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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Beg, borrow and (get it for a) steal – budgeting for a family gap year

You can’t expect to give up your job and travel the world without a little tightening of the purse strings. But how tight does tight have to be to fit within budget? As we head into month three of our big adventure and everybody else heads back to school and work, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about how we we are managing to afford a gap year in a skoolie in North America.

Two months into our trip and we can already see that some of our budgeted figures were wildly wrong. Whether it is because of our location and the varying costs in each state, the impact of Brexit on the value of the British Pound or the unforseen costs of having to furnish our skoolie, keeping within the parameters of ‘the budget’ has been more of a challenge than we were expecting.

‘Guestimating’ our original budget

Working on the budget on a laptop in the skoolie
When the boys go out to play, Mummy sits inside and balances the books and sometimes writes blogs!

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. After all, to make this trip last a year we need to know we can afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit the attractions that we have travelled so far to see, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and suck up the expense of owning and furnishing a bus in North America.

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

Hidden lake overlook at Glacier National Park
Our budget included an ‘America the Beautiful’ pass, which gives us access to all of the National Parks for free. We hitched a ride up to Logan Pass and trekked to Hidden Lake Overlook. 

We researched all the fixed costs (visas, national park passes etc) and included money to cover purchases like bikes. We built in a generous contingency and then factored in all of our UK outgoings and income. There are pages of figures, which I won’t bore you with unless you specifically want to know them!

In the end, it all boiled down to two crucial sums:

  1. Did we have enough in our savings for the initial outlay of the bus?
  2. Were our monthly outgoings likely to be less than our monthly income from the UK, making it a ‘cost-neutral’ year?

For both answers we came up with a yes.

The (rather large) cost of a skoolie home

Budgets must include full bus equipment
It’s not just the structure of the bus we had to think about. We had to fully equip our home for the year, make it feel cosy and prepare it for all kinds of weather – we needed everything, from blankets to bikinis. 

The bus cost about the same as a house extension, which in a funny kind of way it is. While we hope to get some money back if we sell it at the end / use it somehow in the future, we also had to accept that we may not make anything on it. If it breaks down and can’t be fixed or blows up in a huge propane explosion, our investment goes with it. Of course, after two months going feral in the wilderness, there is also the distinct possibility that Guy releases his inner Thelma (or is it Louise?) and drives us all into a canyon shouting “I’m never going back to work again”!

As discussed in our earlier blog, How to buy and convert a US school bus from the UK, we could have gone with a cheaper bus, i.e a secondhand one off eBay, but we felt there was too much risk. We also couldn’t justify the prices the more established conversion companies were quoting for a new bus, so we took a gamble with a new company who were prepared to reduce their prices to get the business. We wrote a detailed contract and ensured they bought insurance to make sure everything could be delivered safely and within the price agreed. We kept a small contingency aside just in case.

bus overhanging cliff with budget bikes hanging
We just wanted to get on the road and start enjoying ourselves (and park in the tightest of parking of spaces!)

It almost worked to plan. The budget ran out just a couple of weeks before we jetted out of the UK so we made the decision to use our contingency in order to get the bus finished. It wasn’t enough to cover everything, but it was enough to get us on the road.  

Lots of people have asked us about the contract and why we had to use the contingency. We just wanted the bus done in time for our arrival and this was the only way.  We figured it was all part of the skoolie-build learning-curve for both the company and us. When you are new to something, mistakes happen. You live and learn. We love our bus and it is mechanically sound, which is what matters.

Budget living means DIY whilst camping
Shelf building… that sucks. No-one else on the campsite has to do DIY!

The upshot of an unfinished bus is some unexpected DIY. We hoped we’d seen the back of tools and loose screws after trying to get our house, campervan and rental properties sorted before we left, but it turns out that ‘Guy the handyman’ has had to come on holiday with us; we furnish as we go – curtains here, shelves there – something new every month. It sucks up a lot of our cash as we have to buy materials and tools and we also spend more time in hardware stores and less time at attractions or dining out – such is life.

Grocery shopping – a budget busting exercise

noodles - the best budget meal
Noodles, mercifully, are cheap everywhere. I’m not quite sure we need this many packets though.

If we ignore the additional monthly costs of the bus, we felt our budget was roomy enough to cope with all other eventualities. Then we went grocery shopping. I had budgeted for the same spend as we had in the UK – keeping in mind that we are lazy at home and usually end up at the local Co-op buying over-priced broccoli, potatoes and some kind of 2 for £7 fillets for dinner (why is it that pre-planning meals and shopping in advance at the grocers / butchers seems so impossible?)

As we travelled through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, prices seemed to go up and up. A loaf of wholemeal bread at home, £1.20. You want butter on that? Let’s say £2. In Montana, prices are at least double that for the most basic brands. Cheese, cereal, tins… same story.

Eating on the roofdeck of the skoolie
We have had to down-size our tastes – Guy has resorted to eating tinned oysters instead of fresh, doused in the vinegar I use for cleaning.

The solution to escalating food costs? Give up those ‘middle-class’ tastes! No more handfuls of cashews for a snack, soba noodle soup with pak choi, almond milk on cereal and salads full of seeds and fresh leaves. No more last-minute Co-op. We are still rubbish at planning our meals but we buy in bulk, treat ourselves with ice pops from the freezer, enjoy box wine (it doesn’t seem to last any longer… or am I just drinking more?!) and when we are feeling frivolous, the odd tub of hummus ($5 – about £4.50 for a small tub!). We make do…

Not so healthy living

At the start of our trip, someone we met told us that we need to watch our weight and do more fun runs. It wasn’t based on the sight of us…. the bus was not sagging and the kids were still walking through the doorway without turning sideways, but as a travel tip in general.

The reduced budget has had a big impact on the type of food we eat. Much of the stuff we buy – the cheaper stuff – is full of sugar, salt, additives and preservatives that you just wouldn’t find in the UK. If you want to eat healthily (or even go for food without any of the bad stuff in it) you pay more. Even fresh fruit and veg is almost prohibitively expensive. It will be interesting to see if Canada is the same.

Finding food for free

Don’t worry – we are not foraging in the bins just yet. We have managed to acquire some rather spectacular free foods though. Soren caught a trout on his first ever day fishing, enough to feed us all. Of course you could argue that the fishing license made it quite a pricey meal, but Guy also caught a couple of little ‘uns and it was good sport.

We’ve also lucked out with some of the hosts we’ve met through Boondockers Welcome. Andrew the hunter shared some deer meat and burgers from his last season’s hunt, Ben the gardener gave us access to his vegetable crop and Liz the baker gave us some delicious sourdough bread and ciabatta. Boondocking is the way forward!

Going out

bears or beers
Beers or bears? The former is so tempting but we when you live in the woods most of the time, the latter is more likely. We had to spend our cash on bear spray, so it’s cans in the bus for us!

So far prices have been comparable to the UK. We can go out for a meal in a family-friendly restaurant, spend £50 and get a feed for four with a couple of beers. Of course that is if we were actually going out. This is always the area that gets cut when you are skint – going out.

Most people would think this wasn’t too much of a hardship for us – we have a kitchen so can cook – but life in a skoolie means we spend a huge amount of time living in the woods or out by remote lakes. It is such a treat to dip into a town and live the way we used to.

When we come upon somewhere with a cosy feel, where the hum of civilisation and the smell of coffee beans roasting is like a hug from an old friend; where the fizz of a cold IPA and the laughter at the bar threatens to overwhelm you with the first flush of drunk, it is all we can do to stop ourselves running foward with our wallets open. No can do when you live on a budget. Back to the bus my friend. Make your own coffee. Heat up your own milk in a frying pan and enjoy scraping off the milk skin. Drink your own booze out of melamine cups.

Missed opportunities (sometimes) worth missing

beavertails - a budget breaking treat
Occasionally we’ll find a delicious treat. It’s never a healthy one though (which Kit is very happy about!)

Luckily for our wallets, the opportunity to eat rarely crops up. We spent a month in Montana, which is three times as big as the UK but with a a population 60 times smaller and almost entirely from a different demographic, there is not the demand for the kind of eateries we are after. They don’t have a plethora of coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants around every corner – they couldn’t sustain them. This is not Brighton!

The reality of eating out is desolate looking cafes that serve pie and ‘drip coffee’, burgers and fries, pizza slices and fries, grilled cheese (not as nice as it sounds because American cheese is like eating slices of of plastic) and fries. If you want something better / healthier, you spend a whole lot more and then the kids complain it’s horrible and only eat the fries.

I think we may find more choice when we hit the west coast, but it’ll cost even more. Canada is already is proving to be tastier – we had some ‘strong’ cheese earlier that was faintly reminiscent of a mild UK Red Leicester. I was very excited!

Best shared with friends

Sitting around table
New friends! This is David – a mine of National Parks knowledge – who joined us for beers (not bears) in Glacier NP

Going out for dinner with the family is one thing but socialising is another. Because we are camping this is in many ways made easier. We’ve been invited to join people at their bonfires for s’mores (toasted marshmallow sandwiched between crackers with a chunk of chocolate), for card games with neighbours and then there is just the general interest in the skoolie, which means anyone passing stops for a chat and a photo.

A British love of booze

Harvest Hosts brewery
An overnight stay at a Harvest Hosts brewery is free… if you don’t count all the money you spend on beer and pizzas at the bar!

There is not so much of a drinking culture here – only one couple have invited us over for a wine and they were, ironically, from a town a few miles away from where we live in the UK. Guy lives in hope and when someone shouts ‘come join us’ from a firepit or they pop in to see the bus, he always brings out a couple of cans in case he can tempt someone. It rarely works – one fella drank half a can to be polite, another asked for ‘English tea’ instead and the third had a massive rehab story that kept Guy chatting, beers hidden in bag, for a good hour!

One place we have enjoyed a tipple is at the distilleries and breweries we’ve stayed at as part of the Harvest Host‘s scheme. They let you park for free as long as you sample their wares. It ends up costing more to stay at one of these places than the cheap campsites though as the quality of the booze is good and after one or two drinks, who cares about the budget?!

Fun on a budget

boy in rain
I am not bored.  

Now there’s a word. Holidays are fun – a couple of weeks of camping and mucking about in the woods is brilliant. How about 2 months of it though? Well I can report that it is still fun. Whether it is because we have slowed our pace down so much that the days just drift by, or because we are connecting better with the boys, the days seem to disappear with very little complaint.

I’ve banned the ‘b’ word, which helps (and no, that is not ‘budget’).  If anyone says they are bored then they lose a point. The points don’t come off anything particular but they seem to do the job of motivating the kids to stop saying they are ‘b’ and that is sometimes enough to stop it happening!

Paid – for activities vs free

kayaks are a good budget activity
Who needs to pay for a boat trip when you have packed your own boats?!

This is really for the kids. Guy and I don’t feel any desire to pay for aquariums or cable cars. Quite amazingly we manage to avoid most expensive activities by substituting them for cheaper / free versions. We dispensed with the Columbia Icefields explorer trip (a bus that goes onto the ice) by hiking up a mountain next to it instead – we had an amazing view of all the people trekking in a line towards the glacier lookout and all of us were glad we weren’t in it.

The wonderful Noni (my mum) bought us kayaks, so that keeps us busy near water. We bought the kids fishing rods which, if we have a license, means hours can pass untangling reels. The best thing has been bikes though (currently Soren’s favourite hobby – running, fishing and, mercifully, whistling have been relegated!). The boys go round and round campsites on an endless imaginary mission and when we are close to a point of interest, we have alternative transport to a 37 ft bus. What would have been a massive motivation mission to get the kids to walk a couple of miles /a massive motivation mission to strap down the whole bus and drive, now becomes a super cool bike ride.

Biking bonus

But how did we afford these bikes on our budget? Again, we found they were double the cost of those at home and so we started looking around in pawn shops and thrift stores. We were almost defeated by the lack of places big enough for these kind of stores, but then we got to Missoula which is a university town. This gem of a place was full of love for bikes and all those that ride them – “you want to get yourselves to Freecycle – they have second-hand bikes” said a friendly thrift store worker. And they did. For free. FREE! “We don’t sell them ma’am, they are free!”.

Come again? Free?

Yep. Freecycle is a community project to support bike-riding around Missoula. People donate old bikes or broken bikes to Free Cycle, they put them in their warehouse / yard and they teach people how to bring them back to good health. You do a course in bike maintenance, volunteer 4 hours and then choose your bike, they have all the tools, equipment, bike bits (from the stripped bikes that could not be restored) and lots of helpers. It’s such a winning idea, I loved it. Kids don’t have to volunteer, so they just get the bikes for free. And, bonus for us, if you can’t volunteer then you can just donate $30. We ended up walking out (or biking), after just 2 hours of hunting and maintenance, with 4 functional bikes. All for $60.

Livin’ in the city (or forest or prairies or the driveways or the car park)

skoolie parked by lake
Camplife. We never know where we will end up but it’s almost always beautiful and usually inexpensive

I mentioned in my last post – http://camping that our preferred camp spots were the free / low cost dispersed or un-serviced sites. That is still the case. Luckily, we are coming in way under budget on camping which has offset the high food costs. Hopefully, as we move to more populated areas, food costs will come down as I don’t think free campsites will be so readily available in places like California.

Of course you can’t always go for free. We have solar panels, water and propane so we can live off-grid for several days at a time, but not indefinitely. Water is usually available for free but we do need to plug in now and then to give our battery a boost. We try and tie those days into power, WiFi, laundry and lengthy shower bundles – get all the jobs and the enjoyable things done at once. It means we spend a shed-load but we all end up clean and sparkly!

Talking of laundry, we spend about $20 USD every 2 – 3 weeks. We could probably do it less but I can’t bear all the dirty stuff all over the bus. It’s a budget saving that I am not prepared to make!

Keeping the bus on the road

My transport budget covers fuel but also bus issues. Fuel has been cheap in comparison to the UK, but we had predicted as much. It’s more expensive in Canada but then they don’t charge as much for groceries – it all balances out. It costs us about $120 USD to fill her up.

We’ve only had one RV mechanic call-out for the bus – the batteries were dead and we couldn’t charge them. We also couldn’t get the heater to work. In the end, both issues ended up being settings errors and we were soon on our way.

The one thing it doesn’t cover is the decorating I mentioned earlier. We did some massive shops at Walmart and Ikea, which got us sorted on bedding etc, but with no budget set aside for this kind of thing and all our contingency gone, it is pretty painful to hand over the credit card. 

Feeling the goodwill

Now that we’ve found a few more charity shops, we have cut our costs significantly. We’ve come to rely on them and why not – they are well-stocked and cheap. We’ve replaced the hats that both boys have lost, the sunglasses that both boys have lost (twice), the shoes that both boys have lost, found life jackets, baseball mitts, bike helmets, school books, t-shirts for the kids, kitchen stuff, books, movies – it’s a budget shoppers paradise!

budget patchwork quilt from yard sale
A patchwork quilt for just $25 – bargain!

We’ve also made good use of yard sales. I was looking forward to these – sifting through piles of useful bus stuff whilst drinking homemade lemonade… that’s what happens, right? Evidently not. I’ve only found one so far and it was a miserable affair down a long, deserted road in a lot full of garages. All she was selling was old VHS videos and romance novels. I was just about to give up when I found a rather lovely king-size patchwork quilt. Just what I needed. Hurrah! There may not be lemonade but I’m still gunning for yard sales for potential bus furnishing on a budget.

And so the budget for next month…

Eating dinner outside
We’ve made it work for 2 months – let’s hope we can carry on for the next 12

It’s not quite Thelma and Louise time yet, we’ve managed to stay within budget both months and will hopefully stretch those good times for the next 10. Our balancing act will continue – the West Coast is potentially more expensive for camping but we’ve hopefully got less to spend on bus decoration. We have more visitors coming, which means more going out for dinners, but perhaps food costs will come down because more people = more choice and cheaper options. Then again, perhaps it won’t. Perhaps Brexit won’t happen, the pound will become strong and everything will be affordable again. Then I’ll be going out and hitting more than that first flush of drunk!!!

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Skoolie Stays

Planning a family gap year in a converted Skoolie

Planning a family gap-year in a converted Skoolie

In 2019 we decided to live differently. We quit our jobs in the U.K, rented out our home, took the kids out of school and moved into an American school bus for a year-long U.S adventure.

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

Can you travel 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.

Meeting the pilots in the cockpit
We wanted to show our kids some adventures

Changing our mindset

There we were, tick-tocking along in suburbia with kids ensconced in the school system, a mortgage, a car that we needed to take the kids to their various after school activities, careers that we wanted to rethink, the occasional night out when the grandparents were available to babysit and a campervan trip every year to France. It was good, but was it good enough? Google and Facebook were regularly reminding us of our global travels pre-kids. We didn’t want to revisit the days of buckets of sangsong whisky on a Thai beach, but going travelling was just as appealing now as it was in our twenties and thirties. 

So why not? Why couldn’t we? What was actually stopping us from travelling the world? Nothing. We worked out that we could leverage our assets to give us the money we needed to travel, so we started planning. 

A globe
It was choose your own adventure time

When you can choose to travel anywhere in the world, where do you pick? A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so we wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

 

America offered deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there was so much to see and do. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable (our kids are good eaters but expecting them to cheerfully tuck into mondongo (sheep stomach) from a roadside cafe is a step too far) and we have friends based in the U.S that we would love to visit. 

 

To read more about how we settled on America, read our original travel blog.

The ultimate road-trip

Along with what we want, there is also what we need. On the most basic level this was food, drink, a bed, a vehicle and money in our pockets. 

The most cost-effective way for us to tick off all those needs was to buy an RV (a motorhome) – a tiny home we could take with us.

That was when we started thinking about what that tiny home might look with. If you are heading off on a road-trip, you need an iconic vehicle and there was a specific one that we had in mind.  

Skoolies in the UK
We did lots of research into skoolies before we left the UK - here we are trying them out for size!

Buying a skoolie

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus.  Should we try and convert it ourselves? There wasn’t time. Should we pay a company to do it? We didn’t have the funds. Could we purchase someone else’s? It was all a bit last minute and risky.  Could we buy one in the UK and ship it over? No, too many import and export issues. In the end, we found a start-up builder to help us buy one and convert it. 

Project managing a builder remotely, particularly  one who was new to Skoolies, was really tough. We did our due diligence and wrote the contracts ourselves but it was a steep learning curve for both us and our builder. Overall it worked out, the bus was amazing, but we had to be flexible on our budget and ended up having to do a lot of the finish ourselves. You can see our build process here.

Budgeting for a year

Budgeting for a year
It took months to compile a budget that made us feel confident we could survive a year away

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. We had decided that, if we were going to buy a bus, we wanted to make this trip last a full year. We needed to know that we would be able to afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit attractions, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and cover the costs of owning and furnishing a bus in North America. 

 

If you are planning your own year away, you can read our original travel blog about budgeting here.

Visas

To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our money’s worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.

The B2 visa application meant a visit to the embassy for interview. We had to show all sorts of detail about our budget and plans, but we were well-prepared and were approved.

B2 visas allow you to stay for a maximum of a year.  That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we arrived in Orlando we were greeted by the grumpiest face we saw in the whole of America. Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas were not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying.

You can read more detail about the B2 visa application process here and, if you are wondering how we did end up staying for year, it turns out that if you have the tenacity to jump through the many hoops, don’t mind dealing with over 50 pages worth of application and supporting materials and have the funds to pay out for another application fee (ouch), you should be fine.

Applying for a B2 visa
Visas approved there was now nothing stopping us from heading to the States

And we're off to America!

Finally, after months of intense planning, we finally reached D-day… it was time to depart the UK. After all the hard work, it was a blessed relief to sit down for several hours and do nothing except watch movies.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Why choose a family gap year in North America?

When you can choose to travel anywhere in the world, where do you pick? A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so we wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

We didn’t end up where we expected.

Developed vs developing?

World Bank Developing Countries Map

My husband and I are both well travelled – backpacking is in our bones. Within months of first meeting each other we’d gone on a remote trek in Nepal and before we committed to moving in together, we spent 6 months roughing it through central America. I know that if it was just us heading off travelling, we would not even consider any of the ‘World Bank’s Advanced Economies’, opting instead for the challenges and excitement of developing countries – giving us an insight into a world very different from our own.

However, we are not going on our own. When you are 9 and 6, what you consider to be enjoyable about a holiday is very different. We want the kids to stay engaged for the whole of our family gap year. If we choose the wrong place, they might want to cut the trip short and come home.

At the same time, we don’t want to take a year out and spend a shed load of money if the destination doesn’t excite us. What to do… what to do.

The big question – what works for all of us?

We need to make sure our holiday is a winner!

To decide which destination would would be the most enjoyable place to travel, we broke the big question down into smaller ones:

  • What would the kids love?
  • What would the kids hate?
  • What could we cope with?
  • What do we all need?

We hoped that by answering these questions we would be able to make a better educated decision on the destination for our family gap year.

Love it vs HATE it.

To get a good idea of how the kids might find a developing country trip, we had a think back to previous travel experiences and tried to imagine what they would think in the same scenario:

Glacier trekking in Argentina

‘This is amazeballs I never want to leave’

  • Whale and dolphin watching
  • Hiking on glaciers and watching icebergs roll
  • Fishing, swimming and diving from boats
  • Kayaking on turquoise seas
  • Playing with new friends
  • Camping under the stars and toasting marshmallows
  • Climbing mountains and being the first to the top
  • Snowboarding, ski-ing and sledging
  • Surfing and body boarding
  • Ice creams and tasty treats
  • Building dens and getting muddy

‘I want to go home this is rubbish’

Boiled egg and cabbage
This was the vegetarian option in Bali – a boiled egg and some overcooked cabbage and potatoes
  • 14+ hour bus journeys in which you don’t get a seat
  • Completely unappetising meals.
  • Injections and tablets.
  • Roadside cafeterias that only serve food like Mondongo (hubby ate this in El Salvador even though it was covered in flies and we didn’t know what it was. It’s tripe apparently) .
  • A language you don’t understand.
  • Bedbugs and mosquitoes.
  • Being chased for a photo because you have yellow hair .
  • Delhi belly .
  • Mopeds careering around the road carrying driver, 3 passengers, a basket of hens and some window glazing (ok – they probably would find this hysterical … until we had to cross the road in front of them).
  • Hostel after hostel after hostel after hostel…

Love it, hate it… but can we cope with it?

When I talk about what we could cope with, it’s more than our own needs and interests. When you have kids you do have to seriously consider how their experiences are going to affect you and whether you are being a responsible parent or not.

‘Mummy is freaking out right now’

What would I do if we got stranded on a desert island because the boat we had arranged failed to turn up? Or if the chicken bus we were travelling in swerved around a mountain pass too quickly? How would I react if the only transport option was on the back of a moped with bare tyre treads? How would I handle it if someone tried to scam us or threatened us? All of these things have happened on my travels.

There is also the strange interpretation of health and safety…

Why is it when we are travelling that we sign up to activities and trips that we know we would never do at home? This is not just because the experience doesn’t exist at home, although there is a lack of volcanoes to surf down, piranha-infested rivers to swim in and anacondas to track, but because they simply wouldn’t be allowed at home. They are far too risky.

Volcano boarding in Nicaragua
Safety gear to snowboard down a volcano? Just a pair of rubber gloves and a white tee-shirt for me!

Now that we are contemplating taking the kids on a family gap year, do we really want them pestering us to go on an lion hunt armed with sharp sticks or trying some kind of ‘spiritual’ concoction to banish demons? Do we want them trekking up live volcanoes to stick pokey sticks into the fire? No!

Needy needs

Along with what we want, there is also what we need. On the most basic level this is food, drink, a bed, a vehicle and money in our pockets. We also want beautiful landscapes, open spaces, amazing architecture, good food…

But what about the needs that can’t be found in every country? We spoke to our headteacher about taking the kids out of school for a year and whilst he told us that as long as we focused on maths and literacy, the rest would just come with the experience, he did say we need to consider their developmental age too. We plan to extract our youngest from school for the whole of year 2 of primary and, apart from this being a SATS year, this is a big one for his understanding of social structure amongst peers. It is really important he interacts with other kids his own age – not just us and his brother, and that they both stay connected to friends and family at home. We need somewhere where he can do this – somewhere with a language and culture he can understand and reliable WiFi.

The WiFi thing is important for us too. Although I like to think we are going to switch off our devices and spend a year living our lives to the max, the reality is that we too need to stay in touch. We both want to freelance to fund the dream, you can’t do that if the only place you can connect is a WiFi cafe 3 hours north of your campsite.

The North American dream

Road trip!

It didn’t take us long to realise that our family gap year should be about wildlife and nature and beautiful landscapes. It should be about family activities that are exciting but also safe. It should be about finding English-speaking friends who the kids can play and learn with and it should cater to our WiFi needs.

We whittled the choices down and landed on North America. It offers everything we need and has some of the most incredible road trips, which is a biggy because in order to keep costs down (and interests up), we would want to escape the cities and live life on the road.

Behold the birth of the bus idea!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

How to get a United States B2 visa for a family gap year

To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our moneys worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.

B1/B2 visa

There are loads of visas available but if you are travelling for tourism purposes, you want a B2 visitor visa. These are specifically for non-immigrant people who are ‘travelling to the United States for tourism, pleasure or visiting’.

When you are researching and filling in the paperwork, don’t be confused if you see different B options. A B2 visa is also used by people going over for medical treatment, so you’ll see lots of people talking about medicals being required. To make it even more confusing, a B2 visa is also often grouped with a B1 visa, which is for business use. A B1 visa has it’s own list of factors that don’t necessarily seem relevant to a tourist but rest assured – this is the one you need.

You may also read about single and multiple entry visas. Don’t worry about this – it’s the same visa and the single or multiple decision is made during the interview. Chances are if you have been before, you’ll be given a multiple entry.

First Step: Complete the DS-160

The DS-160 is long and tiresome. You can save your progress along the way, which you should regularly do as it seems to like crashing. It also won’t progress unless you complete each page, so if you don’t know your address on arrival etc, be mindful of any temporary information you put in as if you forget to change it later, that is what will be submitted and they may question you at interview.

Apply here if you are ready

The photo section

passport photos for visa
Now keep a straight face…

You can load up a picture to check it is sized correctly at the start, then again at the end of the form. There seems to be a fairly common error on the confirmation page though – it tells you that they can’t ‘confirm your image’. Of course, without confirmation you cannot progress to payment, which means you cannot get the details you need to book your visa interview. Oh the frustration!

I contacted the U.S embassy but they couldn’t advise on the photo upload failure because the DS-160 form is run by the U.S, not them. The advice is to check the trouble-shooting form which helpfully advises you to bring a photo on the day if you are having trouble uploading one. Of course it doesn’t recognise the fact you can’t book that interview because the form won’t let you complete. Do I sound like I am going crazy??!!

Eventually I gave up. I went back the next morning and literally clicked through every page from the start. This time it worked. I had no problem with my kids, so perhaps it just gets busy at certain times.

The questions

The form itself is split into 15 sections. It covers everything from your personal information to your travel companions, work history, U.S. contact, previous travel and lots of security and background checks. These are asked regardless of who you are applying for, so expect to fill in a lengthy form for each member of the family.

Before you fall into a panic like I did once you’ve submitted your form past the point of return, you didn’t miss a whole section about where you have travelled in the last five years, your work and education background and whether you have worked for a charity. Men get asked loads more questions to women (how very sexist!). Even though I knew the form wouldn’t let you progress without filling in all boxes, I only felt calm again when I found the question comparison on some obscure forum. And breathe!

It’s kind of funny that they should filter out questions about work and travel for women but they still keep in all their security questions for kids. Evidently it’s more ridiculous for me to have a work history than my 6-year old to have conspired to commit human trafficking whilst taking drugs and escaping prison?!

All the visa and passport stuff is asked in this section and so be ready to fill it in with your B1/B2 request.

Visa options

There is a handy walkthrough of all the DS-160 questions on the Visa Traveller blog

Family forms

After you have filled in your own form and confirmed it is all correct, there is an option to apply for a family. You still have to complete all the forms, but I believe it just allows you to fill in a new blank form, rather than over-writing your last one. Ironically, this is the one time when over-writing is helpful as you don’t have to keep typing in your address etc. I can’t confirm this as because of all the crashing and failure to upload, I ended up having to do ours separately. It didn’t seem to matter – I still got all 4 confirmations through with separate reference numbers.

Payment

Once you have completed the form, you have to pay the disgustingly large sum of $160 per person. This is non-refundable, so you really want to make sure you got those questions right. Once you submit your form, there are options to print it out and to email it. Choose the latter so you have a copy. Make sure you also print it out / note down the number as you need this to apply for your visa interview and it can sometimes take a bit of time to get your email confirmation through.

Top tip: note down your DS-160 confirmation number as you need all of them to apply for a family interview

The visa interview

The form alone does not get you anywhere. When your DS-160 confirmation comes through, it will tell you what needs to happen next. Namely, you have to go to the embassy in which you plan to apply for a visa for an interview.

There was lots of availability for visa interviews and we scheduled one the following week. Give yourself time to prepare though as it takes a while to get everything together. Once you have confirmed, you will get another email with various bar codes and information that you need to print.

Keep in mind that unless you can return to London the following week to collect your visas from one of the designated collection points, you will have to pay a small fortune to have it couriered to your home. We went with the collection option. It’s worth noting this down as you get so many different emails it took me ages to go back and find it!

Book a visa interview here.

Taking the kids

Fingers crossed before our visa appointment at the United States Embassy
Fingers crossed before our appointment at the United States Embassy

Although we had read on the U.S . Department of State pages that children under the age of 14 do not need to apply in person, when we applied with our DS-160 reference numbers we were told that all 4 of us had to turn up in person. I checked this with the U.S. London Embassy because it meant taking the kids out of school, but they just sent back an automated style message that confirmed that if the form requests attendance then attendance is required.

Arriving for your interview

The time slot you choose isn’t necessarily when you will be seen, so don’t structure your day around it. We were given 11am and arrived at 10.40 to find lots of people waiting outside. Although we didn’t have to join that queue, we got stuck in one going through security inside and had to wait to collect our interview number. We eventually arrived in the interview bit at about 11.15 and our number was called around 11.30.

The interview is split into two sections – the first checks your documents and then second asks you questions. You have to wait in between the two but get your decision at the second. After that you are free to leave as your passports, if successful, will be sent to the collection point you specified in your application. All in all, we were there for 2 hours.

Top tip: take snacks and stuff for the kids to do. It’s dull waiting!

No laptops allowed in the U.S. Embassy

District Coffee shop near US embassy
You can store your laptops and bags at District coffee shop.

We noticed there was a sign that said that laptops were not allowed and could not be stored at the embassy, which was a pain as we had brought one.

The woman checking paperwork at the door helpfully directed us to a coffee shop around the corner called District. For £10 you get a coffee and a secure place to keep your things – while we were there 3 people came in to request the same thing, they must be making a killing!

Top tip: leave your laptop at home. If you can’t, head to District on the way over

What you need to take to your interview

  1. Current Passport that is valid for at least 6 months.
  2. DS-160 confirmation page.
  3. Confirmation and Instructions page from the embassy
  4. One 5 x 5 cm (2 x 2 inches) colour photo taken within the last 6 months.
  5. Accompanying family members marriage certificate (spouse) and/or birth certificate (for unmarried children under 21)

All of this was easy to get apart from the photo. We had submitted some online but when it came to printing them I had trouble. The criteria say the picture should be 5cm x 5cm and so I had taken photos and sorted them out on Photoshop. Our photo-printer is useless though, so I sent them to Boots and Max Spielmann at Tesco to get printed and both automatically resized them – cropping my head off. Max Spielmann said that there was nothing that they could do about this and if we wanted proper photos, we had to pay £15 per person for their visa photos. What a rip off! Worryingly, the attendant said the photos I had would not be accepted as there was a slight shadow on our youngest sons, the other son had a bit of hair over his ear and my head was too small. Panic stations! In the end we found that PhotoMe booths have a US visa option for £8 per person – still a rip off but not quite so bad. We had to suck it up and drive across town to make sure we all had a set of photos.

At the interview mine and the boys online photos were fine. Ha Max Spielmann – I’m glad we didn’t let you rip us off. Ironically the only problem was my husbands as he had used the same photo in his 2 year old passport. This was outside the 6 month photo criteria they set and so we had to provide a new one for him. We of course had it with us but I don’t even think it would be an enormous problem if you didn’t – the US embassy had two Photo-Me booths in the room.

Top tip – Photo-me booths do US visa photos if you need them and they have 2 machines actually within the US embassy interview area.

What you should take to your interview

As well as the above, the consulate recommend that you should take supporting materials with you and this is crucial for the second part of your interview.

Prepare to be asked about every aspect of your trip – who you know over there, what do they do, why you are going now, why so long, what are your plans, do you have family over there, how will you cover costs and how can you prove you want to return to the UK.

It really does seem to depend on who you get as to how severe the questioning is. We read lots of forum threads with recommendations on remembering addresses of friends, providing photos to show your life and relatives in the UK, taking as many documents as possible to show ties and coming up with budget and savings detail to prove how you will fund your trip. We did EVERYTHING.

In the end our questions focused on what we wanted to do while we were there and why did we want to go for longer than the ESTA visa allows. This was easy as it was all true – we told her that we wanted to go now and for a longer period because of our kids – once they get too old it will become harder to take them out of more serious secondary schooling. Also they won’t want to come with us then! We talked about going to see bears and going on camping adventures, visiting family and taking an RV down the coast.

She checked both boys birth certificates (the longer ones which show both parents names) and asked about the kids schooling. We talked about our plans to work with the school to follow their curriculum and to re-apply when we return as both boys loved their school. Although it was a faff taking the kids, I’m sure their smiley faces helped – they behaved beautifully and she had a laugh with them when they asked what an RV is. We told them it was an American camper-van and she commented that they would learn a whole load of new American words. First clue as to our fate.

Fun and games bit over, we got to the more serious questions. This is where they need to know you can afford to be there and also committed to returning home. We had stayed up late formulating a loose budget for a year long trip and getting our savings and funding streams in order. When she asked us about how we would fund our travels we were able to show her exactly on a spreadsheet. No supporting material was requested to prove the figures were correct, although we did have them in the file just in case.

Thumbs up outside the US embassy - we got our visa
The U.S Embassy says yes!

She approved all of our visas. Hurrah!

A day later we received a message to say they were being couriered to our collection point. We had planned to go to London a week later and so picked them up then. We had been issued multiple entry, which is fab. It means we can use the same visas going in and out of America for the next 10 years.

Top tip: Be prepared. Take as many documents as possible to back up your story.