Pack Your Bags

This Mom Has Traveled The World With Her Kids. Here’s Her Advice.

The Bucket List Family’s Jessica Gee talks to Scary Mommy about her new National Geographic book and her globetrotting family’s go-to travel tips.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; National Geographic

Traveling with kids is... an adventure. No one knows that better than Jessica Gee.

In August of 2015, she and her husband Garrett made what would seem to many like a radical decision: They sold everything and left home to crisscross the globe with their two children, Dorothy and Manilla. The plan? To spend a few months journeying full-time, learning more about life, love, and other cultures — and to maybe find a place in the world that felt like the right fit for their family.

Another child (hey, Calihan!) and more than 90 countries later, they’ve redefined what it means to travel with kids. They’ve eaten breakfast with giraffes in Kenya and swum with whales in Tonga. They’ve slept in castles, visited theme parks, and lived on a houseboat. Along the way, they’ve shared those experiences, amassing a social following of millions who know them as “The Bucket List Family.

Although they recently bought and renovated a little bungalow on the beach in Hawaii, they remain firmly rooted in the travel community. In fact, Jessica just marked off a major item on her bucket list — writing a book about the family’s adventures for none other than National Geographic.

Bucket List Family Travel: Share the World With Your Kids on 50 Adventures of a Lifetime contains tons of how-tos from Jessica for parents who want to start exploring with their own kids. Over 400 pages, it contains everything from itineraries for some of the Gees’ must-visit destinations to tips and tricks for handling 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 parenting-on-the-road tips, and why travel will always be her family’s true north.

Scary Mommy: I know this is an impossible question, but if you had to pick one place you wish every family could visit, where would it be?

Jessica Gee: I love that question. My favorite place in the whole wide 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 stepping a little bit outside of our comfort zone into a different culture, I think Turkey's a great place to be.

SM: Since you’ve seen what this looks like at various stages, do you think there are any sweet spots when it comes to the best ages for traveling with kids?

JG: We are in a beautiful spot right now. [Our kids are] 11, 9, and 5, and everyone is so capable. Travel days do not stress me out like they used to. When you're traveling with a toddler, that 9 months ‘til 2, it's just a ticking time bomb. The whole time you're on a plane or wherever you're going, you're constantly just on high alert.

Now I feel like our kids are pros, and the travel days are so seamless. So, we're really enjoying where we're at right now. Also, Dorothy [at 11 years old] is in such a good spot. She's not too cool for school. She's not moody at all. We feel like we're in the pocket, and we're trying to seize the day here.

SM: OK, we’ve gotta talk about airplanes ‘cause your kids are on them a lot. What are your favorite kid-on-a-plane tips?

JG: We hype them up. When our kids were very young, we used to tell them bedtime stories. We’d say, ‘We're going to go on a plane. It's going to be this big adventure, and we're going to pick out your snacks.’

And I guess that's tip #2: letting your kids pack for themselves. Their little backpacks, whatever they have on the plane — they're excited for their little toys, and they're excited for whatever show they picked out. We don't do screen time very much at home, so when they're on an airplane, they're pumped to be on a screen. Then they get the snacks.

What can sometimes be a long grueling day is now just a great time and stuff that they're excited for.

SM: Y’all have had so many truly epic experiences, but you’ve also had some doozies, from botflies to skiing accidents. What would your advice be for other moms when facing a bad travel experience?

JG: My dad would wake me up every morning when I was a teenager — and I would just be so tired and grumpy — and he would say, ‘Are you happy, Jessica?’ And I'd be like, ‘Yes.’ And he'd be like, ‘Then tell your face.’ Then he would proceed to tell me, ‘You choose your attitude.’ Now, that is the Gee family platitude of choosing your attitude.

When things go wrong, it sucks. Last year, we’d been carrying on our bags all summer. That was the plan so we didn't lose our luggage. On this one flight from Tanzania to Botswana, they made us check the bags. So, we checked them despite my better judgment, and they lost them.

I remember sitting at lunch not being able to do a thing and being so mad and so frustrated, and having to be that example to my children that when things go wrong, you choose your attitude. I went silent for a minute, and Garrett stepped in and we explained the situation to the kids. He really helped me out, but I had to bite my tongue for a couple of hours because I was so angry.

After that, we got in a safari jeep, and the animals, the weather — it was just beautiful. I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter … I have to have perspective of everything that we’re doing.’

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 travel.

SM: How do y’all approach letting kids express themselves when they maybe aren’t enjoying a trip the same way you are?

JG: It's so tough! [In February] we're going to Antarctica for 25 days, and the kids are missing Valentine's Day parties, they're missing birthday parties, they're missing Field Day. They're missing so much, and I feel terrible — but they also very much know that 0.01% of the world ever gets to go to Antarctica. It's a huge blessing and potentially the only time they will ever go in their entire lives.

SM: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a mom in seeing your kids move through the world as travelers?

JG: I feel like Garrett and I have learned how capable children are. I think these days, and maybe this is an unpopular opinion, parents tend to shelter and just cater to the children and put them in these routines that are very laid out 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 at an hour-and-a-half-long dinner without an iPhone or an iPad and how to contribute to conversations because we've done that at such a young age.

So, teaching them how to go through the airport, put their backpack on the security conveyor belt, walk through security, order their cranberry juice on a plane, all of those things. We have high expectations for our kids; we really do. And our kids rise to the occasion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.