Aside from a one-off trip to Europe, the farthest Jessica Gee traveled 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 of ‘I want to travel around the world,’” Gee, of Denver, Colorado, tells CNN Travel. “That was never me. But the more I go out, the more I want to see.”
According to Gee, everything changed when her husband, whom she met while on a religious 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 strange situation that maybe not many 20-somethings find themselves in,” Gee admits. “We were sitting on newfound wealth and didn’t know what to do. So we decided to put all that aside and see what’s out there in the world.”
The couple, married since 2009, were eager to experience different cultures and “just learn a little bit.”
“We still felt very young and naive,” adds Gee.
They soon began planning a long trip to Southeast Asia and decided to launch an Instagram page, The Bucket List Family, to compile their adventures.
“Honestly, I think we had this perfect storm of Garrett’s creative skills and my marketing background,” Gee says, explaining that she studied product placement in college. “Now I just do it with my own life.”
After saving the purchase money, they sold their furniture and most of their belongings, raised around US$45,000, and traveled 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 the Pacific islands Fiji and Tonga, but after briefly returning to the United States, they decided they wanted to continue.
“Little trips turned into three years of full time,” adds Gee, who just published a travel guide, The Bucket List Family Travel, in collaboration with National Geographic.
The family visited dozens of countries around the world, including Germany, Morocco, Japan, Brazil, Guatemala and Dominica.
The family of five has traveled to more than 90 countries. (Garrett Gee/National Geographic)
Gee lists Belize among his top “family” destinations, describing the Central American country as a good “starter destination” for U.S.-based families who aren’t ready to venture too far.
He also recommends “amazing” Alaska for those seeking outdoor adventures for their children.
“There’s the fishing, the wildlife, the whales and the bears,” he says. “It’s great for kids who are maybe a little older, five years old and up. But I took my two-year-old son there and he had a great time.”
Gee was also incredibly impressed by the East African country of Rwanda, a destination she was afraid to visit due to preconceived notions.
“I had seen (the movie) ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and that’s all I knew,” he says. “So he was nervous and scared. And it ended up being the destination that changed my life the most.”
After spending so much time on the move, Gee is used to long trips and actually finds it easier than short trips, explaining that she often feels exhausted after taking a week-long vacation.
“When I travel for a month or more, I get into a routine, I get into a routine,” he says, adding that he packs roughly the same number of items whether he’s traveling for a while or longer. month, six months or fifteen days.
She spent her entire third pregnancy “living out of a suitcase” before welcoming her son Calihan in 2018.
“I didn’t realize how much flying takes a toll on the body,” Gee says. “Then she got worse (due to my pregnancy).”
“Maybe it was also because it was my first pregnancy over 30 years old, but my back and body hurt.
“But at the same time, we went to so many places in those nine months that I loved them.”
Gee makes sure her kids feel involved in her travel plans before leaving anywhere, asking 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 get so excited that they take out the toy, the book, and the snacks they packed,” he 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.”
“Children feed 100% on the attitudes of their parents,” he says. “So when things get tiring, exhausting and stressful, you just have to cheer yourself up and be positive. Because if you are losing it, they are going to lose it.”
While she tries to plan every aspect of her trips, including scheduling flights during nap time and making sure her luggage is packed, Gee has learned from experience to always have a backup plan.
“Things are bad,” he says. “You lose your luggage or your flight is cancelled. Those setbacks.
“Having to deal with that and navigate the kids and their needs has always been the hardest part.”
The Bucket List Family Instagram account has amassed nearly three million followers over the years and they have since launched successful YouTube and TikTok accounts, and the income earned from partnerships with different companies helps them fund their travels.
Gee recognizes that her situation is unique and that there are many parents who simply cannot afford to travel the world with their children.
It offers money-saving tips on “The Bucket List Family Travel,” including home swaps 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 a matter of finding a national park and camping or hiking,” he says. “Or see if you can work enough to earn time off for an extended period.”
The Gee family counts “service” among their travel goals and tries their best to incorporate activities like volunteering at an orphanage into their travels.
“Travel is usually a selfish endeavor. Taking the time to really look outside of yourself and your own family and see who you might serve locally will be a huge blessing,” Gee writes.
After three years of moving full-time, the family of five returned to the US and bought a bungalow in Hawaii in 2018.
Jessica and Garrett met in Russia and have been married for almost 15 years. (Garrett Gee/National Geographic)
Ever-Changing Wish List
“The one thing we miss when we’re traveling is the community,” Gee says. “We missed having friends and family (around) and we wanted our kids to play sports and let them experience it.
“That’s when we decided to settle down and then try to have the best of both worlds.”
They have continued to travel as a family ever since 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 their children, particularly their son Manilla, who was about 11 months old when they first left.
“I was used to sleeping in a different bed every night or every other night (when we returned),” he explains. “So he slept in different rooms of the house every night.
“It was a strange adjustment for him knowing that we weren’t going to the airport and that we were staying home.”
Although Gee tries her best to schedule her trips during school holidays, there are occasional exceptions, such as an upcoming visit to Antarctica.
“We have extra tutoring just to keep them on track,” he says. “And we will take our schoolwork with us.
“And even during the summer, when they don’t have school work, we bring in those extra books and try to make it exciting for them.”
According to Gee, his family’s bucket list has changed over the years as they have all become big wildlife enthusiasts, so things like seeing the “pandas in China” and the “orangutans in Borneo” have come close to the top.
“What I like to do most with my family is go on safari,” he adds. “We have already done it several times.
“But for me, there’s nothing better than being in an environment where something new (happens) every day.
“You wake up and you don’t know what you’re going to see, and then you’ll see these animals and wildlife and how they all live together and depend on each other.
“It sounds so cheesy, but it’s literally the circle of life. “Experiencing that and witnessing it with my family is so beautiful.”
She advises other parents interested in traveling more with their children to try to get out of their comfort zone and “go out and explore,” whether “for a week of the year or a lifetime.”
“I feel like the more you go out and experience things, the more your bucket list grows,” Gee says.
“I think a lot of American families go on vacation. For me it was Disney World. And I love Disney World, don’t get me wrong.
“But (it’s important) to be able to go out and see the world and realize there’s so much more out there.”