Taking a big trip with your children can seem daunting, and understandably. Jetting off for anything other than a simple beach vacation, or maybe a trip to Disney, is hard enough sometimes with kids. But thinking of taking kids farther afield, or for a longer time period…well, that’s even more nerve-wracking.
For the last five years, since we’ve embraced the traveling lifestyle, a lot of people have come to me curious about our travels. Some are actively planning a trip and have specific questions…but many others don’t seem to understand how a trip like this could be possible at all. Over the years, I’m beginning to see the same objections coming up time and time again.
In this post, I’d like to address each objection and my thoughts on it.
For newcomers to the idea: a family sabbatical is generally longer than a week vacation and typically means going deeper, educating on the road, living locally, and slowing the pace of your regular life. Some people sell everything they own to travel the world for years of their kids’ childhoods. Others keep a home base but go out on frequent trips of a month or more. Some others plan and execute amazingly rich 2-3 week-experiences.
Objection 1—Isn’t it expensive?
Taking a trip with the whole family can be expensive. Consider a trip to DisneyWorld. In a random search I did on Disney’s website, my bill for a week at Disney would come to almost $8,000 for our family of six. This would include lodging and dining and park tickets, but not airfare or rental car. Comparing this to some of the trips we and other traveling families have taken, where we’ve spent MUCH less than this for a couple of months of travel, it’s clear to me that you can get much more for your money if: you’re willing to go off the beaten track, you find a way to get less expensive housing, and you stay longer than a week and don’t live like a tourist while you’re there.
To get to most international destinations, there’s no way around six plane tickets for us, so we only go to places when there’s a rockin’ deal on airfare to get us there. For example, a couple hundred bucks a piece got us to Paris this past August.
For housing on our various trips, we’ve house swapped, house sat, and lived in an RV which we bought and sold for the same price when we were done with it, so no money out of pocket. Sometimes we choose the local option—like the 400-square-foot cement block house in Belize which was simple and glorious and only cost $400/month. For every component of a trip, I’ve learned to whittle the cost down as low as humanly possible. This is one way to make a trip conceivable when you otherwise thought it could never happen.
Beyond being thrifty in your trip-planning, another way is to embrace the idea of the trade-off. Can you give something up in your regular life that you thought you needed? For instance, in the 17 years of our life together, we’ve rarely bought new furniture. We buy used or we make do with the old junk we got when we were first married. We’re actually shopping for a new couch now and when I heard the price tag, all I could think was: Oh, the places we could go with this money! (We still haven’t bought the couch, haha!) Rake through your budget if you have one. (If you don’t have one, create one.) Where can you cut unecessary expenses in order to save for travel? Starbucks. New clothing. Convenience foods or dining out. New furniture. Expensive vehicles. If we look closely, most of us have plenty of spots in the budget where we could cut expenses and hardly notice. All of this saved money can be put into the travel fund.
It’s not as expensive as most people think to take a trip like this. In my experience, if we want something badly enough, we will find a way to make it happen.
Objection 2—What about our kids’ school, sports, and other activities?
In our former life, believe it or not, we were once very much engaged in the traditional education and busy activity schedule as many other parents. We sent our kids to a Catholic grade school, where they did well academically, had lots of friends, and were just as active as any other kid. Our oldest two (the boys) were, at various times, involved in basketball, football, soccer, and wrestling. I volunteered often at the school—in the cafeteria, reading to the kids’ classes, organizing holiday parties, etc. I was even on the school board!
When we got back from our first 6-month sabbatical to Belize, however, we had taken a significant break from this “normal” family lifestyle of traditional school and activities. Upon returning, the boys had little interest in re-joining the sports teams. They told us they’d only joined sports in the first place because 1) they could hang out with their friends and 2) everybody else was doing it.
Oh wow. What a wake-up call THAT was for us!
Shortly after we’d returned in May 2013, we were already itching to plan another adventure. By July, we’d “quit school,” feeling guilty as we sat in front of the principal in his small office. After we’d told him we weren’t coming back and that I had to quit the school board, etc., do you know what he said? “Well, this sounds like a great idea. Maybe you’re starting a trend that other parents will want to follow.” Um, WHAAAAT?
In the five years since we quit school and most organized sports, we’ve sort of rebuilt our lifestyle. First step was taking everything away. Second step was adding back the things that truly mattered. ‘Now’ is completely different from ‘back then.’ Now we worldschool our kids, teaching them in a myriad of ways wherever we happen to be. The kids have kept several of their old friends from school and make new friends when they can when we’re out traveling. And, as I constantly remind them, they are each other’s best friends. That’s the kind of family I want.
As far as activities go, they’ve delved deeply into many things as homeschooling students, but some things have stuck. Our 14-year-old loves fishing and envisions entering tournaments one day. Our 11-year-old has taken up baking and crafting, is thinking of starting an Etsy store in the next couple of months, and has done a couple of productions with a youth theater and plans to audition again in a couple of months for another play. Our 15-year-old is headed to Finland next year as a Rotary exchange student. Our 6-year-old, cute as a button, is your average little kid and loves playing, creating, pretending, and mothering her dolls. She just learned to read and is so proud of herself.
Long story short, we left school with no ill effects. We quit activities, but in the void, the kids discovered their own passions, not those of their peers. In the absence of formal school and activities, we had some epic times as a family in some pretty cool places, meeting some wonderfully awesome people. We’ve made memories to last a lifetime and given our kids experiences most kids don’t get to have. And, the best part of it? If we decide we don’t want to travel anymore—we could always send them back to school and sign them up for activities. No burned bridges here. So what’s the problem?
Objection 3—I have to work.
This is a big one. Where there is work, there is money to feed our families. I get that. Your flexibility to travel is very dependent on what you do for a living. If you aren’t self-employed, as we are, it’s so much more difficult to get away. Location independence doesn’t work for everyone.
However, all that said, there are still ways to get out of your skin for awhile, even if you do work a traditional 9-5. Work sabbaticals are becoming more and more common as employers are realizing the many, lasting benefits of allowing their employees to take a break and recharge. Check out this article or this one.
You don’t have to quit your job or change careers in order to take a break. You can just have a breather—for rest and rejuvenation, for time with your family at a critical period in your kids’ childhoods, or to discern what’s next for you in life. Many companies already have a sabbatical program in place for their employees. If yours doesn’t, maybe you can be the trail blazer. Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Research shows that work sabbaticals are a win-win in that they’re as good for the employee getting a break as they are for the company giving it to them. Creativity and productivity increase. The employee has a chance to decrease her stress, achieve a greater sense of well-being, and learn new skills while away. It’s not a bad deal for any of the parties involved.
For most people, the idea of taking time off work seems insane. Eventually, a shift will occur in you—especially once you’re on the sabbatical—where you suddenly realize that NOT taking time off work would have been insane.
If a lengthy sabbatical just isn’t in the cards, could you at least take all of your vacation time in a lump sum over the summer? Even if you don’t have time for a 6-month escape, three legendary weeks away with your family can create some pretty wonderful memories that you’ll all cherish for the rest of your lives.
Objection 4—What about our house?
So this is a big one. Most of us have worked hard to save and buy for a family home. We work hard taking care of it and thus feel a need to protect it, which means living in it, not leaving it behind while we’re off traveling. It’s our biggest asset. Of course it’s something we would worry about ditching.
But you don’t have to ditch it. You could do a number of things in order to leave it safely behind to travel. The first is simple. Sell the house. Use the opportunity of selling to travel for awhile before you buy another one. If you were already planning to make a move, anyway, this option would be quite the elegant solution.
Another idea is to rent your house out for a year to travel. If you live in or near a city, you’ll probably have pretty good luck at finding someone who is moving into town for a job but doesn’t want to rush into buying a house. Many folks feel that renting for a year first in their new location is just the ticket before jumping into a mortgage. Maximize on that opportunity and rent your house for just one year. Maybe even leave the furniture and only store your sentimental items. Some people even leave a locked bedroom with everything they’re leaving behind.
One more option is to find a housesitter to live in your house while you’re gone. If you have pets, this is a great way to do it, since you can leave your pets in someone’s care. The plants get watered, the house looks lived in so you don’t have to worry about break-ins. Ask a friend or family member who is looking for a place, anyway, to live in your house while you’re gone. Or join a community like Trusted Housesitters or Mind My House to find people who are experienced in house sitting for others.
One last idea is to find a house swap with another family. There are many people all over the world who want to trade with you. This is a great way to have a local experience in a comfortable family house. You might even be able to swap your vehicles! In this case, the problem of “what to do with my house” is solved, as is the problem of “where will I stay when I get there?”
Objection 5—I can’t speak the language.
Guess what? In many places in the world, you don’t need to speak the language. Not fully, anyway. Many people across the world have at least some English, which will be enough for you to get around. While I believe in respecting the culture you’re visiting well enough to make an effort to learn their language, you shouldn’t let it deter you from traveling if you don’t speak French like a pro or know a word of Spanish.
Also, keep in mind that you probably will be able to find English-speaking people who have settled in whatever area you’re visiting. English speakers from the U.S. and Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and other places have settled all over Central and South America, Europe, and SE Asia. If you’re an English speaker, it’s unlikely you’ll be alone, no matter where you go.
And last—why can’t you learn the language? Learning a new language—at least enough to get by—can be fun and invigorating. You could even sign up for language lessons while you’re on the sabbatical. This can be a great way to meet locals and other travelers while you’re building your skills. It won’t take you long to at least be able to order food in a restaurant or ask where the bathroom is (very important!). And if you’re at least trying to speak the language, people in the place you’re visiting will realize you’re making an honest effort to embrace their culture and will be much friendlier, making your experience all the richer.
When we were in Merida, Mexico, we joined a lovely group of people for a weekly language meet-up called “Conversaciones con Amigos,” where we helped Spanish speakers learn English and they helped us learn Spanish. I can’t say I learned as much Spanish as I wanted to, but I did gain a clear understanding of the warm and friendly nature of the Mexican people.
Objection 6—Is it safe to travel?
Of course this would depend on where you’re going. Unfortunately for the people living there, at any point in history, some places in the world, obviously, are NOT safe to go. But I can say, however, that many people were worried about our traveling to places that weren’t at all dangerous. Some are afraid of venturing anywhere from home. This is understandable but doesn’t allow us to get out of our comfort zone or face our fears.
The world is a big place and there are so many places we can take our families to have rich, rewarding experiences. Don’t lump every place that’s “not home” in the Scary and Dangerous bin. Even “home” can be dangerous at times. You never know. And you can’t live your life worrying about it.
Of course I wouldn’t advocate choosing a location without asking for the current wisdom about it. If there has just been a coup, maybe it’s time to shelf that destination. And once you decide and are in your selected location, use caution and situational awareness at all times. Even though a place might not be known to be dangerous, it’s obvious that there are bad people all over the world. But there are many more good people. Since travelers who look like they don’t fit in are often targets for crime, you just need to watch your back.
But don’t stay home out of fear—the chance of something bad happening isn’t great. But the chance of you having a ton of wonderful experiences with your family is.
I hope I helped dispel some of your fears about taking a family sabbatical. Look for upcoming posts that will go more into depth about some of these topics. As always, if you have any suggestions, comments, or questions, please comment below or shoot me an email. I’m still learning about this process myself and I would be glad to hear from you!