I Took My Family on a Trip Around the World for a Year. Here's What I Learned.
I Took My Family on a Trip Around the World for a Year. Here's What I Learned.
Theresa Stevens and her family of four were living a comfortable life just north of San Francisco - they had a nice house, her two daughters were in local schools, and she and her husband Michael had full-time jobs. But something was missing. They craved travel and adventure and wanted to take their kids, Marina and Lilah, around the world before it was too late. Long before their 'round-the-world trip and even before they met, Theresa and Michael both had a passion for travel. In his early 20s, Michael spent a year backpacking and bicycling around Europe, and Theresa spent two months backpacking around Europe just after college. After they met, the couple traveled regularly and always knew deep down that they'd take their kids on an epic trip around the world. They wanted to expose them to new cultures, ways of life, history and sights. In 2017, the Stevens family finally bit the bullet. They got rid of most of their stuff, put their house up for rent, found someone to watch their dog, and bought one-way plane tickets overseas. The family of four traveled for exactly one year with their two daughters, ages 11 and 13, visiting 22 countries and over 70 destinations. Theresa calls it the trip of a lifetime and encourages other families to travel if possible. Here's what Theresa learned on her trip around the world.
Go when your kids are young
"We finally started to travel when our kids were preteens, and while family travel can work at any age, it starts to get tricky as they get older. The 'tweenage' time can be difficult, because they're too old to hang with little kids and too young to be comfortable around older teens. It's harder to find other kids who are just the right age for them to interact with. And when a kid hits 13, they most likely don't want to be around their parents all the time - they want to be out asserting their independence - which made the trip a struggle for our oldest, at times. But one great thing about the preteen and teen years is that kids are comfortable being alone! Sometimes, ours preferred to stay in, so my husband and I would leave them in the Airbnb while we went out to sightsee. And when they did make friends, they were able to run around a bit on their own without us hovering in the background. If you go when your kids are between the ages of 9 and 12 - that's the magic window - they are old enough to remember the trip but young enough to want to be around you all the time. Really, there's no bad time to go, but I'd say at least try to go before they enter high school."
Stick around for a while
"The longer you stay in one place, the easier it is to make local friends and gain a sense of belonging. With the exception of spending four months in Sydney, Australia, we chose to hop around a lot, which worked for our family. But we had been advised by a child development expert prior to going that we should consider choosing just 4 or 5 locations to use as home bases and settle into each for a few months to make friends and become part of the community. She suggested we could make side trips from those. We know of some families who've done this and even put their young kids into the local schools. We found that just knowing one welcoming, local, English-speaking person before you arrive can make all the difference in helping to quickly plug into the community."
Social media can help, but also be careful
"For various reasons, we didn't use much social media as we traveled. However, it would have been a helpful tool in connecting with other families traveling at the same time, finding local English-speaking expats, or connecting with others who 'road school,' meaning their kids get their education purely through what they are doing as they travel. We naïvely expected to run into other families doing the same kind of trip, just as backpackers meet lots of other backpackers. It didn't work out that way, so it would have been nice to find and be in touch with others, even if remotely. When we did finally connect through friends with a few other traveling families via email and WhatsApp late in our trip, we found it enormously helpful to compare notes and swap travel tips. Do be careful about offering real-time social media updates on where you are and what you're doing so as to not make yourselves a target. It's one thing to share everything when you're on your own, but having kids in the mix completely changes the game. Though you don't want to be paranoid, you also want to be judicious."
Get your kids involved in planning
"We learned that it makes everyone happier when the kids are involved in planning the trip. Global travel can be hard on kids, so the more they're invested, the better. Before we left for our trip, we brainstormed fantasy destinations and activities together. Then, we gave our kids jobs. Our oldest became the videographer, and she saved up to buy a nice camera to document the trip. She posted frequent videos on YouTube. Our youngest daughter researched each destination in advance and educated us on what was to come. This kept both of our daughters engaged and "into it," even when they were missing home and their friends. Tailor the job to your kids' interests. They can help manage the budget, write a blog post, do a special project in each location, get a particular photo op in each place, choose your lodging, etc. There are endless possibilities."
Live by the 'Action Sandwich' rule
"Full-time travel means a lot of constant change and stimulation, which can be challenging for kids. It's not like you're on a go-go-go one- or two-week vacation. This is your new way of life. We learned it was just as important to integrate rest and relaxation into our trip as it was to plan fun events. Kids need plenty of downtime, so we started following the 'Action Sandwich' rule, which means for every one or two days of non-stop action, schedule in one day of absolutely nothing. That way, the kids can catch up on reading, chat with friends, or do whatever they want. Let your kids set the agenda on those down days, which gives them a sense of control over their lives and schedule. Non-stop touristy action is just not sustainable for such a long trip."
Stuff isn't important
"All of our possessions for our trip around the world fit into one suitcase and daypack per person, and two of those suitcases were carry-on size! Interestingly, we never once felt deprived, and we've learned we don't need much at all to be happy and comfortable. Before we left for our 'round-the-world trip, we purged a ton of our possessions, and now that we're home, we're trying our hardest not to accumulate too much 'landfill,' as we now call it."
We've learned how to work together as a family
"When you're traveling around the world, you're in it together, all the time. We've had so many shared experiences together and have learned great teamwork. Together, we've navigated unfamiliar public transit systems, run through airports, dragged suitcases through pouring rain, swum with sea turtles, gaped at natural wonders of the world, ordered extra servings of mind-blowing dishes at random cafes, and gotten lost more times than we can count. We've struggled through language barriers, laughed and cried together, and bickered. Our children have watched their parents be frazzled and frustrated but are hopefully learning how to get through life by also watching us persevere and keep a sense of humor when the going gets tough."
Homeschooling is hard (for some, at least)
"Just because you're traveling doesn't mean it's any easier to get kids to do homework. Homeschooling was really challenging for us! Every school and educator we talked to before we left for our trip said our girls would get all the education they'd need just by traveling. I wish we had listened. We wanted to keep our children involved in tasks like math and writing, because the kids worried they'd be behind when they started school again. In many ways, though, it felt like a distraction. Take all the arguing, nagging and cajoling that goes on at home just to get your kids to do schoolwork, and magnify that by 20. It was a drag, and if we could have just trusted they'd be fine, it would have removed so much stress. In the end, we didn't get a lot done, and in the end, it didn't matter. They each came home right back into the next grade and didn't miss a beat."
World travel detached us from our egos
"When you live in a competitive environment like the San Francisco Bay area, it's easy to get caught up in work and social media and the pressure to build professional reputations. But with world travel, we were invisible nobodies everywhere we went. No one paid one iota of attention to us, and it was so liberating! World travel shows you just how much in common we all have as human beings. We've met people who couldn't be from more different environments than us, and yet we are all the same in so many ways. Often it was the people who had the least who were the kindest and most friendly toward us. It was very enlightening for our kids to see all of this firsthand."
Kids need other kids
"We learned pretty quickly that our kids needed to have the chance to interact with other traveling children. And the older kids become, the more important it is for them to have a peer group. We made it a point to find friends for them to hang out with who spoke English, and we discovered family-oriented group trips were a great place for this. We also connected with local schools and organizations. While in Sydney during a local school break, we enrolled our girls in summer camps where they made a bunch of new friends. In Bolivia, they had the opportunity to go to class with local kids studying English."
Incorporating animals into our travels was also important
"Our kids really love being around animals, so we tried to incorporate them into our activities whenever possible. We also tried to do activities that were respectful to animals - no elephant rides! Our kids loved pet-sitting our Airbnb host's rabbit in Prague, and we went horseback riding in New Zealand and Costa Rica. In Austria, we rented an apartment near a small farm, where our kids doted on the cows, horses, chickens, and a new litter of kittens. We visited animal sanctuaries wherever we could, including two in Chengdu, China, whose mission is to restore the wild panda population. We spent so much time behind the scenes at a sanctuary in Queensland, Australia, that the kangaroos started acting as though we were their caretakers! We also had amazing encounters with wild animals (from a distance) in the Chilean and Bolivian deserts, the Galapagos, the Great Barrier Reef, and a few other places. We meant to at some point use one of those sites that connect you with pet-sitting opportunities throughout the world, but never got around to it."
Let someone else do the planning
"We took on way too much planning on our own. Looking back, it would have been really beneficial for us to hire some help every now and then. For example, as an attempt to save money in China we turned down the opportunity to let someone else plan our trip through Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu and Guilin. We did end up saving a tiny bit but not enough to justify the exhausting learning curve, logistical planning and fumbling. Outsource when possible! We did hire someone in Croatia to take charge of a one-week sailing trip with some friends, so we wouldn't have to think. In the Galapagos and Amazon Rainforests, we joined tour groups, and it was so relaxing having someone else do the work."
Roger Utting Photography/istockphoto.com
Your kids would rather have a tour guide than you
"When you're traveling together non-stop as a family, you can get really tired of each other really fast. We learned pretty early on that it's a good idea to hire a tour guide whenever you can. Our kids found tour guides a lot more interesting to listen to than us! Instead of moaning and groaning, our kids perked up, listened and learned so much more than if we'd prattled on ourselves. Our kids can name every tour guide we had - they were that memorable! Even the worst tour guides turned into stories our kids still love to tell."
Cities get boring really fast
"After a few major cities, our kids were majorly unimpressed. They thought every city looked the same and were B-O-R-I-N-G. After less than a month on the road, we learned to skip the walking tours, tour buses, museums and churches, and instead start approaching our exploration of cities in a different way. We decided to focus on one-of-a-kind experiences and food, and that strategy was a hit. The kids paraglided in Queenstown, New Zealand, and went to a carnival in Copenhagen. We took a chocolate tour in Lucerne, enjoyed beautifully lit Budapest via river cruise and studied Spanish in Sucre, Bolivia. We watched pros do the tango in Buenos Aires and ate obscene quantities of gelato in Rome."
Our interests were not necessarily our kids' interests
"Our kids went along with what we wanted to do for a while, but then they started to protest. Michael got to the point where he was doing city walking tours by himself! Nine months into our trip, we stopped visiting big cities altogether and started opting for nature activities. Our kids were really happy in the outdoors, and we learned it's really important to give them a voice. Global travel with kids is going to be different from what you'd choose to do on your own. To my disappointment, we didn't visit a single castle in Europe, because the kids just weren't interested."
We learned how to be flexible and adaptable
"Not everything goes as planned when you're traveling the world with kids. Our planned itinerary and actual itinerary looked completely different. We sped things up, slowed things down, skipped entire countries, changed the order in which we visited places, etc. It can be challenging to have a new 'home' every few days, so we were pleasantly surprised at how easily the kids adjusted to day-to-day life in each location. I'm sure this made us all extremely flexible and adaptable. Before long, the kids didn't even blink when we arrived in a new country and had to figure things out all over again."
We learned to be even more tolerant and open-minded
"A long-term trip around the world really opened our eyes to so many new and different people, cultures, and ways of life. Now, our awareness and compassion for global political and social issues is even greater. It's almost impossible to be biased against or judge other cultures when you've experienced them firsthand. I suspect that children who've traveled like this are more flexible, more resilient, and more tolerant of differences in people, culture, values and politics than most. Hopefully ours now really understand what lucky lives they lead and what it means to be caring citizens of the world."
More From The Active Times:
How to Afford Your Dream Vacation
The World's Most Spectacular Hotels
The Secret Cruise Vacation Behaviors You Know You're Guilty Of