What it Takes to Travel the World (with Kids)

Many of us wonder about how incredible it would be to travel around the world with our families (at least, we at Deliberatism often do so). Of course, when we start looking at the actual logistics of such a lifestyle, it quickly dampens our enthusiasm, from home schooling to language barriers. We knew there were people out there who are already doing this, however—so, after some digging, we came across Colin and Tracy Burns, who have been travelling around the world with their two young kids, Noah and Hayley, for over two and a half years. This interview comes from Colin and family as they were residing in Queenstown, New Zealand.


So, how did this entire journey begin? How did you prepare your family for life on the move before you left?

Colin: This is actually an interesting story. We spontaneously decided to start traveling in the middle of September, 2009. We booked flights and gave ourselves 6 weeks to sort everything out, sell off some of our gear, and pack the rest into storage. We also had to break the lease on our apartment we had been renting, but were having a really hard time finding someone to rent the place. Then, a week before we were due to leave, Tracy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Luckily for us, thyroid cancer is generally very treatable—3 months and two surgeries later, we were off. Because no one had taken over our lease, we were simply able to keep on living in the place until we were ready to leave. So in the end, our initial misfortune of finding it hard to find someone to break the lease worked perfectly for us.

That said, we had taken a couple of family holidays in the 6 months before our decision to see how the kids reacted to travel. The idea was always at the back of our minds, it just wasn’t until 6 weeks before that we realized we could actually do it.

    The kids enjoy the Second Class sleeper carriage while traveling through Bangkok, Thailand.
The kids enjoy the Second Class sleeper carriage while traveling through Bangkok, Thailand.

Most of our preparation took place on the road though. We had these grand travel plans to cover all of Asia in a few months, but once we started traveling, we realized our children needed more time to adjust to life on the move. So, we slowed down, stopped for 2 – 4 weeks in one location, and even retraced our steps back to locations we’d visited before so the kids had a sense of familiarity.

How did the kids adjust to a nomadic lifestyle? As a parent, what can you do to help your kids adjust?

Colin: When we started travelling, my daughter was only 2 and a half years old, so she became more and more worn out as the months drew on. The best advice we can give to parents of toddlers, or even older children wanting to live this lifestyle, is to take your time. Don’t try to cram everything in.

Hayley and Noah take some time to observe and draw in Sri Lanka.
Hayley and Noah take some time to observe and draw in Sri Lanka.

In some places, you’ll only get to see one or two things rather than the 5 things that you would see if you were on your own, or without the kids. Travel days wear kids out very quickly (even if they are just sitting in a seat playing the iPad for the entire trip). Take time to recover from travel days and try to enjoy the time with the family; teach them some card games and play them together. You’ll need to learn to push the guilt or resentment of not seeing everything in a particular place aside and enjoy the things you can enjoy with your kids. You can always come back to Bali or Thailand or France and see those things again on another trip, but you can’t revisit the age that your kids are now, so let go of the guidebooks and enjoy family time.

What have been some of the biggest challenges to date? I imagine home schooling in particular must be difficult at times.

Colin: Home schooling is by far our biggest headache, and the thing that causes the most angst in our family. We are currently in Queenstown, New Zealand for 6 months, so the kids can go to school here, rather than home schooling like in Malaysia. I can confirm that after 2.5 years, we still haven’t found the right formula for our family. Every family, and every parent in particular are different—we all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to home schooling. We just haven’t found our mojo yet. Tracy has written about this quite a bit on our blog. The kids and Tracy love New Zealand and the schooling, and I am finding New Zealand incredibly beautiful, but I get very itchy feet even knowing we are only staying here until the beginning of December.

How do you balance your interests (e.g. hiking, sightseeing) with those of your kids (e.g. dinosaurs, naps)?

Colin: It’s hard at times.

Hayley takes in the sights in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
Hayley takes in the sights in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

Generally the kids’ almost always come first. On occasion my wife or I will go and do something we want to do while the other stays with the children. Alternatively, you take opportunities as they come. In 2010, the children’s godmother traveled with us for 1 month in Cambodia. This allowed Tracy and I to have a couple of date nights, while another time Tracy and Sara would head out to Angkor Wat and take photos while I looked after the kids. Generally, I have work to do, so I will often head out to work while Tracy looks after the kids. After 2 years of that, we are really enjoying having both kids in full-time school for the first time ever.

Are there any real dangers of traveling with kids to keep in mind?

Colin: I don’t think there are any more dangers traveling with children than there are living at home with children. We did almost lose our daughter on a train in Athens, but that could have just as easily happened catching the train back in Brisbane.

Noah explores beautiful ruins during a trip to Athens, Greece.
Noah explores beautiful ruins during a trip to Athens, Greece.

Keeping your children safe while you travel is just about being sensible and being prepared, the same as it would be if you were going on a day trip back home. You just have to be a little more prepared. We always have a basic medical kit with us, while my over cautious wife generally knows what kind of medical facilities are available in the next location we’re heading to and where the nearest emergency train brake is (luckily!). When you are changing countries and locations all the time, you can’t just teach your kids your home phone number. But you can make sure they know their parent’s full names, the name of hotel that you are staying at and what to do if you get separated from the rest of the family. If your children are too young to remember this information, you can get ID bracelets or write your contact details inside your kid’s jackets, but we find the easiest thing is to take a business card from your hotel or hostel, and put it in their pocket.

If you could redo this incredible journey, is there anything you would consider doing differently?

Colin: Not visit Vietnam in the height of summer perhaps! Honestly though, I really don’t know.

Which countries were most enjoyable to visit with your kids? Did any countries surprise you in particular?

Colin: Just the other day when Tracy and I were debating what our next steps are after New Zealand, one of our friends asked us “Where were you the happiest?” It was a simple question, but it really hit a chord. There I was, being all analytical and calculating, trying to work out things like cost of living, potential for schooling, etc. and then I realized that wasn’t really the point… “Where have we been the happiest?” is the point.

Getting close to the wildlife at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Getting close to the wildlife at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The answer to this is probably three countries that you wouldn’t expect. We had an incredible time in Bulgaria at the beginning of the year, and in our first year of travel we had an incredible two weeks in Laos. The third place is Penang, Malaysia, where we’ve made some great friends and get a lot of visitors from some of the families that have contacted us through our websites. Laos and Bulgaria were two places that really surprised us. They were originally both just short stops that we weren’t expecting too much from, but if the opportunity presented itself, we’d move to either country in a heartbeat.

That sounds incredible. What have been some of the best experiences that you’ve had with your kids so far?

Enjoying typical English weather at Bodiam Castle.
Enjoying typical English weather at Bodiam Castle.

Colin: There have been so many amazing things that we’ve been able to experience together. There was the time in a Bulgarian Ski resort where we all finally skied and snowboarded together down a run for the very first time (it took until the last day of our stay for this to happen). There was the time we spent visiting museums in London, or showing the kids the Eiffel Tower. More recently, it was watching the kids compete in their New Zealand School’s cross-country race. It’s incredibly fun to watch how they adapt every day to the new experiences we throw at them.

See what else Colin and his family have been up to on their travel blog: Our Travel Lifestyle

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