Family Gap Year,  Planning Tips

Planning Where To Go and When

Perhaps you have planned a big trip for years – complete with a non negotiable bucket list, a specific place you wish to visit, an event you want to experience – so you know exactly where you want to go and when.

However, to most people, once the decision has been made to travel around the world, a world map suddenly appears enormous and it may be surprisingly difficult, daunting and confusing to pinpoint exactly which of the 195 currently recognised countries you wish to explore.

Here are a few ideas to help with planning a big trip and what we did, both successes and failures!

Planning where to go

What is your budget?

Working out how much you can afford to spend will influence where you choose to go and for how long.

Consider the costs in potential destinations; your money will go a lot further in Africa and Asia than it will in Europe or North America. Do not immediately discard more expensive countries – if it is a popular destination, competition within the tourism industry is high so it is possible to secure deals and bargains on accommodation and tours. More developed countries are usually more expensive but will have a wider variety of choice for a traveller; for example, camping and self catering is much easier in some countries than others thereby offsetting the high costs of living found there. Plus, for popular tourist destinations such as New Zealand or Australia, there will be more information available about budgeting and tips and tricks on how to save money whilst travelling there.

Consider the distances you may need to travel to fully explore a country and the associated costs involved; South America may have cheaper living costs than Europe but the distances between the places you might want to visit are vast, journeys will be time consuming and will add greatly to costs. Europe, whilst expensive, has cheap public bus companies and train travel deals.

International and trans oceanic flights are expensive whereas land locked countries are easily reached by bus or train; the more transport options there are, the more the journey will be competitively priced. Multi stop tickets, including stopovers, are usually cheaper than direct flights.

When setting your budget, don’t forget to allocate money for pre trip costs such as vaccinations, travel insurance, storage etc. These costs quickly (and insanely!) mount up eating into the spending fund.

We spent a considerable chunk of money before departure – much more than we had expected to – on vaccinations (£2000 +), travel insurance (£400+) and fees associated with preparing and renting our home – landlords insurance, painting, storage, window locks etc. We hadn’t factored this into our initial travel budget.

We generally visited locations in shoulder seasons to get good deals on accommodation and travel. Some countries with cheaper living costs turned out to be very expensive; in Argentina, entrance fees for five, internal travel and extortionate ATM fees in a cash only society unexpectedly pushed up our costs. But other countries with a reputation for being expensive worked out much cheaper than expected; in New Zealand, we explored the country using relocation vehicles and freedom camped. Plus, in Iceland, national parks are free and children are free or heavily discounted at other attractions resulting in very low sightseeing costs in an otherwise expensive country. 

Flights from our location in Hawaii to our next desired location New Zealand, were very expensive. We saved over £2000 flying via Samoa, plus, splitting our ticket enabled us to stay for two weeks in an island nation we fell in love with.  

Travelling overland to the U.K from Hong Kong gave us a variety of transport options meaning we could source the cheapest and best deal, rather than traveling over an ocean and having no option other than flying. 

What do you want to achieve from your trip? 

What do you most want to experience? Natural wonders, animals in their natural habitat, cultural differences, historical sights,  mountains, clear seas for diving and snorkelling, or if travelling from the U.K,  some guaranteed sunshine! Or just as many countries as possible?

What is on your bucket list?

If you are a novice traveller or have children with you, do you want to include ‘easier’, more familiar countries to travel in – at least to start off with? Do you wna to learn a new language or avid anywhere that does not speak your own language?

Are there friends and family you want to visit? Festivals or once in a lifetime events you wish to experience?

Are there any places you can immediately disregard?

We always intended that the focus of this trip would revolve around trying to visit far flung siblings, family and friends that we could never afford to visit individually on a two week vacation from the U.K; one round the world trip was the only way we would be able to afford to see everyone! Visiting family and friends gave our children some much needed home bases, downtime and peer play. It rekindled and rejuvenated old friendships and created new ones. In places, staying with locals provided us with a very different experience of a country and its customs to what we would have had in hotels or self catering accommodation. There were downsides to this plan – arranging to meet and stay with people or having people visit you means you are committed to being somewhere at a particular date or time and homestays require adapting to the routines and styles of other people.

Each family member chose a ‘must do’ experience that we incorporated into our planning – ranging from seeing lava to Legoland – and though not all wishes on our list were achieved (either due to cost or timing) we managed to find alternatives which led to unexpected, amazing experiences. For example, we abandoned  swimming with pigs in the Bahamas due to the high costs involved and unsuitability for children so instead we swam with manatees in Florida; this remains one of favourite days of our year long trip. 

We made a list of natural wonders we really wanted to visit such as Iguazu Falls and The Grand Canyon so our country choices fitted around our location choices. We didn’t get to Antartica as the best on the spot deal we could find in Punta Arenas would have cost us $25,000, yet it was one of the reasons for travelling to Punta Arenas! 

Other locations slotted in around our list of people and places – we went to Samoa because it was the cheapest flight we could find to get to New Zealand, we went to Mongolia to break up the train travel between China and Russia. We included easier, more familiar countries in amongst more challenging ones. We did not buy a round the world ticket; we flew on one way tickets buying as we travelled to allow for flexibility to route and timings. Our route map is a confusing zig zag and was not the most logical or cheapest from of travel but we did what we wanted and saw who we wanted. 

Having had malaria, we decided very early on in our planning not to expose our children to the risk of malaria – a very fortunate,  first world position to be in. Similarly, having had altitude sickness three times (I obviously didn’t learn the first time!) we decided not to visit anywhere with extreme altitude as I would probably get sick again, leaving my husband to cope alone with a sick wife and three children  (and that was relying on the basis my husband wouldn’t get altitude sickness too).  So, for this trip, we ruled out some of the more affordable travel countries and decided to wait until the children are older.  As it turned out, I ended up adding another tropical disease to my repertoire – typhoid –  and spent a week in hospital plus several weeks in post recovery!!!

Mixing ‘challenging’ and ‘easier’ countries worked well, especially early on in the trip, but we were surprised by how much our children loved some of the more challenging countries with Mongolia and Samoa as firm favourites. We were occasionally frustrated we had not allocated places enough time as we thought our children would find them challenging. Many countries require proof of onward travel as a condition of entry and we were frequently asked to demonstrate this. As any ticket date changes are expensive for a family of five, we usually adhered to our departure tickets and it proved difficult to know how long to allocate to a country before you have visited it. Some you love and want to stay longer, some you don’t and can’t wait to leave! 

Consider hidden extras.

Visa costs mount up quickly, particularly for a family. If every country on your list requires a visa, this will be a considerable chunk of the budget.  Visa costs do not just include the visa fee itself but also photography and postage costs, fees associated with collating paperwork, transport costs to embassies and consulates, interview and application fees.

Consider vaccination costs. It will be cheaper to visit countries that do not require additional vaccinations as a condition of entry or as a travel precaution. Check your government website for up to date, professional medical advice for different countries.

Vaccination costs for five were unexpectedly high but we felt that in the overall cost of the trip, we could not justify not getting the vaccines required. We offset these slightly by accumulating points to use for further vaccinations.

We needed an online, multiple entry ESTA visa for the U.S and a 90 day tourist visa for Australia. These costs were insignificant when compared to the costs for our Chinese and Russian visas! The Russian visa was very complicated, time consuming and stressful.  Firstly, our 90 day Australian visa was not considered ‘sufficient’ by the Russian consulate so we had to pay to extend our Australian visa even though we were not staying over the 90 days timeframe. Then, as we were applying outside our home country, we had to pay $350 to get our Russian visa applications ‘reviewed’ by the Russian consulate before submitting the application with an ‘application’ fee. We were in and out in five minutes but $350 lighter. In addition there were other costs such as photocopying documents and $40 each for passport photos as the ones we had had taken before leaving home were deemed ‘not recent’ enough! These high visa costs meant that we decided against travelling through Belarus (which needed a further visa) and instead headed out of Russia to Finland.

When To Go

Once you have narrowed down the list of potential destinations, it is worth considering the timing and direction of your route to optimise your experience in each location as well as minimising y costs.

Consider the seasons.

It is much easier to follow the sun; it requires lighter, less bulky luggage and guaranteed good weather for exploring. But when it is too hot, you will be wilting and running for air conditioning.  Winter is undeniably beautiful but means shorter, darker,  cold days and potential travel disruptions. Research rainy seasons, monsoon, typhoon and hurricane seasons.

Shoulder season is a quieter, cheaper time to travel. High season varies from country to country and does not always follow the public festival or school holiday rule. Some countries are more popular at certain times of year making their high season totally unrelated to national or international school holidays or religious or national events;  the trekking season in Nepal is a prime example of this.

Are there any major events or festivals you want to go to – or avoid? Although national (or global) events and festivals are a fantastic travel experience they drastically push up accommodation and travel costs. Check the dates of national holidays, school holidays and festivals for your chosen destinations; you do not want to travel in China during the New Year exodus!

Find out the sale dates of major airlines and sign up for seat release alerts and deals. Flight prices may decide your departure date and first location.

Research potential travel bargains near your potential destinations; it may determine which direction you travel. Repositioning cruises (where cruise ships are moved from one high season location to another) are incredible value for money but timing and direction is key.

If your trip is one year long, consider when to leave in regards to when you will be returning; returning home to a wonderful summer is a lot easier than returning home to a dark, cold winter.
Is there a better time to return with regards to your job prospects or with regards to getting your children a place at a school?

Due to a number of reasons (avoiding high season, family commitments etc) we failed dismally in our hopeful plan to follow the sun. This meant we were sometimes carrying winter woollies in hot countries and snorkels in freezing cold locations as we knew our next location required them – and all travelling hand luggage only! We went from a freezing Boston in January to deliciously warm Costa Rica back to sub zero Canada in February. Arriving into New York in December from an Argentinian summer – a 32 degree temperature drop – was a shock and resulted in us spending our first day in The Big Apple trying to buy hats, gloves and thermals! We got much better at sun following as the trip progressed!

Planning around the weather is well worth it if it is possible to do so. Travelling in Canada in winter was challenging at times, but so was waiting for a train in China in 45 degree heat. On one blisteringly hot day in Hong Kong,  we abandoned our sightseeing plans for the joy of an air conditioned cinema.

Travelling off season requires researching what qualifies as off season for the destination you are in! Arriving in New Zealand in Autumn, the houlder season for U.K visitors, we learnt that this was peak visiting time for tourists from Asia resulting in  accommodation and car hire being in short supply. And sadly, we never did get our timings right to do a relocation cruise!

There were many reasons why we left when we did (such as work, school, renting our home) but if I went on a long term trip again, I would definitely try to avoid returning to the U.K just in time for one of the worst winters in living memory! 

In retrospect, we might have planned a different route around the world to facilitate ‘easier’ travel or to put less strain on our budget but in the end, we visited friends and family we had not seen for decades, we gave our children a taste of the diverse, spectacular, challenging and stunningly beautiful world they live in and had a wonderful happy year together. And I am more than happy with that!

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