Taking a gap year with the kids

More parents giving kids the gap year of a life time.
More parents giving kids the gap year of a life time. Photo: Getty

The idea of taking off into the world with not much more than a backpack, a nose for exploration and a yearning for excitement has traditionally been associated with the younger generations. However, these days more and more families are deciding to take longer holidays or gap years abroad. 

Some are looking to escape the rat race or to fulfil a yearning to travel themselves, whilst others have a desire to see the world through their children's eyes. Regardless of the reasoning, such a growing trend is certainly putting paid to the idea that extended travel and children do not mix, as Caz and Craig Makepeace are proving.

The couple, with their two daughters, aged six and two, have been on a road trip around Australia for the past 9 months. They still have a further 9 months on their itinerary, and have been documenting their travels online in what has become one of Australia’s biggest travel blogs.

“We've always wanted to travel around Australia, and wanted to share the experience with our children before school and friends became their major focus,” explains Caz. “We knew it would be a chance for us to create amazing memories together as a family, and knew that we could work along the way with little responsibility.  We just had to step through the fear by saying, ‘Let's do it!’”

The family initially started travelling south from Sydney through NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, but the change of season saw them reverse their road trip, and head north to the warmer QLD climate for winter.

But cold weather hasn’t been the only test for the family. “It’s really challenging to be with your children 24/7,” admits Caz, “No matter how exhausted you are, or how much you want to sit in the sun and read a book all day, you just can't. There is no one to give you a break from being Mum and Dad.”

However, on the flip side, Caz explains that being there with her children when they are experiencing new things for the first time is amazing. “They totally blew my mind hiking up the fairly strenuous 4km Pinnacle trail in the Grampians without being carried, and flying 30m above the ground through the tree tops on a 180m long Flying Fox. Savannah was the youngest person ever to do it. Experiences like that are so joyful and memorable.”

Tina Rutzou couldn’t agree more, having travelled overseas and within Australia for extended periods with her family. “We hired motorhomes when the children were three and five and travelled through Australia, and we did it again when they were four and six and followed the Tour De France through Belgium and France. We also lived in New Zealand for a ski season when they were five and seven.”

“For us as a family the most outstanding advantage in travelling together was that we really bonded,” says Tina. “I also believe our kids have a more rounded education, have empathy for those less fortunate than them, will try different foods, and appreciate that different people have different cultures and that’s okay. At school now when they are discussing the world, and the teachers have told me that our kids have a lot to offer the conversation as they have travelled to and experienced the many places they discuss.”

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Lisa Heggie is another advocate, after spending a year travelling with her husband and her two young children, then aged two and four.

“For nearly 12 months we travelled through 11 countries and experienced many different cultures, languages, events, foods, environments and sights.  We lived simply, ate local food, rode our bikes or walked through towns, experienced nature every day and most importantly we did it all as a family. They loved having both parents with them and it was one huge, exciting adventure.”

It’s Lisa’s belief that travelling with children at such a young age was an advantage, as they were old enough to be engaged, carry backpacks and be on bike seats. It also meant that entry to a lot of places for them was free.

That’s not to say that they didn’t need some routine and organisation though. “With the constant changes and moving, the motor home provided a consistent base and was perfect for long-term travelling. We had to be very prepared for every eventuality, and be certain the children would be safe and medical assistance would be available,” she says. “Certain routines can't be broken, for us that was the late afternoon/night time - dinner, bath, book, bed routine.”

So would she recommend it to others? “Absolutely, take the opportunity. If we had passed this up we would have missed out on the most amazing year, both individually and as a family. It was a life-changing experience. We spent 12 months as a family, watching our young children flourish and grow and we travelled to new places and benefited from all the experiences we encountered.”

Lisa offers the following tips for making the trip as enjoyable as possible; 

  • Make sure you have travel insurance 
  • Set up a Blog or Facebook page as a diary and way to keep friends and family informed of your adventures.
  • Take a third of the luggage you think you need. Clothing and footwear is usually much cheaper outside Australia if you do need it.
  • Don't worry about toys - a  firm favourite cuddly toy and a few small items is all they need.
  • iPad or DVD is a lifesaver for lengthy time on the road, but don't forget why you are doing the trip.
  • Have a set 'base' (or number of them) such as a motor home. This way the change isn't overwhelming for most children and the logistics of being constantly on the move is reduced.
  • Remember you will see half as much as you want in twice the time you think!
  • Everyone needs a 'nothing' day. Travelling is tiring and everyone needs downtime.
  • Split up - you don't always need to do everything together.
  • Use hiking backpacks for young children or scooters for older children to get around on. Scooters fold up easily and children don't get as tired or bored riding them as they do walking.
  • Eat local, seasonal produce - cheaper and fun.
  • Always carry a small first aid kit - kids get incredibly dirty when travelling and a small cut can get infected quickly.
  • Ask the locals - so many wonderful recommendations and tips are found by asking.