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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

Camping in a Skoolie in America​

Camping in a Skoolie in America

How easy is it to get around in a 37ft school bus and where do you sleep? We have all the answers!

 

This is where it began – the change of scene that we all need now and again. 

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The beautiful part about living in a Skoolie is that your home comes with you, whatever the destination. We left Utah, snaking our way up past Bear Lake and into Idaho, before crossing the border into Wyoming for our first National Parks: Yellowstone and the lesser-known, Grand Teton. Throughout this first month of our travels, we learnt about the wide range of options for those living in a home on wheels and what worked for us and our bus. 

Life on the road

We may have been sleeping in campgrounds but we were sleeping in relative luxury. Living in a Skoolie is not like traditional camping – we didn’t have to store our food in a coolbox full of melted ice or sleep on slowly deflating airbeds for a start! Our bus-home had everything we might need for a comfortable life: a hot shower, toilet, fridge freezer, cooker, comfortable beds. Of course all that takes up space. We measured in at 37ft plus few extra feet for our bike rack. So how easy was it to get around?

 

Americans truly love the road. In the UK, if a drive is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend – we need to ‘recover from the journey’. It is completely different in America – there is nothing they like more than a road-trip.  In Yellowstone, we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck, with two kids under 10, to camp for the weekend.  

They may like the road but they also like their space and comfort. As we drove through Utah, Idaho and Wyoming we passed numerous 40ft motorhomes, often towing a car or a boat, as well as a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. Many of them had slide-outs too (weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth) to make the living space bigger. Our 37ft skoolie looked small in comparison and size was never an issue as we navigated our way north.

Campsite camping in a Skoolie

Skoolie at a state campsite
In National Parks, there are less options. If you want to stay in the park, you have to stay in a National Park campsite. These are usually the most basic - just a toilet, with a waste and water station. Unfortunately those that perfer amenities tend to resort to generators, which can make the sites a bit noisy.

We budgeted our trip based on staying at proper campsites with all the amenities but campsites in America really varied in cost and facilities. You could be looking at anything from $7 to $100+ a night depending on where you are and what type of campsite you choose.

 

As a rule, campsites run by the state, national parks, US Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) are much cheaper and in more rural locations but often come with more basic facilities – They may not have power or they might not have a shower block.  they invariably have terrible mobile phone coverage. The privately owned campsites are more like holiday homes and have big sites with plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops etc – but they often felt a bit big and impersonal. Lots of people live in RVs in America and it felt like many were just holed up in their front rooms watching cable television. 

 

Because we could live off-grid and wanted to explore the outdoors, we quickly realised that we preferred more basic camping, but that’s not a choice for everyone. If you do prefer to have all your amenities close at hand, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, breaks America up into different zones and you can pay for individual or multiple zones. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like more than you can afford, you can just join a membership scheme like KOA (campsites of America) or The Good Sam Club– you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay. 

Basic camping in a Skoolie

Beautiful camp spots
This stunning site cost us all of $7 in an honesty box

State camping options vary according to each State. In Montana, as well as other more remote places on the west coast and in the desert, we had no facilities other than a long drop toilet, but they rarely cost us more than $10- $15 a night. On the west coast in Oregon, Washington and California, the state sites were on the beach and had lovely shower blocks etc. They were often closer to $50 a night. 


The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People were incredibly friendly and accommodating – they were all thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. They loved the Skoolie and usually went bananas when we told them we were English!

Free Skoolie camping: Dispersed sites

Wilderness camping spots for free
Sites like these are completely free

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp (although sometimes you get a long-drop), so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.


You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We loved the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they were always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Would we be able to turn around? Were we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (a celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Free Skoolie camping: Boondocking

Harvest host at distillery
Our quest to sample local produce saw us drinking potato vodka in Idaho, eating cheese in Oregon, trying lavender oil in Washington, eating sourdough and pickles in South Carolina, drinking wine in California and whisky in Tennessee.

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Americans are much more open to the idea of people camping than the Brits are. There are various truck stops and Walmarts that let you sleep in their parking lot, as well as official schemes that help to hook you up with people willing to offer you space on their land. We had several great experiences using Boondockers Welcome, staying with a lady in Montana who showed us how to bake bread, a Texan who let us pick fresh fruit and veg from his veg patch and gave us some of the deer shot last year (well, we were in America!) and many more. 

 

We also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gave us details of wineries, breweries etc that were happy to put up RVs. It’s proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. For a family with kids, this was often the best way for us to sample the local wares – parking in a city to go to a restaurant was not an option, our bus was to big and our budget too small. It turned into a real highlight of our trip. America does have foodies after all!

camping with goats
We had some friendly neighbours at the Goat farm in Tallahasee

We also used Hipcamp, which often meant paying a little to stay on someone’s land, but that was a good option too. We found ourselves volunteering on a goat farm in Florida and a pig farm in Georgia that gave us and the kids the kind of opportunity you just wouldn’t find at the regular campsites. 

 

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Happy Campers

Everyone (mostly!) agrees that camping is fun. Roughing it with your family and your pals, sunkissed and merry on whatever tipple is being passed around, cursory barbecued dinners and endless bags of the kind of bad-for-you snacks you’d never normally purchase at home. Somehow, the bonfire’s dancing light makes everything magical and you no longer care about the rules – who gives a crap if the kids turn feral and don’t go to bed until midnight? Nobody cares if you can’t sing in tune – there is a guitar and someone said singalong!

At some point, usually part way through day 2 of your camping weekend, the slightly grimy feeling suddenly gets unbearable. The bonfire-smoked outfit starts to feel itchy and the idea of another marshmallow makes your teeth hurt. It’s not long until all you can think of is heading home for a a soak in the tub and a cup of tea (from a kettle that boils in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes), putting the kids to bed (on time) and going into another room several shut doors away from them.

Messy skoolie
It’s hard to keep a small space tidy when you live with 3 boys!

We are 3 weeks in now – has the day 2 feeling hit?

RV Camping in Style

I’m doing my best to make sure that since arriving in America, living outdoors stays enjoyable. We’re not in some poky little tent with a coolbox full of melted ice and soggy packets of bacon. We have a 37ft long bus with a hot shower, toilet and a fridge freezer. We are hardly roughing it; as I type this the kids are watching a movie in the bedroom (powered by solar), Guy is cooking in the kitchen on a 4-burner propane gas oven and I’m in the living area on my sofa drinking a cold wine from our full-size fridge freezer!

Watching movies
Anyone for Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets (for the tenth time??!!)

Our 37ft skoolie sounds huge but it isn’t. Well not in comparison to everybody else’s vehicles. In the two weeks we have been here, we have seen more than one 40ft motorhome, often towing a car, and a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. And it doesn’t stop there – they roll up to their site for the night and crank open the slide-outs; weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth. I assume they are making space for their gigantic beds, everything is of course bigger over here, or perhaps even a dog walking area. Americans seem to have dogs but we haven’t really seen anyone walking with one.

So the inside of our camping experience is cushty, but what about the outside?

Home-from-home; camping in America

On the road camping in a skoolie
On the road – hitting Grand Teton National Park, part of an endless caravan of massive rv’s.

We chose a destination that is set up for and relishes road-trips. America is a nation of campers and the roads seem built to accommodate their need to roam. In the UK, if the journey is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend so there is time to ‘recover from the journey’. In Yellowstone we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck to camp for the weekend – and they even brought kids. I’m yet to discover what the American version of calpol is but I’m guessing they look at it in the same way as sugar and salt for kids over here: bigger portions = happier families. Either that or their weekends are longer.

Once you have tugged your weighty rig into its new resting place, you can continue the home-from-home experience. Campsites have everything a travelling family might need – plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops… just plug in and unleash the marshmallows.

Of course you pay for the pleasure of a temporary piece of land to call your own – we’ve seen sites ranging from $30 to $80 per night. If you are on the road for a long time though, as many people appear to be, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, costs $585 for 5 zones. Add additional zones for just $54 and this allows you to stay in their sites for free for a year. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like a lot (yep!), you can sell your membership to someone else when you leave, which helps recoup some of the outlay. Alternatively, other skoolies have recommended KOA (campsites of America) as a budget option – you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay.

The hills are alive with the sound of … generators

Roof top view from camping in Tetons
Room with a view. A magical backdrop courtesy of the National Forest land surrounding the Tetons – a beauty when the sun went down.

We budgeted for campsites with all the amenities but within days we realised that the kind of camping was not the kind of camping we liked. The sites are big and a bit impersonal – they look at bit too much like car parks with a bit of nice landscaping. Even if the site does not have power – in some of the parks you have to make do with what the State provides – it seems to be the norm to park up and whack on a massive great generator. It’s so noisy and anti-social!

We’ve actually got a generator – Oquirrh believed that we could not live without aircon and that we would have to have a generator to power it if we were intent on camping off-grid, so we took their advice and used all of our contigency funds on something that weighs 16 stone, sounds like a massive lawnmower parked right outside our door and takes up a huge chunk of our storage space. Needless to say we haven’t used it once. To solve the need for cooler air we just left Utah and travelled north up the Rockies where the mountain air provides the evening chill! I guess we need to get on and sell that generator… anyone interested (after I’ve sold it so well!!)

RV budget camping in America

If you don’t mind missing out on the serviced shower blocks and restaurants, National Forests and BLM land are full of great sites that do not require booking and are usually close to all the places that you want to go. Some of these sites have rangers or on-site managers, invariably retirees called Buck or Bud or Wade, who live in their own RV and just occassionally come out to drive around in a golf buggy to ‘check y’all are ok?’. They cost about $15 to $25 and they have long-drop toilets and water.

The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People are incredibly friendly and accommodating – thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. Most of them love the bus. All of them love the fact we are English as it gives them licence to tell us about their great, great, great whatever who came from Lancashire or their undisputed link to the Saxons.

Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping in Wyoming
Oh hello, I am completely free and totally gorgeous – come and camp in your skoolie Chimps…ok!

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp, so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.

You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We love the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they are always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Will we be able to turn around? Are we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Boondocking

Slightly blurry… too much potato vodka with other travellers at the Grand Teton Distillery

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Before we came out, we’d heard that boondocking was an option – free camping, not on campsites. From what we could gather, there were various truck stops and Walmarts that let you crash in their parking lot. All that is good, and we have made use of them, but we’ve also signed up with a couple of boondocking sites. Boondockers Welcome costs about $30 and puts you in touch with locals that are happy for you to park up on their land. This may be farms or even larger properties. We are yet to try it out but we have heard good things.

We’ve also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gives you details of wineries, breweries etc that are happy for you to visits and stay. Its proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. We had a lovely stay at Grand Teton Distillery and were very happy with our potato vodka! You can also pay to upgrade and stay at golf clubs – some of which require you to actually play a round but many of which are just in lovely locations. It was on offer the day we signed up so we took the plunge. It looks as if Montana has several, so we’ll do our best to get around as many as we can!

This blog has some good explanations on boondocking that include dispersed camping options.

Camping with real Americans

Soren has a lesson in the mighty moose from Ron Swanson counterpart from Eagleton – Ron Dunn (look him up if you are not a Parks and Rec fan!)

We’ve also met some fascinating people in the free sites. There was a great volunteer ranger at one of our first free sites – Dan Harris (American’s always introduce themselves with both first and surname). He told us in his thick Utah accent , grey ponytail swinging, that we had met ourselves ‘a real hillbilly but not a redneck ’cause I don’t agree with Trump’.

Unlike the UK, the land belongs to the people and is just managed by the Government on their behalf. Trump wants to privatise this and Dan Harris felt it would be a loss to the people. He’s a hunter, but much of our chat was about the positive benefits of hunting to the eco-system – apparently hunting has increased the amount of wildlife in the area and, because of the cost of permits, funded improvements to the land. If the land is privatised, what will happen to it?

We showed good British interest in his stories and so he invited us to see the mounted head of the moose he’d shot in his living room. Apparently, it was quite a small moose but stuck up on the wall of a tiny living room, scattered with hunting magazines, it looked absurdly massive. On the opposite wall was an elk head, attached to a plank of wood wedged in a doorway so you couldn’t actually get through, and a deer head. There were pictures of cougars he had hunted (but deliberately not killed) and more elk. He said “elk was just about the best meat ever” and that he would have offered us some, but what he had left in his freezer was 2 years old and not as good as when it was first killed. I was pretty thankful for that. Guy was probably not! As we were leaving I spotted a gravestone on the floor – apparently it was his great-great-great grandmother’s headstone which he had salvaged from the churchyard. Yep, a true hillbilly!

RV camping with American creatures

Arrrgghhhh chipmunks…. far too much like squirrels (my nemesis)

We Brits don’t really have to worry about wildlife when we go camping. What’s the worst that could happen… a daddy-long-legs gets into your tent and casts weird leggy shadows everywhere? A dog escapes the confines of it’s leash and eats someone else’s picnic? Over here it is a bit more serious. We were merrily running around at our first camp in Utah, wading in the stream and building rafts from tall reeds, when a friendly camper came and told us she’d seen a couple of rattlesnakes in the grass so we should be careful with the kids. Oh, and we should also watch out for tics and poison ivy. Gulp!

Now we are up north in Yellowstone area, it’s less rattlesnake and more bear. I am very glad we have an indoors toilet and I don’t need to try and find the campsite one in the dead of night! Our biggest problem though is mosquitoes. We don’t have bug screens on the bus and if we camp in the woods we get them bombarding us. Tonight we are staying in the most beautiful spot in the Shoshone National Forest, a hop and skip away from the North East Yellowstone. We are near a rushing river backed by two huge, snow-capped mountains – again staying for free – but I can’t open the doors for fear of attack. I have literally been around the bus twice to wipe the blood marks from squashed mozzies off the walls. Oh the glamour of it all!

Categories
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.

Categories
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.