I received a bunch of messages about my solo voyage to D.C. with mini in tow (just returned yesterday!). The truth is that it went much better than I expected for about 7/8 of the trip. That last eighth was deeply trying — and not through any fault of mini’s, come to think of it. The challenges had more to do with multiple elevators being out of order on the subway route to/from Penn Station, which completely kicked my ass. I packed as light as I could, but lugging any amount of gear on top of a stroller and a writhing mini up and down steep steps while people edge by you and sweat drips down your brow? Um. No thanks. Gratefully, good samaritans stopped and helped me in all four elevator outage incidents. But FOUR outages?! Good Lord. What would happen if you were handicapped?! You’d just have to retrace your steps and leave? What is that? The other challenging part had more to do with timing the trip — more on that below in my top tips for traveling alone…
- Buy a backpack. I don’t think the trip would have been nearly as easy without one. Mine (and I’ve written a lot about this, but I do love it) is feather-weight, sleek, and comfortable — and it carries a lot (including my 15″ laptop). I also appreciate that it has two cup pockets on each side, leaving mini’s water bottle easily accessible.
- Pack light. I packed as little as humanly possible and planned to do laundry once while there. I also had my mom pick up diapers and wipes for me so I wouldn’t need to tote all that bulk around; in other circumstances, I’ve had those items shipped to my destination or have skipped out to the grocery on arrival. I even left mini’s beloved blanket behind because it’s pretty bulky. (She was fine without it.) I managed to fit everything we needed for five days into my backpack, this super lightweight foldable Scout duffel, and mini’s Kanken, which I reserved for just her own activities. I love that Scout bag because its handles/strap are convenient (easy to carry) and it weighs nothing on its own.
- Separate mini’s stuff from yours. I used packing cubes to keep our clothing separate, which helped when I was in need of a spare burp cloth en route down to D.C. Easier to find everything!
- Leave early — but not too early. I’m generally inclined to arrive early when traveling; why stress about cutting things too close? But with mini, there’s a different calculus involved, as I don’t want to extend the amount of time she’ll be contained or in her stroller or able to get into mischief. (Ahem, licking the wall of the waiting area at Penn Station…wahhhh.) We left a little too early on the return trip to New York and I think that contributed to a really bumpy last thirty minutes of the train. That said, we did manage to run off a lot of energy while killing time in the train station!
- If you’re taking the train and it’s available, use the Red Cap service. I didn’t know about this, but you can ask for special assistance boarding a train using a “Red Cap.” They’ll take your bags for you while you’re waiting and come find you to let you know when it’s time to board — which can be as early as 25 minutes in advance of general boarding! Then they carry your bags for you and get you situated on the train, all for a tip of $5 or $10. This was incredibly helpful both directions with mini.
- Be friendly to the ticket guy. I shot the breeze with the gentleman taking tickets aboard the train and as he left he said: “You know, I’ll punch two tickets for these seats so you have a little extra space.” I was delighted! We had the entire row to ourselves on the return trip.
- Pack more snacks then you think you’ll need. A friend of mine texted me and said: “When in doubt, snacks and videos. Then more snacks.” Some of my favorite things to feed mini these days while on the go: an apple (she loves to gnaw on it whole, an activity that will usually consume about 30 minutes), raisins, Made Good soft baked mini cookies (<<these make a mess; you’ve been warned), veggie chips/straws, diced fruit, string cheese. I think she had all of these things plus half a sandwich and bites of my granola bar on the trip down alone.
- Keep surprises in reserve. I was eager to let her play with everything I’d packed for her (and I kept all her activities/toys in her own little backpack), but — smartly, as it turned out — kept a couple of items in reserve for desperate measures. I packed a coloring book and crayons (which were kept in a zippered pouch and doled out on a one-in-one-out basis), a couple of packs of inexpensive stickers, a new book (<<very cute book but do not recommend it for the train, because you will self-consciously read it aloud in front of strangers only to find yourself yelling “HUG HUG HUG HUG HUG” over and over like a crazy person), several of her favorite books (including Curious George, which is delightfully long but she will sit through), her dollbaby, this little play purse, and these flashcards, which she loves handing to me one by one. All in, all of these items took up very little space and were easy to configure in a backpack. I kept a charged iPad (in this protective sleeve — easy for her to hold, and can also stand on its own) with Moana downloaded on it (which I did use both ways) in my own backpack along with these headphones, which she refused to wear.
- Time the trip as best you can around his/her nap.* Mini was well-behaved and happy most of both train rides, but the last thirty minutes of the train trip back were brutal because of poor timing with her nap. She usually goes down for a nap between 1 and 1:30, but the train didn’t pull into Penn Station until 1:50. She was exhausted! I didn’t know what to do; if she fell asleep on the train, I knew she’d wake up once we were getting off the train and I’d need to put her in her stroller, and she would be unhappy. But keeping her up felt cruel, especially since she’d slept poorly the night prior. All of that worrying was moot since she was cranky and exhausted but nowhere near falling asleep on the train — she was hellbent on screaming and flailing around instead. So I spent the last twenty minutes walking up and down the aisle, looking through her bag with her, distracting her, playing La Vaca Lola on my phone — and trying not to anger too many people with her sobs. The worst bit came when we got off the train and I had to put her in her stroller. She went ballistic, contorting into an inverted “c” when I’d tried to buckle her in as I jostled our bags around and people dodged me on the train platform. I’ve dealt with stroller resistance in the past, but this was next level. She was apoplectic. She screamed for ten minutes as I wheeled her toward the subway and navigated out of order elevators. Fun family time! All this to say — if it’s at all an option, I would aim to travel early (pre-nap) or sync the travel time with her nap time so you can aim to get her to sleep while in transit. *Big asterisk: also take into account which trains will be operated during peak hours. I was so fortunate to have a spare seat next to me most of the train ride to D.C. and all of the train ride back. I would avoid peak travel times.
- Take a deep breath. I kept thinking to myself: “There are so many thousands of moms that travel all the time with their kids on their own. You are not a special snowflake. You can do this just like all of them.” And I tried, too, to have fun with mini in the moments we could — like when the Red Cap pre-boarded us and we had the entire car to ourselves. We ran up and down the aisles (until she fell and got a rugburn on her cheek — whoops), looked out all the windows, and climbed onto and off of the seats repeatedly. It’s easy to let the perceived stress of the situation get in the way, but my perspective changed when I tried to think about the experience as a novel, exciting one through her eyes.
OK, traveling mom veterans — what other tips do you have up your sleeve? I’ve heard play-dough and painter’s tape are good go-tos for slightly older children!
P.P.S. Bloomingdale’s is running a 25% off friends-and-family event. Now is a good time to stock up on my favorite brand of infant sleepwear: Kissy Kissy. If you are expecting, snag one of these in the newborn size as a coming-home outfit! The softest cotton ever!