Aside from a one-off trip to Europe, the furthest Jessica Gee ever traveled while growing up was to Walt Disney World in Florida with her family.
However, over the past eight years, the travel influencer, known as “The Bucket List Mom,” has visited more than 90 different countries with her entrepreneur husband Garrett and their three children Dorothy, Manilla and Calihan.
“I never had the thought in my brain that ‘I want to travel around the world,’” Gee, from Denver, Colorado, tells CNN Travel. “That was never me. But the more I get out there, the more I want to see.”
According to Gee, everything changed when her husband, who she first met while on a church service mission in Vladivostok, Russia, sold his app to Snapchat for $54 million in 2014 and decided to quit his desk job.
“We were in a weird situation that maybe not a lot of twenty-something-year-olds are put in,” Gee admits. “We were sitting on some new wealth, and we didn’t know what to do. So we decided that we were going to set that all aside, and see what’s out in the world.”
The couple, who’ve been married since 2009, were keen to experience different cultures and “just learn a little bit.”
“We still felt so young and naive,” adds Gee.
They soon began planning an extended trip to Southeast Asia and decided to launch an Instagram page, The Bucket List Family, to collate their adventures.
“Honestly, I do think we kind of had this perfect storm of Garrett’s creative skills, and my background in marketing,” Gee says, explaining that she studied product placement in college. “Now I just do it with my own life.”
After putting the acquisition money into savings, they sold their furniture and most of their belongings, raising around $45,000, and headed off around the world with Dorothy and Manilla – Callihan was born while they were on the move – in August 2015.
They had initially planned to spend a few months traveling, visiting Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, as well as Pacific islands Fiji and Tonga, but after briefly returning to the US, they decided that they wanted to keep going.
“The little bit of traveling turned into three years full-time,” adds Gee, who has just released a travel guidebook, The Bucket List Family Travel, in partnership with National Geographic.
The family went on to visit dozens of countries across the world, including Germany, Morocco, Japan, Brazil, Guatemala and Dominica.
Gee lists Belize among her top “family-friendly” destinations, describing the Central American country as a good “starter destination” for US-based families who aren’t ready to venture too far afield.
She also recommends “incredible” Alaska for those seeking outdoor adventures for their children.
“You have the fishing, the wildlife, the whales and the bears,” she says. “It’s great for kids who are maybe a little bit older – five and up. But I took my two-year-old there and he had a blast.”
Gee was also incredibly impressed by East African country Rwanda, a destination that she was apprehensive about visiting due to preconceived notions.
“I had seen [the movie] ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and that’s all I knew,” she says. “So I was nervous, and scared. And it ended up being the most life-changing destination for me.”
After spending so much time on the move, Gee is accustomed to extended travel and actually finds it easier than short-term travel, explaining that she often feels exhausted after taking a week-long vacation.
“When I’m traveling for a month at a time or more, I get into a groove, I get into a routine,” she says, adding that she packs more or less the same amount of items regardless of whether she’s traveling for a month, six months, or a fortnight.
She spent her entire third pregnancy “living out of a suitcase” before welcoming son Calihan in 2018.
“I hadn’t realized how much of a toll flying is on your body,” says Gee. “So it was exacerbated [due to my pregnancy].”
“Maybe it was also because it was my first pregnancy over the age of 30, but my back and my body hurt.
“But at the same time, we went to so many places in those nine months that I loved.”
Gee makes a point of ensuring that her children feel involved in their travel plans before they set off anywhere, getting them to help pack their backpacks, while framing everything, even a long-haul flight, as a “big adventure.”
“Then as soon as they sit on the plane, they’re so stoked to pull out the toy, the book and the snacks that they packed,” she explains.
According to Gee, one of the best ways to make traveling with young children as painless as possible is to “choose the best attitude.”
“Kids 100% feed off of parents’ attitudes,” she says. “So when things are tiring, exhausting and stressful, you just have to buck up and be positive. Because if you’re losing it, they’re going to lose it.”
While she tries to plan for all aspects of their travels, including scheduling flights during nap times and making sure their luggage is ready, Gee’s learned from experience to always have a back-up plan.
“Things go wrong,” she says. “You lose your luggage, or a flight gets canceled. Those hiccups.
“Having to deal with that and navigate kids and their needs – that’s always been the hardest part.”
The Bucket List Family’s Instagram account has amassed nearly three million followers over the years, and they’ve since launched successful YouTube and TikTok accounts, with the income earned from partnerships with different companies helping to support their travels.
Gee acknowledges that their situation is unique, and there are many parents who simply can’t afford to jet off around the world with their kids.
She provides money-saving tips in “The Bucket List Family Travel,” including home exchanges and budgeting apps, and encourages families to figure out what they want to do travel-wise and then try to “make it affordable.”
“A lot of times, it’s just finding a national park and camping or hiking,” she says. “Or seeing if you can work enough to earn some time away for an extended period.”
The Gee family have “service” listed among their travel goals, and do their best to incorporate activities like volunteering at an orphanage into their trips.
“Usually travel is a selfish endeavor. Taking the time to really look outside yourself and your own family and see who you could serve locally will be a huge blessing,” Gee writes.
After three years of being on the move full-time, the family-of-five returned to the US, purchasing a bungalow in Hawaii, in 2018.
Ever-changing bucket list
“The one thing that we miss when we’re on the road is community,” Gee says. “We missed having friends and family [around] and wanted to get our kids into sport and let them experience that.
“So that’s when we decided to settle down and then try to have the best of both worlds.”
They’ve continued to travel as a family in the years since then, and recently spent an entire summer in Africa.
But staying in one place for a long period of time has proven to be something of an adjustment for her children, particularly son Manilla, who was around 11 months old when they first set off.
“He was used to sleeping in a different bed every night or every couple of nights [when we first came back],” she explains. “So he would sleep in different rooms of the house every night.
“It was a weird adjustment for him to learn that we weren’t going to the airport and that we were staying home.”
Although Gee does her best to schedule their travels during school vacations, there are occasional exceptions, such as an upcoming visit to Antarctica.
“We have extra tutoring just to keep them on track,” she says. “And we’ll bring our school work along with us.
“And even during the summer when they don’t have school work, we still bring along those extra books and try to make it exciting for them.”
According to Gee, her family’s bucket list has changed over the years as they’ve all become huge wildlife enthusiasts, so things like seeing the “pandas in China” and the “orangutans in Borneo” have moved close to the top.
“My favorite thing to do with my family is go on safari,” she adds. “We’ve done that a handful of times now.
“But to me, there’s nothing better than being out in an environment where something new [is happening] every single day.
“You wake up and you don’t know what you’re going to see, and then to see these animals and wildlife and how they all live together and depend on each other.
“It sounds so corny, but literally the circle of life. Experiencing that and witnessing that with my family is just so beautiful.”
She advises other parents keen to travel more with their children to try to step outside their comfort zone and “get out there and explore,” whether it’s “for one week of the year or for a lifetime.”
“I feel like the more you get out and experience things, the more your bucket list grows,” says Gee.
“I think a lot of American families have their vacation that they go to. For me it was Disney World. And I love Disney World, don’t get me wrong.
“But [it’s important] to be able to get out and see the world and realize there’s so much more out there.”
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