Road school, world school, free-range kids: Search for any of these buzzy child-rearing phrases online and you’ll find an array of postcard-perfect images—smiling families in matching hiking gear or kids admiring a sloth in the jungles of Costa Rica. The Internet is awash in tales of family-bonding wanderlust and happenstance travel adventures that praise the idea of taking the kids out of school and embarking on adventures.
But is it as easy as it looks? Of course not. Should that prevent your family from trying? Absolutely not. Honestly, if I can solo-parent around the world and then reintegrate my seven- and nine-year-old children into a classroom at the end, anyone can.
Traveling together as a family is a dream many parents have and, as many careers have become possible to pursue remotely, the concept of “family time” is changing, too. Embarking on long-term travel these days is less a lofty goal than a reality that more and more parents can consider.
One of the biggest hesitations for going on such a trip is the daunting idea of taking kids out of school and teaching them on the road. As it turns out, the world is a great classroom. And giving your kids a break from worksheets and relentless test prep is a step in the right educational direction.
Navigating the uncharted waters of lesson plans and progress reports may seem overwhelming at first, but as I found through my own experiences, teaching on the go comes naturally. You’re already doing it at home.
Make a rough plan and leave room for flexibility
It’s important to have some ideas about where you want to go, but it’s not at all necessary to plot a detailed map—in fact, our experience as a family on the road showed us that it’s much more fun to throw caution to the wind and see where the day—or year—takes you.
When we started our travels, we had committed to traveling for a year but not to any particular destinations. We didn’t initially plan to make it around the world, and we ended up dividing our trip into segments that eventually did curcumnavigate the globe.
The first segment of our journey started in an RV, driving around the United States. Then, four months later, when my husband headed off to work in New Zealand, cheap flights to Paris inspired the family of three (me and my two daughters) to pack up and spend the winter in Europe.
After winter, it was time to visit dad Down Under and one thing led to another until the three of us found ourselves in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and back to Europe before returning home.
Set a realistic budget
When I considered a round-the-world-type adventure, I thought costs would be prohibitive—then I found $25 one-way airfares on AirAsia while we were staying in New Zealand and a lightbulb went off in my head.
Surprisingly, I discovered that there was a lot I could do on a budget of between $2,000 and $3,000 per month. Obviously, some places were far pricier than others, but we didn’t cut them from our travels just because they were expensive. Rather, we stayed in expensive destinations for shorter periods (one to three days) or we stayed outside of major metropolises and commuted into the city center.
Some pro tips, gleaned from our time on the road:
- Using home-sharing apps such as Airbnb was a big cost-saver. We used these apps to book longer-term stays, sometimes residing in one place for up to a month.
- Shop and cook like a local. Don’t eat all your meals out—it’s stressful and expensive. One of our favorite ways to get to know a new culture was to visit the local market or grocery store. (In addition to getting familiar with local cuisine, we sometimes shopped for familiar foods that could stave off homesickness.)
- When getting from one far-flung destination to another, local budget airlines were always more affordable than traveling on large, legacy carriers.
- We also found that airfare-tracking apps such as Hopper and Skyscanner were a big help in scoring the lowest fares.
- Travel insurance is another important part of the budget. Purchasing an annual policy will help mitigate costs if there is an emergency and you need to get home. Depending on the policy, insurance can protect against cancellation of flights, lost luggage or theft, rental car damage, and more. It can also help with medical costs. Many companies offer annual policies that are reasonably priced and ideal for long-term travel.
Visit family and friends abroad
Another way we made our round-the-world journey more affordable and much more pleasurable was to see friends and family. I had friends spread around the globe—visiting them was fun and it often changed my perspective on destinations. I would never have planned to stay in the UAE for two weeks, but because one of my oldest friends lives there with her husband and twin children, we did.
As a result, Dubai is now one of my kids’ favorite places. Not only is it filled with endless amusements and malls but they also enjoyed my friend’s children. It was a brief interlude from life on the road, offering a more genuine feeling of home.
Research schooling options
One thing I know for certain: I am not a teacher—especially not for my kids—and while that didn’t change while we were traveling, I didn’t let it stop me.
There are so many school programs available these days that the amount of information is almost overwhelming. For families traveling long-term, a solid online program is the best option. As your child’s teacher, it is important to use the system that works the best for you, not a program that works for someone else. There are myriad options to choose from for families on long trips— independent study for shorter journeys, homeschool for longer trips, and hybrid programs that incorporate classroom and home learning.
Before the trip, I spent a lot of time researching programs and reading reviews trying to find the one that best fit our needs. Because we were only going to be gone for a single school year and my kids were still in elementary school, I looked for a program that was easy for me to navigate as a “teacher.” The curriculum had to keep my kids on track but not require large, bulky workbooks or the frequent printing of worksheets.
Time4Learning fit the bill for us. It offered a handy guide with step-by-step advice for navigating the whole world-schooling process. It’s also both affordable and available online, which eliminated the need to pack textbooks.
Many parents tie lesson plans and learning with the destinations that they visit. I kept schoolwork separate and kept the “travel” part fun. For ages seven and nine, I thought it was more important for them to experience a place rather than commit facts to memory.
The experiment was a success. But that doesn’t mean that my sometimes-clumsy efforts at instruction weren’t met with a thousand eye-rolls from the kids.
When it comes to schedules, lean not mean
One of our first stops on our cross-country journey was Zion National Park. I hadn’t visited since I was a child but was excited to show the girls the trails I’d loved. I crafted a comprehensive itinerary of hikes and bikes and swimming in rivers as well as movies under the stars while roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. It. Would. Be. Great.
And then: It was hot. There was a pool, and all my kids wanted was to be in it.
This situation taught me one of the greatest lessons of this journey: It’s not about what I want.
Try to resist the urge to do it all. One of the fastest ways to burn out during long-term travel is to pack too many activities into every day. Remember: There is no way that you will see everything in every destination. Your kids will learn and remember more when experiences happen in small doses.
After the Zion experience, we discussed our expectations for each destination and made a list of the top things that we wanted to see—then settled for about half of those. We committed to enjoying the time we had in each spot together rather than checking a sight off a list.
We also splurged on private guides in major historic destinations. This ensured that the pertinent information was delivered at their comprehension level. It also led to meaningful friendships: Our Bangkok guide is now a family friend.
Homeschoolers need vacation, too
Ever hear the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation”? Well, the adage is especially true for those traveling long-term. Sometimes you need to take a break from sightseeing, trying new foods, and experiencing new places. Taking some time to simply binge-watch your favorite shows on Netflix or eat comfort food is not only OK—it’s fun, too.
These breaks can also lead to small adventures. The kids will probably never forget trying to find the ingredients for a spaghetti dinner at a grocery store in Phuket or going to see a Kuala Lumpur screening of Beauty and the Beast with English subtitles.
Have a plan for getting home
One of the beauties of long-term travel is the feeling of freedom. You can, quite literally, go anywhere. However, it’s important to have an exit strategy.
We planned to return home from New Zealand, but when we opted to jet off to Asia, things changed. We thought it seemed best to return to Los Angeles from Dubai. However, by the time we reached Dubai, airfare prices had skyrocketed. (We’d forgotten that regular school schedules make summer a busy and expensive travel time.) Some stressful Internet searches later, we found the least expensive way to get home was via Qatar then London. So we set off, returning to California almost exactly one year after we had hit the road in our RV.
After a year on the road, it felt good to be home. I could have kept going, but my kids missed their friends, their bedrooms, their toys. They wanted to have birthday parties and playdates and do normal kid things. When they went back to school, it was a great relief to see them seamlessly reintegrate into classroom instruction. It made me realize that, with all of the amazing tools available for learning on the road, there had been nothing to worry about, especially for elementary school students.
A year was the right amount of time for my family. If I had pushed them farther, I risked the chance that they would have ended up resenting the experience. My advice to families? Take your own needs into consideration and don’t be scared off by the prospect of participating in your kids’ education. The opportunities afforded them in taking such a trip of a lifetime are endless and, of course, the memories are priceless.