Tips for a Gap Year With the Kids

Suggestions and ideas for long-term family vacations that traverse the globe.


Taking a “gap year”—a year between the end of one’s formal education and beginning a career, often dedicated to travel—has become so common that it’s spawned a cottage industry. Already well into your career with a spouse, children and a chain link fence? Does this mean that you’ll sit on the couch, comatose, in front of the TV late at night, longing for the days when you were free and adventurous?

No way! Taking a gap year with your children is not only possible, it’s way more fun than reruns of Gilligan’s Island. Your options are only as limited as your imagination. Our family of four returned from a 52-week, around-the-world trip, and not only did we experience the wonders of the world, from the stunning Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the amazing Amazon rain forest, we discovered sites and had adventures that we never would have dreamed of if we didn’t have children in tow.

Did you know the United Arab Emirates has the galaxy’s best water park? Or that Carnaval in Latin America is much more family-oriented than you might expect after watching Blame It On Rio? Can anything compare to seeing children of different cultures enthusiastically hunting chameleons together in the mountains of East Africa?

Why Take a Gap Year?

Before we had children, my wife, September, and I discovered how traveling can shape one’s thinking. We wanted to give this experience to our children. From that early concept, the idea of a year-long around-the-world trip with our children emerged. Jordan, our youngest, was just learning to talk when he heard of the adventure. When referring to it, the words “world-the-round trip” came tumbling out of his mouth; the name stuck. Katrina, three years older than Jordan, hadn’t yet been to kindergarten when she cycled down the Pacific Coast highway on the back of a tandem bicycle.

As the children grew older, we backpacked and camped in far-flung corners of the world to learn what worked and what to expect. Saving and planning became family activities. To unite us in our goal, we considered even modest expenditures as a family and asked, “Do we really need this, or would we rather save the money for our world-the-round trip?”  

Finally, after more than a decade of planning, we left behind everything we knew and got on a plane expecting not to return home for 52 weeks. Now that we’ve been back for some time, I can confidently say the most difficult part of the trip was stepping on that first airplane, full of anticipation and anxiety.

If you’ve read this far you may be thinking, “I could see myself doing that. Now what?”

Gap Year Travel Planning Tips

No one person, book or article can help you plan a gap year with children like you might a two-week family vacation, but there are resources that provide a solid foundation.

The best general advice I can give? Plan to be flexible. Beyond that, here are some other important tips based on my family’s personal experiences.

What is the Magic Age for Kids to Travel?

We’ve known families who have taken babies and toddlers on extended trips, and as long as both parents have the energy to attend to the constant physical needs of children this young, there’s no reason to rule out traveling with them. But if you want your children to remember much of where they’ve been, it’s probably best to wait until they are a bit older. As there can be lots of down-time on the road, we couldn’t imagine tackling an extended trip with children who couldn’t keep themselves entertained with a good book.

At the other end of the age window, we wanted to leave before our oldest was in high school, as we felt missing a year of high school might stunt her growth both academically and socially. We ended up leaving when our children were 8 and 11—old enough to understand what was going on, but young enough that they weren’t embarrassed to hang out with their parents.

Of course, now that we’ve been there and done that, and we’re thinking of our next extended adventure, we’re wondering if having our oldest child miss a semester or two of high school would really be that big of a loss.

Surviving a Missed Year of School

A few months after we had returned from our gap year abroad, we meet the Aiken-Widom family, in the middle of their own year-long adventure. Interestingly enough, their two children were also 8 and 11. Upon their return, matriarch Jennifer best summed up the impact of a year’s travel on her children Tim and Emily, when she quipped, “No harm done!”

The experience of seeing the world will be an education in and of itself, though it won’t help kids learn how to factor a polynomial. Stay tuned for a future article discussing home-schooling during extended traveling.

Set Reasonable Expectations

If you’re thinking of striking out on the road with your children, keep in mind your itinerary is not going to be the same as if you were traveling with only adults. Many children will declare that museums are b-o-o-o-ring, and if you’ve seen more than a couple of castles in Europe, you’ve probably seen enough. Rather than try to see every last temple and shrine in Japan, visit Thunder Dolphin, one of the world’s coolest roller-coasters, conveniently located in downtown Tokyo. Or play paintball in Panama City. Make a point to discover the best chocolate (San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina) and the worst ice cream (Turkey).

You’ll meet a whole different set of people than you would meet if you stayed on the typical guidebook’s museum/nightclub/shopping circuit. And these interactions with real people—people who have nothing to do with the travel industry—will be some of your most cherished memories.

Take it Slow

Your kids won’t put up with a long day of morning-to-night scheduled events and attractions, and if they’re miserable, everyone in the family suffers. Commit to two ground rules:

  1. One significant activity per day. That means one hike, or one visit to a museum, or one trip to a historical site. After that, spend the rest of the day in unstructured activities, perhaps at the park tossing around a Frisbee. And yes, you will need to pack that Frisbee. Or baseball. Or origami paper, or whatever it is your children are passionate about. The Aiken-Widom family brought a French horn and electric piano.
  2. Weekly P-Day (Preparation Day). About once a week, plan on a no-travel day; spend the day simply relaxing and preparing for the upcoming week. That means hanging out at the hostel doing laundry, writing e-mail home and trying to figure out where you will even be the next week.

Won’t it Cost a Fortune?

In global terms, yes, it will. In local terms, you’d be surprised at the numbers. Traveling for a year abroad costs less than supporting a family for a year in many U.S. coastal cities. Unfortunately, the pay isn’t as good. So, unless you rode the stock option wave of the late 1990s and cashed in at the peak, you’ll need to make some life adjustments in order to save.

Depending on how you travel, you should budget about $50 per person per day, not including airfares. That was our actual cash outlay, averaged over one year, for everything from hostels to ice cream on the beach to long-distance train fares. As they say, your mileage may vary. This number can be reduced perhaps as much as one third by spending less time in locations like London or Tokyo, and more time in budget havens like Bangkok or Mumbai.

Looking at the numbers through the cold lens of a spreadsheet, you’ll give up one backyard landscaping project and one new minivan in exchange for many months on the road. The minivan will get old, and weeds will eventually take over the backyard, but you’ll remember the experiences you had on the road with your children forever.

Take Heart—Others Have Gone Before You

We spent many sleepless nights before leaving on our yearlong journey worrying about all of the things that could go wrong. We needn’t have worried because it didn’t help; nearly everything we imagined could go wrong, did. Interestingly, 52 weeks later we arrived home no worse for wear, yet much richer for the experience.

While the figures aren’t staggering, a surprising number of families have taken a gap year and survived to tell the tale. In 2007, the New York Times spotted a bona fide trend with an article titled “A Long Weekend? How About a Whole Year?”. The Oprah Winfrey Show showcased the Andrus family halfway through their year-long journey in 2006. I can count more than 30 around-the-world families who have become e-mail pals over the last few years, the latest being the James family whose weekly blog posts are (almost) as good as being there.

These are average people with an above-average desire to share the world with their children. Be prepared and be flexible, and you’ll come to enjoy the craziness that makes our planet spin.

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Thank you for this wonderful article; we recently returned from a year abroad in Central America. Having visited Costa Rica as a family, we fell in love with the climate, the food, and the people. We knew we did not want to be perpetual tourists; instead, we wanted to hunker down and know one place and one culture very well. It took us about a year to do our research, but we decided upon Monteverde because of its unique mountaintop location, diverse population and the bilingual education opportunity at the Cloud Forest School. We based ourselves there for an entire school year and our two elementary-aged children attended classes with local Costa Rican children. Our girls not only learned a great deal of Spanish in our year abroad, they learned first hand - by living it themselves - that even though life is lived differently around the world, that they shared more similarities with their classmates than differences. The many highlights of our year include scoping out the weekly treats in the farmer's market, seeing the migration of the resplendant quetzals and planting trees in the school's forest which will be there forever. As we had to travel outside of Costa Rica every 3 months (for 72 hours) in order to keep our tourist visas up-to-date, we took two-week long side trips to Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala. While not always easy, our year abroad was transformative for each of us, individually, as well as for our family unit. We are closer and have a special knowledge that together, we planned, embarked - and survived - a year abroad together.

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