Europe · Travel · Travel Hacking

A 12-Week Family Study Abroad

We’re on day 25 of our 81 day trip to Spain, a 12-week family study abroad. When I tell people that all eight of us–me, my wife, and The Six–are going to Spain for almost twelve weeks–a family “study abroad”, if you will–after getting over the initial shock, they ask a myriad of questions: What about your job? Why so long? Where will you stay? How will you get around? Why Spain? What about school? Why now?

All of these are great questions and I found myself giving the same answers again and again. Now that we’re here in Spain, I’ve found additional depth to these questions as well as a multitude of other questions, some of which I wish I’d know the answers to before we came. So I’ve started this blog as a way to help others who are interested in taking a similar journey.

The Facts

So first, some facts. We’re in Spain for 81 days or nearly twelve weeks. It’s my wife and I and our six children from ages seventeen to six (I’ll be referring to them collectively as “The Six”). We homeschool and over time we’ve found that the best time to vacation is when everyone else is in school. It’s often significantly cheaper and less crowded. We don’t mind hanging out with a mostly Baby Boomer and young adult crowd. We usually settle on vacationing in September after Labor Day, when the temperatures are still nice and generally great weather.

What about your job?

One of the first questions that always comes up after I tell them about the trip is what does my employer think about it. Americans are generally used to stingy employers and often only get a few weeks a year of paid vacation days. With so few days of vacation time, most can only afford brief trips and even two weeks abroad in a foreign country is considered a luxury for some.

I am exceedingly lucky[1]. As a software engineer, I can pretty much do my work anywhere. I also work for a great employer who encourages every employee to take the time they need to recharge and offers unlimited time off. My manager is very willing to think outside of the box and when I proposed my plan eight months before departure, he was super excited for me and let me know that they would support me all the way. With my manager on the same page, I was set.

But I also understand that a twelve week sabbatical is hard for any employer so I set it up so I would be working remote for a significant chunk of the time, planning on taking a total of four weeks of vacation time. And so far, nearly 30% of the way through the trip it’s been great. Dealing with the timezone difference has been a little challenging but frankly I have been scheduling my day so there’s overlap with my coworkers back at home. I’m also finding that I’m really productive workingwhen my colleagues are asleep–less interruptions. Since my employer already supports and encourages remote workers, many of the meetings that occur at what are now uncomfortable times are often recorded so I can get caught up when it’s more convenient for me.

Where will you stay?

Most people taking a trip abroad stay in hotels where they can be comfortable.We decided to instead try to live like the locals by renting furnished apartments through Airbnb. We’ll be cooking our own meals, doing our own laundry, taking out the trash, and generally living like we do at home as a family. I expect that some of the Airbnb’s will be nicer than others and the quality and service won’t be exactly like a hotel stay. As we learn the tricks of doing Airbnb, look for more to come.

How will you get around?

Our goal is to do most of the tip without a vehicle. Only a minibus could fit our whole family and the costs would quickly add up. So we’re trying to use the local public transportation options. This generally means things will be more urban than we are used to, a slightly slower experience, less direct, a little less convenient, but hopefully less stressful and maybe less expensive. This decision will also impact our Airbnb decisions and there’s bound to be a few mistakes made, but hopefully nothing too serious. Again, more to come on this topic.

12 weeks! Why so long?

As my wife and I discussed this over a year ago, we bemoaned the fact that many people travel huge distances at great expense, spend several days adjusting to a new timezone and then after only a few days returning home. One of our goals was to improve our travel return on investment. Additionally, we’d like to give The Six an in-depth cultural experience and we felt like three or four weeks, or even four wouldn’t be enough.

So why the jump to twelve weeks? When we decided on Spain, we learned that as United States citizens, we could travel here and stay for up to 90 days without needing any visa. That seemed like a good upper limit on the time to stay. And as we started playing with dates and watching air fares, twelve weeks seemed like a good length of time.

What about school?

Since we homeschool, the whole trip is part of the curriculum. We’ve spent the last year learning Spanish as a family. And while we’re here we hope to improve our Spanish and learn about European and world history through the eyes of Spain.

We’re packing light so no heavy textbooks but the Kindles are loaded up with lots of books and every child will be taking a journal to document their experiences.

Why Spain?

This is the first of many trips we hope to take as a family. For our first, we wanted to stretch The Six with a cultural experience but didn’t want to subject them to potentially dangerous situations. We wanted somewhere with a great public transportation system, advanced medicine in case something went wrong, and a new language. And since I’ve never been to Europe, it satisfied one of my life goals.
When it came to a foreign language, Spanish was appealing for several reasons. Back at home it’s the language that we’re most exposed to (after English, of course) and it is spoken by a large part of the world. The language is actually pretty easy to pick up and a gateway to a multitude of other languages. We felt like it would do a great job helping the The Six prepare for whatever future adventures come their way.

Are we doing more than Spain? Probably not this trip. We’ve kicked around going to Portugal for a couple days, dipping into Morocco, or up into France or Italy. However we’ve decided that there’s enough things to do in Spain alone to fill every bit of our twelve weeks, though we do have a day trip into Gibraltar on the itinerary. Additionally, we are mostly traveling through Central Spain, Andalusia, and Catalonia, completely skipping the northern Basque regions. Hopefully we’ll catch those on a future trip. And we’ll definitely visit other parts of Europe in the future. But in order to focus on language building and a deep culture experience, we’ll be in Spain nearly the entire time.

More to come

This post is already fairly long and has only scratched the surface of topics and questions about traveling for a long time in a foreign country with a large family. We’ve already learned so much and hopefully some of the lessons we’ve learned can help you if you are planning a similar trip. I hope to share as many of the nuts and bolts of our trip so if that sounds interesting, stay tuned for more. If you have particular questions about our trip that you’d like to learn more about or insights that you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll try to address them in future posts.Alcázar de Segovia

Footnotes

[1] My wife tells me my career isn’t luck but planning and hard work. She’s right, of course, but luck seems to play a role as well.

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