How to Take a Family Sabbatical
In 2005, Kenn Ricci had an idea. He had spent more than two decades building a career in aviation, first as a pilot (he flew Bill Clinton’s plane during his first presidential campaign) and then as principal of Directional Aviation Capital, a company that includes private aviation firms Sentient Jet and Flexjet among its holdings. “I always loved to travel,” Ricci says. “I wanted to infect my three kids with the same disease so that I could enjoy traveling with them when they were older.”
But instead of planning a family vacation or a bucket list trip like an African safari, he thought bigger. A friend had recently returned from an around-the-world journey with his family, and it inspired Ricci to look into something similar for himself. “I was away a lot, first as a pilot and then running the business,” Ricci says. “Family time was hard to find, but it was important to create memories with them. That was how it began, but of course it turned into a lot more than that.”
The friend warned that spending the whole time on the road had been draining for his family, especially the children, who had to work with a tutor while they were jet-lagged. So Ricci decided he’d do something different: For each of his children’s eighth-grade years, he’d take them on six three- to four-week trips to various parts of the world. Though the rest of the family joined for some legs, at least four of those trips were one-on-one with just him. “I wanted to do something we would talk about for the rest of our lives,” Ricci says. “It’s a phenomenal bonding experience.”
His first child stayed enrolled in school and traveled on breaks, but by the time the second and third kids were ready for their adventures, Ricci had it down to a science. He unenrolled them from school and, from September to May, took them to places he thought would provide a perspective on the world they couldn’t get at home. In between these family sabbaticals, Ricci would catch up on work (though he did do occasional work during the trips) and the kids would work with private tutors at home, see friends and family and prepare for the next leg of the journey. “The tutors built and evolved the curriculum around the next trip we were doing,” Ricci says.
The Riccis were early adopters of a trend that is now becoming more widespread, as a growing number of people step back from work and school duties to see the world. Samantha McClure, the owner of Austin, Texas-based family travel company Small World Travel, planned her first yearlong family sabbatical for a client 13 years ago. Since then, she’s typically arranged one or two such trips annually. In 2019, she and her team organized seven. “We were just bombarded with inquiries,” McClure says. “In the last two or three years, it has really increased in popularity. People are recognizing that this is an incredible experience to share with their kids, and schools are becoming much more amenable to the idea of letting kids go.”
Whether you want to go for three months or a year, travel nonstop or take breaks, taking a family sabbatical involves an intense amount of logistical planning. But the payoff is worth it for parents and children alike: “Planned well and managed well, it will be the highlight of their lives,” says George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of UK-based luxury travel company Red Savannah, which plans five to eight family sabbaticals per year.
Start with the Basics
Though everyone’s reason for taking a sabbatical is different, Morgan-Grenville has found that people tend to fall into four categories: those who have made money early in their careers, often by selling a company; those whose jobs require them to take a leave after a certain number of years (sabbatical policies are becoming increasingly common in professional services industries such as law and accounting); those who have left positions and have a set period of time before they can start a new role, often called a “garden leave”; and those who’ve had a health crisis and need to find a way to avoid stress. “Success very often means a lot of travel and long hours of work,” he says. “There’s an awful realization when you wake up and realize you’ve achieved what you want to achieve on the business front, but you’re perhaps emotionally estranged from your family. It prompts the need to make amends, and travel is a very good way to do that.”
The most important first step when planning a trip of this scale is to get buy-in from the whole family, says Small World Travel’s McClure. “I’ve met families where the parents are all in and the kids aren’t, or the younger kids are in and the older kids are not. It almost never gets off the ground, because everybody needs to feel part of this project.”
Once everyone is on board, it’s time to get to the logistics. When do you want to go, and for how long? Travel experts recommend starting the planning process at least six months before you intend to leave, but more time is ideal.
If you have a set amount of leave time from work, the length of your trip has been decided for you. If not? Anywhere from a few months to a year is typical for a family sabbatical. London-based Original Travel, which organizes 15 to 20 such trips annually, says 47 percent of its clients travel for one to three months, 25 percent go for six months or more and a handful go for a year.
The other most important consideration is what your children’s ages will be at the time of travel. Although you can take kids of any age, McClure recommends the 8-to-14 range. The general idea is to choose a time when children are old enough to remember the trip but not so old that being away from school will affect their college plans. “I picked eighth grade because the kids are still willing to hang out with you, they’re not accumulating grades for college yet and it’s kind of a social year, so they get to avoid all that,” says Ricci. “We managed to avoid high-school riffraff, at least the riffraff I was involved in when I was in high school. I credit that to the maturity they got traveling.”
The next step is to contact your children’s schools to make a plan for their education while you’re gone. If you’re not traveling in the summer months, you’ll need to hire a tutor to accompany you, arrange tutors in the cities you’re visiting or set up a plan to homeschool your children.
Though organizing a trip like this on your own is possible, working with a company that has done it before is an easy way to avoid the mistakes that others have made and take advantage of expert advice. McClure’s Small World Travel, for example, has an education director on staff who can contact your children’s school on your behalf to explain the trip and work with them to develop a curriculum. Original Travel’s initial paperwork includes a 10-page questionnaire designed to determine your travel style, a “Where to Go When” guide and even advice on how to ask for a sabbatical at work. Morgan-Grenville’s Red Savannah regularly sets up lunches and meetings with local authors, politicians and businesspeople for clients in the destinations to which they travel.
Once you pick a company to work with, you can be involved in the process as little or as much as you want. Ricci, who wanted to go to new places with each child, selected a list of destinations and then enlisted the in-house travel department at Flexjet and other firms—including Abercrombie & Kent, Indagare and Andrew Harper Travel—to plan the logistics. Though each trip was different, he revisited two locations with each of his children: North Korea and the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. “To see North Korea’s totalitarian society and then tie that into World War II and Nazism was very dramatic and powerful for them,” Ricci says. “You go to Auschwitz and see the evolution from nationalism to totalitarianism and genocide.”
Know It Won’t Be Like Taking a Vacation
Across the board, a common refrain among travel professionals is the importance of treating this trip differently than you would a two- or three-week vacation. “The biggest challenge is to get people to slow down, because the instinct is to just cram it full of stuff,” says Original Travel cofounder Nick Newbury. “You’re going to get desensitized by seeing another temple, another monument, another incredible piece of scenery. See it, spend a decent amount of time on it, stop, take a few days and reconnect, then move on to the next thing.”
“I cannot encourage people enough to avoid the bucket list mentality,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that encourages responsible tourism. “This investment of time and effort is worth seeking deeper experiences.”
Beyond time and effort, it’s also, of course, a financial investment. Red Savannah’s Morgan-Grenville advises clients to budget about $75,000 to $100,000 per month for a family of four for this type of journey. Original Travel’s Newbury sees a wider range of budgets, which are largely determined by the clients’ travel styles—from three-month trips for around $45,000 to complex, yearlong adventures that cost north of $1 million.
Consider a Test Run
Los Angeles-based writer and producer Wendy Sweetmore has long dreamed of taking her children around the world for a year. So she and her husband decided to take their two kids on a test run: Last summer, they spent three months visiting France, Portugal and Spain and then did a road trip through New York state, Canada, the Great Lakes and Michigan. “Thank God we did,” she says. It not only helped the couple narrow in on what they’ll need to do to plan their big trip in about two years, but also inspired them to focus on language skills for their children between now and then. “Next year we’re going to send them away for three months to live abroad with other families and learn different languages,” she says. “We think the immersion opportunity—living with families that we trust and know, and attending local schools—is going to be such a gift for them. We presented it that way. We sat down and said, ‘We’re going to give you a gift that is going to help you in your life and that we wish someone had given to us.’”
Though it’s not required, doing these types of test runs can prepare your children for spending a longer time away from home. Small World Travel’s McClure says it’s not uncommon for her to work with a family for several years on smaller trips before they actually take their sabbatical. “We get to know them and their travel style, keeping in mind that the big trip is coming up when the kids get older,” she says.
Think About Your Impact
In today’s world, it’s hard to contemplate a trip of this scale without considering the effect on the environment. Many of the statistics are compelling: Tourism in general contributes about 8 percent of the output of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Still, industry veterans like CREST’s Gregory Miller are quick to point out that tourism is the biggest employer in the world and makes up 10 percent of global GDP. “A trip like this is not just a collection of experiences,” Miller says. “It also helps develop responsible travel ethics—the values of being good global citizens that’ll carry every family member through a lifetime.”
Miller, who joined CREST in August after a long career as a conservationist, encourages families to think about several factors as they’re planning a family sabbatical. First, pick destinations that aren’t prone to overtourism. Travel to places during the off-seasons when possible in order to avoid crowds and overuse. Choose direct flights to reduce your carbon footprint, and consider purchasing carbon offsets. CREST offsets its own travel with Cool Effect and Carbonfund.org, and Red Savannah calculates its clients’ carbon output and donates a corresponding amount to the Rainforest Trust. Choose an offset provider whose programs are “ethically proven and scientifically validated,” Miller says.
When deciding on your accommodations, opt for lodging that champions sustainability. Small things are important—reusing towels, doing away with single-use plastic, using renewable energy and minimizing food and hard waste—but beyond that, the places you stay should be good stewards of their communities and the environment. Finally, Miller emphasizes that families should have conversations before setting out about how they’re going to behave on the trip. “What is their self-awareness of their own impact?” he says. “Are they looking for opportunities to do good? If they’re traveling responsibly, they should hold their head high. They’re not doing anything wrong because they understand the bigger picture of their experience, the impact—positive and negative—of their travel.”
Live in the Moment
Even after all the planning and preparation, know that things will always go wrong—you’ll have to adjust to living in close quarters; your kids may get sick; you’ll all hit a wall and need a day or two off to just do nothing. But when it’s all said and done, the experience will be something you’ll remember the rest of your lives. “One time I fell asleep standing in China because I was exhausted from working on a deal through the night,” Ricci says. “But it was worth every minute. I’m waiting for the grandkids so I can start a new tradition.”
Interested in taking a family sabbatical? These four sources will help you learn more.