Nine-year-old Sydney Thorne was the least satisfied guest in the place.
Not only was she the only child in the English manor-house hotel, but there was nothing on the elaborate menu that she liked. And the multi-course dinners lasted for hours. Through it all, she needed to be on good behavior.
And Sydney, an only child, had no siblings who could share her frustration or break up the monotony with a good old-fashioned fight.
"She was bored the entire time," sighed her mother, Simonetta Thorne, recalling that miserable weekend three years ago while the family was living in London.
"When you make the reservation, you have to be sure there will be other kids around," Thorne suggests. "It's no fun just with mom and dad." Nor is it fun for mom and dad who, much as they love their child, don't want to spend every minute of their vacation as playmates.
The dilemma is becoming all the more common as the number of families with one child continues to grow.
In the last decade, there was a 43% increase in the number of women having just one child, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 13 million youngsters under 18--nearly one in four, the Census Bureau says--live in homes without any siblings.
Some of those kids, such as Nancy Jervis' 9-year-old son, Ben, are used to amusing themselves and do so whether on a trip or at home. That makes things considerably easier for parents, especially if they're traveling solo. "Ben always behaves better in a hotel," says Jervis, who has taken her son with her to China on business trips.
Too bad I can't count on hotels having that effect on my three kids. But UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman notes that only-children are often better behaved in adult environments (restaurants and hotels), than those from larger families because they're accustomed to being around grown-ups.
That doesn't mean they like it. For that reason, she urges parents to resist the temptation to treat their child as "a little adult" on vacation. "Remember, no matter how well he behaves, he's still a kid."
"The families who do best are those who pay attention to their children's needs and give them some choices," says David Trower, headmaster of a New York private school in which more than a third of the students are only-children.
That's why Kyle McCarthy, publisher of the Family Travel Forum newsletter, seeks out spots where she and her husband and son are likely to find other children from the area they're visiting. It doesn't seem to matter if the kids don't speak the same language as their 5-year-old son, Regan. Once in Madrid, she recalled, Regan jumped in and played a game other children were playing at an outdoor restaurant, though he couldn't understand a word of Spanish.
But as kids get older, many families invite a friend along so that they know their child will have a companion. "It can make your life a lot easier," Thorne says.
Our family likes to invite children who are already frequent visitors to our house and comfortable with our family's routines. And we attempt to be clear from the outset about whether we're picking up the other child's expenses or whether we expect the other child's parents to foot the bill for his or her flight, meals or theme park pass.
Some single parents of only-children, Jervis among them, say another option is to vacation with another family. But you need to take into consideration that vacationing with friends will change the entire family dynamic, notes Waterman. "It's not going to be the same family experience," she says.
If you don't want to give up family time that can be especially wonderful when you focus fully on one child, opt for a more child-oriented trip rather than one centered on adult pursuits. Plan activities, whether sailing, camping or shopping, that capitalize on an interest you and your child share.
Jervis suggests heading to a resort that caters to single-parent families such as Club Med, Copper Mountain in Colorado or a cruise ship where well-organized children's programs will guarantee you some time alone while your child is happily engaged elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Thornes are planning a summer trip to Virginia to coincide with a visit of a young friend from California. Simonetta Thorne wouldn't have it any other way. "I want to have a vacation too," she says.
Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.