How did you ...?

Ditching life in suburbia to hit the road with kids isn't for the faint-hearted, at least not if you want to survive with your sanity and family harmony intact or if you plan to resume your regular life back home at the end of the trip.  To help, here are guides to where we went, how we crossed borders with our vehicle, what stuff we used, what homeschooling looked liked, and how we spent our money.

Vanamos Family Travel Guides

 

Looking for stuff to do, things to eat, places to stay, or things to jump off?  Check out our country-specific Family Travel Guides.

 

Roadschooling/Worldschooling/Homeschooling

Cocnut-teaching-J-math-compressor.jpg
 

What does Martin Luther King, Jr. + sea turtles + chocolate + Salvadoran guerrillas + the Panama Canal EQUAL? A roadschooling curriculum through Central America. 

How much can you learn without spending a day in a classroom?  Turns out, the answer is: plenty.  From civil rights and rebellion to turtles to engineering and navigation, we covered it all.  Read more for our planned curriculum and how it actually played out.

 

Budget

Our takeaway is that it was cheaper for us to be on the road than to live at home, and traveling full-time isn’t as out of reach as you may imagine.
 
 

yes, but how much does this cost?!  Our answer is $51,847.

Our lifelong philosophy is to be cheap so when we started saving for our trip there wasn't a lot we needed to do differently. We didn't have to cut out a Starbucks habit because we didn't have one to start. There was no cable TV subscription to cancel or car lease to renegotiate.  And we didn't buy a book about how to save for long term travel. The purchase of a book like that seems the antithesis of how to save for long term travel.

At a time when house prices were rising and banks were giving away money like it was junk mail we bought a house on the wrong side of the tracks that we could afford. We took hand me down furniture which we still have fifteen years later even though most of the dresser handles have fallen off. We left the really ugly ceiling fan that came with the house in place even though the first thing R said when we looked at the bedroom was, “That fan has got to go.”

Our expenses saw an uptick once the stork brought Coconut and J, but we stayed true to our nature. The kids were breastfed for as long as R could stand it, and we used cloth diapers only long enough to train them to use the toilet. We left the plastic crap that can overwhelm a living space at the toy store and let the grandparents buy the things we thought the kids needed but couldn't get at the thrift store. The kids chipped in too; Coconut cut her own hair a few times and J wore his sister’s skirts for a year.

This was all before the notion that we would take a year off had even hatched. Once we decided on a hard and fast date of departure, we continued to live like we were raised, like we always did. We cooked our own food and cleaned our own house and willingly accepted hand me downs as styles went out of fashion. I continued to brown bag my lunch and drink cheap beer. 

That said, not spending money became easier when we weighed our purchases against what that money would get us on our trip.  $50 for our family to go to the movies = ziplining in Costa Rica.  It also became easy to say no to purchases as we started purging our possessions.  We had always generally chosen experiences over things but we honed in with laser precision and even skipped frivolous Christmas presents in favor of practical items that we would use on our travels.

When we were a year out from departure, we had saved enough money to buy a (reasonably priced) van, fix and modify it, and still have enough left over to get us through the year. Without knowing the relative cost of living in any of the countries we planned to visit, we picked $100 as our daily budget. It was a nice round number that divided easily by four.

Depending on how many days in a month, it figures to be around $3,000 a month and for the most part we hit the bull’s eye. Over 12 months, our total expenditures were $36,247. 

While on the road, I often agitated to do things even more cheaply than we were, but my family has expensive tastes. They like two scoops of ice cream instead of one, hostels with private bathrooms instead of shared, and electricity. They get this “nothing is too good for me” attitude from my wife.

As I said, overall we spent $36,247 on the year (including $1,200 on airline tickets from Costa Rica to the United States in March 2016.) I do not include in that total 1) the cost of the van ($6,500), 2) initial repairs to make it road ready (about $7,000), and 3) health insurance ($2,100).  These three expenses add another $15,600, but these costs were incurred prior to our departure on August 1, 2015, so they don’t count.

Here is the line graph showing our monthly spending. The month we spent the most was March, but the total includes $1,200 for four airline tickets to the United States. If you subtract that amount from the $3,987 monthly total, we spent $2,787 in the month. This is right in line with our target.

Vanamos Monthly Expenses

Our biggest expense was food.  This is because, often, we would eat three times a day. In total, we spent $11,783, allocated $6,925 to dining out (which I am defining as having someone else cook for us, which is why I included the $394 we spent to hire a cook for a week in January 2016), $3,745 on groceries, and $1,113 on beer/alcohol.  I would attribute about $1,100 of the alcohol total to me as R doesn’t drink much.  This is made scarier because I was mostly drinking returnable bottles at around $2 each.  Give or take a few bottles, that is about 500 bottles of beer for the year. Yikes!  Anyway, in total, our food expense came out to almost 33% of our yearly expenditures.

Expenses by Category

Our next biggest expense was accommodations, totaling $9,538, or 26% of our yearly expense. This is just over half of what we would have spent on the mortgage for our house in the year, but still frustrating to me considering our van sleeps four and the iOverlander app is replete with free camping spots. I griped a lot about paying for hotels, but in fairness, I had to concede two points after R pointed them out.  First, we weren't self-contained with a toilet and shower. Although watering the local shrubbery is relatively easy for J and me, taking a dump is more difficult. Plus showers, even cold ones, are nice at the end of a sweltering day.

Second, we wanted to be safe, and typically, we equated safety with a paid place to stay.  Even though we never felt physically threatened or unsafe, and there are ways to minimize risks when camping out, our kids’ safety was paramount so we spent the extra money on a hotel or hostel when there wasn’t a secure, paid campground available, and when we weren’t totally comfortable with a potential free spot.

We were on the road for 340 nights (not counting 18 nights we spent in the U.S. in March) and paid to stay in an AirBnb, hotel, or hostel 202 out of those 340 nights, or nearly 60% of the time. We slept in Wesley 97 out of 340 nights (29%): 32 free nights (some of these safely in a friends’ front yard) and 65 paid nights at campgrounds. In total then, we paid for a place to lay our weary heads 267 nights out of 340, or 79% of the time. The other 41 nights, or 12%, we had a free room with friends. In total, we stayed for free, either in Wesley or in someone’s house, 73 nights, or 21% of the time.

GRAPH free camp (32), paid camp (65), free room (41), hotel/hostel (142), Bnb (60).

Where We Slept

Taken together, we spent $21,321 on food and accommodations, nearly 59% of our expenditures.

Our total transportation expense, including tolls, parking, taxis/buses, and maintenance was $5,916.  This includes the $1,200 we spent on airline tickets to fly to New Jersey to meet my new niece, $450 on painting/upholstery, and $2,503 on gas. Our gas total was kept low by spending only $45 in November when we had an apartment all month and could walk the kids to school, and $47 in February when we spent half the month at a workaway and a lot of the rest of the time parked at Laguna de Apoyo. Our transportation expenses equaled 16% of the total outlay for the year. 

We spent $3,518 on entertainment, less than 10% (9.7%). This may seem like a little, and it is considering all that we did during the year; rock climbing, surf lessons, snorkeling and fishing trips, boat tours, zip-lines, motorbikes, entrance fees to parks, museums, and archeological sites, lucha libre, carnivals, volcano boarding, horse rides, rafting, paintball, rescue centers, water parks, and rodeos, to name just a few. The thing is, the cost to do these things is just so much cheaper in Mexico and Central America than it would be in the States, that you almost have to do everything. Of course, there’s a lot of free “entertainment” as well: visiting churches, beaches, waterfalls, and sitting in plazas is just as much of an unforgettable experience as those things you pay for.   

The remaining $5,492, or 15%, I categorized as miscellaneous expenses.  These are one-off expenses we made each month, including things like laundry ($157 for the year), SIM cards for R’s phone ($147); school tuition for the month we enrolled two kids in a local Mexican school ($300); personal needs like doctor visits and medicines, clothes, and haircuts; gear repair or replacement; computer/phone repairs and accessories; Christmas and birthday presents; souvenirs; and gifts for others. I also included over $600 of border fees in this category.  The most expensive countries to get into and out of are Honduras and Nicaragua, each costing more than $50 for the four of us and the vehicle.

Our takeaway is that it was cheaper for us to be on the road than to live at home, and traveling full-time isn't as out of reach as you may imagine..  Though people may calculate the cost of a one-week vacation and multiply it by 52 to arrive at an idea of what it costs to travel for a year, traveling slowly over a longer period of time is a different animal – a cheaper animal, like us.

 
Money Tip

Mexico and Central America are cash societies. Be sure to have at least two separate accounts with their own ATM cards. That way if one is compromised somehow (say, you leave your ATM card in the ATM machine), you can still access your money through your other account. US-based travelers highly recommend Charles Schwab’s High Yield Investor Checking account which has no minimum balance requirement, no monthly fees, and reimburses all ATM fees worldwide.
— Vanamos

A few months before we left, when we were still deciding what system to use to carry our camping gear, we found a discarded Thule rooftop box laying on the side of the road.  There were big cracks on both sides but otherwise it was in decent shape.  The box was locked when we found it so we paid $5 to get new keys made at a locksmith.  We were a little afraid of what we might find inside a discarded locked box that we found on the side of the road.  To our relief, it turned out to be empty and shiny and clean inside.

After consulting google, we decided to attempt the repair using ABS cement and fiberglass strips, the kind used for drywall repair. We found the ABS cement in the plumbing section of Lowe's. 

We lightly sanded down the area of the crack extending 6"-8" all around.  We applied a layer of ABS cement to the surface of the box, laid down a layer of fiberglass, and brushed more cement on until it was saturated.  We repeated with a second layer using a slightly larger fiberglass patch. Depending on the cement you get, the stuff may set up quite fast. Be sure to have the fiberglass patches cut and ready to go in advance.

The repaired box.  It's not pretty but it was free, which is right up our alley.

The repaired box.  It's not pretty but it was free, which is right up our alley.

Once the repaired area dried, we painted the top of the box with Plasti-Dip, an aerosol plastic coating.  I think regular spray paint would have worked just as well, but someone on the internet suggested Plasti-Dip and we went with it.  We took the opportunity to paint the top of the box white, to reduce heat attraction and keep the temperature inside the box down.  While we were at it, we made stencils and decorated and personalized the box a little.

Per advice from the internet, we painted the repaired box with white Plasti-Dip, a multi-purpose rubber coating.  White was a good choice because it reduced the temperatures inside the box drastically.  An overlander we met in Costa Rica told us he used his black colored roof box to bake his clothes dry.

Per advice from the internet, we painted the repaired box with white Plasti-Dip, a multi-purpose rubber coating.  White was a good choice because it reduced the temperatures inside the box drastically.  An overlander we met in Costa Rica told us he used his black colored roof box to bake his clothes dry.

While we were painting, we made stencils out of contact paper.  We found the Westfalia font on The Samba and personalized the box with our name.

While we were painting, we made stencils out of contact paper.  We found the Westfalia font on The Samba and personalized the box with our name.

Certainly the repaired portion of the box didn't look as good as new, but it held up to a year of constant use in extreme temperatures and humidity.  And coming across a free box solved the dilemma of what cargo carrying system we would use.  If you've learned anything from reading this site, you'll know that free is our favorite type of thing.