Iguazu with kids
Family Gap Year

Our Family Gap Year Frequently Asked Questions – And Answers!

 

When people discover that we completed a year long, round the world trip on a budget with three kids in tow, they are keen to ask questions about our trip. 

The same questions pop up every time. Why did you decide to leave your stable lives and travel? Where did you go? What was it like travelling long term with kids on a budget? And the biggie – how much did it cost?

So what are the frequently asked questions about our family gap year – and what are the answers? 

 

Family gap year frequently asked questions – planning and preparation

 

Why did you want to take a family gap year?

My husband and I had always dreamed of a gap year with our family. We had travelled individually before getting married but had only taken a few short trips together.

We wanted to make travel memories as a couple and as a family and longed to revisit places to show them to each other and to our children. 

As the years passed, we hoped to catch up with far flung friends in person rather than through social media. 

Childhood is so short and we wanted to spend as much time as possible with our children.

 

kids swinging on the beach in Hawaii family gap year
Big Island, Hawaii

 

Had you done much travelling as a family before your trip around the world?

We had enjoyed several camping trips around the U.K and I regularly travelled to Ireland on my own with one, two and then three children. 

Our family had three budget holidays to Europe when we stayed in Airbnb’s for the first time. We visited Tenerife, Crete and travelled to Norway in mid winter to chase the Northern Lights.

We learnt a lot from these short trips such as how to travel light and entertain kids without devices but we also gained confidence in travel planning, budgeting and using public transport with kids in a foreign country.

Self catering in Airbnb’s made us realise that we could afford to travel long term as a family of five. 

I also learnt useful tips like carrying more snacks than you think you need and not to stand upwind of a vomiting child!

 

How did you save for your family round the world trip? 

As family gap year was always our long term plan, we took decisions that would enable us to save money.

We bought a run down house we could afford on one mortgage, ran one car and bought second hand goods. However, we were lucky to be in a position to save money. 

Plus, early in our marriage, we opened a savings account for ‘a big trip.’ 

This was not a serious, physical step towards our trip; we did not actively save regular money for several years. It was more a psychological step to keep our family gap year dream alive. We dribbled money into the savings account whenever we could.

Ten years later we were still saving.

 

What prompted you to finally start your trip?

A sequence of events – some private and personal – culminated in the realisation of ‘if not now, when’? 

We began to acknowledge that time was passing quickly. We were getting older and our children had reached an age where they would be old enough to remember the trip but were young enough to want to travel with their frumpy parents. 

It was around this time that we watched the Disney movie ‘Up’.

In the opening sequence of the film, a newly married couple start a savings jar for a big trip which is continually used to pay for life’s unexpected expenses; a familiar story to us!

And then, all of a sudden, the couple are old and the man is alone. It is a very moving sequence which left me sobbing in the cinema! 

There was never going to be ‘a perfect time’ to leave our settled lives, our family and our friends to travel around the world – so why not go now when we had the time, good health and the children’s enthusiasm? 

 

Was it difficult to leave home?

Leaving home was the hardest part of our family gap year. 

We made a huge mistake in booking our departure flight before assessing everything that we needed to do in order to leave home. 

Firstly, we badly underestimated how much work was needed to rent our home. 

We spent months decluttering, decorating, obtaining safety certificates, sourcing landlords insurance, dealing with agents etc.

It was a slog to achieve the departure deadline and we were still shoving items into our loft the morning we left our house in the U.K. 

Secondly, we had not appreciated the time and work required to prepare to travel the world for a year.

Researching round the world tickets, applying for visas, new passports, making a will, alerting banks, credit cards, pensions, utilities…the list was endless.

 

family gap year girl on a boat in china
Enjoying a quiet moment on the Li River, China

 

I spent weeks trying to find the right gap year travel insurance policy for our family and cancelled two policies before finally sourcing the right policy for our needs.

I learnt so much about sneaky wording and insurance policy loopholes (plus some money saving tips) that a post on ‘buying the right travel insurance policy for you’ is on its way! Watch this space!

And then there were travel vaccines.  

We had not realized that some of our vaccines needed a course of treatment with strict time frames between each dose.

We started our vaccine schedule five months before departure but even then, we had our last vaccine on the day we flew out of the U.K. 

And every vaccine appointment was stressful as our eldest child hates needles!

My advice is to shop around for travel vaccines as  prices vary dramatically. More tips on how to plan – and pay for – travel vaccines coming soon!

We had given ourselves a deadline of just five months to get ready- at the same time as daily family life, work, and much needed overtime!

Plus, we naively forgot to factor these considerable extra costs into our travel budget. 

 

What was the hardest part of leaving home?

The hardest part was saying goodbye to family and friends.

Leaving home was a huge emotional upheaval and not everyone supported our gap year plans. We heard ‘why don’t you wait till the kids have left home’ so many times. 

The ‘bon voyage’ nights out with friends, colleagues and family were lovely but could be upsetting and emotional, especially for the children.

Seeing our elderly parents say goodbye to their precious grandchildren was awful. 

The goodbyes became so hard that we banned anyone coming to the airport to see us off. 

I am glad we did this as, on departure day, I crumpled the moment we left our house. 

 

Weren’t you worried about the kids missing school? 

No.

I knew they would miss out on learning but felt there would also be benefits of a gap year. 

Plus, I was a primary school teacher before having the children so felt confident I could teach the children whilst travelling; and if I didn’t know something, Google would!

We de-registered our children and they left school the day before we left England

We were worried about the children missing their friends so we compiled a list of contact details and encouraged the children to keep in touch with their friends throughout our trip.

You can read more about how to start home schooling here

 

Our family gap year – the details

 

How did you travel in your family gap year?

We travelled hand luggage only – it is possible with three kids! Each child had their own size appropriate bag that they were responsible for. 

We used affordable, hard wearing Cabin Max bags, packing a few clothes that would wash well, create layers and mix and match. 

The kids brought one soft toy and book each, a bag of Lego and some pens and paper. 

We left any sentimental items at home, including our wedding rings. 

Coming soon – our round the world trip packing list – and what we regretted packing or leaving behind. 

 

Did you buy a round the world ticket?

No. We travelled on one way tickets purchased as we travelled.

We realised that if we bought five round the world tickets, we would lose a lot of money if we had to return home prematurely. Cancellation and curtailment clauses would not cover the full cost of five round the world tickets – not even close!

Also, some places we hoped to visit- such as Hawaii and Argentina – are not included in the usual round the world ticket routes so we would have to buy supplementary tickets to these destinations anyway. 

We reasoned that one way tickets would offer a flexible route so we could follow recommendations and take advantage of last minute ideas or deals.

I am so glad we made this decision as halfway through the trip, we decided we were fed up of flying and decided to travel across Asia and Europe to the U.K overland by train. 

If we had round the world tickets, we would have not had the flexibility to change our plans.

Our epic overland trip by rail is one of the highlights of our trip.

 

Trans Siberian railway second class cabin
Our second class cabin on the Trans Siberian Railway

 

Where did you go on your family gap year and how did you travel around?

These are our gap year destinations.

Iceland – self drive

United States east coast – rail, one internal flight, self drive

Argentina – one internal flight, long distance buses (27 hours!), self drive

Chile – one internal flight, long distance buses

Costa Rica – private transfer, public bus, boat

United States west coast – self drive, train from San Francisco to Vancouver via Seattle

Canada/Vancouver Island – ferry and self drive

Hawaii – self drive

Samoa – bus, transfer

New Zealand – , ferry, relocation car and motor homes

Australia – train from Brisbane to Cairns, relocation motor homes from Cairns to Sydney

Hong Kong and China – train and taxi

Mongolia – train and 2 day trip with our hostel owner in his car!

Russia – train and taxi

Finland – return ferry to Estonia, train, overnight ferry to Sweden

Sweden – train

Denmark – train

Germany – train

Switzerland – train and cable car

France – train

 

Longest stay – New Zealand, two months

Shortest stay – Estonia, 8 hours

family in front of glacier family gap year
The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina

 

Why did you choose this route?

When we left the U.K we only had the first two weeks of our round the world trip planned! This zigzag route just sort of came together.

We started in Iceland because I used the ‘anywhere’ search engine on Skyscanner to find the cheapest flight from our departure airport in the U.K. £17 each from Manchester to Reykjavik was too good to pass up! 

The United States and New Zealand were included as we wanted to visit friends and family who lived there. 

Plus, we had a list of natural sights we hoped to see such as Iguazu Falls and the Moreno Glacier in Argentina and The Great Wall in China. We also had a wish list of experiences, one of which led us to Hawaii to see ‘live lava.’

Other countries joined the list simply because we were nearby or travelling past and thought ‘why not, when will we be back this way?’ This led to us exploring Mongolia and southern Chile. 

Home schooling also informed our trip planning. When we found out our daughter was missing a school topic on rain forests we researched where we could visit an accessible rain forest. That’s how we ended up in Costa Rica.

 

 

Samoa is a different story!

I had spent several late nights trying to find an affordable flight from Hawaii to New Zealand.

I hate flying and did not want to return to Los Angeles – a five hour flight from Honolulu – just to get a cheaper but less environmentally friendly flight back over Hawaii to New Zealand. 

By chance, I found an affordable, late night flight from Hawaii with Air Fiji that allowed a free stopover in either Fiji or Samoa. As I had already been to Fiji I chose Samoa. 

I booked the flight (saving around £2000) and then googled ‘Where is Samoa?’

sunset on the beach in costa rica with kids
Releasing turtles at sunset at Playa Junquillal, Costa rica

 

What were your favourite countries on your trip around the world?

Costa Rica. It’s a living textbook on nature! Incredible natural scenery with accessible, diverse flora and fauna. I will never forget hiking in the hazy cloud forests to the constant, loud hum of invisible hummingbirds.

We loved the fact Costa Rica has no army, is one of the world leaders on conservation and lives and breathes ‘pura vida.’

Mongolia. Remote, vast, fascinating culture and warm, friendly people who love children. The incredibly clear, starry nights of Mongolia were breath taking. 

We also loved Hawaii and Samoa because they offer everything we love about travel – dramatic landscapes, lush tropical flora, amazing snorkelling in warm, clear waters, good food and friendly people.

 

What were your favourite experiences?

Releasing newly hatched baby turtles at sunset at the turtle sanctuary at Playa Junquillal in Costa Rica.

Having our hair nibbled by an inquisitive baby manatee in Crystal River, Florida.

The starry nights in Mongolia and Australia or the colours of a Samoan sunset.

Everything about the Trans Siberian Railway. We love trains!

The jaw dropping nature in Argentina; Iguassu Falls, Moreno Glacier and the Fitz Roy Massif around beautiful El Chalten. 

And, floating in a dingy, in a pitch black cave under a roof full of glow worms in New Zealand, my son whispering ‘Thank you for bringing me here.’

 

Did you encounter the kindness of strangers? 

Yes, all the time. 

From the simple act of receiving directions to the extra effort of making a phone call for us, taking us food shopping or sorting medical help.

One Airbnb owner in New Zealand allowed us to stay without payment until we had sorted a problem with our credit card.

These little acts of trust and kindness help enormously when travelling with children.

 

Did you home school in your family gap year and was it successful? 

We did home school but not every day or at set times.

Most of our home schooling was based on topics about the places we were visiting (volcanoes, indigenous animals etc) and these scrapbooks have created wonderful mementos for the children of our round the world trip. We tried to keep learning relevant to our travels.

We quickly learnt what worked best for each child. We chose not to follow online courses and used long journeys to catch up on work (or for subjects such as math).

You can read more on our tips on home schooling whilst travelling here.

girl reading a book on the beach Samoa with kids family gap year
Home schooling at its best! Lalomanu, Samoa

 

Did you get sick?

Yes. Inevitable for a family travelling world!

One daughter caught two nasty vomiting bugs (USA and China), the other received bad coral cuts to her feet in Samoa.

Our son needed six stitches to his head when he fell over in a tiled shower in Costa Rica. 

And I caught typhoid.

Despite having the typhoid vaccine and being careful with water, ice, unwashed fruit and salad,  I caught typhoid from under cooked scrambled eggs. 

 

What were the worst moments of the trip?

Realising I didn’t have the Zika virus but something more serious which resulted in a horrible week in isolation in a New Zealand hospital. I was very sick for three weeks and it took around two months to fully recover.

As parents, it was hard seeing our kids sick or hurt; it is not easy to be ill far from home.

Arriving at midnight to an isolated hotel in Argentina to find the owner had closed and gone off site. We ended up flagging down a passing police car who kindly tracked down the owner but standing on a street corner in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar town with no Wi-Fi, no map and no accommodation was a scary experience.

Travelling in a taxi with a driver on a death wish in the U.S or with a sleepy taxi driver in China. We asked both drivers to pull over.

But by far the worst moment was when our son fell and cut his head.

We simultaneously realised his profusely bleeding head needed stitches, we couldn’t speak Spanish and were a one hour drive from the nearest medical facility.

It was a heart dropping moment I will never forget. 

We tried to learn from each incident to prevent them happening again. 

 

How did you finance your round the world trip?

We used our ‘big trip’ savings pot and money raised from selling most of our possessions.

But the major factor that enabled us to travel before we could fully afford it from savings, was ‘extending’ our mortgage by around 4 years. We have an ‘off set’ mortgage that allows payment flexibility.

We could have waited to travel until we had enough money saved but our savings pot was increasing slowly whilst time was passing quickly. 

We feel we made the right decision – who knows what the future may bring?

 

What was your family gap year budget? 

We tried to stick to £20 per person per day – for accommodation, food, activities and transport.

We aimed to have at least two ‘zero days’ a week where we didn’t spend any money in addition to self catering and accommodation. 

Some days we were over budget, others days were under budget. 

Self catering made the biggest difference to our costs; we noticed the difference on the rare times we went to a restaurant! 

Plus, we did not suffer from FOMO – ‘fear of missing out’ will blow any budget.

 

Where was your most expensive country? 

The most expensive countries for us were China and Argentina. 

In China, we wanted to pack a lot into our three week visit so we used taxis to help us get around and hired guides to navigate and understand the sites we visited. Plus, we were not permitted to stay in one room so had to pay for two rooms wherever we stayed.

Our guides made our trip to China; we learned so much about Chinese history, culture and daily life from our new friends so it was worth blowing the budget on.

Argentina was unexpectedly expensive as we had not known that foreigners have to pay more than domestic tourists for internal flights, major attractions and bus journeys.

Plus, we had to pay in cash everywhere we stayed but at the time of our visit, there was a limit to how much money we could withdraw from an ATM. On some days we had to visit multiple ATM’s just to get enough cash for that night’s accommodation. With each ATM withdrawal costing $6, these fees amounted to a lot of money over six weeks!!!

 

Where was the cheapest country?

Our cheapest countries were Mongolia, Australia and New Zealand.

In Mongolia we paid $6 per person for bed and breakfast and the children were free everywhere we went. 

In New Zealand and Australia – which are not known for being cheap destinations – we did lots of free activities such as hiking or going to the beach but the biggest savings we made were travelling around both countries using relocation motor homes and camper vans.

Our vans and motor homes were either free or $5 a day for 4-5 days. We were lucky that each van we used had the option to buy extra days for $75 (around £30). This was a travelling off peak bonus!

In addition to this very cheap mode of transport and accommodation, we freedom camped using the excellent CamperMate App to find legally approved, free camping spots. 

On many days our transport and accommodation costs totalled $5.

family in a motorhome driving in New Zealand family gap year
Freedom camping in a relocation motor home, New Zealand

 

Coming home from a family gap year

 

Did your family find it hard to settle after your trip around the world?

My husband and I found it very hard to settle, even though we both went back to work soon after our return. I would not advise anyone to return home for the start of winter!

Thankfully, the kids settled quickly and easily. 

They went back to school two days after we got home and though they had to get used to being indoors and wearing shoes again, they settled easily into school life and friendship groups. 

 

Are you still travelling now?

As much as time and savings allow!

We take budget trips around the U.K whenever we can and completed a three week backpacking trip around the Balkans. 

However, we are actively trying to fly less so will only fly if there is no other option, such as our family holiday in Madeira, or if we are going to stay somewhere long term. 

 

 

What did we learn on your family gap year?

 

We learnt so many things on our family round the world trip, most of which I hope to put to good use on another trip if we win the lottery! 

 

Children are adaptable and resilient but need a link with home.

We learnt our children are more resilient and capable than we had thought and discovered so much about their interests and characters. They constantly surprised us with what they liked and did not like as well as how they grew in confidence and ability. 

Bringing a soft toy from home and maintaining a bedtime routine greatly helped their transition to full time travel. At times though, we had to accept their need for familiarity; on a rare night out in Chile, the children voted to eat a certain global fast food chain rather than the mouth watering local restaurants.

 

Our expectations were constantly challenged.  

We were surprised that some countries we expected to be easy travelling with kids (the United States) turned out to be challenging and countries we thought would be tough travelling through with children (Mongolia) were easy. 

I expected to find it difficult being together 24/7 but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to though I’m not sure if the other family members agree?!

 

The world is getting smaller.

I learned that the world today feels much smaller than it did during my first round the world trip in the mid 1990’s.

Backpackers clutch iPad’s rather than tatty paper guidebooks and use Google maps on i phones rather than unwieldy maps.

Travellers call home on their mobiles rather than scribble messages on blue airmail letters. 

Fast food outlets, coffee chains and Wi-Fi are everywhere. Mongolia had the fastest Wi-Fi in our entire trip! 

 

We have a long way to go to achieve sustainable tourism.

We were horrified by the waste we witnessed in the tourism industry in many countries which in turn, has made more more aware of the shortcomings of our own country.

Wasting food and resources, the lack of environmentally friendly and ethical souvenirs and above all, the unnecessary use of disposable items.

We had to argue against plastic bags for our shopping all over the world!

 

Funchal with kids
Still exploring…Funchal, Madeira

 

We were dismayed that every motel and hotel we stayed at in the U.S.A (except for the excellent Element Harrison in New Jersey!) used disposable plates and cutlery creating bags and bags of unnecessary garbage after every breakfast. 

 Few tourist locations have ethical, sustainable souvenirs available. In Ulaanbaatar, we found the excellent ‘Mary and Martha’ a fair trade store promoting and selling crafts by local people. Plus, very few locations sites offer water fountains for reusable water bottles or plastic bottle recycling.

Yet we were heartened by the low key community and individual conservation efforts we encountered during our trip.

A ray of hope!

 

What were your biggest challenges?

Maintaining the kids health and safety.

The relentless, parental hyper awareness was exhausting and stressful. Travelling, sightseeing, shopping all required a high level of alertness. Even when we arrived to new accommodation we couldn’t relax until we had completed a safety sweep.

As a family, we had discussed and planned ways to stay safe whilst travelling and what to do in different scenarios but we were lucky we never had to implement these. We were not robbed, scammed or threatened during our trip. 

I also found planning as we travelled a challenge.

I spent countless late nights with erratic Wi-Fi researching and planning where to go, what to do and where to stay – sometimes at the detriment of enjoying where we currently were. 

 

What would you do differently on a future trip?

I would share the role of ‘gap year planner’ between family members to share workload and responsibility.

We would spend more time in far away countries that we are unlikely to visit again and less time in familiar locations that are easier and cheaper to access from our home. 

I would fly less. During our trip, we discovered relocation cruises and cargo ship tickets so will definitely look into these as no fly options for a future trip. 

 

Would you go again? 

Yes. No hesitation!

 

 

A family gap year – how much does it cost?

 

Did you stick to your family gap year budget? 

Although we had a daily budget that we tried to stick to, we used our budget to guide our choices rather than dictate them. 

We had a rough, overall budget for our family gap year which we exceeded by around 20%.

This was predominantly due to a drastic devaluation of the British Pound shortly before we started our trip. This one event added 20% to all of our costs. 

Secondly, we underestimated the cost of travelling as a family of five, encountering restrictions and costs we had not experienced on previous trips. 

Plus, in addition to a few unexpectedly expensive countries, a couple of locations blew our budget.

I wish I had researched how much a trip to Disney World would cost before promising to take the children. The cost of three days in Disney parks whilst self catering in a cheap off site hotel would have kept us going for 3-4 weeks elsewhere! 

Finally, we have included our considerable pre-trip costs in our overall expenditure as vaccines, travel insurance and prepping our house were all part of the cost of travelling the world for a year.

 

How much did your family gap year cost?

 Only my husband knows the exact amount and he is not spilling the beans!

But I know roughly how much our family gap year cost and know it is not as much as you may think. 

If you take the cost of an average two week holiday from the U.K, (Google it!) multiply it by 26 for one year of travel, we spent less than half this amount.

For anyone considering a family gap year, a useful activity is to make a detailed list of ALL your outgoings.

Include every penny – mortgage, bills, food, clothes, how much you spend on Christmas and birthdays, kids clubs, eating out or take away, the odd coffee or sandwich etc. It may take a few weeks to compile your list.

When you realise how much you spend just living at home, a family round the world trip may just seem a little more attainable! 

 

What would your advice be to anyone planning a round the world trip?

 

Go. You will not regret it – you WILL regret not going.

You can read more tips and advice on how to plan a gap year here.

 

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