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Why choose a family gap year in North America?

A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, We wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

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!