Traveling with kids is… an adventure. No one knows this better than Jessica G.
In August 2015, she and her husband, Garrett, made what many saw as a radical decision: They sold everything and left home to criss-cross the world with their two children, Dorothy and Manila. The plan? To spend a few months traveling full time, learning more about life, love and other cultures – and maybe finding a place in the world that feels like a good fit for their family.
Another kid (hey Callihan!) and more than 90 countries later, they’ve redefined what it means to travel with kids. They have breakfasted with giraffes in Kenya and swam with whales in Tonga. They’ve slept in castles, visited theme parks and lived on a houseboat. Along the way, they share these experiences, amassing a social following of millions who know them as “The Bucket List Family.”
Although they recently bought and renovated a small bungalow on the beach in Hawaii, they remain firmly rooted in the tourist community. In fact, Jessica just ticked off a major item on her bucket list – to write a book about the family’s adventures for none other than National Geographic.
Bucket List Family Travel: Share the world with your kids in 50 adventures of a lifetime contains tons of instructions from Jessica for parents who want to start exploring with their own children. Over 400 pages, it contains everything from itineraries to some of the Gees’ must-see destinations to tips and tricks for dealing with common family travel woes (think dealing with jet lag and surviving a plane ride with a toddler).
Scary Mommy recently caught up with Gee to talk about the new book, some of her favorite tips for parenting on the road, and why travel will always be her family’s true north.
Scary Mom: I know this is an impossible question, but if you had to pick one place, you would everyone family can visit, where will it be?
Jessica G: I love this question. My favorite place in the whole world is New Zealand, but as a family I really love Turkey. I think Turkey is so unique, so different, beautiful people, beautiful history, culture, food… all of it is just wonderful. And I think especially as Americans who are stepping a little bit outside of our comfort zone into another culture, I think Turkey is a great place.
SM: Having seen what this looks like at different stages, do you think there are any sweet spots when it comes to the best age to travel with children?
JG: We’re in a beautiful place right now. [Our kids are] 11, 9 and 5 and everyone is so capable. Travel days don’t stress me out like they used to. When traveling with a toddler, those 9 months to 2 are just a ticking time bomb. The whole time you’re on the plane or wherever you’re traveling, you’re constantly just alert.
Now I feel like our kids are professionals and travel days go so smoothly. So we’re really enjoying where we’re at right now. Also, Dorothy [at 11 years old] is in such a good place. She is not very cool for school. She is not gloomy at all. We feel like we’re in the pocket and we’re trying to seize the day here.
SM: Okay, we have to talk about airplanes because your kids often fly them. What are your favorite tips for kids on a plane?
JG: We blow them up. When our children were very young, we told them bedtime stories. We’ll say, “We’re going to get on a plane. It’s going to be a big adventure and we’re going to pick your snacks.
And I guess that’s tip #2: let your kids pack for themselves. Their little backpacks, whatever they have on the plane – they get excited about their little toys and they get excited about whatever show they pick. We don’t spend a lot of screen time at home, so when they’re on a plane, they’re charged with being in front of a screen. Then they get the snacks.
What can sometimes be a long exhausting day is now just a great time and things they are excited about.
SM: You’ve all had so many truly epic experiences, but you’ve also had some silly ones, from boat flies to skiing accidents. What would be your advice to other moms when faced with a bad travel experience?
JG: My dad would wake me up every morning when I was a teenager—and I’d just be so tired and grumpy—and he’d say, “Are you happy, Jessica?” And I’d say, “Yes.” And he would say, “Then tell your face.” Then he would keep telling me, “You choose your attitude.” Now, this is the banality of the Ji family to choose your attitude.
When things go wrong, it sucks. Last year we carried our bags all summer. That was the plan so we wouldn’t lose our luggage. On this one flight from Tanzania to Botswana we were made to check our bags. So we checked them against my better judgment and they lost them.
I remember sitting at lunch not being able to do anything and being so angry and so frustrated and I had to be that example to my kids that when things go wrong, you choose your attitude. I was quiet for a minute, Garrett stepped in and we explained the situation to the kids. He really helped me, but I had to bite my tongue for a few hours because I was so angry.
Then we went on a safari jeep and the animals, the weather – it was just beautiful. I said to myself, “It doesn’t matter… I have to have perspective on everything we do.”
At the end of the day you can always choose to be happy and embrace it or you can choose to get frustrated and angry and that just ruins the trip.
SM: How do you approach letting kids express themselves when they might not enjoy traveling the same way you do?
JG: It’s so hard! [In February] we’re going to Antarctica for 25 days and the kids are missing Valentine’s parties, they’re missing birthday parties, they’re missing Field Day. They miss so much and I feel terrible – but they also know full well that 0.01% of the world will ever go to Antarctica. It is a huge blessing and potentially the only time they will go in their entire lives.
SM: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a mom, seeing your kids navigate the world as travelers?
JG: I feel like Garrett and I learned how capable kids are. I think these days, and maybe this is an unpopular opinion, parents tend to shelter and just take care of kids and put them in these routines that are very planned and specific. Garrett and I learned how capable kids are early on, and if you teach them young, they learn young. Our kids know how to sit through an hour and a half long dinner without an iPhone or iPad and how to contribute to the conversations because we did it at such a young age.
So, teaching them how to go through the airport, put their backpack on the security conveyor belt, go through security, order cranberry juice on the plane, all those things. We have high expectations for our children; we really do. And our children are at the height.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.