We’re coming to the end of our second week of our family gap year and I thought I’d share a few high level bullets about the planning and logistics side of making our big trip happen. We’ll go into this topic in greater depth if there’s interest, but for now, this is more of a checklist to help others get a sense of the up-front work to make your dream gap year a reality.
- Preparing a budget: we needed a savings target quite early on if we were going to make our family gap year a reality. To do this, we worked out a rough itinerary and costed it out to get a ballpark figure. The itinerary was really very rough, but basically helped us count the number of flights and days on the road (and longer train journeys in our case). Then we looked on AirBnB and TripAdvisor for approximate costs of accommodation and meals in various cities, then took an average and multiplied by the number of days. Once we arrived at our savings target, we needed a firm grasp of our family income and expenditure. This is was an essential step if we were going to make sacrifices so we could put away the required amount each month. A summary of the major cost categories we used were:
- Travel – Once we had our rough itinerary, we guessed the number of international/domestic flights, train, car hire, bus, rickshaws we’d take (VERY rough!!) and added them into our spreadsheet.
- Accommodation – we used this website (www.budgetyourtrip.com). Plus we also looked on TripAdvisor for some accommodation we’d be happy with in cities along our itinerary and got cost data from various other websites.
- Health insurance – we just went with health insurance in the end, as opposed to ful travel insurance. This is very much a personal decision but we figured we had enough savings to bear any extra costs of delayed flights and items stolen, but for medical emergencies, you don’t mess around. We went with GlobalFusion International Medical Insurance, and went with a high annual excess, so basically only covering for when things went really bad. Minor ailments we figured we’d cover out of expenses.
- Cost of visas – for India, this totalled up to more than $800, so a significant expense.
- Cost of vaccinations – we took a quick look on fitfortravel.nhs.uk to see what vaccinations we needed and didn’t have, then called our local travel clinic for an estimate. This can also add up for the whole family. But also do your research as travel clinics are very conservative and would rather give you the vaccination than research the specific risk you’ll be facing (i.e. will you really be staying near paddy fields in the monsoon season? if not, then Japanese encephalitis may be low risk). More below.
- New kit – we planned on buying new rucksacks for us all, since we’d be living out of them for such a long time. But also good shoes if necessary (crocs for our kids), a guidebook, head torch, water filter, and whatever else you choose. But consider dropping the high-tech kit to save your money for the actual travelling.
- Shipping things home or storage costs – we needed to ship personal items home to the UK after finished our stint in Kenya, but you may need to store things if you’re renting out your house while you’re away. However, try to take the opportunity to purge! We stored stuff for three years until which time we forgot what we were storing and didn’t miss it. Money down the drain…
- Food budget – we used the same approach above as with accomodation and looked on TripAdvisor, filtering on ‘cheap eats’
- Occasional splash outs – zero, we figured we’ll try and save in places and if we come under budget, then we’ll have splash outs.
- Activities – walking tours, palace entrance fees, etc. We quickly googled major tourist spots and made a provision for this.
- Cash reserves for when we returned from traveling. We estimated three months expenditure, as our target for savings.
So our savings target became our current monthly expenditure x 3, plus upfront costs and the costs of travelling. We figured that if we didn’t reach the savings target by the time we leave, then the difference would be the amount we would need to earn while travelling, which our jobs allowed. But you could also say that the difference is the expenditure amount you’ll need to reduce, so the more volunteering or work you’ll need to do on the road.
- Research into what to expect: we wanted to know what it was like, and some tips that others could pass on. So we talked to friends we knew who’d done this before – one family who sailed out of Singapore for 6 months and another family who drove from Canada, south through America and then around South America. We wanted to talk to more, but we didn’t get round to it. Things we asked were: what to should we take with us? Any tips on home schooling? What were sleeping arrangements like? What was the best thing/worst thing?
- Rough itinerary: after choosing the country, our starting point was where we could get the cheapest flights to and then where we were offered places to stay. Then we developed our itinerary from there. As time went on, plans for family and friends to join us en route materialised so we built those in as well. We set aside Sunday nights at home to dream, plan and research our trip. We kept everything organised in a shared note in Evernote, but you could use Google docs, Trello or even a scrapbook. We started a Pinterest board that we could both use to pin ideas to.
- Volunteering projects: we wanted to do something that the whole family could get involved in. We looked at the WOOFing website and found a biodynamic farm in SIKKIM, but then thought how cool it would be to work on a conservation project with animals. We found a turtle conservation project in SRI LANKA and contacted a few to find out costs and what accommodation they had on offer. It became quite clear that these companies were offering the experience at a huge cost (more than $1000 per week per person). We thought these were more suited to paying guests on short term holidays. We had the luxury of time and didn’t need to guarantee our experience up front, but could instead ride the winds of chance. That was when we came across “the best kept secret on the web”- Workaway.info. This is a website that connects you, the volunteer, with thousands of hosts who are looking for volunteers. Kind of like the AirBnB of independent volunteering. The more we read the more we realised this is a whole community travelling on a shoe string and having rich experiences with hosts along the way. We paid our $50 annual subscription and started browsing potential hosts all around India, even looking at trying one out closer to home for a cheap holiday! Looking at our budget again, this shaved off nearly half of what we needed to save, going on the premise that we’d stay in places for minimum 2-3 weeks at a time and volunteer our time and meet new people. Some specifically said they welcomed families, and we thought some would take us if we sold our skills well enough.
- Homeschooling: we discussed this one at length and going by the conversations we had in the months leading up to our big trip, we know that this is the subject that will have the most differing opinions. Our kids are 11, 9 and 7. They are curious (with a bit of help!) and read alot already. We don’t believe our children need a structured day of learning while we’re away. Even if we tried, we’re sure it would cause stress and anxiety. Instead, we want to make the world their classroom and encourage them to observe and ask questions of the world around them. This will all reside in the one non-negotiable activity we want the kids to use – the daily journal. We’ve given each of them a journal – a simple blank exercise book, nicely decorated (see photo) – and this is the first book that they will write in, stick things in, and draw in while on our trip. They will each carry it with them in their day bag on outings, along with pencils, rubbers and pens. We want to cultivate their natural curiosity and get them into the habit of writing down their experiences and what they felt, and what they learnt and what unanswered questions they have. We’ll share more about our experiences with this as our trip unfolds. We did subscribe to Twinkl.co.uk which is a great general resource for all subjects, and PDFs could be downloaded and sent to their kindles.
- Packing up the house: we started making a list of stuff we want to keep and where we’d put it. We were lucky to have some storage space with our parents, but during our time in Kenya, we’d rented out a self-storage for around £50 per month. After five years abroad, we can’t remember what we stored in there, so now wish we’d been more ruthless in downsizing. You certainly don’t want any extra cost if you can help it, so we recommend storing with friends and family. Moving out of the house was stressful, emotional and exhausting and is a whole topic unto itself.
- Vaccines: we visited our travel clinic 3 months before travelling to get the low down on what they recommended. We also did our own research because health services in the UK can be overly cautious. For example, they classify malaria as low, med and high risk and there’s absolutely no need to take malaria tablets in a low risk area. But some clinics recommend it. For medium risk, it’s your call, but simple precautions can be taken, such as covering up, using mosquito repellant and sleeping under nets. Also, the travel clinic recommended jabs for japanese encephalitis when many sources say this is only necessary when near paddy fields. This is a personal choice, but we recommend doing the research and question everything. Don’t forget you need a yellow fever certificate for many countries, and they now don’t expire according to the WHO website. Also, for our case, we got mixed messages about needing an oral polio vaccine for India, when the 10 year polio/typhoid/diphtheria vaccine is adequate.
- First month planning: we booked our first month in detail, so we could get off to a good start. This included booking flights (6 months ahead, but we only booked one way flights because dates for our return journey hadn’t opened by the airlines! We booked the return separately soon before leaving), airport shuttles (Uber was available in Mumbai and our AirBnB host advised us on that), AirBnB or hotels, train journeys (see seat61.com), volunteering opportunities, and stays with friends. This was all arranged via email months ahead.
- Visa’s and immigration: this was a big nightmare for us, partly because we needed to renew Lily’s passport which was set to expire during our trip. There was a delay with the processing, then one of us was travelling so a passport was engaged, then finally we got the visa application process wrong and had to reapply, and then we ran out of time. So all a bit stressful. But suffice to say, we sorted it in the end!
- Shopping: our main purchase before the trip was a rucksack each. We decided what was important to us in a rucksack, i.e. lockable zips and many compartments, and then we googled around for reviews and recommendations. We settled on five rucksacks of the same brand for simplicity and got them delivered about 3 months before travelling. This allowed the kids to get to know them by packing and unpacking several times so they could finally choose what they were going to take with them.
- Packing up and going: the last important things to mention are to do with putting our lives on hold while off we went travelling. This included informing the schools at least a term beforehand, telling our landlord and all utility companies, and telling all our friends and family. Once word was out, people were so intrigued and asked us tonnes of questions, which helped us kind of crowdsource the things we needed to think about. But above all, it helps us solidify the idea in our minds, that we were, after all, doing it. After setting the date, there was no turning back.
What big questions do you have about the logistics of taking a family gap year? Do you have any other advice to share? Please leave them in the comments below.