Imagine leaving your job, packing up the kids, spouse, and everything you own, and taking off on a year abroad. That sounds crazy, right? Believe it or not, this relatively new trend in travel is enticing more and more families to get away for months (and even years) at a time, leaving their normal lives behind to experience things that most people only see on television.
Whether travelling for two or 12 months, a gap year gives families a chance to explore different parts of the world and experience new cultures. And the best part is each experience can be uniquely tailored to a family’s needs. Some travel to one just country while others visit dozens. They can take part in community service projects or mingle with other gap year families (fondly known as “gappers”) in exchange groups. Some even use their experiences for homeschooling — setting up history lessons in front of ancient ruins or memorizing verb conjugations while sampling local cuisine.
Gap years have historically been popular in the UK but recently, says the Washington Post, the number of Americans taking part in years abroad has nearly quadrupled. There are many websites dedicated to educating families on these types of excursions, such as Round the World Travel and Gap Year 365. Gap year trips can be planned and purchased as packages or designed independently and on the go, meaning families can take advantage of their time abroad in any way they—or their budgets—see fit.
The Clarks have been on the road for just under two years. The UK-based family, said mom Mo Clark, was tired of the corporate world and modern life. So, she rounded up her husband, Martin, and their three kids — Ben, 11; Zoe, 9, and Lara, 6—and headed to South America.
They started in Brazil in the summer of 2012, making their way through nine counties in South America, from Bolivia to Argentina. When their first year came to an end, Mo said they weren’t ready to head home. Instead, they headed east for a year in New Zealand, Australia, and Asia. They are currently in Tokyo and — reluctantly — plan to return home this summer.
Since they’ve been on the road, the family has celebrated Christmas in Bali, rode elephants in Sri Lanka, and watched the sun set over Easter Island. They take part in volunteer projects, said Mo, and make an effort to try local cuisines and customs.
Mo said she, her husband, and the kids have all contributed to the family blog, The Clark Family’s Amazing Adventures. As for school, the kids take part in what Mo calls “World School.” Martin heads lessons in math while Mo teaches geography, history, writing, and spelling. When they can, they join in at local English centers for lessons and have attended public school in the Galapagos. The rest of the learning comes from everyday experiences and language immersion.
The Clarks are also part of a global network called Families on the Move, which connects gappers and helps them to meet up for group activities. In March, the Clarks met six families in Malaysia for ten days of much-needed, outside-of-the-family mingling.
As for their budget, the Clarks spend an average of $100 to $200 per day, though they try to save in any way they can with flight deals, meal discounts, and creative housing accommodations (piling three kids in one bed, for example).
The Bartholomew family , from Germany, also set out on a similar journey just over a year ago in April 2013. Mom Kirsty Bartholomew got a job in Germany at age 18, with the goal of traveling around the world. But work and married life halted her travels, which were further delayed by the birth of her two kids, Marcus, now 13, and Alex, now 12. After years of pinching pennies, Bartholomew and her husband, James, bought a camper, piled their belongings and their kids on board, and drove to France. The rest, they say, is history.
Their gap year brought them in and around Europe, starting in the UK and ending in Turkey. They’ve acted with street performers in Edinburgh, attended the Highland Games in Dufftown, and spotted the Harry Potter train in Fort Williams. Camping and preparing their own meals helped them save a chunk of cash on lodging, traveling, and dining. Since the Bartholomew’s gap year came to a close, the family has taken separate trips back to Istanbul and also to Asia.
Europeans aren’t the only families heading abroad. The Eastland-Fruit family from Kenmore, Wash. took a six-month excursion in 2011 to various places in South America and Europe. Dianne Fruit, husband Chris Eastland, and their two kids—Ridley, then 13, and Rory, then 10—spent a bulk of their trip volunteering at a sea turtle conservation camp in Costa Rica. The kids, Fruit said on her website, also attended a dual-language school in Costa Rica, but learned on-the-go while traveling to other locations, such as Spain. All are now fluent in Spanish.
While abroad, Fruit said she had a paid sabbatical, while her husband took an unpaid leave from his job. Fruit said, as a whole, the family learned to go with the flow and try new things.
If all of this sounds appealing, you might consider a year abroad with your family. As Mo Clark shared on her blog, being on the road for nearly two years has completely transformed their lives.
“We wanted to do something more and different with our children,” she wrote. “We wanted to share wonderful experiences together, grow as a family, and hopefully find our way on a different and more enriched future. And we have.”