If you're a single parent, then you-know-what is looming ... summer vacation. It's tough enough to organize childcare for the long summer break. A family summer trip can be a financial...

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If you’re a single parent, then you-know-what is looming … summer vacation.

It’s tough enough to organize childcare for the long summer break. A family summer trip can be a financial and emotional minefield for a single parent.

For sole parents — whether by choice, divorced or widowed (as I am) — it’s hard to devise a vacation that’s affordable and doesn’t leave you feeling like the odd person out.

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The travel industry isn’t much help since it focuses mostly on two-parent families. Child discounts on vacation packages and cruises often are offered only in conjunction with two adult fares. And travel brochures are full of photos of relentlessly cheerful couples and two-parent families.

For single parents — or for any adult traveling alone with children — here are some suggestions on strategies and destinations:

Go easy on yourself

Vacations can be lonely when you’re the only adult, and stressful when you’re solely responsible for everything, from travel logistics to keeping kid(s) happy and safe.

• Bring along another adult if you can or, better yet, take a trip with another family. Or, if you can handle an extra kid, let an older child invite a friend; having a built-in playmate gives a single parent a break.

• Take a slow-paced trip, particularly if you’re newly single or just starting to take trips on your own with your children. And choose destinations where you won’t get frazzled by language barriers or other travel challenges.

• Stay in each place for at least a few nights so you can settle in and relax.

• Get a room with a kitchenette or stay in a hotel that includes breakfast, even if it’s just pastries in the lobby. You’ll save money by not eating out every meal, and it’s much easier than endless restaurant meals with fidgety kids.

Northwest road trips

• A driving trip is the most economical way to go, but keep the distances short. Handling all the driving, route-finding and “are-we-there-yet” is tiring.

Go somewhere in the Northwest within a half-day’s drive. Vancouver, B.C., and Portland are particularly kid-friendly — with hands-on science museums, zoos/aquariums and more. Or take Amtrak to Portland (train service to Vancouver is less frequent); it makes getting there truly pleasant.

For somewhere more rural, consider Washington’s Methow Valley or Leavenworth, where you can wander and shop in the small towns and take short (or all-day) hikes or bike rides.

Or head to Whistler, B.C. — it makes a good side trip from Vancouver — which offers everything from music festivals to mountain biking and hiking in summer, with a huge range of places to stay.

For water play, consider Kah-Nee-Tah resort in the high desert of Oregon, with its giant hot-spring pool, or the Harrison Hot Springs resort east of Vancouver, B.C.

• Almost every kid loves a beach. Some to consider:

On Vancouver Island, the Qualicum/Parksville area has an abundance of motels and seawater that’s warm enough for swimming in summer.

Only the hardy swim at Port Townsend, but the compact town is easygoing and adjacent Fort Worden State Park has miles of beach and forest trails.

In Oregon, Cannon Beach has a broad, wildly scenic beach and trendy restaurants and shops.

Washington’s Long Beach has miles of broad, sandy beach, but be aware that vehicles are allowed to drive on parts of it.

The theme park thing

Southern California theme parks are the classic family summer trip, but they can be crowded and hot in summer. Still, if the kids are clamoring for a theme park, consider these alternatives or supplements to Disneyland:

• Knott’s Berry Farm has many rides suitable for young kids — those in single digits — and a giant Soak City U.S.A. water park next door that will keep everyone cool and happy.

• Universal Studios Hollywood is closer to other Los Angeles-area attractions, including museums and the beach.

• Legoland, a half-hour drive north of San Diego, will entice young Lego fans.

Many airlines and resorts offer theme-park packages that include hotel, theme-park admission and more; check directly with them or with a travel agent.

If you want some distance between you and the parks, stay by the beach in San Diego, a smaller, gentler base than sprawling L.A. Build sandcastles, swim, get the kids surfing lessons, soak up the Southern California beach scene.

Beyond the sand, San Diego has SeaWorld, an excellent zoo and many kid-friendly museums.


Camping is easy on the budget and there are gorgeous campgrounds throughout the Northwest. But I’ve ended up with some ugly neighbors, including one hard-drinking group that partied late and howled at the moon. If you’re a lone woman and kid(s) in a flimsy tent, it’s easy to feel vulnerable.

Some alternatives:

• Outdoors clubs such as the Seattle-based Mountaineers sometimes offer family tent-camping weekends, with reserved spots at group campsites. The Mountaineers club also has simple mountain lodges, including one at Mount Baker with quick access to gentle hiking trails.

• Yurts and camping cabins in state parks, and in some commercial campgrounds such as KOAs, are economical, more comfortable than tents and more secure. And they can be reserved. Oregon has yurts — sturdy, conical tents with wood floors and bunk beds and a locking door — at a string of state-park campgrounds along the coast.

A few Washington state parks have yurts and/or camping cabins, including Cape Disappointment State Park (which changed its name in October from Fort Canby State Park) on the Pacific coast at the state’s southwest tip.

• If you don’t want to camp but are on a tight budget, consider a youth hostel. Despite the name, hostels are open to all ages and many have separate, private rooms for families as well as dorms. Hostels are basic, but they’re good places to meet other travelers and most have kitchens for guests to use.

Family camps

Many church groups have family camps/retreats around the Northwest. Most are outdoors-oriented, with accommodation in rustic cabins.

Other options are the YMCA’s short “family camps” at Camp Orkila on Orcas Island. Or the Olympic Park Institute offers several family summer programs, including a weeklong Lake Crescent Family Camp with canoeing, hiking, arts/crafts and more.

For almost guaranteed sunshine, the Santa Barbara Family Vacation Center, run through the alumni association of the University of California at Santa Barbara, has comfortable rooms and programs for families at its oceanside campus.

For a luxurious (and expensive) version of family camp, many resort hotels in Hawaii, the Caribbean or Southern California offer all-day programs for young children and teens

Home exchange

If you want to travel to Europe or elsewhere in North America, and not bankrupt yourself on hotels, consider an international home exchange. You trade your home (and car if wished) with a family in another country.

I’ve never done a home exchange — the closet-cleaning it would require is too daunting — but it has worldwide devotees. One of the oldest and biggest home-exchange companies is Intervac; HomeLink International also is popular.


If you can afford it, small-group tours can be an ideal way to go.

Someone else takes care of all the travel details, from hotels to transport; you show up and enjoy yourself and your kid(s). However, be prepared to pay at least several thousand dollars per person for a 10-day or two-week overseas trip, plus air fare.

Many tour companies have special family-designated tours in the summer. You can choose among cultural tours, bike trips, raft trips, small-ship cruises and more in North America, Europe, Asia and beyond.

Among Seattle-area companies offering some family-designated tours are REI Adventures and Wildland Adventures. Some of Edmonds-based Rick Steves’ European tours could work with teens, although they’re not specifically designed as family trips.

Other companies offering deluxe family tours include Abercrombie & Kent, Butterfield & Robinson, and Wilderness Travel.

Groups specializing in educational family trips include Familyhostel, run in association with the University of New Hampshire, and Smithsonian Journeys.

All inclusive cruises, ranches

All-inclusive vacations — cruises or dude ranches or resorts such as Club Med — are not budget ways to go. But they’re convenient, and will keep everyone as busy as they want to be.

Most of the big ships have scads of entertainment for kids, from pools to movies and formal children’s programs, including special ones for teens. Small-ship “adventure” cruises are good for outdoors-oriented, older kids who like to kayak, hike or snorkel.

Seattle is a convenient hub for Alaska cruises. Shop around to find some price breaks for Alaska and other cruises by checking with a travel agent; watching the ads; and monitoring the cruises lines’ Web sites for special discounts.

Many cruise lines, including Seattle-based Holland America, may offer discounts for “last-minute” cruises, which in the cruise world can mean a month or so prior to departure.

Dude ranches often have daunting price tags, but they get kids and parents outdoors in family-friendly settings.

Colorado and Arizona are guest-ranch epicenters, but it’s easier and cheaper to find one within a day’s drive in the Northwest.

Washington and Oregon don’t have many dude ranches; look to Idaho and especially British Columbia, with its dozens of dude ranches, from luxury to rustic, and an exchange rate that still helps, despite the flailing U.S. dollar.

Find a ranch with a pool or a swimming hole, and the kids — and you — can happily indulge in a summer break of water play and horseplay.

Kristin Jackson is an editor and writer with the Travel section. Her “Family Matters” column runs the third Sunday of each month. Comments are welcome: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.