Why I Kept My Kids Out of School to Travel the World

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The whole family at the Grand Canyon in Arizona (Photo: Courtesy of Donna Armstrong)

Who: Donna Armstrong, 38, Mark Gibson, 42, and our two young boys, Harley, 5, and Sonny, 2.

Where: The world. On March 25, 2014, we left our home in Sydney, Australia, to embark on a nine-month, around-the-world adventure as a family. First stop Thailand, followed by Japan, a three-month road trip in North America, and four fun-fueled months in Europe. Many people have asked us, “Are you crazy?” Maybe we are, just a little.

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Donna and Mark taking a selfie in Zaragoza, Spain (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

Why: Mark and I are avid travelers, and our passion only intensified after we had kids. At the end of last year, we had to make an important decision — should we send our oldest son to school or wait another year? We often talked about taking the boys around the world, and the next thing I knew we were packing up the house and selling our cars. It’s amazing what transpires when you follow your heart. Self-employed, neither of us were tied down to full-time work, and we decided to hold Harley back from school (Sonny is just 2) — it felt like our last chance. Our main goal was to spend quality time together while exploring the world.

The Cost: We gave away a lot of our belongings and stored the rest. We sold both our cars and rented our home and another apartment we own in Sydney, which financed a lot of the trip. Some people choose to spend a large sum of money on their wedding — we did not. We’re calling this our wedding year. We budgeted to spend somewhere around $60,000 U.S.

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Harley taking in the sights on a scooter (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

What I Loved: That we have been able to show our boys the world at such a young age. I was almost 18 when I left Australia for the first time, and I have no doubt their exposure to different cultures will shape their personalities and view of the world. I hope it will open their hearts and minds not only to what is possible but also what is real. We have taken them out of their comfort zones and allowed them to try new things, talk to new people, learn new languages, taste new foods, and accept new ways of life. We have all grown, as individuals and as a family.

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Mom and the boys in kimonos in Japan (Photo: Courtesy of Donna Armstrong)

What Did You Learn? Sonny learned how to jump in Thailand, Harley got his Junior Ranger badges in Zion and Yellowstone National Parks, we all speak a bit of Thai, Japanese, French, and Spanish. We have learned how to work as a team and be grateful for life on a daily basis. Along the way, Mark had his bag stolen in Barcelona. It was full of “valuables” but contained nothing of “worth.” The greatest lesson we have learned so far is that less is so much more. At home we were great consumers, always surrounded by stuff, but this trip has allowed us to live with the most minimal of possessions. Right now all our belongings fit into three suitcases, and if we lost them all tomorrow, we know we’d be just fine.

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The happy couple in Dordogne, France (Photo: Courtesy of Donna Armstrong)

Travel Inspiration: Each other. Mark and I have plenty of destinations on our bucket list, but a lot of this trip has been about reconnecting with close friends who live overseas. A great highlight has been staying with them in their homes and getting to know their children. The boys have new friends now all over the world. Harley is obsessed with wildlife documentaries, so his passions have motivated many of our stops, including Mariposa Grove in California (to see the Grizzly Giant — a giant redwood tree), Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and whale watching in Vancouver. We kept an animal list and added new species each time we saw them in the wild. Sonny has an exhausting love of trains, so we caught the Shinkansen in Japan and also started a transport list, which now includes everything from tuk-tuks to funiculars.

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Goofing around at the Eiffel Tower (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

Next Trip: The French Riviera followed by the United Kingdom, then the Greek Islands and a villa in Tuscany for three weeks. After that, we’re not sure, but we’ll be home sometime before Christmas.

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Mom and Harley taking in the French valley (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

How I Changed After: I am sure I am changing every day, but I may not know quite how much until we get home. At heart I am a career girl, always looking for the next great challenge. This trip has forced me to stop looking forward and enjoy the moment that’s right here in front of me.

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Harley on top of the world in Japan (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

Highlights: There have been so many, but here are five, in no particular order:

  1. Watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon (with sleeping children).

  2. Relaxing in an onsen (hot spring) surrounded by 45 naked Japanese women in Aomori, Japan.

  3. Five weeks of road-tripping in an RV through the USA and Canada.

  4. Canoeing down the Dordogne Valley, France.

  5. Driving up and down the Canadian Rockies, along the spectacular stretch of road (141 miles) known as the Icefields Parkway.

Where I Stayed: We’ve called more than 50 places “home” and slept in everything from hotels and hostels to cabins, tents, and friends’ lounges. We have loved living in local neighborhoods, away from the usual tourist traps.

Most Memorable Meal: Three of the most unforgettable were lobster rolls at Mabel’s in Kennebunkport, Maine, eaten in the company of old friends, on the 4th of July; the Maki rolls (and everything else on the menu) at Uasabi in Zaragoza, Spain, and dinner on the Seine, looking up at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Secret Addresses: Lose yourself in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop located on the Left Bank, opposite Notre-Dame, in Paris. This stunning bookstore was opened in 1951 by American George Whitman. From the day he opened its doors, Whitman invited budding writers in and offered them a place to sleep. If you’re lucky, you might find a classic novel signed by an author who stayed there.

Best Dollar I Spent: In Spain we bought a ride-on scooter for €99, and it has changed the way we travel. It is big enough for adults to ride and has turned long walks into cruisey excursions and exhausted boys into adrenaline junkies.

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Harley and Sonny making friends with the locals (Photo: Donna Armstrong)

Parting Thoughts: I will never forget something a yoga teacher told me one day. She said: “If not you, who? And if not now, when?” I thought about it a lot when we were planning this trip. It kept me from flaking and falling into the trap of thinking, “This is all too hard.”

When you have children, everyone says, “You never get this time back. Enjoy it.” And I truly believe we are. We have been hiking, bike riding, canoeing, walking, scooting, and running through some of the most beautiful places in the world, seen some of the greatest sights, and met some of the most amazing people. When you open your eyes and travel, you quickly realize that everyone around you has a story to tell. The tough times keep you humble and the great times keep you focused.

Check out more #RealTravel stories!

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