Everywhere I go, once people hear that I did a travel sabbatical with young (elementary school aged) kids, they ask me for more information/advice on how to do it. I've written more generally before about what I wish I knew before a travel sabbatical, but not specifically about kid stuff. So, I am collecting my thoughts about it here. The most important piece of advice: you have to be really committed to do this--you can't decide last minute, or be half hearted. So, here is Prodigal's list of what to do when you want to take a sabbatical abroad with your family.
1. Have a flexible partner
This one is tough, since not everyone has a flexible-type job. I have friends outside academia who have asked (and received!) leaves of absence from their jobs for various reasons (family, health, travel), but this is usually unpaid, and depends highly on the company as to whether or not it can happen. We were fortunate, and Prodigal Spouse is in a very flexible work situation right now. That was one of the reasons we pushed so hard to travel this time, since next time, we may not be so flexible. I would not have done a long-term travel sabbatical with young kids if Prodigal Spouse could not come along!
2. Plan ahead
Way ahead! We started planning for our trip almost as soon as my sabbatical was approved, which was 18+ months before we left (we did not spend the whole year abroad). In the early planning stage we had three main concerns: 1) what would Prodigal Spouse do? 2) where would our kids go to school and would they be able to come back with no issues? 3) how would we maintain 2 households for an extended period of time?
3. Pick a location
We needed to find someplace that would be a good opportunity for me and provide something engaging for Prodigal Spouse to do. At this point, we figured we'd arrange things for the adults and then confirm we could arrange schooling for the kids. My first choice location did not work out for a variety of reasons, so we ended up going with my second choice, which worked out great in the end. We went about selecting locations by me suggesting something, and the Prodigal Spouse looking for opportunities in the same place. Finding a good host is a key part of all of this, since my host was a good fit scientifically, where both my host and I would benefit. Even better, my host was able to help me out with logistics quite a bit. My sabbatical led to one published paper, one manuscript in prep, and currently ongoing experiments, so I would say it worked out for both of us!
4. Apply for funding if available!
This is huge help with expenses. Travel sabbaticals with kids are very expensive! Not only were we maintaining two households, but we had to buy a bunch of stuff locally after arrival that we would not have had we stayed home (school supplies, food staples, clothing the kids needed replaced, etc). With a minimalist packing approach (which I endorse!), you can count on having to replace some clothing and shoes from wear, even if the kids don't grow out of them. I applied for and received funding, which made a big difference.
5. Start arranging school
After looking in great detail, we decided to send our kids to the local public schools, rather than pay for an international school. The cost was just one issue here (though it was quite significant! International Schools are very, very expensive, since their prime target is ex-pats assigned abroad by companies that sometimes pay for or subsidize such schools). We also thought the kids would have a much better cultural experience attending school with locals rather than with ex-pats, even though they did not speak the local language. There was a great deal of paperwork involved here, and the International Office at my host University was a huge help in letting us know exactly what we needed to bring and in setting up required appointments for us in advance so we could get the kids into school as soon as possible. We had to make sure our kids would be able to return seamlessly to their home schools, and worked to get letters in hand to make this happen, plus instructions on how we should enroll early or from a distance for both school and the after school program. We also had to figure out what to do in the after school period (after instruction ends, but while we are still working). We were very happy to find out that most local schools in our host city had after school programs, which was a huge relief! If not, though, we would have had to figure out what to do with our kids.
6. Other paperwork
Figuring out exactly what visa/residence permits/study permits we needed was quite stressful and difficult. I found the local consulate for my host country to be supremely unhelpful, but YMMV. The International Office for my host University was a much better source of information. They helped me make appointments in advance with the appropriate local government agencies in my host country to make sure we would be in compliance with local law. We needed to buy a local insurance policy (this was a requirement for our residence permits), but luckily we found something at a reasonable price that was easy to do online. It was quite annoying to have to pay twice for insurance, and this was an unexpected cost that we found out about quite late in our process. We also needed to have our birth certificates and marriage license translated into the local language for processing to get the kids in to school with me and Prodigal Spouse listed as their parents (for pick up and permission purposes). This was one place the local consulate was helpful--they maintained a list of authorized translators.
7. Preparing the children
We told the children it was an adventure, and started preparing them as soon as we knew where we were going. At their ages, the kids were flexible enough to get into the adventurous spirit, though they were quite nervous as the trip got closer. We started them on Duolingo (a language learning app) and Pimsleur audio courses (often found at the library) 9ish months before we left so they would have at least some familiarity with the local language. We had the kids tell their friends they were traveling a few months before we left, and some of their friends set up email accounts so they could keep in touch while we were gone, which was really nice. Another friend gave us a few pre-addressed envelopes so the kids could exchange letters. The kids were very excited when we received letters or email from home, so I highly recommend something like this. We showed them where we were going and talked about all the things we might do there.
8. Find a flat/home near a public school
We were in a city, so this was not so hard. In my host country, kids usually go to the neighborhood elementary school. I looked at the city website, and found out where the schools are in our target neighborhoods. The kids walked to school every day, and made friends in the neighborhood, which was very helpful while we were there. We were looking for short term (less than a year) rentals, ideally furnished. Most of this sort of housing is aimed at traveling business folks, so it was not so easy to find a 2-bedroom place that was affordable. Since we were looking short term and furnished, it didn't make sense to do the wander with a cellphone approach to finding a place. I used a local real estate website to find possible apartments. Google translate does an adequate job at translation for descriptions, but I also spoke with some people from my host country about what certain terms meant in the context of renting an apartment to avoid surprises. Through this website, I was able to make several appointments to see apartments our first week in town, with the idea we'd sign a lease ASAP and move in right away. This was crucial to getting settled right away, which was important to the kids.
9. Keeping up with the home school
The kids' teachers were really gracious about telling us what would be covered the rest of the school year, and gave us some of the work they planned to assign. One teacher photocopied all of the worksheets for us, and lent us a textbook. We took this stuff with us. It took us about a month from landing until the kids got into their school (we needed various appointments to happen first), so we used this material to homeschool during that first month. Prodigal Spouse and I took turns staying with them. I had already planned to start in my host lab a month after arrival, and that was a good call.
10. Local accounts
When staying for this long, we needed a local bank account to pay certain expenses, since school fees (for lunch and after school) can't be paid by credit card or cash, and they don't use checks. We asked around a few students/postdocs from host country for advice, and also used Google to figure out what bank we wanted to use and what we needed to get an account set up. Crazily enough, the best way to get money into this account from the US was to withdraw via ATM, then redeposit, due to the backward-ness of the US when it comes to moving money around. We also needed local cellphone numbers so people (like the school!) could actually call us. We used a local prepaid cell plan that was actually much cheaper than what we paid at home.
11. Things to bring for the kids
We planned on traveling a bit at the end of our trip, so we packed light. We needed to be able to carry everything with us on trains. We took minimal clothing, in layers for multiple seasons. For the kids, we had 5 days of outfits plus 3 extra days of underwear and socks. We allowed each kid to bring 1 stuffed animal. We had tablets for the kids to read/play on while traveling. We downloaded books in English so my reading kid would still be able to read while learning the local language. Amazon does NOT do well when you change countries--any tablet or phone is assigned a country, and it gets very confused when you try to use Amazon in another country (in fact, check out the link for a description of other issues resulting from changing countries in the digital age). You can in fact only buy ebooks from your home country, which was an issue when we wanted to bring some ebooks in the local language for Little Prodigal 1 back to our home.
After some poking at it, I found that the US Amazon actually has quite a decent selection of foreign language ebooks, some of which are free (and which ones are free changes periodically, so it is possible to check back and get more later). This is something I never knew before. Little Prodigal 2 was just learning to read, and we used the material from school for reading. Planning ahead for reading was actually really good in retrospect, since the selection of kids books in English in the local city library was small, and mostly dedicated to kids learning English from the local language (which totally makes sense). Even without their toys from home, our kids made due. They were really creative with making their own toys from old boxes and paper, and we had lots to do in our host city, so they were rarely bored.
12. Right after we arrived
Our first week was nuts--we dragged the kids around looking at flats and neighborhoods, attending appointments for residence permits and school registration, and getting Prodigal Spouse set up for his stuff. We took an Airbnb so we would have a separate bedroom from the kids, someplace to sit and hang out, and a kitchen. The kids were a bit overwhelmed at times, and they were pretty jet lagged, so eating meals at home was pretty helpful. We cooked a few of their favorites to help them feel less homesick. We moved into our flat after a week.
The first month, the kids were home from school. We spent a lot of time in local parks and exploring our neighborhood. The kids liked finding neighborhood stores, and we quickly found a local restaurant we all liked as our family place to go out. We set up a local Amazon account to buy things urgently needed--we had no idea where to buy some things locally, but Amazon had them at decent prices. This was actually really important when the kids brought home lists of school supplies and we had no idea what they were. A quick Amazon search let us figure out 90% of what we needed, and we in fact ordered some of it from Amazon rather than doing an extensive local search.
Once the kids were settled into a routine, the first month of school was still super hard on them. It was a good thing we have 2, since they could talk to each other in the after school program. Only 1 kid in the whole school spoke English, so they were pretty isolated until they learned some of the local language. After the first month, things were much easier. The kids started making friends in class, and they understood enough to play with other kids. Both kids were still young enough that they could rapidly pick up the basics through immersion. This would be a lot more of a challenge with an older child, although we would be more likely to have paid a tutor and/or allowed an older child to use more interactive learning methods (busuu, local language meetups, etc).
In the end, we are really lucky to speak English, since English is taught as a second language starting in grade 1 in our host country, and is a commonly known second language. Importantly, at places like the kids' school and local governmental offices, there were always some staff who could tell us what we needed to know in English. For the kids' school, we actually had an orientation a few days before the kids started where some teachers explained (in English) how lunch works, how after school works, and showed the kids their classrooms. By the time we did serious travel outside urban areas, the kids could translate for us.
There you have it--an outline of what we did to travel on sabbatical with kids. It was a lot of work, and sometimes very frustrating, but as a family,
it was a great experience. The kids learned another language, were
exposed to a new culture, made friends in a new place, and got to travel
all around our location. I loved living in host city, and also liked
traveling around a new place. Professionally, it was really great for me
to take a break from ProdigalU, and reasonably productive too.
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