A Gap Year Traveling the US and Abroad: thoughts and an itinerary from a family with young children

Last summer, I was a beta tester in a Montana Money Adventures’ class, along with a Coloradoan lady doctor who is half of Wander All Year. We’ve kept in touch while she (and I) both used that class as our springboard for sabbaticals. Now she’s traveling the world with her family.

For anyone who is considering slow travel with a family, this is a great guest post from her husband. It details their thoughts that went into planning a gap year traveling the U.S. and other parts of the world. (And fun fact: the lady doc is the only woman I know who had one set of twins that were born in different years!):

One family. Three kids. Twenty states. Ten countries. One year.

We call it the adventure year.

Is this crazy?

We’ve asked ourselves this question dozens of times. And we always come to the conclusion that, yes, this is a little crazy. But it is also truly awesome. We’ve dreamt of a gap year for a long time but it’s just been a safe idea. That is until earlier this year when we finally decided to do it and overcome the inertia of our current comfortable and non-crazy life.

Through the years, a general travel map had formed in our heads, split between the U.S. and international travel. I love the idea of seeing the U.S. and my wife is the more adventurous traveler. (On her 40th birthday, we tent camped in Costa Rica with our kids. Her idea!)

So to answer the most common question we get, “Where are you going?”… Here is our route. We’ve also included a few considerations, if you’re thinking of such a trip, and how we addressed them.

The Route

The first half of our trip is essentially a horseshoe around the United States, traveling up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Washington State, across the northern U.S. and Canada, and then down the East Coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. We’re hauling a travel trailer or, as I like to think of it, 250 square feet of cozy living space. We plan to visit a mix of national and state parks and larger cities.

For the second half, we’re traveling to South America and then to Europe. (And no, we’re not taking the trailer.) We’ll be spending the winter in South America’s summer visiting Peru, Chile, and Argentina and then move on to Europe for our spring, winding down from the U.K. through a few Western European countries before ending swimming in the Greek Isles.

Our Thoughts:

1. Travel Beyond Home’s Reach

Try to visit places that are not easily accessible over a long weekend or even four or five days. After all, an eye-opening journey should involve seeing new sights and experiencing new places, whether in the U.S. or abroad.

We’re from Colorado (a great place to visit if you’re not from there!), so we nixed everything within 1,000 miles of our house. There’s a circle around our house with a 500-mile radius where we typically travel when we have a few days off. And there’s a larger circle of 1,000 miles that’s a hard two-day drive for us. Hence the horseshoe around the U.S…we’re basically trying to get to new places.

2. Think About What You Want to Learn

For those of us who are older (not mentioning any names), stretching our brain helps us stay sharp and young. For the kids, new experiences lead to a truly meaningful development and a broader world view. So consider carefully what’s important to you, as travel is about growth. Do you want to hike the ruins and experience the history of Spain, or do you want to photograph a rare bird in the Amazon? Or do you want to finally get the scuba diving license?

With three children, we wanted to immerse them in a world schooling environment and also do things interesting to us. We plan to focus on history and nature. Some examples include visiting old-growth stands in the Redwoods, learning about sea life in Florida, visiting Machu Picchu in Peru, and seeing where our ancestors emigrated from in Italy.

3. Make a Wish List and Prioritize

Pick the places that are most important. Then think geography. It’s easier to take a plane flight into the region which contains your target city and then travel to several cities or countries within that area.

We each have places that are important to us that were given priority, like castles in France for our kids. Overall, we picked three general regions (U.S., South America, Europe) and a few key locations in each area. We can do a lot in one year, but we couldn’t do it all!

4. Follow the Weather

It’s difficult to hit perfect weather in every location of a long trip. But then again you don’t want to be pinned down by a snowstorm in your rig or get to the beach to find out the water isn’t quite warm enough yet. Make sure you think about your experience wherever you’re going and how the weather will impact it.

We planned our trip with hiking weather in mind. On the West Coast, we run the summer out from Malibu to Washington. And then we plan to follow the autumn leaves down the East Coast. (Hopefully, winter won’t come early!) We’ll hit the South American summer during our winter, then plan to catch our spring down through Europe.

5. Consider Your Travel Speed

This is a personal preference. Do you want to go-go-go and jam as much as possible in your trip? Or do you want to slow down a bit and soak in the experience of each location? Having packed days will bring you to the most sites, but you also need to balance with some slower days walking through a market, or even (especially) doing laundry. Build in rest periods—grocery shopping, bill paying, everyday life stuff doesn’t go away on extended trips as it does for week-long vacations.

Our goal is to spend one to two weeks at each location. Enough time to explore but not enough to get antsy. One of us wants to go-go-go, and the other wants to sit back and relax, so we are compromising. A useful skill for a family year-long trip.

6. Consider Your Timeline

How long do you have for your adventure? How many places are on your wishlist?

We decided on an even year – we had so many places to go and things to do, we couldn’t possibly squeeze it into a shorter timeframe. It was also a convenient length with the kids’ school and work.

7. Add in Flexibility

No plan ever works out perfectly. Build in flexibility to your route. If it doesn’t add much cost, get the refundable plan (we’ve already used one!). You may need a leave a day early or late, your child may become sick, and being adaptable will save your sanity.

In our route, we booked the main legs to the trip but left the easily booked places free. We can slow down or speed up, add in more cities, or skip some. Nothing is fixed, not even if we write a blog about our itinerary.

8. Enjoy the Planning…

…But make sure to go! Thinking about the trip is fun. Planning the journey is fun. But don’t get bogged down by the details. Going is even more fun!

These were our main thoughts when planning out our adventure year. I’m sure we’ll hit bumps in the road (hopefully not literally) on our trip, but sometimes obstacles in the trip’s itinerary become interesting detours. Off to continue our adventure!

(Editor’s note: Please feel free to visit Wander All Year’s blog at: https://wanderallyear.com and follow them on Instagram and Twitter at @wanderallyear. I know I will be!)

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