Taking a family gap year was the best decision Michael and I ever made. Any of the concerns we had before our adventure began have been completely forgotten as we’ve immersed ourselves in this wild adventure. In fact, none of us want this journey to end!
We regularly receive questions from other individuals and families hoping to plan a similar adventure and we’re always happy to answer and offer our encouragement. Eight months into our journey, we have learned a few things and I feel like we can answer some of the more frequently asked questions. (Granted, we’re still learning as we go so I’d welcome any tips you want to share.)
What lead you to go on an adventure around the world with your family? How did you decide that now was the time?
Taking a year away to travel with our kids has been something I’ve dreamt about since I was young. The family living next to my grandparents did it and I admired their sense of adventure and wanderlust. I loved the idea of spending a year with just my family – the closeness it would bring and the lessons we would all learn together. Last year we decided that we had reached the ideal moment. Our eldest was turning ten and our youngest was about to be three. We realised how quickly they were growing up and decided we should do it now, while they were all more interested in their family than their school, activities or friends. We worried that in a few years our eldest, Easton, might be less keen to steal away with his parents and younger siblings. Lucky for us, the timing was perfect as Easton is by far the keenest traveler and seems to be gaining the most from the experience.
How far in advance did you start planning your family gap year?
We made the decision to embark on this adventure in November 2014. We put our house on the market and it sold by February. At that point we knew we had the savings to make it possible, but we weren’t sure where we were going, how long we would stay or whether we’d continue to work from the road. To be honest, it felt very much like a fantasy until we actually packed our bags.
Did you plan the full year of travel before you left?
No. In the months between deciding to go and departing, we worked out some details of our journey, but we did not have a concrete plan or detailed itinerary before we left. It’s pretty much impossible to plan a full year of travel so we’ve welcomed a bit of improvisation along the way.
How did you choose where to go?
We started by jotting down a list of places we’d always wanted to visit. Neither of us had spent much time in South America, for example, so that was a must. Then we talked to really well travelled friends, like Vanessa Boz from BozAround, and got their recommendations. In the end we had a list probably 20 destinations long. We knew we wanted to spend a minimum of three weeks in each place so the next challenge was paring the list down. Early on we decided to favour rural or quiet places over cities. We love ciities but a big part of the ambition for this year was to slow down and really be present with our kids. It was this desire that really led us to lesser known places like Trancoso, Pichilemu and Bangalow.
How do you book airplane tickets for a family gap year?
You need a travel agent. Luckily there are ‘Around the World’ specialists like Rachel Finney at Flight Centre. We discussed the options available and the limitations with Rachel and her colleague, Amy McBay. In a nutshell, an Around the World (RTW) ticket is a ‘contract’ with one airline group (like One World or Star Alliance) that allows you a certain number of stops and miles. There are a variety of options available. We picked the best one for us and then worked with Rachel and Amy to optimize the contract with our wish list of destinations—getting the most for our money. This process took a few weeks.
Did you decide before you left how long you’d spend in each place?
No. We agreed early on that our journey was not about ‘seeing everything.’ We knew we wanted to stay a minimum of three weeks in every place (more in some) to really get to know them. Aside from a few city stopovers we’ve held true to this. Though we had to set dates to purchase the initial airline tickets, we almost immediately began to change those dates once the travel was underway. Fortunately, RTW tickets are very flexible on date changes. As long as there is availability, date changes on our ticket are free of charge. So for example, when we fell in love with surfing in Uruguay we shifted most of the time we had planned to spend in Argentina to Chile, where the surf is great. We discovered a little surf town called Pichilemu by googling ‘best Chilean beach towns’, booked a house on Airbnb and stayed for three weeks.
How did you sort out visas for each country?
We are all dual citizens, holding both UK and US passports, so visas are often not required or relatively easy to attain. There are some countries however, like Australia, that require a visa for all visitors. Fortunately they make the process very easy with online sites like, Easy ETA, providing quick access. There are also websites like CIBT Visas where you can check whether or not you need a visa to travel to any given country.
Did you need to get special vaccinations?
Yes, we had to get a few jabs and boosters even though we decided early on not to travel to any areas with malaria or serious tropical diseases. Most governments have websites offering travel advice and information on necessary vaccinations. In the UK the National Health Service site is called Fit for Travel. For the US it is offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Do you carry medicines with you in case you or the children get sick?
Yes. We have a first-aid kit with us and some basic travel related and prescription medicines like antidiarrheals and antibiotics. Thankfully we have not needed to use anything more than plasters (Band-Aids) so far. In the UK you can purchase basic medical kits for travel from sites like e-pax.
Did you take up worldwide health assistance or insurance cover?
Yes, though we find insurance endlessly confusing. Thankfully we have an exceptionally helpful insurance broker, Jason Cobine at Cobine Carmleson, who helps us demystify anything insurance related. Jason reviewed the options for ‘Gap Year’ travel cover (yes, this exists) and then helped us select the best policy for our circumstances– one from Hiscox costing around £1,600 for our family of six. It’s not a perfect policy (there were no perfect options available) but this one seemed to cover the most likely travel and medical problems. Thankfully we have not had to call upon it yet.
Additionally, for the past few months we have been in New Zealand and Australia, countries where the UK has reciprocal health care agreements. This means we have free access to basic medical care, especially for inpatient or acute problems. It’s not as comprehensive as what the NHS would offer us, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there if we need it.
Where have you stayed and how have you booked your accommodation?
We have mostly booked houses or apartments through Airbnb, i-escape or other similar services. We have only stayed in a hotel a couple times, during quick city stopovers en route to different destinations. In Los Angeles and Byron Bay we stayed in wonderful family homes we booked through Kid & Coe. In Buenos Aires we were hugely impressed by the customer service of Oasis Collections. It’s so much nicer to stay in a house or apartment where you have a kitchen to cook meals and a washing machine to do the laundry, etc. With Kid & Coe you have the added benefit of staying in kid-friendly properties, so there are usually toys for the kids to play with, children’s highchairs and beds. You instantly feel at home.
How much did you pack? How many suitcases are you traveling with?
We each have one suitcase and one backpack. The kids’ suitcases are carry-on size, so quite small and light. Michael’s and my suitcases are standard size but we’re also toting the beach towels, yoga mat, beach tent and other random equipment in them. We also have a suitcase filled with the homeschooling materials and other kit. It’s not a lot of luggage when viewed on an individual basis, but it looks like a whole heap of stuff when you pile it into a small minivan! It doesn’t help that we’ve now picked up surfboards and wetsuits.
To make up for the new additions we’ve shed some clothes, books and other things we weren’t using. We’ve actually shed quite a lot over the past few months as we learn how little we actually need. Our advice would be: lay out all of the things you think you absolutely need to pack then take half away. Have another look and take away half again. We swear, you’ll be fine. It’s amazing how little we actually need to exist, especially when you don’t need clothes for work or more formal affairs. (It also helps that we decided to stick to mostly warm, sunny climates. We were able to get by without packing heavy coats or boots or cold weather clothing.)
What did you bring for entertainment for the kids?
We actually didn’t bring very much. We found that the children were able to make up games with objects we found along the way (a tree branch that became a ‘stick man’, pieces of tree bark that became mini surf boards, etc.). Each of the kids had their own backpack to hold their books, journals, papers, pens and coloured pencils. In their backpack they each were allowed to bring their favourite soft toy or teddy bear. Additionally, we also packed a few small games like Dobble, Uno and a couple decks of playing cards. Of course we also listened to a lot of audio books, especially on long car journeys, and played this game almost nightly.
What did you do with your belongings and furniture? Did you end up putting a lot in self-storage? Is it expensive? What did you store?
We sold or gave away a lot of our bigger belongings. We decided to only keep the meaningful stuff (the sentimental things that couldn’t be replaced) and the stuff we were 95% confident we would use again. It wasn’t easy to decide what to lose and what to store, and I’m sure when we pull it out of storage we’ll question some of the decisions we made. In any case, we gave a lot of things away to charity shops (about six minivans-full), gave many things to friends and sold some of the bigger/nicer things on Ebay. We kept our 1950s piano because I love it and know it will be difficult to replace. We also kept our paintings, art prints, our pottery and sculptures. We kept the nicer table linens and bedding, but gave away the rest. And of course we kept all our family keepsakes, like the children’s artwork, photos and journals. Kiwi Movers packed up and hauled away what was left. They put it in ‘palletised’ storage on the outskirts of London that costs us around £300 per month – which is expensive, but we didn’t have any less expensive options that felt safe and reliable.
What have you done about mobile phones and internet?
Wow — Michael wasted a lot of time researching this. In addition to working from the road, we knew we’d need reliable mobile internet to help plan our future stops. He looked all over for the best deals. First he looked at buying International SIMS in advance for each country. Then he looked into mobile broadband dongles that came equipped with coverage for a ‘bundle of countries. There were a mind-boggling number of options yet none seemed right. So he gave up and we planned to buy a local SIM when we landed in each country (we have unlocked phones). That was until we arrived in S. America.
When we powered on our phone in Peru we received a welcome message from T-Mobile USA, informing us we had cheap calls and free data (at a limited speed). The ‘Simple Choice Plan’, something we bought just to cover our time in the States, turned out to be all we needed for things like internet searches, iMessage, sending email or using Google Maps. When we need higher speed data, we can text to upgrade for a fee. This can get expensive so we only use it when we really need it. Obviously read the Ts & Cs to be sure it’s right for you, but this plan been great for us.
What do you miss the most about home?
We miss our friends and our beds. Other than that, anything we miss is quickly eclipsed by the excitement, adventure and joy of travel. If anything, our time on the road has only made us want to spend more time on the road. If money were no object, we’d become a modern nomadic family, drifting from place to place for years together.
How do you fund your travels? Has your trip been sponsored?
We decided to sell our home and dig into our savings to fund this adventure. I don’t think we would have had the courage to take the leap without doing so. However, we’ve met other travellers (both individuals and families) who are making it work by renting out their homes or just living frugally.
We’re also fortunate that my job can travel so I continue to earn income while we’re away (more on that below). Over the course of our travels Michael has also helped field some new opportunities.
No, our trip has not been sponsored. That would be amazing so any interested sponsors please contact us. We’d like to keep going! 🙂 Thanks to social media we are offered occasional discounts or freebies, but we only accept the ones that feel right for our family.
You are working remotely, right? When do you fit it in?
I continue my work with Babyccino Kids, which thankfully can be done remotely (provided there’s reliable WiFi). My partners are in Amsterdam and Paris, so being apart is the norm for our company. I try to squeeze in my working hours while the kids are sleeping or Michael is teaching the older kids. Some days it’s a juggling act with Marlow often vying for my attention. On a good day I can get 2-3 hours of work done in the mornings and another two or three in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed. That leaves some catching up to do on the weekends, so I squeeze in the hours when I can. What’s most important to me is to keep work and mothering separate. So when I’m working, I’m completely tuned into my computer and it’s all about work. And when I’m mothering, I switch off the phone and email and focus on the kids.
How did you budget everything? Did you use an app, online resources or recommended books?
Our budget is a spreadsheet full of best guesses. Michael used Excel as he already knew it from work, but try as he might, he couldn’t put together a perfect budget for an adventure like this without spending weeks researching costs. Instead he started by deciding what we could afford to spend on airfare and that determined the number of stops we could get on our Around the World (RTW) tickets. He used the RTW specialists at FlightCentre to help us plan and get the most out of the tickets. These fares can vary between £1,500 (ca. $2,250) and £4,000 (ca. $6,000) per person depending on where you want to go. Kid fares are a bit less than adult fares.
Then he started making guesses at what accommodation might cost in each location for six people, whether or not we needed a car, and how much we’d need for groceries and spending money each week. In some places his guesses were accurate, in others he was too optimistic.
Over halfway through our year I can tell you that what is more important than his spreadsheet is a mindset. If you all agree upfront to live with some restrictions you tend to stay within your budget. That can mean forgoing a meal out even when there’s an awesome restaurant we want to try, staying out of the shops though the shopping looks great or choosing free activities like walking or swimming over paid activities like skiing or snorkeling. Having to live out of a suitcase imposes its own restrictions too. No point buying stuff you can’t fit in.
The bottom line is that this year is not going to be cheap but when I think about what we spend on education, transport, groceries and everything else in London, it doesn’t seem too bad. The experiences we’re having together and the things we are all learning feel priceless to us. Our family has been and will continue to be transformed by this experience in such a positive way. I have no regrets and would definitely recommend a family gap year to anyone interested in doing it.
What teaching materials do you use to teach 4 different curriculums to your children on the road?
The travel itself has been immensely educational (for all of us) but we are homeschooling the 6, 8 and 10 year old kids as well. We try to start each weekday with lessons in maths, reading and writing, but we also try to be flexible. Many lessons are inspired by our travel and their curiosities. Things like coconut and papaya production, Rheas (flightless birds of the pampas), desert rock formations or ocean currents. On days when we take a field trip to an interesting place or museum we let that experience be the lesson for the day. The kids are each keeping journals that are now full of interesting things they’ve seen, learned and experienced. We encourage them to write in them clearly, neatly and with good grammar. Math is taught using age-specific workbooks Michael brought along and he also creates ‘worksheets’ for them to practice the day’s lesson.
We are not following the national curriculum closely, but we do have a series of books called, ‘What your Year X child should know’, that we use as a guide for maths and literature, in particular. We’ve also discovered the Khan Academy, which has been a great resource for maths help, especially when you’re trying to teach something you learned thirty-odd years ago. Finally, we make sure that each of the three older kids have a novel or young readers book they are reading daily. (I’ve written more about our homeschooling journey here.)
Do you find it challenging?
Yes. Homeschooling has certainly proven more challenging than either Michael or I anticipated. Our eldest, Easton, has responded really well to being taught by his dad, but Quin and Ivy, both great students in the classroom, were difficult to teach at first. It’s also challenging to teach three students at the same time when their levels are so different and they each have different areas of need. We’re slowly getting the hang of it though and it has been extremely rewarding to watch them learn and progress. Homeschooling has also taught us a lot about each of our kids. We’ve learned how they learn best, where their strengths or weaknesses lie and what motivates them. We didn’t know our kids as ‘students’ before this year, but we are so grateful to have this knowledge now. When they return to a traditional setting we will be better able to help them get the most from their education. (Here is a link to a really inspiring article with 10 Good Reasons to Home School your Child. When things get frustrating, we focus on the upsides!)
Have you got a routine?
We have never been super strict on routines in our family. I know that I am a happier, more relaxed mum if I go with the flow rather than stress about timings and routines. Saying this, I think we are even more relaxed than usual this year. We usually wake at the lazy hour of 8am. We’ll make breakfast together, eat and get dressed for the day. We’ll usually spend the next few hours doing work and homeschool. Afternoons are typically spent on the beach or on a field trip to a local museum, hike, etc. The kids have been learning to surf and it’s definitely been a joy to watch their passion evolve over the past few months. Even I have caught the surfing bug!
On rainy days we’ll spend more time doing lessons at home. We try to incorporate our weekly activities and discoveries into our lessons. It’s been so nice to have the flexibility to teach them when they are interested and engaged in a subject that we are experiencing first-hand. They had no trouble learning South American geography, for example, as they were so interested in all of the places they were visiting.
In the evenings, we make dinner and play games together. We’ve become quite relaxed about bed times and the evening routine, which is nice as it means our evenings are generally stress-free.
What do the children miss the most apart from their friends?
I didn’t know the answer to this, so I asked them! Ivy says she misses her dolls and her dress-up tutus. Marlow misses those too. She also misses her Monkey Music class that she took on Friday mornings in Primrose Hill. I think the boys occasionally miss having their own space away from their parents where they can play and read and not have their parents within earshot all the time. We all miss our bookshelves too. We keep being reminded of books we had in London (which are currently in storage). There are so many great children’s books I used to read to the boys that I wish I could read to the girls, especially to Marlow who really enjoys being read to right now.