‘It’s cheaper than renting at home’: Meet the Irish families backpacking around the world with their kids

Small children (and even not-so-small ones) can often spell the end of adventure holidaying.

nstead of interrailing or going off grid, there’s suddenly more of an emphasis on military-level planning, kids’ clubs and paddling pools.

But it needn’t be that way. Some Irish parents say it’s entirely possible to backpack around the world with a babe in your arms.

Dublin parents and travel content creators Katie Hogan and Luke Gibney ( @ungracefulguide) had no intention of settling down when they discovered they were expecting. The couple have been on the road with their two-year-old toddler Cora for over four months; they started off in Cuba, and are now in Mexico.

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Luke Gibney, Katie Hogan and their daughter Cora in Vinales, Cuba Luke Gibney, Katie Hogan and their daughter Cora in Vinales, Cuba

Luke Gibney, Katie Hogan and their daughter Cora in Vinales, Cuba

Luke Gibney, Katie Hogan and their daughter Cora in Vinales, Cuba

Katie and Luke were always passionate about travel; in 2017 they decided to quit their 9-to-5 jobs and pack their bags. At the time, Katie had a job in PR while Luke had amassed “a fine collection of hair nets and name tags” after working in the service industry for years.

Their initial trip was intended to last just one year. However, they soon were “bitten by the travel bug” and decided to keep going. They reached Thailand in 2020 as the borders closed and Covid hit. It was here they discovered Katie was pregnant. “We always say Cora picked a good time to come because we could do nothing but sort of sit down and enjoy it.” When Katie was 32 weeks pregnant they returned home, but they knew they didn’t want to remain in Ireland permanently. After Cora arrived the couple began preparing to travel again. “We said, ‘let’s get back on the road and just try it,’” Katie says. Thankfully things are going well. “The great thing about kids is that they adapt to your way of life if you let them,” Luke says. “The lifestyle we lead at the moment really suits Cora because she’s constantly stimulated. There are constantly new places and new people and new things.”

Mum of four Sara Banks shares this sentiment. She is in the middle of travelling the world with her husband Mark Duckenfield and their four boys Milo (9), Ruben (7), Benji (6) and Felix (3). The couple met when Sara, who is originally from the US, was taking part in an Erasmus year at Trinity College. They shared an “adventurous spirit” and got married when she returned to Ireland in her 20s.

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Sara Banks' kids enjoy some holiday fun in Bali Sara Banks' kids enjoy some holiday fun in Bali

Sara Banks’ kids enjoy some holiday fun in Bali

Sara Banks’ kids enjoy some holiday fun in Bali

During lockdown, the couple’s desire to hop on a plane was reignited. “It reminded us of the importance of travel, what travel can do for personal growth and for family growth… we doubled down on those priorities and when we could, we left.” Sara, who founded SteamLine Luggage, and her family have been traveling around the world for 13 months; they started out in Greece, spent several months in Mauritius, then moved on to Bali, Australia, America and are currently in Colombia. “It was meant to be a year but it has continued,” Sara says. “I was talking to Milo and I said, ‘why do you think we keep going?’ and he said, ‘because we are having so much fun’.”

Both families financially sustain themselves on their travels by working remotely. Katie and Luke used time during lockdown to upskill — learning web design and coding. They work as they travel, building websites.

“It wouldn’t put a roof over our head in Ireland,” Katie says. “But it’s a lower cost of living on the road, so it’s absolutely doable.”

Sara and Mark are entrepreneurs and became accustomed to working remotely during lockdown, and they have continued to do so as they travel. “Thank God for Zoom,” Sara says.

Here the families share plenty of tips and tricks for parents thinking of embarking on an adventure trip.

1. Ease yourselves into it

If the prospect of heading off for a year is too daunting, try prolonged trips to see what works for you and your family. Katie and Luke travelled around Italy and Turkey for two months, and also camped on the Wild Atlantic Way to test the waters.

“We tried to dabble in it so we weren’t blindsided,” Katie says. This helped them realise what were necessities and what were not. A pram, for example, was not something they needed. “It’s a personal preference. We travelled with a pram for two months and absolutely hated it. It was too big,” Luke says. Instead, they now choose to “baby wear”, carrying their daughter in a sling. They also advise bringing fidget-based toys instead of hard plastic models or large plush teddies, as they take up less room and distract children for longer periods of time.

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Luke, Katie and Cora celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico Luke, Katie and Cora celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

Luke, Katie and Cora celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

Luke, Katie and Cora celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

2. Know that setting off is the hardest part of the journey

The “pre-production” stage of your trip will be the most time-consuming but things become easier when you are in motion. “Initially it took a lot of planning because we had to pack up our Irish home,” Sara Banks says. “My advice for everyone thinking of doing this is just to go. The hardest part of the whole trip is leaving”.

“The lifestyle we lead at the moment really suits Cora because she’s constantly stimulated. There are constantly new places and new people and new things.”

3. Make noise at bedtime and avoid baths

Katie says; “Life on the road is noisy, so we made sure we had a noisy household. We wouldn’t tiptoe — we would play music, we would take phone calls in the room. Cora could sleep through a war. It is a wonderful trait. It is something to get them used to.” She also advises getting your children used to taking showers — baths are not always available in temporary accommodation. “My biggest, biggest tip is to prepare your kids for showers,” Katie says. “Baths are such a luxury, unless you are staying in a resort or a hotel.”

4. Try and embrace the meltdowns

We expend so much time, effort and anxiety trying to prevent children from having tantrums in public places. Both Luke and Katie find attitudes to children are more relaxed in other countries. “We go out and we notice kids sitting on the floor and waiters stepping over them and there is no obligation to sit down at the table… They are kids, so let them be kids,” she says. Mega meltdowns are inevitable — especially when you are travelling with toddlers. Katie and Luke say it’s easier to deal with when they are “on a beach in sunny Mexico, than in our living room in Donaghmede”.

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Sara Banks' kids doing school work Sara Banks' kids doing school work

Sara Banks’ kids doing school work

Sara Banks’ kids doing school work

5. Get up to speed on your kids’ academic syllabus

Homeschooling was one of the enforced “pandemic learnings” that Sara Banks finds applicable to her life now. Last year, she brought their children’s Irish school books with them as the family travelled and stuck to the syllabus. Sara’s mother-in-law is also a primary school teacher, and has been “an amazing resource” to the family. “We are following books to make sure they are keeping up with their reading, writing and math,” she says. “So we have the rote educational aspect but also the exploratory cultural aspect as well [through travelling].”

6. Slow things down and learn how to hustle

Many hosts of rental properties are open to negotiation on prices if they know you are “slow travelling”. “We have a travel hack,” Sara says. “We choose homes out of our budget and we ask the host if they would be willing to meet our budget, given we will be staying for at least a month. Most of the time they are willing to negotiate… Our mission was to travel for the exact same amount had we been renting in Ireland — it is working out to be the same, if not cheaper.”

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Luke, Katie and Cora pose on a car in Havana, Cuba Luke, Katie and Cora pose on a car in Havana, Cuba

Luke, Katie and Cora pose on a car in Havana, Cuba

Luke, Katie and Cora pose on a car in Havana, Cuba

Finally, both sets of parents say that travelling helps expand their own and their children’s horizons. Katie feels it would be hypocritical if they were to give up traveling. “Like every parent, we all want to encourage our children to follow their dreams,” she says. “I don’t ever want to tell Cora, ‘you do you’ and ‘never give up’, but then say we stopped doing the thing we loved because she came along. You are creating an adventure. And you can bill them later on in life, when they’re backpacking and it’s their turn to bring you on an all-expenses-paid trip.”

Belfast Telegraph News