Reflections on 1 year off
After two weeks
The world changed a lot in our year off: the September 11th disaster
and resulting war on terrorism, airline bankruptcies, Pakistan/ India
problems, insurgency in Nepal, and terrorists in the Philippines near Borneo. These all affected our travel plans, but there were no major
managed to more or less stick with our original itinerary with a
substitution of Malaysian Borneo for Indonesia, and Qantas for the extinct
My wife and I would jump on the next plane and keep going if we had the
chance. I'm not sure if the kids would want to join us. They definitely
missed friends and 'routine', and also disliked most cultural activities
(temples, museums, gardens, cathedrals etc). However, we had some
wonderful times together and I look forward to seeing how it affects our
Highlights and low
What worked and what didn't work?
Money matters - cash, ATM, traveler's cheques
How much did it cost?
What did you do with everything you bought?
How did the kid's education work?
What did we pack, and what was it packed in?
Technical gadgets and internet
For David & Sarah
Everything except schooling the kids was a highlight. Working at Deep
Griha was particularly satisfying. We'd do the whole trip all over again.
For the kids
Temples, museums, and school work were low points (although Heather thought
many of the museums were OK). Rock climbing
diving in Bali and Cairns,
Borneo Rainforest, and Christmas in
New Zealand were highlights. New Zealand and Australia
ranked highest, and India ranked lowest on the countries they'd like to
return to. They found India too hot and not 'kid friendly' - i.e.
there were not a lot of children's activities.
- I think our major mistake was not appointing someone to look after
investments (RSP's etc) while we were gone. We had thought we would do it via
internet, but the farther we got from Canada, the more we lost interest. This was a bad year to not
follow your investments.
- The "round the world" airfare on Star Alliance
worked. There were problems because Ansett went bankrupt, but overall
it gave us lots of flexibility to change dates and we felt we got good
value for money. However, we never compared
prices for the 'round the world' fare to buying a series of one way
- not planning anything far in advance (hotels, trains, planes) worked
well most of the time. One result of Sept 11 was that there were
vacancies everywhere for everything. The few times we did book in
advance, we were disappointed in the rooms or services we got, so we
got into the habit of showing up and doing an inspection of a number
of places first. Vacancies started being a problem again in India, and
then it was a big problem in England and France as we were getting
back into prime tourist season in these countries. I think next time, I'd try and book the first night or two in a new country and
then venture off on our own after that. When you're traveling for a
year, it is hard to plan too much in advance, but there is certainly an
incentive to try and do so: trains and planes can be quite a bit
cheaper if you book in advance.
- staying away from package tours worked very well. The odd time, we
would join a tour (for a trek or cruise) but we much preferred the
independence of doing our own thing.
- traveling with 5 is a bit awkward. We did not fit easily into many hotel
rooms or taxis. Many family rates were only for two children. I'm not
sure which family member we'd do without though ;-)
- taking time off from our trip worked well. We did not try to fill
every day with activities - some days we'd stop and do nothing,
letting the kids determine the agenda. We did not try to rush
the trip - with one year off, we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere or
- we also took larger 'holidays' from the trip. For example, a week in
the 5 star resort in
Borneo and the two weeks over Christmas
in New Zealand. These periods really were needed to recharge and
- getting involved with Locals was
very interesting. The Girl Guides organization was particularly good
for our girls - they went to camp in Australia and visited some
meetings in New Zealand.
- Changing plans to travel with another
compatible family for a few days or more was terrific. It gives the
kids (and parents) time to play with kids their own age who are going
through the same experiences. See Bali
- We used the Lonely Planet series of guide books for every country.
We really enjoyed their Japan and China guidebooks, and then just kept
buying them for the other countries. The India book was a bit disappointing,
but the other countries were great. Don't leave home without a guide
book - they are readily available at most bookstores while you travel,
so don't buy too many in advance.
- public transportation worked well in 'non-western' countries. China,
Malaysia, Thailand and India all have excellent public transportation.
We made extensive use of buses and trains, with a few plane trips
thrown in to speed things up. Buses were sometimes a little scary, but
we had no major mishaps - only a minor
one in China which, while agonizing at the time, is now just a
- car rental worked well in Australia
and New Zealand. It was expensive
but necessary in rural France and England and it's cheaper if you book
in advance. I really did get better at driving on the left
side of the road even in manual transmission cars... although I find
myself moving to the wrong side of the road now what I'm back at
- in many countries, we would establish a 'base' where we could leave
excess luggage. For example, in Thailand, we left a few bags in our
hotel in Bangkok while we traveled around the rest of the country.
We'd return to that hotel for a night to retrieve our bags just before leaving the country. This worked well in Bali, New Zealand, India and
England. It certainly made traveling on public transportation
- take as little as possible (see the 'what
we packed' section below)
ATM's ( i.e. bank or money machines) are very widespread, and we would get cash from machines when we
needed it. China and India were the two countries where we had to plan
ahead a bit as ATM's were difficult to find. In other countries, ATM's
were always close at hand.
Our traveler's cheques became solely a backup if we could not find an
ATM. As a Canadian, I should have just got cheques in $Cdn - $Cdn were
accepted everywhere. (It used to be wise to get them in $US - but this
does not seem the case now). I think we cashed less than $1000US in travelers
There is probably no limit to what you can spend on a trip. There is
certainly a 'bottom line' that you cannot go under - airfares, meals and
hotels all have a minimum cost.
At 13, our older son was also just at the borderline for fares -
sometimes he would be charged as an adult, and sometimes as a child.
Our expectation for hotels changed over the year. By the end of our
trip, we were comfortable in rooms that might have made us move on if we
had seen them earlier in the trip. As long as they were they were clean and
quiet and big enough, we were happy. I think our cheapest room was
in Delhi ($14/night for the five of us for a room that was the same size
but slightly more run down than the $330/night Tokyo room), but we had many others in the
$30 to $50 range.
I've given up working on the details. We
spent about $110k Cdn for the whole trip (all inclusive - airfares &
other travel, insurance, accommodation, food, local purchases etc. )
We would save up our purchases until all we had taken up all the room
in our bags. Then we would mail a package home. In total, we mailed 9
packages. Unfortunately, one statue mailed from New Zealand arrived as a
pile of rubble. Everything else arrived with no problems. We used the
slowest regular mail service in each country.
This was the most difficult part of the trip. We are not teachers and
the kids saw themselves as being on holiday. Our major concern was for
Mark, who at age 13 could not afford to miss math and science. His school
provided us with a full curriculum, but he still has exams and projects to do
this summer in order to return to school with his old classmates in September.
He did do a lot of work on our travels, but it did involve a lot of
nagging on our part - which was not pleasant for any of us.
The girls (8 &11) did less work - a tiny bit of math. They read
constantly, and seemed to soak in a lot of what we were seeing so I
know they learned a lot of 'non-school' knowledge. They are both very good
students, and I assume they will catch up on anything they missed in the
first few months back at school. Time will tell. One thing they lost was
their ability to speak French. They had been at French school but their
French seemed to disappear by the time we reached France. It did
come partially back after a while, so I don't think they'll be starting from basics
I don't think I can write more about this section without the benefit
of time - i.e. how will the kids do in school in the future.
say that getting your kids to do schoolwork on a year off is difficult for
both parents and kids alike. I have no suggestions on how to make
How many times have you heard someone say to bring as little as
possible? We thought we packed very frugally, yet we sent about 20 kg of
stuff home in a box from our first stop in Japan. Bring as little as
possible! Really! If you do not bring enough, it is easy to
buy what you need. If you bring too much, you either carry it around for
your entire trip, throw it out, give it away, or mail it home.
This is what we came home with, so it is representative of what was
useful. Some of the things we bought en route, but most made the full
- 1 pair running shoes or walking shoes, and 1 pair sandals each. No
hiking boots or formal shoes.
- Clothes for a week or two. The kids definitely seemed to change
clothes more than the adults (or maybe it was the girls changed more
often than the boys). We were traveling in a warm climate, so
we brought only t-shirts and golf shirts as well as the usual socks
and underwear. Long pants that zipped off into shorts
were particularly useful - we had two pairs each as the only pants we
brought. We did not bring formal clothes - people we met
understood we were traveling and did not expect us to show up in a
jacket and tie.
- one warm shirt (fleece) and one lightweight rain jacket each. On
really cold days, we would wear everything we owned: t-shirts, fleeces
and rain jackets.
- a few sarongs for the 5 of us (useful as sheet or towel, and as a wrap for temples in some
- toiletries. You can find vaguely familiar brands of most things in
- a standard first aid kit to which we added bandaids, Bactroban,
disinfectant, headache pills (for both kids and adults), Kaopectate
tablets and pills for food poisoning (ask your doctor). Note: Many
things that are prescribed in North America are available over the
counter in Asia and are cheap.
- book lights/ small flashlights
- bowls, spoons, forks for all. In some countries, we would eat our
own breakfasts. In Australia and New Zealand, most motel rooms have
kitchenettes so we could eat lots of meals in.
- potato peeler (for peeling fruit etc), swiss army knife
lightweight sleeping bags for the kids & double sheets for us. This was useful in cheaper hotels (many do not
provide sheets), and also when we visited friends. We bought
these in Australia as we preferred to stay in Holiday Parks that had
cabins and kitchens but no linen.
- beach towels for all.
- binoculars (ours are 8*40). A necessity for wildlife and landscape
- a few extra passport pictures. These are useful for visas, some
travel cards, rail passes and who knows what.
- wide brim hats for everyone. Sunglasses for those who wanted them.
boogie boards and beach toys. We would buy these when we needed them and
then ditch them/ give them away when we left 'beach countries".
- fishing rods (two of our kids are avid
fisherpersons) & tackle
- soccer ball, tennis balls, baseball gloves & a miniature air
pump to blow up the ball.
- playing cards & a magnetic chess board
- travel alarm clock
- books. Our kids are avid readers - we minimized the books we carried
through frequent stops at second hand bookstores. We'd go through
entire series - Dune, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Lord of the
Rings, Famous Five, Nancy Drew & others.
- educational materials (see the schooling section). We
- masks (we are all avid swimmers)
- electric plug converters to go from North American to foreign plugs.
It would have been handy to also have an 'octopus' or small power bar
so that I could plug my camera and computer in at the same time to one
- The kids had pocket gameboys and Mark had a CD player.
- luggage locks. It would have been handy (particularly in India)
to have a small piece of wire so we could lock the bags together when
sleeping on trains. However, we had no problems with theft.
That is a lot of stuff. We carried it in two duffel bags, one large
backpack, and one smaller shoulder bag. The kids each had mini backpacks
with their own essentials (beanie babies, game boys). I
had a video camera bag and my computer bag. Sarah had an excellent but
small Lowe Pro camera backpack for the SLR camera, lenses, and binoculars. Mark
carried fishing rods in a plastic plumbing pipe with a handle that we put together
in New Zealand.
Everything either fit on our back or was pulled on wheels. Both duffel
bags had wheels (one was internal and one had an external frame with
wheels). We had too much stuff, but I wouldn't know what to get rid
of except clothes and books. I wish they had school books on CD ROM!.
I'm a technical nut, so we had lots of gadgets.
- The kids each had disposable cameras. We also bought a number of
underwater disposable cameras (try to get them with flash). These are
all available relatively cheaply
- We had a Canon SLR camera with two lenses (28-80 and 80-300mm). The
camera had a built in flash, so we left our large flash at home. This
was the right decision. We probably took 800 photos in total. Film was
purchased locally - Fuji and Kodak are available everywhere.
- we also had a SONY TRV 30. This is a combination digital still & digital video camera.
took over 1200 digital pictures (only a few of which are on this web
site) and about 20 hours of video. Typical
of Sony, the camera came requiring extras. We just got the basics in
Canada, and then bought extra memory, tape, and batteries in Hong Kong.
It was cheaper in Hong Kong than Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala
Lumpur. The camera was terrific except for flash problems
in Australia. SONY Australia fixed it, but charged us because we have
a SONY North America warranty which is not valid in Australia. I wish
SONY would get its act together - annoying warranty and poor
option selection get in the way of enjoying an otherwise excellent
- we brought a SONY laptop computer along for two main reasons - internet
connection (e-mail and web site updating); and storing digital
pictures. We used the Roam International version of iPass
Connect as an internet connection, and that worked well. iPass allowed local dialup access from most places we stopped. However, if
we were going to be surfing on the internet for any amount of time, we would
use an internet café and leave the computer in the hotel - iPass is
not as cheap as internet cafés. I chose the SONY laptop because it came with a lot of video editing software that was
compatible with the camera, and we could write our own CD-ROM's.
As a result, I was able to regularly back up the photos and send the CD's
home. As an added bonus, we could watch DVD movies on the computer
when we needed to see 'Western movies' again. As
much as it was an anchor around my neck (both the weight and the worry
of theft when traveling with another expensive toy), I would certainly
do it again - we needed to store digital pictures and e-mail is much
more useable when it is on a local machine.
- We bought a pair of 8*40 binoculars in Singapore. Make sure you
bring binoculars. You'll be surprised how frequently you use them if
you keep them handy.
- We had organized web site hosting in advance. There are many
companies that do this - we used www.usisp.com.
I used Windows Front Page to update the web site. As an internet
junkie, I'm afraid to admit that... but it was very convenient and
easy to use for this simple web site.