SteamLine Luggage founder and Fathom packing spirit animal Sara Banks is not afraid of a few travel challenges (see: three kids, two parents, one carry-on for a month in Sri Lanka) or of uprooting for a change of atmosphere (i.e. relocating her family and business to a small island in Lamu, Kenya). But packing up the house in Ireland and traveling the world with four small kids for a year? We wanted to know how she made that happen. So we asked! Here's her first dispatch from the road.
Why take the family on an around-the-world trip now?
This has been a dream of ours forever. After having our fourth (and final!) child, we were ready to mobilize, to get back to seeing the world for ourselves. This adventure is a re-creation of a trip around the world that we had planned for July 2020. And the pandemic doubled down on our ambition to do this. Like many, the pandemic gave us a real priority check. Confined for long periods of time with our family, it underscored how important solidifying the relationships within this little nucleus is to us. We want to spend more time with our children — by getting outside our four walls!
We have always believed that our memories are broken up into experiences rather than time. When you refer to sections of your life, you say, “I think that was when we were living in Ranelagh,” or “That was before we had children.” Life actually feels longer when you break it up by major life experiences or reference points. The hope is that it will ultimately elongate these years for us. Doesn't everyone always say that the early years with kids fly by? We want the early years to be rich with experience, world education, life lessons, and new friendships.
How do you prepare for this kind of adventure?
My husband has written a 16-page document planning this trip. He has Excel spreadsheets of our budgets and things we need to take. Every time he remembered something we might need to do, he used his faithful Captio app to ping it to his inbox so when he was at his computer it went into a list. He really missed nothing. It does take a lot of planning to get a trip like this off the ground.
Packing up our house after twelve years was definitely our most challenging part of this plan. In a dream life, we would have owned a house we could have rented out and kept most of our stuff in it as a base, but in the end, we decluttered our life and ruthlessly got rid of things in order to fit into a small storage unit. In packing the house and packing for the trip, my best practical advice would be LESS IS MORE. Going through all we had accumulated in a dozen years was depressing. And a major reality check to be careful with what we purchase in the future. Granted, we have four small kids in that house. But when we settle back into a home, I vow to remember this.
As our packing kindred spirit, tell us about the luggage situation.
For the suitcase, I say pack, cull, and repeat. Pack what you want, cull anything that is a duplicate or unnecessary or not a “hell yeah” option, and then repeat the process. You can really whittle down this way. Let every child take one thing of comfort for them for a year (in our case it was two teddies and a backpack of LEGO). I think for a trip this big, it is so important to start as light as you can because if you are like me, you’ll want to pick up things as you go. And repacking at every destination is no fun if it is like a game of Tetris — which admittedly it still is for us.
We have two Spinner suitcases of clothes (Architect in Burgundy and Navy), just enough for a week's worth of items. Then just wash and re-wear for the year. We have one carry-on suitcase (Architect Navy) of school books for the kids to keep up with their curriculum at home, and one carry-on (Architect Cream) of tech stuff, camera, drone, cords, and a medical kit. The kids each have a mini Topo backpack that they use for the airport and day trips. I firmly believe in kids carrying their own bag and being responsible for things they love.
How did you decide where to go first?
We started with Greece. We thought if there were any health scares, we could easily go back to Ireland from there. We booked a beautiful rental on an island we could drive to in order to have a place that we were happy to use as a base (avoiding hotels and restaurant bouncing) and using a car to avoid congestion of public transport and ferries (we are trying to keep that to a minimum during Covid). We moved onto Mauritius next, as vaccination rates are already high there, at 64 percent. They reopened their borders to international visitors, so we thought it would be a good time to check it out.
Any logistical challenges in getting to your first destination?
No, not to Greece, but yes to Mauritius!
Tell us what we need to know about traveling into Mauritius:
There are a lot of benefits to being flexible; we don’t normally choose our next location until we are settled in order to see what vaccination rates are like in a country and so we can travel as the world reopens. We booked Mauritius from Greece.
To get into Mauritius, you need passenger locator forms, proof of health insurance (which they actually didn’t ask to see), negative PCR tests, and proof of vaccination for anyone over twelve. All printed out. And you need an address and phone number of your destination to get through passport control. What the fine print didn’t say is that you also need a return ticket TO YOUR HOME COUNTRY. This is normal for most travelers to have, but not us for this trip (and for the first time in our lives). So when we arrived and they asked for this document, we explained that we are traveling the world for a year and aren’t planning on going home right after Mauritius. Wrong answer. They said this is the law for getting into Mauritius — it has to be a return ticket to your home country. The ten-hour flight we just arrived on from Vienna was about to leave in 30 minutes, so we were informed we had better book something to Ireland and show it to them, or we were back on that flight to Vienna. What?!?
With a party of our size, this would not be just a few hundred dollars we were throwing away. This would be thousands! I frantically checked flights, Duck (the nickname I use for my husband) checked the Emirates cancellation policy, we fought with the weak and infrequent WiFi signals, we dashed around the passport control area to find a steady connection, we blew through our allocated data on our mobile plans, and, just in the nick of time, managed to book tickets back to Ireland on Emirates for just over $2,500. We imagined ourselves back with Duck’s parents in Dublin (because we have no home) with our tails between our legs having to admit that we were NOT the travel pros we thought.
Thankfully, within 24 hours, we changed our tickets to Sri Lanka, paying just the fare difference. And we were able to sneak in a layover in the Maldives for a couple of days.
What's your plan once you touch down in each location?
Settle into a routine. We get up early and make sure that we work in the mornings and book afternoon calls with the teams. Homeschool is from at least 9:30 to noon every day, and then we choose an adventure for the afternoon. We want to meet the locals, eat local food, learn a few new recipes, and make every country and place we visit feel really familiar to us by the time we leave.
Highlights so far?
Although nailing the routine was a little challenging at first (we are somewhat at the whim of our 21-month-old), homeschool (or "travel school") has been particularly successful. We go to the garden table, a local cafe, or the beach. Benji (4) is learning to do maths, Ruben (6) is learning to read, and Milo (8) is flying through his school books and really keeping up well with his Irish. He is also doing more free writing than I have seen him do, which has been great for his spelling. We get one-on-one time with them, and they are really enjoying the undivided attention. We all love it.
And I don’t even need to go into the general highlights that the weather is generally really warm (we did get hit by a storm and long days of rain in Greece) and we have space to play in our house, in the pool, and on the beach. It is just living in a different country.
The people we have met are gorgeous. So far, we became particularly good friends with the woman who looked after the property in Lefkada. She gave us loads of cooking lessons and regularly joined us for dinner. These friendships are cultural bridges I want the kids to embrace forever.
Any lowlights, obstacles, snafus?
Yes, a few! I joke that every time we travel, I end up going to the doctor with a child or two. I don’t know if I am more paranoid abroad or the kids are more susceptible to things when we travel, but it seems we see the doctor more abroad than we do at home. I have seen the inside of rural clinics in Lamu, had GP callouts in other parts of Kenya and India (my husband on that one), been to clinics in Sri Lanka, Lanzarote, Spain, and urgent care in the U.S. Nothing too serious so far, just more extra cautious mothering, I think!
But this time Milo did get strep throat that required an antibiotic, and both Ruben and Felix got dosed with really bad tummy bugs. (That contributed to many sleepless nights for everyone!) So we didn’t see as much of Athens as we would have liked and are a little slow to explore Mauritius. Luckily, our houses are amazing, so we are comfortable at home too.
Emotionally, Milo got a bout of homesick during Halloween. Ruben really craves sharing things with his friends and they are too young to “chat” on Zoom. And then that near-snafu upon arriving to Mauritius. But that is it so far. Check back in with me in a couple months and I will have a list I am sure!
What are you are excited to do next?
My husband's major goal is to not wear a jacket all year.
We have been supporting friends and communities in Sri Lanka and Kenya during the pandemic, so we would love to go back to these places and say hi to the people we care about. And then possibly explore some countries that neither my husband nor I have traveled to, like Indonesia.
Our plan is to travel to places where we can stay at least a month at a time, mostly so we can settle into a routine of homeschooling with the boys and so that we can take advantage of monthly discount rates for accommodation. We are trying to keep our budget the same as what it would be living in Ireland. And so far, we are matching the monthly rent with accommodation that well exceeds the square footage and landscape we would get in some of the best parts of Dublin. We are hoping to have a swimming pool (and so far successful) in each property we rent while we travel. That, you wouldn't get in Ireland!
We have already had my cousin and her husband (both best friends) visit, and now my (soon-to-be!) sister-in-law is here. Knowing people want to seek us out for holidays is great. I hope more people see us along the way.
Any advice for travelers inspired to take a similar leap?
It does require a lot of planning — just make lists and cross them off. Change always feels a little daunting. I felt like we were going against the grain when we were leaving. We were leaving our nice community, the sports the kids had settled into, the school, the property ladder we should have been trying to get on. For the school in particular, the kids’ teachers and principal all pulled me aside individually to tell me we were doing the right thing. That was really encouraging. Our ethos for SteamLine has always been to consider slow, mindful travel — to go to places and stay longer in order to really immerse yourself in a community. To "slow down and look up" — so staying for longer in each location really suits us.