Single Parents Strike a Balance on Vacations

Parents must consider how their children's interests blend with their own. Many must also manage with tight budgets.

Like other single parents, Spencer Dillman of Boca Raton, Fla., faces an annual decision: what kind of summer vacation to plan with his 13-year-old daughter, Ashley. Over the years the two have camped in the Smokies, toured Washington, cruised in the Caribbean, and hiked in Vail, Colo. In the process, he has discovered that although traveling solo with a child can bring great rewards, choosing the right vacation can also be an art.

"Divorced dads I know are all wondering what to do with our kids," says Mr. Dillman, a senior account representative for Southern Bell. "Some of my buddies send their kids to camp for two months. Then they'll do a vacation by themselves. But I want to spend time with my daughter."

Yet Dillman found the camping trip with his daughter "arduous" because he was responsible for supplying all the food, shelter, and entertainment. In Washington, he discovered that Ashley, then 9, was "a little too young" to appreciate the Smithsonian and the Museum of Air and Space. And although the cruise last year "was OK," Ashley enjoyed it less than he had expected. "She didn't really want to mix with a lot of other kids," he says.

As the number of single parents increases, decisions like these are becoming common. Parents must balance their own vacation wishes with those of their children. Many must also manage a tight budget.

Plan time carefully

Some tour operators and cruise lines are capitalizing on this market by devising packages for single-parent families. Most airlines and hotel chains offer reduced rates for children. Beginning this spring, Club Med is including a "Single Parenthood" option as part of its "Family Escape" program. Parents and children can stay in the club's "family villages" in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas. Children might stay two weeks while their parents visit on alternate weeks. (Cost for one adult and one child: $1,599 per week. For one adult and two children,$2,399.)

Whatever a parent's budget, Susan Krieger of Boston, a licensed family counselor specializing in single-parent issues, urges parents to plan their time carefully. "A short wonderful vacation is worth a lot more to everyone than a longer vacation that gradually deteriorates," she says. Ms. Krieger also emphasizes the importance of maintaining realistic expectations. "Focus attention on the chance to spend relaxed time with the kids doing things they enjoy, and not on seeing sights on a whirlwind tour."

Patty Marquis, a single mother in Belmont, Mass., learned the wisdom of that advice the hard way when she took her son, Peter, to Washington when he was 7. With fond memories of her own childhood visit to the nation's capital, she wanted to give him a similar experience.

But Peter's heart was on sports, not sightseeing. To compound the challenge, tourist attractions were crowded with spring-break visitors, lines were long, and their motel was a 30-minute Metro ride from the center of the city.

"I hated it," says Peter, now 10. "There was a lot of walking, and that wasn't fun. The only thing I really cared about was all the little souvenir stands on the street."

Adds Ms. Marquis, a social worker, "Pete was interested in basketball. That was his passion. We really should have gone to the Bulls game. You have to look at what your child loves, not what you enjoyed as a child."

For now, she and Peter prefer to spend vacations at an inn on Cape Cod. "We used to go there as a family," says Marquis. "Now he goes for a week with his father and a week with me. Structure and ritual and routine help to hold a family together in a time of change."

Developing traditions

That kind of continuity also appeals to Dillman. In July, he and his daughter will return to Vail on a package vacation for single-parent families offered by Synergy Tours Inc. of Boca Raton. Up to 12 families take part in each week-long guided trip, which includes mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting, and a cattle drive. "We're bikers, and Ashley likes to horseback ride," Dillman explains.

Ken Richter, the divorced father of three daughters who created the tour, says, "As a single parent, you sometimes lose traditions. This became a new way to establish a relationship with a child, and it worked. These kids grow up when they're in the outdoors. It's impressive to see what they'll do." Costs range from $1,395 for an adult to $595 for the first child and $350 for each additional child.

For most single parents, trips like these are unaffordable. Chris Vose, a barber in Orlando, Fla., was a single parent for several years when her two daughters were in elementary school. To keep costs down, she bought a small tent and took the girls camping at a large park in Orlando.

"I started introducing them to the woods," says Ms. Vose. "Very basic things excited them. They didn't get bored, even though there was no TV and no radio - just listening to the creek. They really got peaceful, and they ate better. Everybody had their little work jobs around the campsite. It worked out well. Now every vacation they choose is in the woods."

For budget-minded parents who prefer something less rustic, Tanya Fischer, editor of a newsletter called Single Parenting Economics, suggests going away just for a weekend. Ms. Fischer, who lives in Orlando with her two daughters, ages 3 and 7, also notes that options exist beyond expensive theme parks. "I've lived in Orlando my whole life and my kids have never been to Disney," she says. The YMCA sometimes offers single-parent discounts, she adds, making a Y membership for the summer one way to "vacation" at home.

Low-cost options

The greatest economy comes with what Fischer calls "a pretend vacation." This includes checking out library books and videos on another country and reading about its culture. Using ethnic cookbooks, a parent and children can cook a meal typical of that country. Or the family can order ethnic food - Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Mexican - from a restaurant.

Maralyn Facey of Toluca Lake, Calif., the mother of a six-year-old daughter, Claire, further expands the definition of vacation. "I consider every time you put your child in the car to go on an adventure - it's travel," she says.

Ms. Facey and Claire take advantage of free jazz concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Friday evenings. "Being a single parent does not mean your life is just limited to the park," she says. "There are so many activities open to your children, from the junior philharmonic to art galleries, even to rock concerts, if you can handle them any more. You

can also take your children to Chinatown - they love that."

She adds, "If you want your children to be sophisticated, civilized, and cultured people, how are they going to get these things unless you take them various places?"

Last spring, Facey, editor-in-chief of a newsletter called Solo: A Guide for the Single Parent, took Claire to New York during spring vacation. A travel agent found an inexpensive package, and the two spent five days wandering through the city, marveling at everything from gargoyles on churches to the multitude of languages around them. Explaining that tulips and daffodils were blooming along busy Park Avenue, Facey says, "There I was, from my parent point of view thinking, 'Oh, look at all this traffic.' There she was, at her level, saying, 'Mom, look at these flowers!' "

Some parents find satisfaction in sharing vacations with other single-parent families. One summer Candelaria Silva, a parenting-education specialist at Families First in Cambridge, Mass., and the mother of two children, rented a beach cottage in Rhode Island with two other mothers. To help with the care of the seven children, they took along a college student, splitting the cost of her room. Before leaving home, the three women held a meeting to establish rules and responsibilities.

"Since then I've become a believer in bringing extra hands," Ms. Silva says. "Sometimes on vacation I just want to veg out, and having someone who can take the kids on a day trip or who doesn't mind watching a million goofy movies has been very helpful."

Another time Silva and a friend who has two children spent a week in Provincetown, Mass. "She cooked three nights, I cooked three nights," Silva says. "We liked to do different things. I didn't mind staying on the beach all day with the children, and she preferred taking them to museums. We complemented each other that way."

Beyond the usual benefits of vacations, leisure activities give children a chance to see a parent in a different light. Making a case for shared relaxation, whatever form it takes, Facey says, "You did have your children in the first place because it was supposed to be fun. If it's an onerous, heavy responsibility all the time, where are they going to go for their fun? I want them to know that Mom is also fun - not just the ogre who says, 'Clean your room, do your homework, and eat your vegetables.' You need a sense of humor and adventure if you're going to be a parent."

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