World trip, kids in tow

Families drop everything for global experience

Strategy

October 28, 2007|By Caren Osten Gerszberg | Caren Osten Gerszberg,New York Times News Service

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," Peter 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. A mission 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, 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," Lisa 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, 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 (airtreks.com) and using the Lonely Planet guidebooks as their bible for food and hotels, which they booked as they went along.

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.

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 (.staralliance.com), using its Round the World Fare.

The Bagans chose business-class tickets for $8,000 apiece (children younger than 12 receive a 25 percent discount), rather than a coach ticket 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," Sandy Bagan said.

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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 (k12.com), a technology-based educational company that provides entire school curriculums.

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," Peter 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.

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