For her family vacation next year, Liz Timm has booked a 10-day trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama, in February. She requested time off from her job as a pharmacist a year in advance, checked out travel guides from the library and shared route ideas with her daughter and son — who are 11 and 9 — to include them in the planning process. One thing she has not and will not do? Plan the trip around a school holiday.
Much of Ms. Timm’s approach to planning came from the high costs and time constraints experienced during the spring break vacation the family, who lives in Wauwatosa, Wis., took to Puerto Rico in 2019.
“We paid $2,260 for four seats, had a six-hour layover on the way there and a 2:15 a.m. flight home,” she said. “And those were the cheapest tickets we could find.”
Taking a trip during the off-season traditionally offers travelers fewer crowds and reduced fares, and has long been considered a boon for budget planners. This trend is all the more pressing as the appeal of the traditional summer vacation has waned, especially after this year’s hot, crowded, expensive and disaster-filled season.
But can families with school-aged children benefit? While staying a day or two before or after winter and spring break was relatively normal for some families, now some affluent parents, emboldened by the rise of telecommuting and schooling during the pandemic and fed up with record-breaking high travel prices during peak season, they say yes.
“People feel freer to be flexible,” said Natalie Kurtzman, travel advisor at Fora Travel in Boston, noting that many of her clients with families are increasingly comfortable extending school vacations and missing a few days of classes in process to avoid the high airfares that typically occur during holiday periods.
“You’re seeing parents become more audacious about doing it,” said Karen Rosenbloom, founder of travel agency Spain Less Traveled.
But teachers and school administrators worry about the ramifications, such as students falling behind in academic work, and the mixed messages the practice of skipping school can send.
“I feel like education is a privilege, and some students see it as a burden,” said Joan Davey, a middle school teacher at St. travel after the pandemic. “When you make school choices, that often means how students make choices during the day.”
More trips throughout the year for everyone
Not all families in the United States opt out of school. In its U.S. Family Travel Survey this year, the Family Travel Association noted that summer and spring vacations remain the most popular times for families planning trips. But 56 percent of respondents found school vacation time a challenge, and 59 percent cited affordability as the most pressing issue.
Travel expenses are only one part of the financial equation, of course. In the wake of the pandemic, many Americans are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. Persistent inflation has led to changes in spending behavior, including for some around travel.
“Affordability has always been the biggest challenge. We’ve seen this since the survey began in 2015,” said Lynn Minnaert, a professor at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland and co-author of the Family Travel Association’s 2023 survey. “But now prices are the highest I’ve ever seen them. Being able to travel in the off-season would make a big difference to many families.”
Anecdotally at least, the desire for flexible scheduling is taking root. Melissa Verboon started the Facebook group Travel With Kids in 2017 and writes a blog covering her family’s travels; she said the group’s membership has grown since the pandemic, with more conversations centered around travel during the school year. Ms Verbun, who lives in Holiday, Fla., and has four children (15, 13, 11 and 9), believes time spent with family at home during the pandemic was a major impetus for rethinking the schedule for vacations, as well as rethinking the types of trips parents might take with their children.
Stephanie Tolk expressed similar thoughts. Ms. Tolk currently lives in Portland, Oregon, but in 2021 and 2022 she is traveling abroad with her husband and two daughters for over a year.
“People had accepted the idea that their kids went to school at 8:15 and you didn’t see them again until 4 in the afternoon. All of that was smashed in 2020,” she said. “I found myself wanting more time with my kids.”
Easier with younger kids
For parents eager to travel with their children year-round, the pre-pandemic truth remains: it’s significantly easier with younger, elementary-aged children who have fewer academic, extracurricular and social demands. Ms. Timm, whose daughter started middle school this year, has found that planning a trip for the school year is more of a challenge.
“I get a little nervous about taking her out, and she doesn’t want to miss anything that’s going on at school,” she said.
Alison McMaster, a travel consultant and corporate travel planner who lives outside of Boston, has been traveling with her two sons, now 11 and 13, during the school year since they were little, sometimes taking extra days or weeks for school vacations. The family even spent nearly a month in destinations such as Peru, Colombia and Europe.
“The education they will receive through international travel and cultural experiences outweighs the days spent in the classroom,” she said. “The best version of my kids is when we travel.”
However, she is not sure if she will be able to take an extended trip this year.
“As they get older, it becomes more and more important for them to be physically present at school,” she said of the transition from elementary school. Upper schools require more work and greater responsibility from students. “There’s some unspoken pressure,” she said
Ms. McMaster’s sons attend a private school that generally took their absences, extra work and increased accountability aside. But public elementary and middle school systems, which educate about 50 million students, or about 88 percent of U.S. students, have varying degrees of tolerance for missed days of school. In recent years, they have also struggled with a spate of travel-related and non-travel-related absences and falling test scores among their students.
In Ms. Timm’s school district in Wisconsin, families may receive a letter from the school district requesting a meeting between parents and school personnel if a child misses more than 10 days of classes.
“We never received a letter; both of my kids are great students and we usually only take them out for five to seven days,” she said. “But last year my son had Covid and was out for five days because of it. I was definitely stressed about the trip we had planned, knowing he couldn’t get sick again and miss more school.”
At Ms. Davey’s school in California, a student missed the first three weeks of classes this year because of a trip. Others have traveled to Las Vegas, Disneyland and Washington, DC. School policy allows for these absences as long as administration is notified in advance, but teachers are not required to make work packages for children who miss class due to vacation.
“I tell the students, ‘We’re going on without you, so the onus is on you when you come back,'” Ms. Davie said, adding that classroom work and other assignments are online in Google Classroom. Whether the student registers and continues is case-by-case.
“There are some students who are intrinsically motivated,” she said. “But then there are students who are completely disengaged. They come back and have no idea what’s going on.”
Out of the classroom, out into the world
For some parents, the incompatibility of school schedules with travel desires causes families to drop out of school systems entirely, at least for a while.
“World Education,” a loose term that refers to making travel a central part of a child’s educational experience, can include a month-long trip to Europe or years spent traveling. Parents may try to stick to the home school curriculum using workbooks and distance learning tools, or choose to engage in more free-form, interest-based learning.
Mrs. Tolk tutored her daughters during their years on the road. The girls were 10 and 12 when they left, and while she and her husband initially tried to stick to a semi-strict schedule—daily math lessons, grammar exercises and spelling lists—they quickly found themselves settling in, focusing on the places they explored.
“We ended up doing a lot of family projects. All four of us were researching something we were interested in and presenting it to each other,” she said. While in Egypt, one daughter did a project on Egypt’s ancient make-up traditions, while another delved into the history of King Tutankhamun’s wife.
While there has long been a small community of families traveling with their children, Ms Tolk believes both the pandemic and social media have made global education a more accessible option. She is currently working to create three world learning centers through her company, Deliberate Detour, where families can meet for learning and fellowship in Peru, Guatemala and Mexico.
Meanwhile, her daughters, now 12 and 14, are adjusting to attending a public high school in Portland, which is a challenge. The day seems long and overly structured, while the other students seem closed off to the girls. The jury is still out on how they will do academically, although they are finding the job easy so far, Ms. Tolk said. Still, the value of those trips remains incomparable to her family.
“I’ve had a lifetime of really impactful, powerful, transformative international experiences,” Ms Tolk said. “I always knew I wanted this for my kids.”
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