a special evening honoring my mentor’s outstanding career. I spent three days introducing my baby to old friends and was able to go for one or two walks in Central Park. Everything else was straightforward, the normal baby-and-mommy routine.

Real vacations are different. You’re eager to relax, you expect leisure time, maybe some sleep, etc. That is not what going on a vacation with children – at least toddlers and babies – means. This is not to say it can’t be enjoyable. Amazing, special memories will be created during baby’s first beach trip or hike. But you won’t rest, and you’ll come back tired. It’s good to be mentally prepared for that.

If you’re craving a vacation in that ancestral sense (that is, before you were a mother), wait until your baby’s old enough that you feel comfortable leaving her with a grandparent or aunt and take real time off for a couple of days.

Curb your expectations

You have plans to go away with family – aunts, uncles, grandparents, and perhaps even great-grandparents. Really great. I mean it! You assume they want to spend time with the baby, and they absolutely do. But “spending time with the baby” can and will mean different things for different people.

Perhaps you think it’s one or more of the following: a full hour playing and reading stories with the baby; going down to the beach for the only 45 minute window that your infant can actually be out in the sun; or hiking with the baby at baby-carrying speed.

Maybe it means someone else changes a couple dirty diapers, or puts baby down for a nap or two, or takes her out of your room in the morning so you can enjoy a one-time-only additional 30 minutes in bed. “Giving mommy and daddy a little time to themselves” might also fall under your description of “spending time with the baby.”

Some family members will do things like these, and others won’t. They love your baby, and they are excited to see her. But for some, it’s enough to hold her for 10 minutes (not an hour), and diapers and nap time are out of the question. Some will want to take a nap when you go for a hike or want to have lunch when you go out in the sun. Remember, they’re on vacation, not on call for childcare.

Yet, travel! Go out, explore. There are amazing things to see, extraordinary friends and family to visit, and so many memories to be made with your child out there in the world. Traveling can create opportunities for us to embark on journeys of discovery – to learn about ourselves and our incredible children, to understand family strengths and weaknesses, to try new things, and of course, to reaffirm that we can fold a stroller with only one hand.

How to Help When Your Child is Afraid to Fly

Flying can trigger anxiety in many people, kids and adults alike. Using these childhood anxiety expert approved approaches, you can ease the fears.

My 18-year-old stepson hates to fly. He white-knuckles the arm rests and squinches his eyes shut during take off and landing. The irony of his fear is not lost on him, or on us: his father and two of his grandfathers have been lifelong Boeing engineers (and Boeing managers) who have designed and built planes and rocket ships.

With a younger child, flying can be an adventure. Meeting pilots, getting “wings” and an activity pack from the flight crew, and riding with all of the other passengers can be thrilling for a preschooler. If the loud engine noise or other airplane sounds are scary or stimulate your child, younger children can be easier to distract with games, videos, and noise canceling headphones.

In his book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fear, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life—from Toddlers to Teens, Dr. Tamar Chansky writes that you can prepare your child for this by discussing and simulating various airplane sounds and turbulence at home. “Have the child make the sounds of the wings, the wheels, etc. Car washes are great approximaters of some of the sounds and sensations of flight.”

But for an older child who is afraid to fly, distractions and simulations may not work. Instead, with our stepson, we’ve followed the approach recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (and combined a few of their bullet points together):

Figure out what triggers set you off

Understanding them makes it easier to turn them off. Is it the noise? Is it fear of dying in a crash? Fear of crashing itself?

Step onto the plane with knowledge

What ifs can be limited by facts. The Insurance Journal reports that “865 times more people are killed in motor vehicle crashes” than in commercial airplane crashes. (Motor vehicle crash odds are 1 in 112 vs. 1 in 96,566, according to the Insurance Journal.)

Understand how a plane is built and what it’s tested to withstand

My husband tells us about all the tests done to planes so they can withstand conditions they most likely would never encounter, including massive bird strikes, bending of the wings (up to 90 degrees), extreme lightning strikes, and extreme temperatures. This BBC article also summarizes those kinds of stress tests planes go through before they ever make it to carrying passengers.

Anticipate the anxiety

Often, waiting to feel fearful is worse than the actual experience. Label your fear as anxiety and realize it doesn’t correlate with real danger. Try to stay in the moment and not let your imagination create worse-case scenarios.

Know you can ask for help from those around you

I’ve been on planes sitting next to people who fly with anxiety-pets to help calm them. I’ve also sat next to people who haven’t had the comfort of an animal, but who’ve asked to hold my hand during turbulence to reassure them that they’re not alone. Children (and adults) of any age should know it is okay to ask for assistance when they need it.

We have encouraged our stepson to fly. Every flight makes the next one easier. Positive experiences are powerful forces in overcoming phobias.

How to Survive a Long Flight With Little Kids

Getting on a plane with a small kid is one of the most stressful parenting experiences ever. These 14 ways to entertain them can help.

One of the more stressful parenting endeavors is getting on a plane with small children. If you have a baby or toddler who doesn’t understand the importance of the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign and can’t yet read “Harry Potter,” you need to come prepared with distractions.

Here are a few ideas to keep small kids entertained – gleaned from my own flights with small children.

1 | Magazines in the seat pocket in front of you.

My husband and I spent a good chunk of time on one flight playing a game of, “Let’s find the dogs and cats in the the SkyMall magazine” with our one-year-old. As an added bonus, you may also find that cat hammock you never knew your pet needed.

2 | Plastic cups, napkins, and straws.

There is some novelty to be had in these basic objects – and the good news is they hand them out for free on a plane. Stack the cups, play peek-a-boo with the napkin, or let your little one spend some time crinkling a cup.

3 | Snacks that take some time to eat.

Puffs (doled out one at a time) for small kids, or lollipops for older ones, can be good options because they take some time to eat.

4 | Let other people hold the baby.

When our first son was young, we were sometimes lucky enough to sit by people who were happy to hold the baby for a little bit. On one flight, a flight attendant offered to walk our crying baby up and down the aisle for a little while. We let her. Take advantage of people who are willing to help.

5 | Your smartphone camera and photo album.

Take a video or picture of your kid with your smartphone and then let him see it. Or just let him scroll through your photos and videos. Yes, it can be this simple at this age.

6 | Stickers.

Toddlers can spend some time working to pull them off the sticker sheet and then decorating some paper, clothes, or your forehead with them.

7 | A new toy wrapped as a present.

Unwrapping it will take some time and playing with it will take up some more. Something like these Squigz can be a good option since they can suction onto the tray table in front of you.

8 | Apps.

All screen time restrictions should be lifted on an airplane. It’s an unusual occasion and if it makes your life easier, then use it. We like Duck Duck Moose and Night and Day Studios apps for really young kids, and LEGO DUPLO and Toca Boca apps for older toddlers or preschoolers. My kids have also gotten a lot of mileage out of ZOOLA Animals – one version is just pictures of different animals and the deluxe version allows you to feed and dress animals (a giraffe can don purple butterfly wings).

9 | Sing songs.

Pre-kids I wouldn’t have belted out a few verses of “Wheels on the Bus” on a plane. Post-kids, if it prevents a meltdown – anything goes.

10 | Walk up and down the aisles.

When young kids are getting restless, sometimes a change of scenery will help.

11 | Headphones.

Often helpfully located in the seat pocket in front of you, these can provide some distraction. Let your little one try them on themselves or you. Just don’t expect them to actually listen to music with them.

12 | Make silly faces.

Bonus points if you can get the strangers seated near you to make a few, too.

13 | Drawing.

At a minimum, you can draw animals on a napkin with a pen. Or you can get more advanced and bring things like Water Wow! drawing books or mess free marker sets like Color Wonder.

14 | Books

 Bringing some of your little one’s favorite books can be a good distraction.

Should You Bring Your Child’s Car Seat on the Plane?

The FAA does not require kids under 2 to have their own seat, or for kids of any age to fly in a car seat. So should you bother lugging it with you?

Many parents seem to view the airplane car seat as a litmus test for good parenting. The FAA does not require any child under age 2 to fly in his or her own seat, nor any child of any age to fly in a car seat. But somehow, parents who don’t put their kids in car seats (or worse, fly with lap infants) are reckless, selfish travelers who are better off staying home.

Is that a fair assessment of parents who choose not to bring a car seat on the plane? Air carrier flights are safe. Really safe.

For example, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which tracks accidents for all types of US transportation, recorded 34,678 transportation fatalities in 2013. Airline fatalities accounted for just 9 of those deaths, which resulted from two air carrier accidents. In 2011 and 2012, there were zero fatal airline accidents. Given an average of roughly 650 million passenger embarkments on US air carriers each year, the risk of death in an airplane accident is incredibly small.

Those arguing for car seats on airplanes, however, are more concerned about preventable injury during turbulence. Such injuries are slightly more common than aircraft accidents, but are still remarkably rare.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that between 2004 and 2013, there were 153 passengers injured by turbulence. To put that in perspective, there are 149 seats on a roomy configuration of a 737. The number of injured passengers on US flights due to turbulence over a ten year period would just slightly overfill that plane. Nearly 30,000 commercial flights embark each day in the US. In other words, passengers on commercial airlines are injured at an astonishingly low rate.

Crew member injuries complicate this picture of turbulence injury. From 2004-2013, there were 168 crew injuries aboard US carrier flights – roughly the same as passenger injuries, but across a much smaller population. It’s possible that the injury rate is so much higher for crew members because they are either not wearing seat belts or standing.

We know that fatal air carrier accidents are extraordinarily rare, that air carrier turbulence accidents are only slightly more common, and that crew members are injured more frequently than passengers. The higher turbulence injury rate for flight crew members suggests that wearing seat belts, or at least sitting, does prevent some turbulence injuries.

What we don’t know is whether a car seat would provide an additional measure of safety over seat belts. The injury rates on airplanes are so low that there is not a large enough sample to compare the safety of seat belts and car seats. There is, however, plenty of data available to draw that comparison in cars.

In 2008, economist Steven Levitt found that for children ages 2-6, car seats were not measurably more effective than seat belts in preventing injury or fatality. In 2015, Lauren Jones and Nicholas Ziebarth replicated Levitt’s study and found the same results.

It is possible that, because airplanes behave differently than cars, car seats might be differently effective on planes than in cars. A turbulence accident, for example, is much different than a vehicular accident because there is no impact. The typical turbulence injury is the passenger who hits the bulkhead, not who is thrown forward in the plane. It is possible that the harness restraints in car seats might prevent more upward movement than lap belts.

Given the incredibly low risk of in-flight injuries, the question of whether or not to bring the car seat on the plane is less of a flight safety question and more of a destination safety question. Even if you are convinced by Levitt’s and others’ findings about car seat use for children over age 2, you probably still want a car seat at your destination, given that it’s required by law in most states.

What’s the best way to get a car seat to your destination?

Bringing your car seat on the plane

Having a car seat on the plane might make your flight a bit more pleasant. Your child won’t be falling out of the seat, or learn how to unlatch the seat belt and start running down the aisles. If your child is accustomed to falling asleep in the car seat, he might take a long nap on the flight.

Just know that the presence of a car seat ensures neither complete safety nor a smooth flight. The moment of turbulence might also be the moment you picked the baby up to nurse or soothe. Your child may be moderately safer in the car seat when on the plane, but in the rush to get on the plane you may not install it correctly, negating that safety benefit.

Assuming that you correctly install the seat (and are therefore more skilled than this author), you will have done so in the window seat. If traveling with two parents, that means your child will invariably want the parent in the aisle seat.

Checking your car seat

Here’s the argument typically offered against checking your car seat: Car seats get handled as well as other luggage, and in some cases, baggage handling is akin to an accident. Your car seat was shipped from somewhere (a distribution center, a re-seller, often in a simple cardboard box with little other packaging) and sustained all the bumps along the way. It’s difficult to prove that your car seat will be just as effective after a short stay in a cargo hold followed by a trip through baggage carts and belts, but car seats are built to withstand much bigger damage.

What is well-documented, however, is that by checking a car seat you risk aesthetic damage. If you’ve spent a lot of extra money on that seat, damage to the upholstery will be expensive to repair, and not all airlines will replace damaged baggage.

Sending a car seat to your destination

If traveling to visit family, consider just shipping an inexpensive car seat. All car seats sold in the US, no matter their price, are required to meet the same safety standards. The difference in price does not make the seat safer, but the upholstery or cushioning might be more appealing to kids, or more likely, their parents.

If your child is only going to be using the seat for a small portion of the time, a $50 car seat for his grandparents’ vehicle can save you a lot of time and energy. And if shipping the car seat means you have a free hand for a carry-on suitcase, you’ll break even in just one trip without baggage fees. If staying in a hotel, you can usually ship a car seat directly, though keep in mind some hotels add a charge for large packages.

The Verdict

I am not an expert on car seat safety, nor an economist computing extensive risk-benefit analyses. (I hope Emily Oster will tackle the data about car seats and airplanes in an upcoming project!) As Oster argues in her excellent “Expecting Better”, my aim here is not to tell you what you must do when traveling with a toddler, but rather to present a more accurate picture of the risks involved in either choice so that you can make a more reasoned decision.

Based on my review of the pros and cons, my inclination is to fly seat-less. You may weigh the positives and negatives differently than I do, and therefore come to a different conclusion. I’ll point out that it’s rare to see families with three or more children lugging car seats around the airport. I often look to larger families to check my own overly anxious, first-timer behaviors. I suspect car-seat-plane panic is one of the many ways unseasoned parents fret over extremely unlikely dangers.

Perhaps the larger takeaway here isn’t whether or not to use a car seat, but how to think about risk with our children – and what we lose when we’re trying so hard to avoid risks. We take risks when we feed our children their first hard foods. We take risks when we let them crawl up the stairs unsupervised. We take risks when we travel with kids in strollers. We take risks when we travel with kids in cars. But we accept all of these risks because they bring with them potentially huge rewards: the joy of watching those tiny teeth chomp their first carrots, the sense of accomplishment when reaching the top step, the adventure of traveling to and exploring a new place.

In any activity, no matter how mundane, risk is involved. What’s left to each of us to decide is how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. For me, the joy of watching my husband and son read side by side on the plane, after first watching them, unencumbered, chasing each other through the airport, is worth that risk.

What We Learned About Being Poor From Living in a Camper Van

It’s no instagram-worthy #vanliving trek. But there’s a lot to be learned from traveling around in an old, weathered Winebago.

We’ve been on the road for 61 days and it looks nothing like the #vanliving photos we’ve seen on Instagram.

It’s not about the fact that we’re traveling as a family with a toddler, which limits the backroad freedoms we once had to go 4x4ing with reckless abandon. It’s because the rig we drive makes it look like we are poor, and we are now being treated very differently by the people we encounter.

While the point of the trendy move into tiny homes is to learn to be happier with less, could we learn to be happy as less? 

My husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I moved into a 1990 Toyota Winnebago Warrior camper van because we wanted to go on a grand adventure and spend more time together as a family. In a three-day long garage sale, we sold all the possessions we had on Kauai to start living in a rig only 12 years younger than I am.

We named our rig “Summer,” a nod to “The Endless Summer” movie and to the idea that we could discover our own road to happy. What we’ve actually discovered is the raw truth about how to be a good human being and, more importantly, how to truly be a good example for our daughter.

***

The maroon upholstery on the inside of our rig is a few shades darker than the Winnebago logo sticker falling off the side of our car, which now reads “INEBAO” as though it’s a brand you’ve never heard of.

Summer’s weathered beige exterior is accentuated by the missing battery compartment from the time I hit a pile of rocks coming out of Mission Lion Campground near Ojai in California. I covered the gaping hole with rows of black duct tape a few days later.

We’re nothing fancy compared to the other RVs we’ve seen on the road this summer, those sleek, shiny modern rigs with big-screen satellite TVs. Yet, it’s precisely because of what we drive that we’ve had the opportunities to see who we really are and to see how many judgments we carry around with us.

Summer, in all her aging glory, invites a different socioeconomic class of people to connect with us than we’re accustomed to. We’ve gone from being on an island that charges $6 for a bottle of kombucha, and where Mark Zuckerberg paid $66 million for a plantation near our previous home, to leaving unfinished meals on the hood of our truck longer than we intended to because our active toddler required us to pay attention to her immediate needs.

Occasionally, we’ve even had to live on the streets.

There’s a phenomenon in vanliving called “boondocking,” in which you clandestinely find a place to park overnight for any number of reasons: the campgrounds are full, you’re looking to save money, you’re tired and just need a place to crash.

One night, we spontaneously decided to leave a campground outside Atascadero, California, because the temperatures were so high, none of us were able to sleep through the night. It was late as we headed northbound. Shortly into the drive, our daughter woke up in her car seat, inconsolable.

We realized we had to stop. But, where?

My husband pulled off the freeway on a random road in a nondescript town. He drove for a short while until he found an auto mechanic shop. When he parked, I looked out the side window, wincing at the blaring industrial lights cut only by neon signs. Most of the words on storefronts were in Spanish.

“There are a few other cars parked here,” he whispered. I followed the direction he was pointing and saw a number of broken down cars. “I don’t think we’ll get in trouble if we stay here overnight. Besides, there’s another old RV over there and, well, Summer blends right in.”

As I made my way to the back of our rig to set up our daughter’s bed, I saw a young man holding what looked like a beer can approaching our passenger side window.

Oh no, I thought, making quick judgments about him and what he wanted with us.

“You guys gonna park here overnight?” he peered in.

My husband quickly got out of the RV to speak with him. Our daughter had just fallen asleep and we didn’t want anything to wake her up.

A few minutes later, my husband returned.

“What did he want?” I asked, worried.

“He wanted to let us know that the shop opens at 8 a.m., so as long as we leave before then, we’ll be fine,” my husband said. “He told me he’s parked a couple of cars away, and that he has a daughter sleeping in his car, too.”

I felt sheepish. Judgy. Ugly inside.

“He was out there looking for a cat that won’t stop meowing,” my husband continued. “He was afraid it would wake his daughter.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. This stranger and I wanted the same things. He was looking out for his daughter, just like I was doing with mine.

That night in the parking lot the three of us slept more peacefully than we had at many of the campgrounds we’d stayed in.

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Little girl looking out window of campervan

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***

When we arrived in Ashland, Oregon, my husband drove our daughter around for her afternoon nap. When she woke, he could see her face was flushed. He parked Summer beneath a tree-lined street in a lovely neighborhood, then went into the back of the rig to unbuckle her so she could get some air. She was sweaty in his arms.

A few minutes later, a woman came out of her home. “Are you planning on staying here?” she called out. “Because that’s illegal and I’ll call the police.” 

“We’re just stopping for a few minutes,” my husband said, calmly. As a Waldorf teacher, he’s accustomed to diffusing potential conflict with ease.

Moments later, another woman came out of a nearby home. “Are you staying here overnight?” she demanded. “Because you’re not allowed to do that!”

“No,” my husband responded, more adamantly. “My daughter is hot and I’m just trying to cool her down. We’re about to go to the park!”

They looked into the window of our rig and saw our daughter, her big brown eyes and caramel hair. “Oh,” they replied, obviously softening their temperaments. “It’s okay for you to stay for a little while then.”

They nodded to one another in approval, then went back into their homes.

***

We’ve now arrived at a run-down motel and trailer park in Sandpoint, Idaho, once named one of the most beautiful small towns in America. We’re helping my husband’s friend manage his motel that’s fallen into disrepair.

Given our surroundings, Summer fits right in. Do we? Actually, yes.

Because now we’re working on replenishing our savings after spending a large chunk while on the road. We shop at the thrift stores. We bring our daughter out into nature, because it’s a free activity. By any appearance, we are the same as the people staying in the motel.

One of the RV renters comes in to our manager’s office regularly. He has a bulbous nose, and it is apparent he has not showered in a while. Whenever he shows up, he offers something he has: tips on when the library bookmobile will be in town, a candle for our daughter, popsicles from his own freezer.

“I can take you guys to the local food bank and show you around there,” he told us when we first moved in. He is friendly and considerate, and wants nothing from us in return.

When our daughter sees him, she shouts, “Unko, Unko!” It’s her toddler way of saying, “Uncle, Uncle!” She has no judgment about him or anyone else we’ve encountered, and she is teaching us how to do the same.

The currency that matters most to our daughter is love and the ability to be together as a family. For every mile we travel, we get closer to realizing that if we truly want to pursue a real adventure, we need to go beyond the places we thought we would see and become different people than we thought we would be. Otherwise, we’re missing the most beautiful sight of all: a genuine connection to humanity.

How to Travel With Kids: Forget Your Plans, Just Be Together

Sometimes the best plan is simply to enjoy one another’s company, away from the everyday obligations and chores. Itineraries are overrated.

The first time I visited New York City as a child, I was smitten. The bustle of Times Square, the smell of roasted peanuts, the sense of possibility — I loved it all.

So I decided, when my seven-year-old son had a couple of days off from school in April, I would introduce him to my favorite city. We’d leave my husband and four-year-old daughter to fend for themselves for a long weekend while we took on the big city. We’d frolic in Central Park, brave the busy Manhattan streets, and savor real New York pizza. He would be enchanted, just as I was all those years ago.

Here’s what actually happened: He complained that his legs hurt whenever we walked more than two blocks. He did not care for the gooey, greasy slice at the pizzeria near our hotel, opting for Pizza Hut the following night. He might have enjoyed Central Park, but we didn’t make it there — as we got ready to go on our last day, it started to pour.

And yet, I wouldn’t change a moment of our trip.

Instead of getting to know New York City together, we got to know each other better, and that turned out to be much more rewarding. Without the usual distractions of everyday life — rushing to baseball practice, throwing dinners together, attending to an exuberant four-year-old  — I could slow down and really see my son: what frustrated him, what delighted him, what just plain bored him. In this new, stripped-down context, I learned things that surprised me.

I picked a hotel in Times Square, for example, because I thought my son would enjoy the frenzy, that he’d welcome the change of pace from the small midwestern college town where we live. But as we fought our way through the dense crowds on Broadway, he became increasingly exasperated, at one point screaming, “I need some personal space!” to no one in particular.

Some of his reactions were less surprising, but still enchanting. From the time he was a toddler, he’s always been drawn to vehicles and maps, so I knew everything about the subway would intrigue him, from the intricate rainbow-colored criss-crossing paths on the subway map to the screens announcing when the next train would arrive.

Still, as he figured out which subway line had the most stops, I loved watching his eyes go wide with excitement and his body get taut the way it does when he’s really engaged in something. I could practically see the neurons firing in his brain.

Other moments caught me off guard, in a good way. After climbing to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, we sat down to rest on a patch of grass. Well, I rested —my son spent the next hour enacting a soccer game completely on his own. The trees were goal posts, a pine cone was the ball, and he was all the players and the referee simultaneously. For over an hour, we barely spoke — he was in his own special world, and he was content.

Although I’ve known for a long time that my son is happiest when he’s physically active, there was something unique about this moment. At home we’re always rushing — into the car, out of the car, to the next activity, to school, to bed. But in that little slice of time, we had no place to be and nothing to do, except enjoy exactly what we were doing — my son running, diving, jumping, the dappled late-afternoon sunlight on his back, and me watching him. 

Some of our most special moments happened when we weren’t doing anything special at all. I knew we’d enjoy the Mets game, but I didn’t expect to have so much fun sitting on a park bench, watching a group of pigeons fight over a piece of bread, betting on who would get the last bite. The absence of our usual routines and schedules created space for us to simply enjoy each other’s company.

Even when we didn’t enjoy each other’s company, it felt like an important part of our time together. After what seemed like an entire afternoon of complaining  — he was not a fan of the Museum of Natural History — I snapped at my son, telling him, as I fought back tears, that he should be more grateful I’d planned and taken him on this trip. He was uncharacteristically quiet for a while. And then, with eyes wide and a hand on my shoulder, he said, “I really appreciate what you do for me,” suddenly seeming a lot older than seven.

On the last night of our trip, as I tucked him into our shared double bed that took up the entire width of the hotel room, he suggested we hug “to symbolize our love.” If we hadn’t had some tense exchanges, I doubt we would have shared this tender one.

When I told my friends I was planning a mother-son trip, everyone had the same reaction: “What a great idea! I should do that.” You should. Just don’t be goal-oriented. Or rather, make the goal simply being with your child, not trying to get them to love the same things you do. If you do that, you can’t fail. 

The Adventures of Batmom and Lightning Chase

One mom, one six-year-old, two geriatric dogs, and three days hiking the Long Trail. What could go wrong?

On a cool morning in June, my six-year-old son, Chase, our two geriatric dogs, Louie and Cyrus, and I ventured off on a three-day hike along the Long Trail to the highest peak in Vermont. 

At the outset, Chase was in great spirits. He stumbled along, pointing out every oddly curved tree or funny-looking rock. Our progress was slow and, because I was a bit skeptical of our speed, I tried to balance encouragement of outdoor exploration with an urging to move along. 

Finally, after close to an hour, I told Chase that we must be at least half way as we reached a trailhead. It became clear that we’d walked only 0.3 miles in 60 minutes. Tears pricked my eyes and self-doubt crept into my head: What was I thinking? We cannot possibly do what we set out to do. I feared that I was putting my child in danger. 

Since our ride had left and there was no cell service on the trail, I told Chase that we’d made ample progress and to keep hiking, just a little bit faster now.

As we trudged along, fellow hikers passed at regular intervals. There was a flash of unmasked judgement in their eyes when they first focused on our sorry group. Some stopped and asked Chase his age and commended him on his tenacity. They smiled at me and murmured praise. They told us about landmarks to look for, and how much farther we had to go to find them.

Other hikers looked from Chase to me to our old dogs with blatant disapproval. I wanted to explain, “Believe me, this wasn’t my idea!” 

A few months ago, I put out a proposal to my sons: they could each pick one overnight trip to go on with just me. The other brother would stay home to have special alone-time with their dad.  My five-year-old picked a trip to Maine to see the ocean. My six-year-old picked a stint on the Long Trail.

The Vermont Long Trail runs 270 miles from Massachusetts to Journey’s End in Canada. It was built by the Conservation Corps between 1910 and 1930. Before my kids were born, I had hiked a few northern portions of the trail, traveling for five or six nights during two consecutive summers. 

I met exceptional people on the trail who call themselves “end-to-enders.” These thru-hikers deserve admiration and attention. Starting off at the Vermont-Massachusetts border, they take on a challenge that will push them physically and mentally. Carrying 40- to 50-pound packs and visions of Canada, thru-hikers give each other trail names and alter-egos and get to reinvent themselves for a month on the trail.

To prepare for our trip, I tried to do some research about backpacking with kids. Unfortunately there’s not much information out there. I read about a kindergartener, trail name “Buddy,” who hikes 20+ miles a day on the Appalachian Trail with his mother and her boyfriend. I read about a family who bonds over backpacking and decided to take on the Long Trail together. We were not these people. 

I try to balance the creature comforts of good food and wine with just enough exercise to take away any guilt. My kid is a not-too-athletic, but pretty outdoors-y type, who had no idea what he was getting into. Our dogs are both in the second decade of life and slowing down considerably.   I chose a section of the trail where the shelters are abundant so that I didn’t need to carry a tent, and each day we would only hike between three and five miles. This section happened to lead to the ever-popular Mount Mansfield.

Before we left, I focused on what gear to bring. Wanting to set my son up for success but not wanting to overspend, I had to decide what to buy and what to leave behind. In the end, I bought Chase a small 30-liter backpacking pack and the most lightweight sleeping pad. He wore his trusty Saucony sneakers and used his Walmart special sleeping bag, which took up most of the space in his pack.

I picked a whisper light cooking stove, a pot, two bowls, food for nine meals plus snacks, and a SteriPEN to treat our water. We both carried a Camelbak bladder for hydration. Our oldest dog, Cyrus, carried the dog food and leashes for himself and Louie.

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Boy walking with his dog in the woods

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Stumbling upon Butler Lodge that first afternoon felt like the greatest success. We quickly made ourselves at home, spreading out sleeping bags on lofts and Nutella on tortillas. We welcomed a thru-hiker, “Bookworm,” who was a recent college grad looking for his place in life.

Chase explored the site and begged me to play the card game “War” over and over again. He seemed to take on a new identity on the trail. My normally reserved child became giddy and chatty. Bookworm, impressed by this six-year-old’s boundless energy and never-ending questions, dubbed him “Lightning Chase.”

After a delicious dinner of mac-and-cheese with tuna fish, and an uneventful first night of sleep, we awoke to several unwelcome realizations. First, I learned that our headlamp had run out of batteries. Then, I discovered that I forgot contacts for my left eye and would be relying solely on my right eye for navigation. Next, we found that a mouse gnawed on the bite valve of one of our Camelbaks. Chase immediately insisted that the mouse-bitten one was mine, though there were no discernible differences between the two. And, in a sudden burst of cell phone reception, we got a menacing weather report: Rain and thunderstorms were expected for much of the day. 

Feigning cheer and optimism, I hurried Chase through a breakfast of granola bars and fruit rope and started out for our second day of hiking, keeping time with the distant rumbling of thunder.

The trip to Taylor Lodge was arduous. The trail steepened considerably and Chase often stopped to rest on any rock large enough to seat him. The fact that a tenting site was mislabeled on our Green Mountain Club map made gauging time and distance tough. Probably the highlight of the hike was stopping for candy bars – a Milky Way for Chase and a Snickers for me – though Chase ate them both. 

We averaged about one mile an hour and, after a full morning of a forced march, we arrived at the turn-off for Taylor. Because of the foreboding weather, the shelter filled up with thru-hikers waiting for clearer skies to summit Mansfield. Our bunkmates included a 65-year-old man who was the self-described slowest hiker on the Trail; an attorney/father from North Carolina who saved vacation time for five years to be able to complete the 279 miles in one shot; two high school sophomores who dubbed themselves “The Two Jews”; several male 20-somethings; and our old friend Bookworm.

Lightning Chase seemed to gain energy as I lost it. He skipped from rock to rock and explored all around the site. He charmed everyone. Children are not common on the Trail and the hikers had gone weeks without spending time with a little kid. They took turns playing cards with Chase, sharing coveted pieces of chocolate and hyperbole-laced stories of sunrises and storms. 

At one point, Chase looked up at me and announced that he loved backpacking, but much preferred hanging out at the campsite to the hiking. In his actions and his smiles, I saw a side to my child that I never observed at home. His introverted tendencies were replaced with confidence, laughter, and outward joy. 

Our second night was restless. Our new sleeping pads seemed excessively squeaky and creaked every time we moved. Around 4 a.m., Louie and Cyrus broke into a brotherly dog fight that woke all the weary hikers. Embarrassed for disrupting sleep for these thru-hikers hoping to cover 15-20 miles the next day, I woke early and motivated Chase to get moving. 

Despite our speedy start, each of the men we met the night before passed us on their ascent up the mountain. Feeling tired and depleted, we negotiated the pros and cons of veering off the Long Trail and going instead on a flatter, smoother bypass trail. Mustering strength and not wanting to feel future regret, Chase finally decided to make the push to the summit: the chin of Mansfield.

Mother and son jump into the air on the top of a mountain

When we arrived at the summit, we found ourselves thrust into throngs of day-hikers and people who had driven cars on an access road to the top of Vermont. After three days of hiking, we felt dirty and sticky. We ate lunch on the flat, rocky tops, looking out on beautiful vistas and basking in the feeling of accomplishment. 

As we rested, the caretaker from the Green Mountain Club sauntered up to us. She looked at my son and said, “By any chance, are you Lightning Chase?” She explained that several of the thru-hikers who had summited throughout the morning told her of the six-year-old on the trail, providing accounts of his energy and enthusiasm. They told her that he inspired them to make the steep climb and complete the journey. She gave Chase the broadest smile and confided, “I’ve been waiting to meet you!”

Now as summer is almost at an end, I keep thinking back to the gifts we received on the Long Trail. We had a final adventure with a faithful friend (sadly, Cyrus died in August from a bleeding tumor on his spleen) and I gained the aura of a superhero in the eyes of my child. Most importantly, my small six-year-old learned that he can accomplish big dreams. He is capable of overcoming challenges and persevering despite discomfort. For those three days, he left behind the self-consciousness that came with navigating the social world of elementary school. He became: Lightning Chase!

10 Ways to Ensure Your Next Family Road Trip is a Success

Family road trips don’t have to be a National Lampoon-esque disaster. Especially if you keep these tips in mind.

What comes to mind when you think family road trip? For me, it’s squabbling kids and things going wrong – the things that TV shows are made of.

What if I told you road trips could be awesome with a bit of prep work? With trepidation, we broke in our first minivan by taking our seven-, four-, and one-year-old on a road trip from Calgary to Vancouver Island. I was surprised at the amazing family memory it has become.

Unlike our pre-kid days, we couldn’t just jump in the car and see where the wind took us. Despite our mutual spontaneous personalities, we knew this trip would take some work before hand. If you’re considering hitting the open road for a family adventure here are the things that worked for us.

1 | Take your time getting there

We knew with three kids under eight things never go as planned. We decided to incorporate travel time as part of the adventure. We planned for one week at our destination and one week of travel time stopping for a three-day visit with the family on the way.

The hotel pool slides remain one of the trips biggest highlights for the kids. I’m not sure what it is with kids and hotel pools but it broke up a long drive and gave them something to look forward to after a long day in the car. We also had the time to stop for picnics, hikes, and even a wolf sanctuary.

2 | Optimize car time

I did so much prep work for this trip I actually bought a laminator. The older kids both had binders with games, coloring and activities. Pinterest supplied an unending stream of games and activities to do in the car. New markers and special snacks set this drive apart from just running errands at home.

3 | Create anticipation

Family discussions centered around our trip for weeks before we went. We watched videos of animals on Vancouver Island and perused the websites of places we wanted to go. We looked at maps, read books about whales and the ocean, and anything else I could relate to the trip. By the time we left, the trip was already special in their minds.

4 | Plan double the activities and places to eat so you can be spontaneous

Some people are planners and I greatly admire them, but my husband and I are more of a “what do you feel like doing today?” sort of couple.

We decided to cater to our personalities, but also the kid’s need to have some structure by loosely planning our days. We made a list of everything we were interested in doing. When we arrived, we checked out the weather, gauged how the kids were feeling and decided what to do each day. We limited ourselves to one big outing each day and planned for downtime to create balance.

5 | Prioritize finances

When we first thought about going to the Island I had in mind sitting on the lawn and relaxing while looking out over the ocean. We looked for places to stay that would feel like a home away from home. We quickly realized that with kids – and considering our budget – that probably wasn’t going to happen.  

We slashed our rental budget in half by staying in a small apartment and planning only to sleep and eat there. This gave us an extra few hundred dollars to pay for admission fees and eating out.

6 | Have a project or theme

Having something to collect tied the trip together for us. My girls knew they were going to do a school project on the trip so everywhere we went they took pamphlets. They also took videos and pictures to create a slideshow to send to their classmates.

My theme was coffee. I Instagrammed all the unique, independent coffee roasters we frequented each morning.

7 | Make it memorable with pictures, videos, souvenirs

We took lots of pictures at each stop along the way. A favorite family activity is still scrolling through the snapshots and remembering the good times we had. We also made room in the budget for meaningful mementos. The stuffed sea otter from the aquarium and tin of tea from our high tea experience still remind us of the trip.

8 | Plan for down time

I know myself and I know my kids. We all get easily overstimulated so I made sure that every day we had some down time, even if that meant coming back to the apartment and watching a movie.

We aimed for one restaurant meal a day, leaving the other to be something like sandwiches at the park. I had realistic expectations of how enjoyable eating at restaurants would be so we ordered in a couple times and just ate at the apartment. I didn’t have to cook, and they didn’t have to behave in a restaurant. Perfect.

9 | Know when to say no

There was so much to see and do and so little time. Although we budgeted a fair amount to activities, we also wanted to stretch that money. There were a few things we would have loved to do but weren’t necessarily something everything in the family would have enjoyed. By saying no we avoided some stressful parenting situations and have a list of things we can look forward to doing when we go back without kids.

10 | Make something to commemorate the trip 

My daughter made a big poster to show all the places we drove, visited, and stayed. It was fun to relive the trip, stopping to contemplate all the cool things we’d seen.

Photobooks are another great way to collect all the memories in one place. They tend to bring up the joy of the trip anytime you pull one off the shelf.

We don’t travel as a family very often, so when we do, I want it to be memorable and meaningful. I knew we succeed with this trip when my daughter asked if we could go again. When I told her we were thinking of Disney Land next time, she responded: “Oh ya, Disney Land would be fun, but I really want to go to Vancouver again!”