6 Kids, 13 Countries, 8 Years (& counting): A Mother’s Guide to Permanently Traveling & Working Around the World
Note for those of you without kids: This massive travel resource is likely just as applicable to you as it is to parents, so listen up! 🙂
A Lesson in Disproving Excuses…
It’s so easy to find excuses not to do things. But what I’ve always loved is searching out the people who act in spite of them – those who do the things most assume can’t be done.
I see it as one of LYL’s core purposes to expose you to such people. Because once you have a model for what’s possible and how it was done, it becomes a lot more likely for you to do the same.
And probably my favorite thing about Live Your Legend is when these incredible stories of possibility come directly from our community, and those people then become our example, expert and teacher.
So, I’d like to introduce you to Rachel Denning, the author of today’s article.
Rachel had her first four kids before she had a passport, and for years thought travel was too crazy and dangerous for little ones. Then things changed a bit…
Fast forward to today and her family has grown to eight (including her husband, Greg) and they’ve all been nomadic since 2007, living and working their way through over a dozen countries, starting with their first road trip from Alaska to Argentina. (They document the whole adventure on their site Discover, Share, Inspire)
I don’t have children (yet) and am nowhere close to qualified to speak about what’s involved in traveling the world with a family, but Rachel certainly is.
And I think it’s fitting to introduce her today, as I write from our latest home in Atrani, Italy, and we’re just about to hit our five-month mark (!) on our year around the world. It’s stories and guidance like Rachel’s that helped make this dream possible.
She’s put together an awesome resource and roadmap below, and while it’s focused on exploring the world with a huge family, it is just as applicable to anyone who’s dreamed of traveling and working around the world, or doing anything massively different from the norm, for that matter.
So, have fun with it! And if you have questions for her or experiences to share, leave them in the comments (concerns are welcome too, as I know this topic might fire some people/parents up!).
Now, enter Rachel (and the fam)…
How to Live an Epic Life of Travel & Adventure (While Raising 6 Kids)
By Rachel Denning
Does Living Your Legend have to stop once the kids come?
Here at Live Your Legend, Scott is constantly encouraging us to push limits, embrace adventure, and explore new places. Travel is one way he has encouraged us to do that, especially now that he and Chelsea have set out on their world tour. Travel gives us the opportunity to try new things that make us uncomfortable, which means staying open to growth that makes life worth living.
We also know that although Scott and Chelsea have headed out to explore the world, that they do not have any children (yet…?). 😉
Does that mean this sort of adventure is not available for those of us with a family? Is the idea of exotic offices, round-the-world trips, and international living a pipe dream for those of us with the responsibility of raising the next generation?
Are we as parents denied access to this fantasy world of globe-trotting and location independence that’s being experienced by a bunch of escapists?
Having children doesn’t have to stop you… unless you let it.
Until 2007, after the birth of my fourth child, I had never owned a passport. The only time I’d left the United States, my home country, was to visit Tijuana and Cancun in Mexico, and Niagara Falls in Canada.
I had NO travel experience.
My husband, on the other hand, had spent a couple of years in Peru, and some time in Guatemala.
Somehow stories of his experiences inspired me, because we started to dream this crazy dream of living abroad, learning a second language, and exposing our kids to other cultures.
By the time I was convinced that an international experience is something I really wanted, I was expecting my fourth child (which would make four all under the age of four). We were young, energetic and visionary, and having four very young children wasn’t enough to stop us from pursuing our dream. We sold off most of our stuff, packed up what was left and moved to Costa Rica (spending 6 weeks driving through Mexico and Central America in the process.)
It was just the beginning. Our life would never be the same.
Nearly eight years later (since 2007) we’ve just returned to our home (for the past year) in Costa Rica from an anniversary trip to Lima, Peru (mom, dad and one-year-old Saige, #6, born in Costa Rica). As a growing family, we’ve lived or traveled to much of the United States from Georgia to California (and Alaska, where #5 was born), Canada, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and India. This year (2015) we’ll be heading to Europe and Africa. We’ve discovered (as a family) that we love travel. Our children love it as much, or more than we do – really!
Together we’ve explored ancient ruins, temples and world-famous museums. We’ve gone swimming beneath tropical waterfalls, ridden elephants and walked along beaches at sunset (in two hemispheres). We’ve tackled the challenges of crossing borders, communicating in multiple languages, and exchanging money.
We’ve worked with people affected by leprosy in India and taught self-reliance in Guatemala. We’ve done bungee jumping, extreme bungee, horseback riding, surfing and base jumping (well, just Daddy did the last one.) We’ve released baby turtles into the ocean beneath the light of a full moon, and provided tools for local families seeking to be self-reliant.
So when we hear people say “Travel and adventure isn’t for people who have taken on the responsibility of raising kids,” we have to raise our hands and say, “Whoa… wait a minute. That’s not true.”
Sure, it’s not easy. It takes a lot of work, and planning and often requires ‘sacrificing’ something else (like maybe time in school, or giving up Little League.)
But if it’s something you really want, if the idea of exploring this big, beautiful world with your kids is exciting, whether part time or full time… then you can make it happen.
Why You Should Travel With Your Kids
There are tradeoffs which come when you decide to travel as a family (my husband refers to this as the “exchange rate”). You might have to take the kids out of school, bid farewell to grandparents and cousins (at least for a time), and perhaps give up sports leagues and music lessons (unless they’re done via Skype).
But travel offers its own rewards, that simply can NOT be had in any other way. It enriches, expands, and enlightens. It has a softening influence on the heart, and a widening influence on the brain. It touches your soul and teaches courage, adventure and tolerance.
And unless you make long-term travel your life, those things will always be there for you to go back to, waiting for you to pick up where you left off, except that you – and your children – will be very different (and better) people when you return.
Your Children Deserve To See the World
This world is big and beautiful, and just because it’s there, it deserves to be seen. That’s why many of us suffer from wanderlust when browsing through travel magazines or exotic photos online. The good news is that it’s never been easier to explore than now. Think about the pioneers of travel who had to endure months of crossing oceans on steamship or overlanding on mules – and didn’t have a way to video chat with grandma and grandpa back home, or even send an instant message via Facebook!
Our wanderlust should be gratified, even if we have kids. We know (or at least imagine) that visiting those places in person – smelling the spices in a market, and hearing the sounds of a call to prayer – will be a vibrant, detailed and lucid experience which will become ingrained in our brains and teach us things that we couldn’t learn simply by looking at pictures or reading words.
These are experiences our children deserve to have.
When I was in my twenties, I visited Tijuana, Mexico with my parents and siblings. It was a brand-new experience to me and shockingly uncomfortable. I felt physically sick to my stomach as I came face to face with real poverty for the first time. The gap between “‘me”’ and “‘them” seemed impassable.
Fast forward several years, when I was expecting our fourth child, and we made the decision to move abroad, after I had a spiritual experience in the “real” Mexico (while we were on a second honeymoon in Cancun). Having left the isolation of our all-inclusive resort, we found ourselves surrounded by the beautiful people, conversing in their native tongue, laughing and connecting. I suddenly saw them not as Mexicans – people different and separate from myself – but as people, just like me, with families, hopes, dreams, fears and tears. I connected.
In that moment, my greatest desire was to share that experience with my children (who were at home with their cousins). I knew that these types of encounters were critical, not only for my own development, but for theirs too.
My children deserved to leave their little corner of the earth, in order to gain “broad, wholesome and charitable views of men and things.”
Offer Your Kids a Real Education
The contrast above between travel photos and the real live experience is an ideal illustration of the difference between hands-on learning and classroom education.
Book learning and classroom learning have their place. But nothing can compare to the grasp of length, width, breadth, depth, meaning, connotations and understanding that occurs as you walk the steps of the pyramid, stand next to the Aztec Calendar Stone, explore tunnels and tombs, or watch a cobra “dance”’ while surrounded by the complete context of it all: location, smell, temperature, culture and food.
It’s holistic learning. (And it’s scientifically proven that new experiences increase memory retention, besides helping us feel good.)
Likewise, nothing inspires awe or action like learning about something first hand. On the Northern Coast of Nicaragua, our family took a moonlit boat ride through a mangrove until we stopped at a turtle preserve. There we held baby turtles in our hands and released them into the ocean. Such an experience sparks ideas and starts conversations. Even young children begin to ask questions and care about things like conservation and protecting endangered species. (My 9-year-old son says he wants to grow up to be an “animal saver”.)
When the world is your classroom, education takes on context, meaning and application. It includes so much more than words on a page, and can make those words come alive.
Help them Grow and Develop Confidence
Someone wise once said, “Travel is glamorous… in retrospect.”
The majority of time spent “traveling” isn’t about exotic camel rides and the postcard-perfect pictures. It’s sand in your swimsuit and sunburns, waiting in customs lines and at borders, inconveniences and travel weariness.
Parents and kids get tired and hungry. Tempers get short. Travel as a family is difficult. It’s like home life, but on steroids.
Yet anything difficult has the opportunity to help you grow. All these challenges create a laboratory for developing patience, perspective and personal development.
Then add to it the brain development and dopamine that occurs while learning a new language; being uncomfortable in new situations; trying new foods, taking new roads, and taking new risks.
My oldest daughter was just four years old when we moved to Costa Rica the first time. It was there that she first started learning Spanish (which she improved while living in Dominican Republic, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.)
Now at the age of twelve, she’s fluent, and unafraid to start conversations with any person, of any age, culture or language. Sometimes this means using hand signals and pointing, with people that don’t share a common language (i.e. they speak German or French). But her confidence to engage in conversation and make friends wherever she goes has been enhanced by learning a second language (and together we’re now learning our third – French.)
Handling Your Biggest Travel Challenges and Objections
Travel by itself isn’t easy. Family travel throws in additional challenges. The key is to develop strategies that help you overcome them.
Probably the first thing you think of when it comes to the challenges of traveling with a family is money. Money, money, money. We all think if we had more money, travel is something we would do more of.
This is actually a false belief, because of the financial version of Parkinson’s Law – our expenses rise to meet our income, so the more money we earn, the more we spend, never leaving much “extra” left over for stuff like travel.
To make it happen, we have to identify our priorities – where we want to spend our money – and then be deliberate about it. Spending money on family travel won’t happen unless you sacrifice spending money on something else, no matter how much you earn.
And the truth is, family travel can be a lot less expensive than you think. We’ve had several families (from Western countries) tell us that traveling and living abroad is less expensive for them than living at home. True!
I’ll discuss more on the topic of money in the next section. For now, you can start today by saving. Transfer money to your savings account, or get a jar and fill it with coins. Just a few dollars a day is enough at the outset. Now let’s look at a few other challenges.
Parenting (aka “We’ll drive each other crazy”)
Being a parent is not easy. It requires selflessness, creativity, patience, endurance, and lots of hard work and sacrifice.
It’s literally a crash course in personal development. Being a parent teaches you things that you can’t learn in any other way. It helps you become someone that you will not become otherwise.
People have told me, “I’m too impatient/selfish/easily annoyed to have kids.”
Guess, what? So was I. It was only by having kids that I was able to develop any level of patience, selflessness or calm in the face of irritation. The being (a parent) helps you with the doing (parenting). I’m sure you’ve already learned that.
Same principle with family travel. I’ve had people tell me, “We don’t get along well enough to travel together in a plane/boat/car/stay in a hotel. We would drive each other crazy.”
The truth is, it’s only by traveling together that you learn how to get along better. Ultimately, traveling with kids is just parenting – on the road, in foreign places, but it’s still just parenting. and you learn best by doing.
You’ll be forced to learn new techniques for not just surviving, but thriving. You’ll grow closer. You’ll bond. You’ll create lifelong memories.
Bring it on!
Start today by practicing more patience, looking for solutions to problems, and watching some videos on being a better parent.
Logistics & Expenses
“But travel is expensive, how can we afford it? Where will we stay? How will we get there?”
We’ll discuss earning money in a moment. But there are also ways to reduce expenses so that travel is more affordable.
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive, even with a family, especially if it looks more like “living” than “vacationing”. This is why our family embraces slow travel – we set up base camp at a furnished rental, and explore from there. We cook our meals at home, and have local experiences instead of tourist-geared tours (with prices to match).
Our family of (now) eight has explored much of Mexico and Central America on a budget of less than $3,000 a month.
We used to spend that much on a mortgage back in the States (once upon a time). Yet even travel in Europe doesn’t have to be expensive. On the organic farm where we’re currently living in Costa Rica, we meet a lot of travelers from Europe. Several of them (specifically from rural Spain and Italy) have told us they’re heading back to their home country because they can’t afford Costa Rica. (Which is why we’re heading that way this year – Spain, Morocco, France, and Italy.)
So if it costs less to travel than you thought, how do you get started?
It can be overwhelming to think about planning a trip (or taking an even bigger leap and moving abroad/traveling long-term). The best way to go about it is to gather the big picture – the vision of what this family travel thing looks like to you – and then break it down into baby steps.
Do you want to sell everything and travel indefinitely, long-term, wandering from country to country? Or do you want to go out a few months at a time and return home? Do you want to move abroad? Or just take trips every six months/summer?
What is your budget? Will you be paying expenses at home, or eliminating everything and only have to cover living costs on the road/abroad? What type of experience do you want to have – surfing in a beach town? Tapas at streetside cafes? Learning French and visiting the Louvre?
Once you have a basic outline of what your family travel experience will look like, then you can start filling in details, like choosing a location, organizing transportation to and at your destination and arranging accommodations.
Here are a couple of ideas to get those creative juices flowing.
Transportation – Land, Air & Sea
While I believe it’s possible to create the finances to have whatever type of experience you want, if you’re looking to get started sooner than later, looking at creative/inexpensive options for transportation (to and at your destination) can be a good place to begin.
For example, maybe you can’t make the move abroad, but what about road-tripping your current country? What about moving into an mobile home instead?
Get creative. If you want to fly, are you flexible about destination and dates? Do a “My City to Anywhere” search on Adioso.com (that’s how I found $103 round-trip tickets to Peru)! You could also look into a repositioning/one way cruise instead. What about driving? (We did, from the U.S. to Costa Rica. Twice. The second time we drove on recycled vegetable oil, reducing fuel costs to almost zero!) Or even riding your bikes? (We personally know three families who have done that – one from Alaska to Argentina, with twin boys age 10 when they started. Another family biked Europe and Africa with four kids aged 8 to 12; the third family had two toddlers, and biked from Canada to Central America. It can be done!)
There’s also the option to travel hack and or earn frequent flier miles (one guy has visited every country in the world using his flier miles).[From Scott: We’ve used these same miles hacks to travel Business Class for free all over the world for years, including all this year during our World Tour. Here are a few good resources: Extra Pack of Peanuts, Nomadic Matt and The Art of World Travel (free eBook).]
Start brainstorming today!
With families, you can offset costs by finding mid/long-term accommodations (this is one reason a longer stay is better than a shorter one). You can save a lot, compared to the cost of staying in hotels, and sometimes even hostels (if you’re a large family, especially). Rent a place and explore from there. To start out, rent a place on Airbnb.com (or similar), to have somewhere to stay for a week or so while you do an on-the-ground search for something longer.
But if you do want to be on the move, you can stay at hostels and hotels, bed and breakfasts, do camping, couchsurfing or house sitting (a bit harder with larger families).
Braces, Doctors and Illness. Oh, My!
Parents are naturally concerned about the well-being of the kids, and the everyday stuff – getting sick, going to the dentist, and getting checkups for their braces. What do you do about these things while exploring the globe?
Rest assured, there are great doctors all over the world. There are orthodontists in other countries. And of course there are pharmacies, and/or natural remedies and solutions (we use essential oils for TONS of self care).
There are options. One girl broke her leg during her family’s round-the-world trip. The bone was set and casted in Switzerland, and removed during follow-up appointments in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, Japan and Costa Rica.
Another family had two teenage boys in braces when they moved to Guatemala, but were able to take them to appointments every week in Quetzaltenango.
Relax. Your children won’t grow up with crooked teeth, or develop leprosy if you decide to travel. In some places you’ll find care that’s as good or better than home, often for a fraction of the cost (medical tourism is getting very popular for good reason).
Education or No ‘Real’ Schooling
“I can’t travel because my kids are in school,” is something I’ve heard before, which always reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote when he said, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.”
Can we really believe that sitting in a classroom to learn about the pyramids of Giza can compare in any way to actually visiting them?
Of course, hands-on experience can’t fully replace book learning and academics – although it can drastically enhance it. On a long term basis, good educational options can become a major issue. It’s one of the main reasons many expats make a move back home — they can’t find adequate schooling for their growing children.
Many opt to homeschool, unschool, or worldschool. But every day, the Internet is providing even more options, for those who are interested in “home-sourcing” – with the Internet or a tablet, their children are accessing the best educational resources available, from anywhere, and everywhere, in the world. From self-paced courses, to online, virtual classes, a top-notch, world-class, liberal arts education is possible no matter where you live or wander. (This approach and philosophy is the basis of our own online academy — WorldschoolAcademy.com — which we started because of this unique educational need in the growing number of nomadic families worldwide.)
“Yes, but what about ‘real’ schooling experience? Accreditation? Getting into college? Getting a job?”
First we need ask, “What is real schooling? What does that mean anyway?”
If it means books and a classroom with a teacher, well, traveling doesn’t have to limit those options. Travel can be done during the school break, or you can visit a country for an extended period of time and enroll your children in a local or expat school.
But if you’re talking about a real education, the type where children are motivated to learn because they’re inspired by the world around them, then traveling offers more of a real education than you could find in the confines of four walls.
It’s also important to realize that some of these are old-school ideas, hatched during the Industrial Age, when professional training was needed to get a job. Today we live in a new era – the Information Age – where the rules truly have changed (read Revolutionary Wealth by the Tofflers or Linchpin by Seth Godin). We shouldn’t force old ideologies onto our kids, or they’ll be ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the future in a world that is changing faster than any of us can comprehend.
College has been used for job training, which unfortunately usually leads to massive debt and unemployment. It should be used for those requiring professional training – doctors, lawyers and such – or for future leaders of the world who want a great liberal arts education from a great school with great mentors.
Job security nowadays has to do with skills, innovation, entrepreneurship and vision – not degrees and certificates. And if you’re simply looking to continue your learning (since there is never a graduation from education), vast amounts of college instruction can be found online (all of MIT’s courses are free, as well as many of Yale’s, etc.). There are also endless websites for learning, on every topic imaginable — Udemy, Edx, Coursera, KhanAcademy, TED, TED-Ed, to name a few.
And even if you still decide to follow the traditional educational and occupational route, your child will be able to take tests and entrance exams to get into the school of choice, and travel will only add to their résumé, not detract from it.
Stability & Security
We have been accused more than once of ruining our children’s lives because we’re failing to provide a secure and stable place for them to grow up. Yet how often do we see families and children living in so-called security and stability who still falter and fail? Staying in one place, with a secure job, paycheck, school schedule and extra-curricular activities is not the fail-safe recipe for happiness – for ourselves or our children.
Real stability comes from within, and is passed on to our children through example, habit and values – all of which can be taught and lived no matter where in the world you are – a rented bungalow in Thailand, a riad in Morocco or a hostel in Peru.
Become a stable human being if you want to raise a stable family.
How to Make it Happen (Let’s Talk About Money)
For many people, the immediate concern is money, specifically how to make long-term exploration financially sustainable, when you no longer have income from a regular job.
The good news is that, thanks to the Internet, earning online – even an income that can comfortably support a family – is becoming easier to do. (And you don’t have to know things like Java and HTML coding.)
Since moving to this area of Costa Rica, we’ve met a lovely Australian family who “made the break” four years ago. They were tired of the rat race, and wanted more family and chill time. While at first they tried to do things the “proper” way (save up, store their things, start an online business), they finally realized it wasn’t working for them (the online venture failed). So they listed everything on eBay, bought round-trip tickets (just in case) and flew to Costa Rica. THEN they looked for other income options.
Within four weeks, Danielle (the wife), was earning an income as a virtual assistant – a real business with real clients – to support their growing family (#3 was born in Costa Rica). Four years later, business is better than ever, and now they have plans to visit Europe soon.
Of course this isn’t the only option. Here’s a few other ideas that we’ve seen in action, from real traveling families:
- Keep your job and travel during the summer.
- Keep your job and work remotely
- Make your current business location independent
- Teach English abroad
- Use your experience, skills, expertise to work with people 1:1 in the city you visit
- Teach online (my husband does this)
- Design websites or graphics (I do this)
- Start a passion business (like LYL!)
- Start an online business (selling wood watches, designer purses, etc.)
- Work for a non-profit organization (we did this in India)
- Offer your skills on a freelance/contract basis
- Become a professional blogger
- Become a traveling nurse
- We also have a site on How to Fund Travel
Pie in the Sky?
As a family, we love shattering the status quo. We break most people’s preconceived ideas about travel, family, career and life’s possibilities in general. But we’re not unique. When we embarked on our first travel rodeo back in 2007, I couldn’t find one blog about anybody, let alone a family who had done what we wanted to do. If you do the same search now, you’ll find hundreds of travel blogs, dozens and dozens (if not more) who are family travelers.
This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea. There’s a revolution taking place, and it’s not limited to GenY/escapist-esque types. This is happening for real families with real careers, who are creating real, lasting legacies.
Take the Next Step
All that’s left is to take action. Start planning your dream family travel experience today.
Research destinations. Calculate costs (they’re less than you think). Save. Reduce expenses. Sell something.
Start acting as if it will happen for you.
You don’t need to know how everything will work out.
You just need to take the next step. And then the next step, which will (as Scott says) “evolve as you blaze the trail.”
Just keep moving forward.
This can be your life.
Rachel Denning is the mostly sane matriarch of a gaggle of gregarious children (plus wife to one awesome-sauce husband, who is entirely sane and always optimistic). She’s an autodidact with a passion for reading, writing, languages and classical music.
As a family, they’ve traveled to 13 countries (and counting) on 3 continents, and are planning on adding their 4th and 5th continents (and ?? more countries) before 2015 ends. Follow their reality/travel adventures on YouTube, learn more about their educational philosophy, curriculum and resources, and discover how to have a real career from anywhere.
If you have questions for Rachel (or family travel experience/advice of your own), leave them in the comments below.
I also recognize this topic could lead to some heated discussion, which I welcome, as long as we keep it clean and healthy. 🙂 So, if you have concerns, voice them! I’m sure Rachel would be happy to respond.