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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

We bought an American school bus

Yes, it’s true. We now own a 37ft yellow school bus that until recently was ferrying kids to lessons in Nampa, Idaho. We plan to rip out the seats of our iconic vehicle and turn it into a motorhome, otherwise known as an RV or, to those in the know, a ‘Skoolie’. We leave this summer to travel North America and we will be gone for a year.

A family gap year

For a long time, my husband and I have felt like we wanted to do a bit more with our lives. Climbing the career ladder has never been a priority for either of us; we work to live not live to work. But when you have a family, a mortgage, school term dates to adhere to, you can’t just give up your job and your home and head off into the hills….. or can you?

Yes you can. There is a lot more planning to do, but it is possible to go travelling in your forties without (hopefully) losing all your worldly possessions in the process. We will have to be careful – indeed it won’t be so much a holiday as a time in which we will be living differently – but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, both for us and our kids.

Why take a gap year in America?

Antelope Canyon. Ridiculously gorgeous

Of all the places in the world we want to go, the U.S has never been near the top. Both my husband and I have travelled extensively and America just seems a bit too much like home. It’s not just about us though; we have two little boys to think of.

America offers deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there’s so much to see and do for two kids that have never been any further than the Algarve. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable and we have friends there, which makes travelling and making new friends easier. We can also get reliable WiFi; the kids can keep in touch with their grandparents and we can continue freelancing.

There was concern about whether we could get on board with a country where the current political climate honestly scares us a little. In the end we figured that we’re coming from a country where the current political climate scares us a little, a Brexit-battered Britain.

Once we decided to start in the U.S we looked into the visa situation. Whilst it may tick a lot of boxes for a family gap year, it’s not quite so easy to execute that plan – the ESTA visa gives UK citizens just 90 days. You also can’t pop in and out of Canada or Mexico to renew – you have to leave Norht America entirely. There are other, more expensive, options though and we are in the process of applying for a B1/B2 visa that will allow us to stay for longer.

Why did we buy a Skoolie?

Because they are so flippin’ cool!

Amazing camp spots: Image from theskoolie.com

In truth, this was how we justified America. When we visualised a trip around the States from behind the wheel of a big, yellow bus, it became a totally different destination. It became the beautiful America, rather than the political one.

Of course one of the first things we found out is that ‘Chrome Yellow’, the famous particular shade for US school buses, is not allowed on converted RV’s. It’s a shame we have to change it but I guess it would be a bit awkward if you pulled over to take a call and a queue of schoolkids boarded your new home…

I plan to write a whole lot more about how we found our bus, how we learnt everything there is to know about skoolies and how we will convert it in this blog. If you fancy following our journey, sign up for blog updates.

But living in a bus for a year?

I’m sure it will be hard. Sometimes our 4 bed house doesn’t feel big enough for us all! We’ll just have to get used to it.

Family of 4 in campervan huddled together
We are used to small spaces!

I’m confident we will. I know it’s not the same, but we know we can adapt to a small space – our campervan quickly becomes home whenever we go away it it. We also know that this kind of travel works for us – heading out in Old Bill (our campers new name since it joined the Quirky Campers website for hire) we get the kind of spontaneity that is hard to find with young children. We can travel anywhere we fancy, sleep wherever we like (more or less!), discover places off the beaten track and enjoy random, unexpected adventures.

Of course a 37ft bus is not quite so manoeuvrable, we won’t be able to ‘stealth camp’, but the roads are bigger in America. The conversions are much more homely as well – proper tiny homes.

How will you convert it?

Who wouldn’t love living in this gorgeous space – photo from insta @laststopalaska

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus. Buying a good bus is cheap (about $5000 USD) but the conversion process and storage of a vehicle is not.

We looked at whether my husband could fly out early to do the work himself, but without being in the US this was always going to be tough.

We looked into conversions that people were selling. There were some great value options but, again, we are not in the US so we can’t check them out and store them. We’d have to wait until the last-minute which is scary.

We looked at established companies in the US who do the conversions for you: Skoolie Homes, Colorado Custom Coachworks, Paved to Pines, Chrome Yellow and many more. Prices leaped to the $60k mark.

We even looked at whether it was do-able to bring it to the UK to convert it with a friend over here who has his own school bus conversion company. (Check out Shred & Butta for more on them). It opened up a million import and export issues. There is a whole blog piece I plan to write about our investigations if you are interested (or want something to fall asleep to!).

We’re now working with a company who build tiny homes in Salt Lake City. It’s taken us a while to work out contracts and insurance etc as he’s new to the skoolie conversion process. Everything is in place now though and the team are as excited as we are. Our bus has been collected and is currently sitting with them in SLC.

Will you have to home-school?

Award at school
No trophies and certificates at the school of mum and dad!

Yep, we plan to home school the kids. This scared me at first but it’s totally do-able. Amazingly, you don’t actually have to follow a curriculum if you teach your kids yourself. As we are only taking them out of school for a year, we will try and follow some of what their classmates are doing – just to help with continuity and to help them keep in touch.

We met with the headmaster and he thought it sounded like a great adventure. He said we should focus on maths and literacy but ‘the rest would just naturally come’ with the trip. The only minor concern he had was for the 6 year old who will be at a key learning point – at that age they get a much better sense of how they fit in the social structure of their class and how to interact with other kids. It’s important we ensure he mixes with other children. Another tick for America.

I’ve read lots of forums about schools making life tricky for families that want to home-school instead. We did not get this experience. Our headmaster was happy for us to work with the school and make it interactive and has told us he will sit with us himself to show us the school’s ‘maths philosophy’, which will help us teach the kids.

But yes, before you ask, we have to formally remove them from the school and then reapply when we want them to return. There is no guarantee that either child will be accepted – it all depends on space. Although this is a cause of concern, we won’t let it stand in the way.

How will you fund the trip?

We are going to realise our assets! That means we shall be storing our stuff and renting out our home and campervan. We’ll also continue to freelance – we both have the kind of jobs where remote working is completely acceptable. We may even look at opportunities for sponsorship. Ever fancied seeing your name on the side of a bus?!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Can you still go travelling in your forties?

Like lots of people our age, our twenties and thirties followed a pattern: university, backpacking, move to the city for a cool job (usually undertaken with a hangover),  find partner, do some slightly more glamorous travelling, move in together, buy a house, get married and have babies. It doesn’t have to be in that order, ours wasn’t, but we ended up ticking all those boxes in a way that felt very spontaneous and exciting.  Whoop whoop we said as we toasted our forties, we are winning at life!

Then we hit 41.

This day…

Every time Google or Facebook reminds me of where I was 8+ years ago, I feel less enchanted by my set-up.

Cool travel jobs
In my thirties my job involved photo-shoots abroad and product testing supercars and spa days

Life is very different in your forties. Here we are, tick-tocking along in suburbia with kids ensconced in the school system, a mortgage, a car that we need to take the kids to their various after school activities, careers that we’d like to rethink, the occasional night out when the grandparents are available to babysit and a campervan trip every year to France. We laugh with the kids and we try to fill our weekends with activities. It’s a nice life and we know we are very lucky. 

The problem is that we’re bored with it. We seem to spend a lot of time doing stuff that I don’t consider to be fun, particularly when the weather goes all cold and grey.  I don’t want to go to Thailand and drink buckets of Sangsom and red bull, it’s not about going back to being twenty, but I also don’t want to wile away my days on Amazon choosing plastic tat for birthday presents or comparing household appliances. I don’t want the best part of my day to be a bargain in Aldi or the right combo of wind and sun to ensure a ‘good drying day’. Surely there is more to life?

An epiphany

Lightbulb moment - new idea

After our amazing family adventures in Scotland last year. We kept talking about how great it would be to jack it all in and travel with the kids, sending each other articles about families adventuring in the world and following family travel bloggers on Instagram.

Then it hit us….. why couldn’t we? What was actually stopping us from travelling the world?

Family responsibility

When we last travelled, in our early thirties we dreamt of staying away – living in different places for 6 months at a time. We couldn’t because we felt the weight of responsibility. My father had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers and was fading away from us, bringing a whole host of logistical challenges and heartbreak to my mum, sister and I.  At the same time, my husband’s brother was seriously ill and he needed , and wanted, to be around. Being away from the UK wasn’t really an option.

Jumping into Lake Atitlan whilst travelling
Short-lived freedom

The passing of both my father and brother-in-law overlapped with the births of our two sons. Now our responsibilities are our children. We need to ensure we make their childhoods the best they can possibly be – full of happiness, learning and experience. We also need to keep them safe and provide a secure home for them.

We are achieving all of those aims with our current set-up. The big difference, we’ve realised, is that we don’t actually need to be based in the UK for that to happen. Children can go to school anywhere and if we want to keep moving, we could in theory home-school them. Given the current challenges with UK education, taking the boys out of school could be a positive rather than a negative.

Financial responsibility

Travelling the world with kids costs a lot of money – we are not blind to this – but whilst we don’t have endless savings, we do have assets that can be leveraged. This is where the freedom years of our thirties bear fruit; the flats that we kept as rentals, our trusty campervan and our house. If we can make them pay, we can potentially cover our travel costs. 

Of course when you leave your life behind, you potentially need to leave your stuff behind. But do we really need all the junk we have accumulated? Sometimes I look at all the kitchen appliances, the vases and plant pots, the nick nacks, pictures on the wall, the gifts we’ve received over the years that are not to our taste, the pinterest-inspired crafty things that I should never have tried to recreate and the bookcases full of other people’s stories and I feel weighed down by it all. How much of this do you actually need to live a good life? Very little I’m guessing.  Maybe a forced de-clutter would  be a good thing. 

Work is obviously an issue. A regular paycheck is a big reason to stay put. We can both freelance though, it just takes a bit of work to build contacts. As long as we have access to WiFi there is no reason why we couldn’t work from anywhere in the world and maybe a break would help us work out exactly what it is we want to do.  

This is starting to sound more do-able than not!

Fear of the unknown

Let’s take a reality check. Taking the kids out of school, relying on freelance  work, home-schooling selling all of our stuff, renting out our house, using up our savings to travel the world – it’s scary stuff that is not to be taken lightly. 

On the other hand, one thing I remember from times sitting in the hospital with my dad was that life is short and you can’t see what is coming. If you want to do something with your life, don’t delay it.

So what are the Travelling Chimps going to do?

Untitled-1We are going to research whether travelling in our forties with kids is actually do-able. We need to know that it is the right decision and not completely irresponsible.

We’re also going to stop buying so much unnecessary stuff, filling our house with things we don’t really need. Who knows – it might be that we need to put it all into storage so that the Travelling Chimps can go on a real adventure.