Going Global: Making a Long International Trip Happen for Your Family

During our family’s around-the-world journey and in the months since we’ve returned from it, many people have reached out to us asking for advice on the logistics and finances of a major world travel experience like this. They want to know how they might be able to make it work for their family, and we’re more than happy to provide any guidance we can. We know firsthand the benefits of world travel for a family with children, so we want to help more people create an experience like this for themselves. Traveling together like this has changed our family for the better in more ways than we ever imagined. It goes beyond cultural awareness and seeing amazing places. This trip has developed our relationships with one another and changed who we are as individuals as well as a family unit.

But I digress. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need a sales pitch on the benefits of world travel. You just want to know how to make it happen. So here goes:

Step #1: Ask the question “How much do you really want it?”
How much you really want to do something in life will be measured by whether or not you do it. If you really want to travel the world with your kids, you will. It just has to be the top priority. If you’re not willing to make some sacrifices for it, then other “wants” will take precedence and travel will get pushed to the backburner. So how much do you really want it? Are you willing to sell your house for it? Dip into your savings? Take a leave of absence from your job? Maybe even quit your job? If you answered those questions with  “Yeah…I think I would do anything to make this happen for us,” then your family is probably going to be travelling in a couple years.

Step #2: Tell your kids about it and prepare to ignore their responses
Modern-day parenting promotes open communication and valuing our children’s opinions. Great rules of thumb in the majority of situations, but sometimes you’re the parent and you know better than they do what’s best for your family. Many kids are not going to be on board with the idea of an international trip. Leaving their friends, school, sports and activities may sound like corporal punishment to their routine-loving little brains. However, given time, they’ll come around. You might be a month into your trip when they finally do, but it will happen. Just trust me on this one.

Step #3: Map out your destinations
If you got past Steps #1 and #2, it means you’re serious. You’re willing to make some real sacrifices and brainstorm options to get your family on the road. While it may seem like finances and work decisions should be a first step, the best thing to do at this point is to start planning your route. Where have you always dreamed of going? What cool places have your kids learned about in school? Make a list, then buy a map and pin it up in a place where your family will see it regularly. Draw out possible routes getting your family to each of those bucket list destinations. Print off images of these places and put those on the map too. While it may seem a little corny, visualizing it and giving yourself frequent reminders about this family goal is one of the most powerful things you can do to make a big dream like this come to fruition.

Step #4: Tell family and friends about it…and again prepare to ignore their responses
“You want to go where? Oh, I’ve heard it’s so unsafe!”
“Take the kids out of school for a year?! Oh goodness, they’ll fall so far behind!”
“Leave your job?! How can you afford that?”

Yes, you’re definitely going to hear some negative responses when you start talking about your family’s goal to do a long international journey. You’ll also hear a lot of positive comments too. Talking about it will give this trip more focus in your life and help put the good, the bad and the ugly out on the table. Even the pessimistic comments are helpful, because they’re simply things you had rolling around in your own head to some extent. By hearing them and responding to them, you work through your own doubts and reaffirm how important this trip is to your family.

Step #5: Figure out health insurance
One of the first things people often ask us about is health insurance. It’s not as complicated as our American health system would lead you to believe. The first thing to remember is that healthcare in other parts of the world is much more affordable. While we were in Ireland our youngest had to go to a local doctor for “the midges.” Don’t panic like I did when I first heard it. They were just bug bites. Anyway, her office visit was 25 Euros and the antibiotics were under 10 – and that’s without using our insurance. Over the course of our entire journey we luckily never had to use our health insurance once, and just paid out of pocket for a few trips to local clinics, spending less than $120 total.

Cigna and other large health insurance plans have policies specifically for travelers. We dropped our U.S. health insurance and switched to a high-deductible international plan which accepts any hospital or doctor in the world. The premium was about $500 a month for a $3,000 deductible and $7,000 out-of-pocket maximum. Once you return from your journey, you’ll have to switch to a domestic policy quickly, since you’ll disqualify yourself from your international plan after you’ve been in the U.S. for more than 60 days of the year.

If pre-existing conditions or expensive daily medications are an issue, you might need to keep your domestic insurance. These domestic providers will still honor your international claims, but it’s considered out-of-network, so the cost will be higher for you should you need to use it. Even if you leave your employer to go on this trip, you can take advantage of COBRA health insurance which allows you to temporarily continue the group health benefits even after you leave a job.

Another question we get relates to medical evacuation insurance. This is the pricey insurance people buy in case they would have to leave a country immediately in order to seek medical treatment for a serious injury or illness. We only got this in Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Healthcare services in most places in the world are as good or better than those found in the United States. We evaluated the need for medical evacuation each place we went by researching the availability of modernized hospitals.

Step #6: Brainstorm your work options
Addressing your work situation might seem like the first step in creating a travel experience like this, but it falls to #6 for several reasons. First of all, establishing this trip as a goal for your family without focusing on potential hurdles is most important. Looking at your job situation from the beginning will only serve to give you a big fat excuse for why your family could never do a trip like this. Secondly, evaluating your family’s health insurance needs first will determine the best approach with your work. It’s likely you’ll find you can easily switch to an international policy and don’t need your company’s group plan for this trip, which will give you freedom to explore all possible career options supporting your travel goals. Finally, once you’ve set your intention to do this trip and told others about it, you will begin to look at your work situation differently. It simply becomes one of a series of steps you need to address in order to make this journey happen. Don’t start thinking about your job situation until Steps #1-#5 are complete. I’m serious!

Once you get to this Step #6, you probably have more options than you might initially have thought. If you want to keep your current job, investigate your company’s policy on taking a leave of absence. Many organizations allow employees to accumulate unpaid time off for every year of employment. We recently met a couple where the woman was able to take a 4-month leave of absence for their international trip, with her job guaranteed to be waiting for her when she returned. This was just a standard company policy.

The other side to explore is a telecommuting option. While not possible for every type of job, many companies would rather keep a valuable and experienced employee in a part-time telecommuting position than lose them entirely. Sketch out a list of your job tasks which could be handled remotely and prepare a proposal for a temporary telecommuting arrangement. You’ll ever know if it’s an option unless you ask.

If telecommuting or a leave of absence won’t work for your employer, maybe it’s time to consider other career opportunities. I know, I know. It seems a bit dramatic and irresponsible to walk away from your job to take your family on an international adventure, right? But, take a moment to step back and really think about the big picture here. What do you want your life to be? Years down the road when you look back on all this, what will you regret? What will you be so glad you had the courage to do? If you’ve read all the way to this point in this long-winded article, it means a family journey is pretty damn important to you. So don’t let company policy or a fear of turning down a new path in life keep you from doing it. Too often we get complacent. We opt for the path of least resistance and react to the world around us, forgetting that we actually have choices in this big game of life. We can move our pieces around the board and create a better outcome for ourselves. Perhaps your desire to do something different for your family is also signaling a desire to do something different with your work. My husband’s just as a software developer has given our family this freedom to travel. Maybe it’s an option for you?

Step #7: Handling homeschooling
So here’s the cut and dry advice when it comes to educating your kids during this journey. Don’t overthink it. This will be the best educational experience you could ever give them, so try not to freak out about the things your kids might miss in the classroom. If you live in the United States the process of homeschooling is extremely easy. Shortly before you leave, you can contact the school district administrators and register your kids as homeschool students.  They will likely have a periodic reporting process for you to follow. Usually it’s a monthly report simply citing the hours your students spent on schoolwork. However, we didn’t have to do this at all. Because we sold our house and knew we likely wouldn’t be returning to the same town after our journey, our girls weren’t registered with any school district. We simply unenrolled them, picked up a copy of their academic records so they could be stored in an easily accessible place while we were overseas, and then registered the girls in a new school district when we returned.

Our family navigated homeschooling without a formally-structured curriculum and we were really happy with the results. While there are a lot of commercial programs out there, they really aren’t necessary if you’re only venturing into the homeschooling world for a year or so. Khan Academy was been great for math. Travel journals were fantastic writing tools. Our elementary-aged daughters came up with their own science projects, composed entire fiction books, did some coding, spoken a dozen languages, learned the geography of 3 continents and gave presentations on the countries we visited, etc. Our international adventure will gave them more learning opportunities than we could have imagined. And when we got back into the United States, they slipped right back into academic life with no problems whatsoever.

Step #8: Evaluating your budget
So this is where we get into the nitty gritty. How much is this life-changing, soul-searching, eye-opening, family-bonding experience really going to cost? That all depends on how you approach it. The more expenses you eliminate back home, the easier it will be to pay for a trip like this. Our family sold our house, cars and almost all of our furniture, leaving behind nothing but a 16×8 foot storage unit. In doing so, we removed a multitude of costs and a lot of hassle – no home repairs, oil changes, utility bills, car insurance, etc. Once we began traveling, we also realized how much money we’d been spending on life’s little incidentals, like cute home décor items, clothes we didn’t need, sports and activity fees and all those impulse purchases that jumped off Target’s shelves and into my cart. Spending drops dramatically when your family goes nomadic for a while.

On the flip side of the money you won’t be spending is obviously the money you will be spending. If keeping the costs down needs to be the top priority, you might decide to make some concessions on your bucket list of destinations. Skip Europe and stick to countries in Southeast Asia and South America where food and other day-to-day expenses cost a lot less. You can also minimize expensive flights and get the most out of your housing dollars by going to fewer locations and staying longer.

Our family rented modest apartments and houses for about a month at a time using Homeaway and Airbnb as our primary housing search tools. We used Skyscanner to track airline prices and compare which days would be cheapest to fly. We always went with the least expensive airline but we had to thoroughly investigate their baggage fees before buying. Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the cheapest after all the nickel and diming is done. We did hit high-priced Europe, but we opted to get a 5-month rental car through the Renault Eurodrive program. This meant we didn’t have to buy a bunch of plane tickets and we could also stay in cheaper and more out-of-the-way houses.

Below is a very rough sketch of our family’s major spending while travelling. Depending on the location, these costs will be higher or lower, but we’ve tried to provide our overall averages to give you an idea of what your budget might need to include. Keep in mind, we have 3 kids, so we’re paying for 5 beds, 5 seats, 5 tickets, etc.

  • Housing – $1300/month
  • Health Insurance – $500/month
  • Storage unit in U.S. – $150/month
  • Cell phones and data – $125/month
  • Car rentals – $7000 total (5 months in Europe, 1 month in Thailand, 6 weeks in New Zealand)
  • Plane tickets – $19,500 total (15 destinations)
  • Food costs in Europe and westernized countries – Your current food spending x 150%
  • Food costs in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America – Your current food spending x 50%
  • Vaccines for the family – $950

Step #9: Finances, taxes and other boring stuff
With a better idea of the money you’ll be spending, you can set your goals for saving. Preparing for a long term international trip will probably require you to drastically change your domestic spending habits first. If you’re a two-income family, the fastest way to save is to start living on one income and saving the other. It might sound impossible, but it’s more feasible than you think. It just requires some sacrifice. (See Step #1 if you’ve forgotten about this part.) Saving big bucks for your overseas journey might means you downsize to a smaller house, drop some club memberships, get a cheaper car, put a serious cap on holiday gift-giving and cease all those Target impulse purchases. While you’re saving, be sure to track your progress. Maybe you add one of those fundraising thermometers to that map of yours and color it in a little more each week. Make saving for this trip a focus for the whole family.

Now for a few picky details on finances…. ATM fees will become extremely important to you when travelling in the cash-based economies of developing nations. Large banking firms like Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch and others offer ATM fee reimbursement, so you can use any ATM in the world without being penalized. Consider opening up an account with them and using it for your day-to-day spending.

If you don’t already have one, open up a second credit or debit card and keep the two separated at all times. Put one in your wallet and one in a safe place back at your rental house for emergencies. Also, get separate account numbers for each spouse. If your accounts are linked and one of your cards gets lost or stolen, then both cards are useless until you can get a new one shipped to you.

Just because you leave the country doesn’t mean you’ll get out of paying taxes. Sign a letter giving power of attorney to your trusted tax accountant so they can submit returns and payments without your signature. Keep in mind that if you’re out of the country for 330 days of a 12-month period, you can qualify for the Foreign-Earned Tax exclusion. This can save you BIG money if you’re still earning an income while you’re traveling, so be sure to talk about it with your a tax adviser before you leave if you think your trip will go past that 330-day mark.

Ask a relative or close friend to become your new mailing address in the states. Change the addresses on all credit cards, banks, insurance policies and other important, grown-up things to this new mailing address. This person will become your eyes for important documents while you’re gone.

Step #10: Looking at cell phone and data plans
TMobile has an incredible international plan offering great service in 110 countries around the globe. We highly recommend it. Voice calls made over the cellular network in those countries are only 20 cents a minute and texting and data are unlimited. No matter where we were, we could always call the U.S. for free when connected to wifi. For those countries not on TMobile’s list you can easily purchase a local SIM card and pre-pay for both voice call minutes and data. Consider packing an extra cell phone if you have one so you can use it as the family’s local phone and save yourself the trouble of swapping out the SIM cards in your main phones.

Step #11: Keeping the intention alive
Every week put a couple items related to this trip on your to-do list. Track your travel savings, schedule appointments for one of the vaccines you’ll need or just print up a few images to add to your map of destinations. Don’t let too much time go by without putting some focus on your dream trip. The momentum of all those little steps will gradually build and you’ll find that things begin almost magically falling into place.

It will require some significant work, some family sacrifices and a few leaps of faith, but planning this journey will lead to one of the most memorable and rewarding periods of your family’s life together.
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4 Comments

  1. Very helpful post. Thank you for this. My partner and I have been talking about this for years, and I feel like it’s time to pull the trigger. Was it hard coming back? Did your kids adjust okay?

    1. I’ll be brutally honest and say, yes, it was a little difficult coming back at first. Our re-entry into normal life was probably the biggest culture shock we had. The girls did great slipping back into traditional schools, and they were really excited to make friends. The difficulty was staying focused on what was important. Our travels had shown us that our day-to-day happiness is what really matters, and when we run ourselves ragged with kid activities and career striving, we limit those happy moments that we can accumulate. I could feel us getting sucked back into the rat race a little bit, so we had to recalibrate periodically. Just take a step back to see the big picture and remember that we aren’t here to be stressed and overscheduled. I gave a Tedx talk on this if you want to check it out. It goes over about the 3 big lessons from our journey. You can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UqeIJa4YCY
      It might answer your question better than this comment. :-)

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and then stumbled upon your article today. It’s a sign! I’m talking to my husband about this tonight!

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