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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!