Spring break 2018 was a big one for our family. This was the year that I got to take the trip I’d salivated over my entire adult life. I went to Bali. But, after returning home to Japan, explaining the trip highlights to friends and family wasn’t exactly how I pictured. Instead of, “I can’t believe you went to Bali!” I got more of these reactions, “I can’t believe you went to Bali by yourself with the kids!” For some reason, traveling solo with the kids is considered some heroic, death-defying leap of faith, but here’s the thing: It’s really not. If you’re willing to do your homework, you can rock a solo trip, too.
Before we could get there — as in Bali — I had to get to the point where I felt comfortable traveling solo overseas. I got a lot of strange looks and cautionary tales from my parents, husband, and people I talked to in line at the commissary for various reasons — some valid, some I can only assume stemmed from wishing they could take the same trip.
Our original spring break travel plans were squashed (as they so often are) by a change in mission. My husband had to attend a month-long course back in the states that just happened to start the week of our kids’ spring break (aka one of three viable vacation times). As I saw it, I had three choices:
- I could carry out our original travel plan — a seven-day Japanese road trip. My hesitation with this was being down a navigator and a set of hands to lug baggage and kids to and from different hotels.
- I could cancel the road trip and stay local for spring break. I refused to seriously entertain this idea because my travel wish list is long and our time stationed in Japan is short. I couldn’t accept wasting an entire week just because the Marine Corps switched up the plans on me.
- I could make new travel plans that I was comfortable handling on my own.
I ultimately decided that the road trip was too much to handle on my own. I wasn’t going to have fun, so what was the point? Instead, an all-inclusive resort in Bali seemed manageable. All I had to do was get us there and back. I booked three plane tickets.
As I mentioned, there were travel concerns, many of them mine. The only way to ease those fears, and to truly be prepared for a decent number of what-if scenarios, is to do your homework. This wasn’t my first time traveling solo with the kids, but it was my first time traveling from one foreign country to another foreign country. This wasn’t just a day trip from Monterey to San Francisco.
First, I checked the State Department’s website to confirm that we did not require a visa and to check for any travel warnings for Indonesia and the Philippines where we would have a hefty layover. We did not require a visa for Indonesia which kept things simple, but there were travel warnings. Luckily, Bali was not the site of the more severe, recent threats, although pickpocketing, theft and break-ins are widespread. The State Department does an excellent job specifically naming the threats and entry and exit requirements, which was exactly what I needed to feel confident before traveling.
My next step was enrolling in STEP, the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Once enrolled, you receive alerts (should any surface) prior to and during your trip. You also input your travel information — dates, number of people traveling with you, ages, where you will be staying — so you are identifiable and easier to locate should something arise. It’s morbid, I won’t deny that, but I felt better after enrolling, and it certainly made my husband feel better knowing that I was on the U.S. Embassy’s radar (even if I was one of many). Enrollment is free, and if you have your passport numbers handy, it just takes a couple of minutes.
Next, I did what military spouses do best — word-of-mouth research. I talked to people who had made the trip. I set some particularly grim expectations about the Manila airport where we had a layover. (It wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be.) I coordinated an airport transfer with my resort in Bali to avoid the nightmare of getting a taxi at the airport.
I packed simply, knowing I was the only muscle in our party of three. My concern while traveling was being able to keep a hand on the kids and the luggage at all times. The kids each carried a backpack with a portion of their clothing (in case we lost a suitcase), snacks and a couple things to do on the plane. I brought my carry-on (with a couple outfits), and we checked two small, rolling suitcases.
I purchased a travel wallet — and used that in lieu of a purse — to keep all our passports, cash and my identification and credit cards in one spot. I never wanted to find myself distractedly digging through my bag. While off the resort, I used a belted wallet (that I refuse to call a fanny pack). It was slim and fit right inside the waistband of my skirts. I just carried my credit card and a small amount of cash. Everything else was in the safe in our room.
A word on what I packed — for an American abroad, the goal is to blend in as much as possible. I packed clothing that kept me covered while we were off the resort, especially my shoulders on the days we visited temples. This was not just respectful of the culture, it was a requirement.
Making Sure Everyone had a Good Time
I shared my travel itinerary with my husband and parents and sent a text during each leg of the trip to keep their fears at bay. To make sure the kids had the time of their lives, we spent a lot of our time at the resort pool and beach — they would’ve done this all day, every day if I let them.
To make sure I got my own vacation, I scheduled a few tours that took us to the iconic temples, rice terraces, beaches and shopping districts. That’s what I enjoy when I travel — getting to know the culture, the food and the people. My kids were miserable these days — it peaked when my daughter puked red Fanta all over the back seat of our SUV. So, don’t feel like it was peachy all the time. It was a lot of compromise, but I got exactly what I wanted out of it. My kids still ask on a weekly basis when we can go back to Bali. And we made it back safely with nothing but fond memories of spring break 2018.
Moral of the story is – don’t be intimidated by traveling alone with your kids. It is possible to have a great experience that allows the kids to have fun, and for you to have the vacation of your dreams.