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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.