Coming Home, Tips and Tricks
We have returned back from our trip and I thought I would write up some tips based on our experiences, there is so much information around travelling already so I will focus on the family elements. Like most things in life what works for one may not work for others and this should just be one element in research in finding your own path and travel style.
Before you go
How long should you go for?
There are so many determining factors that could influence how long you can be away from home including what your finances are. But what makes sense to me from a childs point of view is either a year or 1 term. Most schooling is modular i.e. in one year you may do the Tudors, but then never revisit again, so the subjects do not build on existing knowledge year on year and therefore would be able to take the kids out for a year without too much impact. The non-modular courses like English and Maths can be progressed on the road. 1 year is also better financially as I believe it's easier to rent out your house which could pay for you mortgage whilst you away. 1 year I believe is a good length of time to be away it allows you to fit in a number a countries and still travel at a sedate pace. You may not be able to go for so long and I think taking the kids out for a term is also a good idea especially if you take them out either the first or last term, in my view I think the last is better but either way you could end up with 5 months travelling time, e.g. March until August or July till December.
How do you take the kids out of school for so long?
We were surprised by the number of times someone asked us "How do you take the kids out of school for so long?" this was the most common question along with "Was the school supportive?".
The thing is it is not up to the school, in the UK a child does not need to go to school but a child must have an education. We deregistered our children from school and registered them with the "Elective Home Education Team" at our local council, they were great and told us that a number of families in our area had registered with them and where taking an extended break. A couple of months before coming back we reregistered for the same school that the children left 11 months ago and got back in. We were also lucky that the school were supportive and expecting us back, the school embraced our trip and involved the children in school, in assemblies they would go to onto our blog and read it out and show our photos, we also did video calls with the school.
When to go, how old should the children be?
There really isn't an answer that fits all here and really does depend on your circumstances and what you feel comfortable with. We met other families on long term travel travelling with kids from under 1 to teenagers and I don't think any of them will be adversely affected. Personally I think extended travel with toddlers is much too hard work but it worked for the families we met. If you ask the school this question they will generally tell you that from a pure education point of view the earlier the better as there is more time to catch up on gaps in the education if any exist as most children will generally come back knowing more and be more worldly. The number of times you do something like this with your children for most people will be limited and they should be an age that they can remember well into adulthood, so around 6 or 7 is what I think, I also think home educating is easier once they can read. At the upper end I would say around mid-teens, most lessons at secondary schools are modular. I will have another section on home schooling later in the article.
Where should we go?
You have got to go with your gut on this one, where have you always dreamed of going, plot them on a map and see if they can be linked, try to avoid going to too many countries though as the cost will increase and can be exhausting. A general rule of thumb is travelling to Central America, South America, Africa and Asia is cheaper than the rest of the world.
Is it safe out there?
With the worlds main governments determined to make us all fearful of everyone in order to push their own agendas it's no surprise that some of our friends made comments like "how can you put your children into so much danger" when we explained our plans to travel around the world for a year. In our year away we never felt threaten or in danger and never even witnessed a crime, the worst we felt was in Johannesburg but we simply stuck with local advice and didn't go out walking at night alone. The news organisation across the world have a lot to be blamed for giving the perception that some countries are dangerous to visit, don't get me wrong there is crime and things can happen to you, but they can in your home country or a country you wouldn't think twice about visiting. In most circumstances listening to local knowledge and using common sense can prevent the majority of situations you might end up in, I would also never visit a countries that the FCO advises against all travel but these countries are few. We were never concerned about being robbed, our plan was always just to hand over anything they wanted, we carried a muggers wallet on us with expired credit cards and US dollars to mitigate what we might lose but never had to use it. So for us our main concern was violet crime or sexual crime and the perception does not add up to the statistics, New Orleans has a higher murder rate than Johannesburg (SA), Bogota (Columbia) or Harare (Zimbabwe) and in terms of rapes per 100,000 population Sweden ranks number 4 above any country in Asia or South America. I wonder how many of our friends would have said "why would you put your children into so much danger" if we told them we were going on holiday to New Orleans or Sweden.
How much will it cost?
Although a popular question it's almost impossible to predict how much it will cost you as there are so many influencing factors including what's your level of comfort and how long can you go on eating budget food, at the end of the day a loaf of bread and a packet of ham cost roughly the same anywhere in the world (a couple of £s) but how long can you eat it for twice a day. Many people don't believe in planning but I disagree especially on working out how much money you need. The next steps will guide you through the process of working out roughly what it will cost.
Step1, Break down roughly how many nights you will be spending in each country, this is only an estimate and will change and if doubt put more nights in more expensive countries.
Step 2 Accommodation, depending on your style this could make up the majority of your budget, for each country research how much it costs for your family to stay in accommodation that suits you, be it camping, hostels, hotels. In might be worth phoning a few hotels to get the lay of the land in the country around number of people in a room e.g. In India the hotels where happy for us to book a double room for all 5 of us and then put mattresses on the floor generally at no extra cost, whilst in Australia we had to book rooms/beds for the 5 of us and generally had to book 2 rooms.
Step 3 Food, Again per country per day workout how much money you'll spend on food, restaurants will have menus online, street food factor in £1-3 per meal, and supermarket shop base on how much it would cost at home, generally it will be cheaper but a least you have a worst case scenario.
Step 3 Transport, whether it's buying a car, round the world tickets, individual low cost airline tickets, hiring a van or buying a rail pass, you'll need to know your mode of transport and how much this will cost you.
Step 4 Visas, research per country how much will it cost to get in as this may come as a nasty shock e.g. Malawi was $75 US each with no discount for kids so it was $375 for the five of us.
Step 5 Activities, this is harder to estimate but for a year could easily be £2000 each depending on what you what to do and see.
Step 7 Home, factor in anything at home you still have to pay for e.g. mortgage or any income e.g. property rent
Step 6 Total, Now add up all the totals and add 20% for all the things we have missed, this should give you a good idea of how much to spend.
It worth doing this as I met/heard of people travelling for a year spending as low as £15,000 and as high as £90,000 and it really depends on you as to where you fall in-between.
How do I finance it?
Any dreams of getting a lucrative sponsorship deal or book deal should be discounted straight away unless you have precedent. The best way is to use savings, once you have worked out a budget and when you're going, simply divide the number of months by your budget and hopefully you can setup a direct debit into a travel account for that amount. When our first child was born we knew we wanted to travel with kids, we planned a tentative date 10 years in the future and setup the direct debit, 11 years on I feel it was the only way. But what if you can't afford that size of direct debit, there are other ways to raise the funds. You could borrow extra on the mortgage extending the term of the mortgage or increase in payments, but in my view worth it for an experience with the family that money can't buy. I also heard of people selling up everything for a life on the road, not something I could do as I need something for when I return but maybe for you. If you don't have a mortgage maybe you could get a loan and add the repayments into your budget. We also met a number of people working online whilst travelling, the advantage of this is you don't need a work visa. These days online jobs are more than translations and proof reading, if you can do your job on a computer then you can do your job online, search jobs at Upwork.com. I work in IT in a specialised area (SAP) and there are plenty of jobs advertised, they cover a broad spectrum of jobs including web design, programming, illustration, writing, marketing, consulting, legal work, engineering and admin work.
Pace of travel
Ever had a manic weekend with the kids staying up late a couple of nights and had a hard week the following week, well it's not difference traveling, yes you can put them through most vigorous timetable and the kids will handle it much better than the parents but it will be no fun and exhausting. Taking breaks on the trip for us was essential and needed for both parents and kids, you need that time to recharge, catch-up on the blog and do any home schooling. Many times we just stayed put for 1 week, be it a nice campsite, hotel or villa we had hired. We also had a house in New Zealand for a couple of months. If we were to do it again we would defiantly plan to stop in one place for a month around half way. We would then try and integrate into the local community whether it's putting the kids into school or volunteering, we saw plenty of volunteering opportunities on the road and it's something you should defiantly not pay to do. My advice is go as slow as possible, try and integrate with the locals and share their life as much as possible, ultimately it will lead to best memories and stories.
How much planning should I do before hand?
Some people are planners and others are not. I on the other hand am a planner and concerns and worry would ruin my time away, I feel you need to do some planning, below are areas I feel you should plan but feel free to pick and choose areas you want to plan.
Budget planning - covered in earlier question, work out roughly how much money you need.
Inoculations and medical - You should research all the areas you are going to or might be going to and either visit a travel clinic or do the research online. You should get a list of all the injections you require along with whether you are entering a Malaria area. Please check with your GP first as to what injections you can get for free in the GP clinic. For malaria pills you can get generic versions online but check for recommendations before ordering. Whether you then proceed with the injections or have the malaria pills is your choice, personally I would take them all as if something happened to the kids whilst away I would never forgive myself. We met a number of families travelling who didn't give malaria pills to their kids, some mitigated this by not allowing the kids out after sunset, something we were not prepared to do. During our 1 year trip we as a family never got diarrhoea, we did wash before every meal but I do believe the cholera drink vaccine played a major part in the prevention. You need to plan you injections far in advance as some need to be spaced months apart and you generally don't want to do more than 2 a week. I would also recommend that someone does a first aid course preferably an expedition course, we did far from help course from wilderness medical training, these courses will also tell you the essentials for a first aid kit. Another reason to plan vaccinations is that you may be required to produce a yellow fever certificate to enter a country.
Visas - You need to have a basic understanding of the entry requirements for a countries, at a minimum that you can get a visa at port of entry or do you need to apply in advance, some countries will only let you apply in the country where you are resident. This is a good website http://overlandingassociation.org/visas/
Where to stay - You don't need to plan every single night of your trip, but I used to subscribe to magazines in South Africa like Getaway or Drive Out and every time I like the sound of a place I would store it in a spreadsheet. This meant when we got to a country we didn't have a fixed itinerary but did have a list of places that we liked and were reasonable priced that we could choose from.
Weather - It not a great idea if you're planning to camp to just arrive in a country and find out you're in the middle of monsoon season, sometimes this can't be avoided but you may have to move things around. Initially we planned to go to Africa first but realised we would be there in the middle of rainy season, it wasn't a big move to do it at the end of the trip instead and enjoyed 5 months of dry season.
Must do activities - If you have any must do activities and know roughly when you going to be there understand how long you need to book in advance, you may need to book it and work around it. We wanted to do the "Faces of the Namib" tour, an incredible 5 day journey driving over the highest dunes in the world which often gets booked up a year in advance, we knew roughly when we would be there and they only offered 1 trip per month, we booked it and it was a marker to aim for, it actually fitted in quite well and was one of the most memorable trips we did, something I am glad we booked in advance.
Peak periods - Be aware of any peak periods you're travelling in like school holidays or any local religious holiday, many places can fill up and if there is somewhere you defiantly want to stay it may not be available. But don't avoid it, try and find a good family campsite and you will be rewarded, some of our more relaxed time on the trip was in school holidays, we booked into family camps and the kids relished in meeting other children and playing with them, leaving the parents to enjoy much afforded downtime.
Mode of transport - It's worth researching different options as there may be a budget option you have not considered. In India a car and driver was the same price as hiring a car, the driver translated and organised all the local guides also making the whole experience better for us and the kids. In Africa with bought an overland ready Landcruiser with camping equipment and sold it back 6 months later for roughly the same price, not bad for 6 months hire around Southern Africa, Bushlore who we bought off, can also give a guarantee buyback price, although this will be less than if you sell it you can work it into your budget. If you are going to buy a car and go to remote places I would recommend the bush mechanics course offered by Woodsmoke, I never had to use anything I learnt in the course but glad I had some knowledge in the area.
What should I bring?
Initially we had planned that we would all have backpacks carrying our own clothes, but after looking into it, research shows that children should not wear backpacks for an extended period, so although each child had a backpack it was only filled with some colouring in books and their tablets, everything else went into our 2 large backpacks for mum and dad which meant space was limited. We brought all sort of things, some we ended up binning or sending home but the following is the items we would bring again if we did it again.
Clothing - We hand to severely limit clothing, the idea was to pack for a week prepared for all climates and do laundry on route. Each person (adult or child) was allowed 3 bottoms (2 short and 2 long), 7 underwear, 3 socks (incl. 1 pair of trekking), 2 types of footwear (trekking shoe and a waterproof sandal), 6 tops (3 short, 1 singlet, 1 long cotton and 1 fleece), a set of thermals and a waterproof. The girls also had 2 pairs of leggings. Each person had a packing cell invaluable in separating the clothes and easy to take out once checked into accommodation, in Africa we had a car and placed the packing cubes into Ammo boxes, we could also be more liberal on what we could bring and allowed an extra pair of footwear in Africa, flip-flops.
Laptop - We found having a laptop on the trip invaluable, before the trip I fitted a 1TB drive to the laptop and bought 1TB space from googledrive (cloud storage). We then saved all our photos, blog posts, scanned documents into the googledrive folder, every time we connected to Wi-Fi it would all be saved into the cloud, meaning we could access from any web browser, also meaning it was backed up in case we lost or broke the laptop. We also had Lightroom installed, meaning we could filter and edit photos on the go instead of doing the post processing when getting home. We also had 2x2TB hard drives where we stored files mainly if we were without Wi-Fi for extended periods, half way into our trip we posted one of the hard drives home.
Unlocked Phone - Things have changed since I last travelled and local SIMs are available with data in every country, if you bring a unlocked phone its will save a lot of hassle and money buying local phones, since all have data plans it means you have internet on the go.
Android Apps we used often - HERE app (Offline GPS system using Openstreet maps) - Essential for any navigation, just make sure you download the maps before setting off. Tracks4Africa app - We used both the navigation and guide essential again for any travel in Africa. AndroMoney app - fantastic app for tracking expenditure, you put in your daily budget and then easily shows you if you below or over. Campermate - Essential for NZ, shows all the camping area including free camps
Other apps - Google translate, Google Photos, Aldiko (ebook reader), MobileVOIP (Free phone calls anywhere in the world), Skype (used for video calling), c:geo (endless fun finding geo caches all over the world, although you need to be online I never found an offline version)
Sleeping - We all had silk sleeping liners and used all the time in hostels and also when camping.
Games - bring a couple of packs of playing cards for endless fun.
Tablets - Each child had an android tablet loaded with games, movies and home schooling tuition videos. Although we limited their time on these at times they were invaluable in getting some peace when having some downtime.
Peace of mind
In Africa we hired a Satellite phone as we would be on remote roads on our own, we always made sure that we had the number of the place where we were heading and the place we just stayed, we never had to use it but it certainly offered peace of mind on the road.
We scanned all our documents and took photos of documents on the road e.g. visa stamps (these would sync to googledrive) it case we ever needed to replace any document.
As a last point of desperation we had a contact in the UK, someone who had overlanded before, we gave him all our scanned documents, insurance policy details, rough itinerary and told him he may receive a call of desperation saying we are stuck here and need something.
On the road
Entertaining the kids
We bought each child an android tablet and loaded it with games, Home schooling, music and movies before leaving, these could also be download more on the journey. The tablets could have easily entertain the kids the whole time but we limited the amount of time they could go on them by setting a few ground rules. They were not allowed to use them whilst in the car or on any activity, we were praised by the guides on the Zimbabwe 2 week tour that stated in was unusual to have kids on the trip engaged and not on their tablets the whole time. They mainly used them on down days when we as parents needed some peace and quiet whilst we caught up on the blog, laundry or just needed some uninterrupted chill out time. The only time they were allowed them in the car is when we had to drive from Tanzania to South Africa in 5 days at the end of the trip, the days were long.
So without their tablets they mainly entertained themselves in the car by colouring in, we bought African Animal colouring books which they loved and they got really excited when they saw them in the wild, they played cards and top trumps and math games. Outside the car they either played in the swimming pool, played with other kids if they were around or played games in the rooftop tent, very seldom in the whole year did they ever tell us they were bored.
The amount of home schooling you need to do really depends on the age of your kids and what you're comfortable with. We spoke to our school before leaving and they recommended not doing any, the experience will be enough they told us. We didn't feel comfortable with that, we felt they need some schooling in literacy and maths. Depending on your kids ages this could just be encouraging them to read, maintaining a diary, playing mental arithmetic games and making them recite the times tables in the car. We chose to use Student Support Centre, they offer the whole school curriculum on DVD, each lesson is 15 mins and they then need to complete an assignment after, if they don't score over 85% they must listen to the lesson again. Student Support DVDs are not cheap but we got ours on eBay, when you're finished you can sell them on eBay again for roughly the same cost. It's true though they learn so much on the road, every time we visited somewhere we always got a guide whether to engage the kids in the history and significance of what their seeing or to expand the education further, whether we were using wildlife guides on games drives or getting a deeper understanding of what it's like to live in a township or belong to an African tribe. You'll be surprised by the number of times the curriculum back home aligns with your trip, in the first term back home their project was rainforest, whilst we were in Borneo searching the rainforest for orangutans. In the second term they did influential people and choose Nelson Mandela, at the same time we were in South Africa taking the kids to Robben Island, being shown around by an ANC ex-prisoner and seeing Mandela's cell.
We also got the school involved in our trip, we sent regular postcards back and the school in assemblies would go onto our blog, read it and view photos, we also did a Skype call with the whole school onetime which was gratefully received on both sides.
What the kids can handle
Don't be afraid to push the kids, we were most surprised by what they can handle when faced with no other choice, in our experienced they cope with things better than us. We both love mountain scenery and wanted to trek in the Himalayas but were unsure if the kids could make it, in the end we booked a 5 day mountain trek, I spoke with the travel agency in Nepal who assured me that if the kids couldn't make it we would get porters with baskets to carry the children, we didn't tell the children this. The guides were brilliant with the kids and engaged them and made it fun, the kids loved the experience and it was generally me at the back asking "Are we there yet".
Souvenirs and kids spending money
At the start of the trip the kids were given £100 each for spending money, they had free rein to spend it but with one rule, they weren't allowed to buy anything that you could buy back in UK. Every item was written into a book and we tracked how much money they had left, we were impressed by how they understood the financial concepts, they would never buy large priced items as their money would run out and almost became a game as to who had the most money to spend. The kids took great pleasure at learning to barter and techniques to get better deals. The kids could also earn more money on the trip by helping out with chores.
Keeping up traditions
We felt it was important to keep up has many traditions as possible on the road, we always made a point of doing something special on their birthdays, they were also allowed to choose what and where we would eat for that day and not matter which country we were in we always managed to find a birthday cake even in the tea house in the Himalayas for our oldest childs birthday. Another tradition was the tooth fairy the kids just loved getting letters and local money from the tooth fairy, the kids will never forget the tooth fairies that visited from the Pans of Etosha in Namibia, the island in the middle of Lake Malawi, Ayres Rock, Hong Kong Disneyland or Mt Cook in New Zealand - we lost a lot of teeth in a year!
Writing a blog and keeping the memories
We felt it was important to maintain a blog, photos and videos of the trip, we choose to make it available online so friends and family could follow the adventure, ours was a public site but there are blog sites where you accept requests to view the content. We used Offexploring.com that can have public or private blog sites and at the end of your trip they turn the blog and photos into a book.
This really depends on each individual, but we always knew where we were going, we never just turned up in a city without knowing where we were going even if it was for 1 night and then we could always move on the next day. Researching now is more than just guide books most places now worldwide have Wi-Fi with unlimited resources at hand.
What we used and would recommend - Silk Sleeping Sacks, good first aid kit, laptop and hard drive, tablet for kids, colouring books, pack of cards, top trumps
What we brought with us and never used (but glad we had) - Satellite phone
What we brought with us and never used - mosquito net, solar chargers, backup battery storage, plastic cutlery sets, travel towels (we replaced with sarongs), water filter, iodine, iPad/tablet for adults (we just seemed to use our phones the whole time)
When your back
Adjusting back is harder on the parents than the kids, the kids are far more adaptable. We arranged playdates for the kids before going back to school so they didn't feel overwhelmed on their first day. They were fine and just got on with it.
But for us it's difficult to explain the blues of being back home, we had just spent the year finding tigers in India, trekking the Himalayas, walking with Komodo dragons, snorkelling in the pacific, swimming with dolphins, driving across the Namib desert, looking for big cats on the Serengeti, visiting African tribes and the list goes on, the reality is your come home and it's the end of a life-changing experience. Suddenly you're back where you started, sitting on a couch, back in your house, slotting back into the life you had when you left. Everything around us has stayed the same and it feels like the year was nothing more than an extended holiday, a blur in our timeline.
Coming home is hard, but there are some positives, big life lessons we gained on the road, the amazing bond between all in the family, nobody can take that away from us. We also have a heighten appreciation for our life here in the UK, we are fortunate in so many ways. We witness extreme poverty in most countries we visited, they have hard lives, much harder than most people realise. Yet with our own eyes we witness the kindness of strangers, the smiles of those who have nothing but open hearts, the world really is an amazing place and we value "less is more in life" and "just live it!"