When Margaret Bensfield Sullivan envisioned the type of family who might jet off for a year to explore the world together, she had a very specific image in her head.

It involved a “bandana,” a baby in the back carrier” and a “smiling selfie” at a “noodles stand on the side of the road.”

However, a few years ago, Sullivan was able to do just that with her own family, who she stresses are about as far away from that visual as it’s possible to be.

“You hear about people doing trips like this, and you think they’re really on the fringe,” Sullivan, previously a partner at a brand marketing agency, tells CNN Travel.

“Now that I have done it, and I’m in this community, I see that that is absolutely not the case. This is becoming far more common.”

The epic trip saw her leave her corporate life in New York behind to spend a year traveling to 29 different countries with her husband Teddy, a former baseball player, and their children, Willa and James, who were six and four at the time.

According to Sullivan, she and her husband had never traveled with their kids before their big trip.

“We loved to travel as a couple,” Sullivan explains, recalling how they visited countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina and Turkey together before starting their family.

“But once we had kids in 2012, we just sort of thought, ‘What’s the point? We’ll wait till they’re older. They won’t remember anything.”

However, Sullivan explains that a work trip to Tanzania in 2017 completely changed her perspective.

“Everything changed for me that week, because there was an epiphany,” she says. “The world is big, I am small, my life is small. And time is short.”

Once she returned to New York, Sullivan told her entrepreneur husband that she thought that they should quit their jobs to travel around the world and spend more time together as a family.

“I still laugh remembering the look on his face when he heard my idea,” she says, adding that she detailed all of the things that might hold them back and “had answers for all of them.”

Sullivan admits that they didn’t make a decision immediately, and it wasn’t until a year or so later, by which time she and Teddy were both going through a “transitional moment” in their careers, that they decided to take the plunge.

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan

When it came to planning their route, the Sullivan family decided to “follow the sun.”

Once they’d made up their minds, the couple spent seven or eight months “working out the logistics” and winding their lives in New York down.

“All bills [were] canceled, that was the greatest feeling in the world,” she says. “And all of the money that we did have, then was spent living on the road for a year.”

In order to ensure that their trip went as smoothly as possible, the Sullivans planned about three months ahead at all times, booking everything from flights and accommodation in advance.

“Some families that have done this really like to blow in the breeze, see what inspiration strikes and book on the fly,” says Sullivan. “And we just knew that wasn’t going to work for us.”

When it came to planning their route, they opted to “follow the sun.”

In January 2019, the foursome set off from New York to South America, before heading over to Africa, the Middle East, Europe and then Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

“By following this path of seasonal, warm weather, we were able to pack light,” says Sullivan. “Our dermatologist wanted to kill us by the time we got home, but it was worth it.”

Sullivan admits that it took her and her husband a short while to adjust to the reality of traveling with small children, which meant that they would have to rule out certain activities based on their kids’ needs.

“We thought that we were parents who had spent a lot of time with our children and once we got on the road and really had those caregiver reins in our hands, we realized that we had a lot to learn,” she says.

“And that included just being comfortable with adjusting our travel plans to be with these people who needed snacks all the time or wanting to stop because their feet are tired or they had  an early bedtime.”

After a couple of weeks, they “toned things far down” and made an effort to get on their kids’ level.

“That’s when things got better,” she adds. “The whining stopped eventually and we all got to know each other so much better through the experience.

“We know their tics and their pet peeves and their quirks. You just couldn’t help but become so bonded by the end of the experience.”

Once they’d gotten into a groove, they quickly found that “traveling with children has serious perks.”

“Pretty much everywhere we went accommodated us because we had an adorable little shaggy haired four-year-old with us,” she says. “It brings out a side of people that you don’t see when you’re traveling as an adult.

“One of the great surprises was how much joy strangers will get out of just kicking a ball around.

“It’s as if they’ve been standing around all day waiting for a four-year-old to walk up and want to play.”

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan

The Sullivans visited 29 countries, including Mongolia, during their “gap year.”

Of the nearly 30 countries that they visited during their epic adventure, Sullivan says she was impacted by two in particular, Mongolia being one of them.

“We spent two weeks in this country that is so beautiful and so sparsely populated, but so culturally rich and historically important,” she says.

“We got to see everyday life there and meet local families.”

The family were able to spend three weeks in Vietnam, and Sullivan says that their time there also had a significant impact.

“It was really one of the most soulful places that we went,” she says. “It was moving in a way, partially because we have this American history with the country.

“It’s one of the youngest populations in the world, [and they have a] very positive and optimistic population of young people who are eager to learn English, travel and meet new people.

“So it was a welcoming country that, in spite of a difficult recent past, has embraced us.”

Sullivan also fondly recalls watching a beautiful sunset in Indonesia, an early morning visit to China’s Great Wall and jumping off a boat into the Amazon River.

“[These] Things that I never thought that I would do in my life, but are logged in my mind forever,” she adds.

While both she and husband were concerned about how their children would adapt to being on the move constantly, Sullivan says that they took it all in their stride.

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“We thought that there would be all kinds of drama – our kids like a routine,” she says. “We thought that changing time zones and changing bedrooms constantly would really throw them for a loop, but it didn’t.

“It turns out the trip was a huge percentage of their life. And very quickly, this lifestyle became their new normal.”

Sullivan adds that her children were simply “excited to be with mom and dad all day” and didn’t ever really get homesick.

When they returned to the US in early 2020, Sullivan found that she was constantly being asked for advice from other families hoping to take a similar trip and decided to write a book, “Following the Sun,” about their experiences.

“I was having the same conversations with people,” says Sullivan, explaining that she had taken detailed notes while they were away. “[And] I just thought why not put it all in. And maybe it will be useful to somebody.”

Sullivan and her husband took on different roles and responsibilities while they were traveling, with one taking charge of withdrawing and carrying local currency, as well as “logistics and ops” and the other managing their photos and updating their Instagram account.

They homeschooled their children while they were away, and Sullivan admits that this was difficult at first.

“They [the children] resisted in the beginning, quite a bit,” she says. “And then eventually it just became habit like anything else.”

One of the main things Sullivan stresses to other couples who are considering packing up and hitting the road with their families, is that they should only consider this if they work well together as a team.

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan

The family snorkeling together in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

“It’s a non-starter if you’re not compatible with your partner,” she says. “I mean, that’s a long time and a lot of time to spend together, a lot of decisions to be made, including how to discipline your kids and how to spend your money.

“And if you’re not on the same page, you’ll be at each other’s necks.”

Sullivan also points out that her book “shouldn’t be considered one of those anyone-can-do-this inspirational guides.”

“Clearly not everyone can do what we did,” she writes in “Following the Sun.” “At that point in our lives, we could afford to take a year off from earning a living and still manage the flights, meals, accommodations, and activities.

“Also, my husband and I were both in a transitional moment professionally and therefore didn’t need to negotiate time off with bosses.”

Sullivan feels that it would be impossible to truly know the impact that their trip around the world had on their kids, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill soon after they returned.

The family are now back in New York and their lives have pretty much returned to normal, but their year together has altered the way that they live their lives and the way they see the world significantly.

“We discovered this power to slow time,” says Sullivan. “We all know that feeling of being on a treadmill and you don’t even remember how you got to work. Routine can be great. But it can also make time feel like it’s flying.

Margaret Bensfield Sullivan

“When you add newness to your days, time feels longer. And we had a year where everything was new.

“Money, currency, language streets, looking at a map trying to figure out what was going on. It was so new all the time.

“When people ask, ‘Did the year fly by?’ It absolutely did not. It plodded along at the most satisfying pace. It was epic, not fleeting.”

After discovering how much they enjoyed traveling together, the Sullivans have been taking every opportunity to explore the world further.

The foursome have gone on to visit Mexico, Guatemala, Italy and Greece, and plan to spend the summer of 2024 exploring the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Barbados, Dominica, and St. Lucia.

“We love to travel together. And maybe more importantly, we love to be together,” adds Sullivan. “We are absolutely a unit of force. The bond is fierce. We know each other so well.

“We travel light. We’re like a well-oiled machine in that regard. But we’re also just a different kind of family that returned.”

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