Say goodbye to the 9-5, the mortgage payments, conventional education and the routine… you’re jetting off into the sunset, with the family in tow! If you’ve ever wondered what family travel is really like, you’re not alone. According to MBO Partners, 17 million people aspire to become digital nomads in the future and with the recent boom in home-working, this trend doesn’t look ready to slow yet! Living and working on the road is the dream for many and more people than ever before are realising that having children doesn’t have to signal the end of your travels.
To get the lowdown on what travelling as a family is really like, we caught up with Alyson of World Travel Family, who has been exploring the world since 2013 with her husband and two sons. In this time, they’ve visited upwards of 50 countries and supported the lifestyle by running a successful blog alongside their adventures. Inspired? Read on…
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1. When and why did you decide to become a nomadic family?
We had the idea to take the children off travelling back in 2012. We left the next year. We never really planned to become fully nomadic, I don’t think we realised that it could be possible. But after our first year, we certainly didn’t want to stop.
We worked really hard to make it happen. Once the website was a reasonable size we found ourselves with a very good income. Travelling full-time is actually quite inexpensive compared to the bills and shopping of living in your own home. We know that for sure now after the last 12 months of being back in our bricks and mortar through lockdown. Houses are expensive!
2. Have you and your husband always been travellers? Did you travel a lot before having a family?
Yes, absolutely. We actually met on the road, in Egypt. I was travelling solo, he was with a friend. I’d been travel-obsessed for years, he was just starting out with exploring the world. Within months we were taking a road trip in the USA, then we went to Peru, we were planning Kilimanjaro, but then we kind of thought, why take short holidays when we could just take off on a gap year?
We did, we had a 12 month RTW (Round the World) trip. Just after that we got married in Sri Lanka, honeymooned in Maldives, scuba diving. So yes, always big travellers and our travel ambitions collided nicely. We both enjoy the same sort of travel and destinations and we love a physical challenge. Having babies slowed us down for a while but the travel bug was always there, waiting to be indulged again.
3. What age were your children when you started backpacking with them? How did they feel about the prospect of travelling full time?
On the day we left our house they were 6 and 8 years old. We felt they were old enough. Having already completed our first RTW we knew what to expect. We loved the backpacker lifestyle and had a good idea of what would be OK and not OK with kids. I wouldn’t do it with kids much younger than that.
I remember trying to talk to them about destinations, getting them excited. They were cool with it, but of course, they had no real concept of what these places would be like nor what life on the road would be like. They’d already been to Thailand, the UK, some places in Europe, Florida, and Australia, they were good travellers and always have been.
They’re two very different personalities, one of them likes his home comforts and possessions, the other is really easy. You have to make allowances and be certain every member of the family is having a good time.
4. What was your biggest concern before starting out? Did this concern materialise?
I think I had a big fear that my husband and I would swap roles. One of the reasons we left was that he was working crazy hours and barely saw the kids. I was already blogging before we left and making money, but I was concerned that to make that really pay I would have to put too many hours in. It never happened.
It’s always been easy enough to combine travel, work, and kids. I do put in some very long hours sometimes, but mostly I worked early in the mornings, while they were still asleep. Now they’re teens it’s great. I can work all day, they help, they write and create videos. The elder one has been with me on business trips as my business partner, it’s very much a whole-family business now.
5. What kind of accommodation did you stay in whilst travelling with your family?
We stayed in luxury hotels, cheap guest houses, huts, tents, trains, cruise ships, we did it all. We’ve slept in a few airports too. You probably want to know if we used hostels. We did, but it was rare, we find them expensive and we have zero interest in self-catering, so it was actually pretty unusual for us to use hostels. Some have family rooms, if we used a hostel we’d always use those, not dorms, but we hate not having our own bathroom, so usually, they would have en-suite.
We also rented small houses in Romania and Vietnam and an apartment in London for longer stays. We hardly ever used Airbnb, we never found that platform very useful, and it was expensive. The small guest houses in Asia are our favourites.
6. What are some of the most kid-friendly countries you have visited?
Every country is kid-friendly! Every nation has kids. How can a country not be kid-friendly? The trick is, as parents, to do the things the kids want to do. You have to build in the ice cream, theme parks, and playgrounds.
My kids’ favourite places are Vietnam, Romania, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Greece, and London. Both of the boys love ancient history, that’s why Egypt and Greece are there, they also love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, along with Vietnamese and Thai. They love London because it’s home. No other city I’ve ever been to has so much to see, do, and experience. The place drips history and we love it. One day we may move back there.
7. What is the best thing about being a nomadic family?
It’s all about freedom. We’ve had constant freedom to go anywhere, do anything. We’ve been able to indulge the kids’ interests and take them to the places they want to see. My son now really wants to go to Mongolia, I’ve already been with my husband on that first RTW, but he wants to go now, so we’ll take him as soon as the world opens up. And of course, we’ve always been together, all four of us. It’s been wonderful and still is wonderful to be such a tight unit.
My kids are awesome, I love spending time with them, and it just seems to keep getting better the older they get. I’ve also loved that we’ve been able to reach and help so many people. I’m an alternative education advocate, so spreading the word about options outside of school has been important. I’ve also been able to promote tourism in the countries that need tourists most and to connect with so many families about the practicalities of travel.
8. What is the most difficult thing about being a nomadic family?
Getting the income sorted out was the first big hurdle, but after that the only thing we struggle with is choices. Where to go next? I’m terribly indecisive, luckily my husband isn’t, or we’d never book a flight.
9. What did your own family and friends think about your decision to travel permanently with your family?
They were massively unsupportive! We made new friends. We stuck with the family members who were on our side. Everyone who travels in a way that is somehow non-acceptable to “normal” people seems to have the same problem.
We meet so many serious travellers, all have had the same issues. Their old friends and family just can’t understand it. I think a lot of it is just envy, so they try to tear you down to keep you like them. It’s the same with homeschooling. People think that by not doing what they’re doing, you’re somehow criticising their choices. We’re not, of course, but they can get defensive or hold weird opinions. Most of our friends now are people with alternative life choices, outside-the-box thinkers.
10. Tell us about worldschooling – what is it (compared with homeschooling) and how did you fit it into your travelling schedule?
Worldschooling, homeschool, unschooling, to me they’re just all part of the same thing. It’s learning. We all learn, every day, some of us more than others, a lot of it depends on interest levels. In worldschooling a lot of that learning comes from what’s around you. So the more varied you can make your environment, the better.
We’d actually decided that travel would be a fabulous learning environment before we even knew “worldschooling “ was a thing. It was before I even knew blogging was an industry too. Everyone does worldschooling or homeschooling differently. I think there is a misguided belief that homeschoolers study 5 days a week in the same way school kids do. We never did that, most homeschoolers don’t do that. In fact, honestly, we mostly did nothing at all that would compare to how kids spend their days in school. We just got on with travelling.
If we had a big stretch of quiet time we’d break out the workbooks or Khan Academy. But I see now with absolute certainty that those periods were pointless. My elder son just sat his exams (iGCSEs). He passed. So I think we’ve proved that all those years in school are totally unnecessary. Kids can sit exams (if they want to, it’s not compulsory) as independent candidates. No school attendance is required. Most people don’t know that.
If I can just give you a little example of what worldschooling looks like, we took the boys to Everest Base Camp a few years ago. That was three weeks of physical challenge and self-esteem building. On top of that, we were standing on ground formed by the movement of the Earth’s plates, we were observing agriculture at various altitudes, we were experiencing the lower oxygen levels that go with that, every day we were looking at maps and figuring out some big numbers.
We were living in a totally different culture, meeting new people daily and learning about religion, survival and the origins of the Sherpa people. We covered elements of human physiology, botany, and languages. On top of that, there were a whole load of life skills.
We even stood up in the middle of Kathmandu airport, got a group together and chartered our own plane. Would school kids, or most adults, know to do that? Would school kids know that right now the people of Nepal are desperate, would they be able to picture that and have real empathy and compassion? Would they understand hypoxia and altitude sickness and know what it takes to be a porter or guide summiting Everest, risking their lives for badly-needed cash? My kids do. That is worldschooling. It doesn’t come from books, it’s all around you, it is life.
Learning should never have to be done in the sterile environment of a classroom because there are much better ways. An important footnote here is that “worldschooling” does not teach you how to pass exams, that is a separate skill and one my boys have picked up this last year. They’d never written an essay or sat a maths test until lockdown.
11. How do you think worldschooling compares to conventional education?
I think I answered that question above. Of course, it depends on the parents and the kids and what is important to those individuals, people do it differently. But to me it’s the gold standard in education.
My kids are in an online school now, because of lockdown, their first time, and a great lesson for me. I’ve been watching the teachers, I know what goes on. I know my parents didn’t have a clue about what went on in my school because I never told them. They didn’t know one teacher “forgot” to teach us half of the course, or that several were incompetent. They didn’t know one was a bully and terrified most kids. And I went to a very good school.
I spotted that my son’s maths teacher was serving no purpose at all so we cancelled maths and I got him a private tutor through another online platform. She’s great, a perfect maths mentor for him. I love that although we’re not now technically homeschooling, I can still adapt and change things around according to what they need and want. Very soon all those choices will be in their hands as we start thinking about A-Levels and tertiary education, or not. They can choose what they want to do, they always could. If at any point they had wanted to go to school it would have been their choice. The idea still horrifies them but they enjoy this online set-up.
Of course, this isn’t state-funded education, it costs. This is why my husband now has two jobs. Funding this comes down to priorities, for years we made travel our priority and spent freely on that, right now, the kids’ exam passes are centre-stage. Exam passes and education are not the same thing.
12. How did you make money on the road?
I’m a blogger. Most of our income is advertising revenue through Mediavine, then about 50% total is made up of sales through various affiliate programmes. We don’t do paid promotions, but that could be another possibility.
My main site, World Travel Family, is one of the biggest travel blogs in the world, but we have several other smaller sites, they all make some cash and all of them can be built bigger in future. I could give one each to the kids and set them up with an income for life if that is what they’d like.
I should mention that right now, because of the pandemic, our income is smashed. My husband is working two jobs to pay the bills. But hopefully, it will be back soon, it’s rising, we’re through the worst.
13. Is it difficult to run a travel blog whilst travelling and world schooling at the same time?
No, not at all. But it would be if we took free stays and did paid promotions. That eats your time and you’re effectively working for somebody else, not yourself. We’ve done a few when the offer was amazing or something that was great for the kids, but that stuff is a lot of work and doesn’t give you financial gain into the future, there’s no to little future passive income associated with that kind of work. We self-fund 99.9% of our travel, it’s expensive, and we are quite methodical about where we go and what would be best for the site.
Unfortunately, these days, there are a lot of fakes in travel blogging, people creating content using stock images and making up stories, worse, stealing other people’s content. It’s sad to see and the copyright battles never end. We like to go to the destinations and leave as few stones left unturned as possible. And of course, being involved in the business is also an important part of the kids’ education and skill-set. They have highly marketable skills through helping me and of course, that’s part of their “worldschooling”.
14. Is there anything that you miss from a normal home life whilst you are travelling?
No, nothing at all. Sometimes you crave a particular food or need a particular shop to replace something important. But no, there is absolutely nothing I prefer about living in a house. Except maybe, we have cats now and we love them, they’re family. So going forward we’ll need pet sitters for long-term travel. That’s easy to organise, there are websites to book pet-sitters and some families travel the world doing just that.
15. Did you meet other nomadic families on the road? What do you think all of the travelling families that you met had in common?
Yes, we met quite a few and I think the one similarity between us is that we all think outside the box. It’s quite hard to make whole-family friendships though. Not least because we rarely stay put long enough. One of the kids might like one of their kids or I might get on with the mum, it’s rare for a whole family to fit right. But we’ve made some wonderful friends on the road. The life-long kind. Not all of them travel, some are bricks and mortar based, usually homeschoolers, some bloggers, often entrepreneurs, none of them are independently wealthy, they’ve all worked hard or had genius ideas.
16. What do you think that your kids found most challenging about being on the road full time? (And what did they enjoy the most?)
Bad internet! Bad internet is so much worse than no internet. But these days you can get a good connection just about anywhere. We make it work.
My elder one loves trekking and anything a bit adventurous. He came with me on a recent work trip to Borneo, staying in huts and camps in the jungle with the Iban tribe, eating frog and spearfishing. He loves all that stuff.
The younger one hates trips like that, he’d probably say he likes hotels and London best. But he always says Vietnam is his favourite country. Vietnam has superb wifi and food, his two major considerations. The older they get the more different they are becoming and we’ll be tailoring trips accordingly. Luckily, they both want to go to Mongolia, I think the younger one will accept tents and roughing it a bit to visit a country he’s interested to see.
17. Are you still travelling full time now?
No, our borders are closed, we can’t go anywhere. As soon as they get a needle in my arm and flights are back on, you won’t see me for dust. I have things to do and places to see.
18. How has the pandemic affected your lifestyle and your business?
We were in Asia at the start of 2020, as it all kicked off. We were visiting temples at New Year. Throughout that trip, things got quieter and quieter. They started checking our temperature at airports. We were wearing masks. Some people had terrible coughs. We got home in March and about a week later the borders closed. We’ve been stuck ever since.
Our business went into decline from about January 2020, bottoming out in March when the US stopped most travel. It was incredibly depressing to watch that happen, my business is like my third child. After about the middle of last year I pretty much gave up, completely lost interest. I’d become numb to the pain of seeing it crumble. It’s starting to come back now but this last year has been hard.
As I said above my husband had to get paid work, the kids were bored stuck at home staring at the walls, so that’s when I signed them up for an online school. It’s been great to connect with teachers and kids online, all over the world, and have something to do, a really positive experience.
This last year has also given the kids time and space to get stuck into their pet projects. One is a keen YouTuber, the other a conservation volunteer, it’s been a very different year on every level. The kids do, however, most certainly want to continue travelling. So do I.
19. Do you think that families in the future will still have the opportunity to travel as freely as you have done?
I don’t know, but I hope so. I hope more choose home education too. The environmental impact of travel concerns me but we’re somewhere where we have to get on a plane to go anywhere. We try to cut our carbon footprint and plastic consumption as low as possible and I think most serious travellers do likewise.
20. What tips would you give to other families thinking of hitting the road?
Don’t put your kids in school. That’s possibly the most important. Pre-schoolers are too young. But if you decide to pull kids out when they’re older it’s really common for kids to miss the school environment. It’s all they know. Not all, but some, miss school. Some are glad to see the back of it, of course. I would have been thrilled to not have to go, it always felt like such a waste of my time, sitting being bored all day.
Then you have to really know what floats your kid’s boats and make the trip good for every member of the family. My kids hate beaches, so do I, taking them to a beach would be a big failure and turn them right off travel.
Other than that, pack light, and visit the places you want to see, not the places most people want to see. If you’re not too sure about whether you want to go somewhere, it’s usually for a reason. Follow your instinct. And smile, keep your sense of humour. I’ve lost it many-a-time, I’m human and there are a lot of stresses and pressures. Things will go wrong. But do your best to just keep smiling. We have a family motto, stolen, of course, “Smile and wave boys, just smile and wave.”
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