WHEN Peter and Jill Feuerstein sit around the dinner table with their teenage children, Betsy and Ben, it’s not unusual for them to have an animated discussion about a remote village in China, India or Zimbabwe. But unlike many people in their hometown of Larchmont, N.Y., the Feuersteins have a personal connection with these places. In June 2002, they embarked on a yearlong journey around the world with their two kids, then ages 14 and 11, in tow.
“The result is that all of these places matter to us now,” Mr. Feuerstein said. “The trip was a watershed experience for all of us.”
They are not alone. A growing number of American families with school-age children are turning their wanderlust into reality, say travel experts. Missions to expose children to cultural diversity and spend quality time together are among the reasons some parents are willing to exchange violin lessons and after-school sports for, say, a chance to dig for sapphires in New Zealand or to learn about land mines in Laos.
Planning a route, however, can be daunting. Should you take the smorgasbord approach, spending a little time in a lot of places, or opt for longer stays in fewer destinations, in the hope of gaining a deeper knowledge of a given place?
For Lisa and Jeff Holmstead of Gaithersburg, Md., the original conception was to take their four children — then ages 15, 12, 9 and 6 — around the world for a year, dividing the time among only four countries. “We wanted to be in places where the people spoke English for the most part,” Mrs. Holmstead said. “Our children wanted to go to New Zealand because of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and our son does Irish fiddling, so we put Ireland on the itinerary.” But after giving it some thought, they decided to go for a more diverse itinerary, and added Greece, India, Nepal, Thailand, Bali, Australia, Hong Kong and Mexico to the list.
Then came the question of affordability. After doing a rough estimate, they realized that the cost of spending a year away would be higher than a year at home. In March 2005, Mrs. Holmstead and her husband — who left his job as assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation just before the journey — devised a schedule. In the months before setting off, they managed to rent out their house, sell their cars, set up health and travel insurance, research home-schooling programs and meet with a travel nurse to get appropriate vaccinations. The Holmsteads designed the trip on their own, booking all their flights in advance through Air Treks (www.airtreks.com) and using the Lonely Planet guidebooks as their bible for food and hotels, which they booked as they went along. Ms. Holmstead said the price tag for their trip came to roughly $140,000, which included everything — flights, food, lodging, entertainment, insurance and souvenirs.
Another family took a different tack in arranging their trip. For several weeks last winter, a large world map took up wall space in the home of Claire and Randall Tuttle, of Winston-Salem, N.C. Everyone, including their son, Scott, 11, and their daughter, Carson, 9, initialed the places they wanted to visit. A week later, family members numbered their favorite destinations in order of preference and pared down the list. They then hired Alice Durkee, an agent with the Brownell travel agency in Birmingham, Ala., to help them map out a trip and arrange flights, hotels, activities and local guides.
After much deliberation, the Tuttle family decided that one continuous trip felt like too much. With Ms. Durkee’s help, they divided their trip into four segments, each about six weeks, with three weeks between legs. They have returned from the first segment, covering Egypt, Greece, Italy, France and England. The second leg, starting early this month, will include Dubai, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Some measure of flexibility is essential. Before leaving on their trip with their two daughters, then ages 9 and 6, John and Sandy Bagan of Boise, Idaho, booked their flights through the Star Alliance airline program (www.staralliance.com), using its Round the World Fare. The Bagans chose business-class tickets for $8,000 apiece (children under 12 receive a 25 percent discount), rather than coach tickets for $5,500. Their passes enabled them to make up to 15 stopovers and cover up to 34,000 miles, and they planned their route based on the destinations included in the program.
On Jan. 1, two days before they were to fly to Bangkok, they heard the news that eight bombs had exploded in Thailand, so they quickly rerouted their trip from Thailand to Malaysia. “We had to make a quick decision and did not feel we could take a risk with the kids,” Mrs. Bagan said.
Many of the children taking family trips around the world fall between the ages of 9 and 12. It seems to be the ideal age range, when children are old enough to appreciate what they’ll see, young enough to get their schooling on the road and still willing to engage in family time. “Once kids have made that transition from parents to peers being the most important people in their lives, there is resentment about being pulled away from a peer group and activities,” said David Elliot Cohen, author of “One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey With Our Children” (Traveler’s Tales, $14.95).
While it can be challenging to keep kids on an educational track while living out of hotel rooms, it can be done. The Bagan family enrolled in a public charter school program and used home-school materials from K12 (www.k12.com), a technology-based educational company that provides entire school curriculums. They were assigned a local teacher in Idaho who helped them plan curriculums for their kindergartner and third grader. Scott and Carson Tuttle, a sixth grader and fourth grader respectively, begin every day with one hour of schoolwork. Through the North Carolina education department, Ms. Tuttle registered their family as a home school and devised a curriculum for her children.
Ms. Tuttle uses two home-schooling programs, Saxon (saxonpublishers.harcourtachieve.com) and Singapore (www.singaporemath.com), for math instruction. For other subjects, it is the family’s journey that provides the basis for learning. The children keep daily journals, and have covered Egyptian pharaohs, Greek mythology and Roman history. Home-schooling requirements vary from state to state, and those considering such a trip should check with their home state’s department of education.
Although they toyed with the idea of home schooling, Peter and Jill Feuerstein ultimately felt their children would learn enough from the travel experience itself. “The education our children got from traveling far exceeded anything they would get in the fifth or eighth grade,” Mr. Feuerstein said. The family read many books about the history and culture of each country they visited (15 countries in all) and the children kept journals. When the opportunity arose, they practiced math in everyday settings, like figuring out currency conversions.
On a yearlong trip, you still may not reach all the places you strive to see. But one thing seems certain: the family that travels together is inevitably a closer one. “My kids are kinder to each other,” Ms. Tuttle said. “Without the distraction of sports and school, we’ve become more of a team.”