On the way home to New York from a London visit with cousins, Rainer Jenss’s sons, Tyler and Stefan, were raving about the city and how great it would be to grow up in a place with both Big Ben and double-decker buses. That got Rainer and his wife, Carol, thinking about traveling. Not just vacation travel, but ditching their suburban life – quitting their jobs, selling the house and cars – and traveling the world with their kids for a while.
This is way beyond summer vacation. It's the "Eat, Pray, Love" effect, say travel experts, referring to the bestselling book by Elizabeth Gilbert, who pulled up stakes after a divorce to heal through travel. And it’s the kind of escape lots of people fantasize about, and Rainer and Carol had mused about it when he worked as an executive at National Geographic – a job that teased him with the idea of far-flung travel. But the Jensses’ careers got in the way – Carol was media director at an ad agency – and then their kids were born, and all talk of traveling stopped, supplanted by school, homework, sports, and sleepovers.
“It seemed irresponsible,” says Rainer, “like running off to join the circus.” But the idea percolated, and a year later, in 2004, it seemed possible – maybe even necessary, he says, recalling what felt like a bleak zeitgeist at the beginning of the Iraq war. Having traveled a lot as a child and professionally as an adult, he valued the open-mindedness of engaging with other cultures: “I wanted my kids to learn about the world through their own experiences.”
That was the start of four years of preparation: The family began living off Rainer’s salary and saving Carol’s. In July 2008, Rainer, Carol, and their two sons, then ages 8 and 11, each carrying one suitcase and a backpack – embarked on a one-year odyssey. Starting with seven weeks in national parks around the United States, they flew on to China and then to every continent except Antarctica.
The Jenss family was on the cusp of a new, growing trend among families: extended travel.
People are pulling up the roots of their stationary – often suburban – existence and hitting the road for long periods. Some want to give their children an experiential education, with the world as their classroom. Others want to disconnect from career stress, social media, a consumerist culture, and societal pressures to grow closer as a family. This isn’t a sabbatical; it’s often a life change. And some families aren’t even sure when or if they will return to their old lives.
A surge in this kind of travel happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, inspired by a desire among families to get closer, observes Kimberly Goza, a founder of the website Families On The Road, which helps peripatetic Americans connect and share advice. The Internet has accelerated the trend, she suggests, making it easier to stay connected to friends, family, and co-workers. “It’s just easier now than it used to be,” says Ms. Goza, whose family has lived on the road for 19 years, supporting the lifestyle by performing professionally as “The Activated Storytellers.”
Perhaps the biggest spark in long-term family travel has been the enormous bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published in 2006 – and followed by a gauzily romantic film – it tells the story of how Ms. Gilbert, 34 and newly divorced, healed emotionally and spiritually by traveling to Italy, India, and Indonesia.
The book is a clear marker for Tara Russell, a certified life and career coach in San Francisco: There was “before EPL” and “after EPL,” she says. Before the book, it was harder to explain to clients the value of taking a career break and traveling. “Now they get it.”
Ms. Russell, whose Three Month Visa Coaching and Consulting specializes in long-term travel, saw a spike in her business after the book came out. Counterintuitively, she says, the recession “really ripped the veil off the whole notion of job security. I thought it would have a negative effect on this kind of travel, but it actually empowered people to look at their layoff as an opportunity.” Some families, she adds, see travel as a way to get time together: “One of my clients said if she didn’t message her kids on Facebook, they would never come to dinner. This family realized the only way to knit themselves back together was to hit the road.”