On The Road Again

Jess Gee Has Been To 90 Countries With Her Kids. Here Are Her Best Travel Hacks.

The author of Bucket List Family Travel talks about her new book, the perils of being an influencer, and how many pairs of underwear she packs for a month away.

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Jessica Gee never thought she’d write a book. She has, after all, been pretty busy creating (along with her husband Garrett) the digital juggernaut that is The Bucketlist Family. The Gees chronicle their family’s adventures around the world for their millions of subscribers on Youtube and Instagram. Together with their children Dorothy, 11, Manilla, 9, and Calihan 6, they’ve visited more than 90 countries since embarking on their first trip in 2015.

But when the pandemic halted their travel plans, an offer from National Geographic to create a lavishly illustrated book about their trips convinced Gee to reconsider. This spring, her book, Bucket List Family Travel: Share the World With Your Kids On 50 Adventures Of A Lifetime, landed. It’s full of advice and hard-learned lessons about traveling with young children, as well as 50 different itineraries — each gorgeously illustrated — that will spark wanderlust in even the most dedicated homebody.

I chatted with Gee over zoom (she was home in Hawaii after a multi-week cruise to Antarctica) and asked her about the best age to take kids on a big trip, her favorite places to visit, and how she navigates the inevitable criticism that comes with making your living on social media.

I want to start with the practical stuff. What is your best advice for traveling with a toddler who can't be anesthetized with an iPad on an airplane?

I think my number one tip is, even though they're young — 18 month old, for instance — have them join in on the packing. Have them pick their favorite toys, their favorite books, go to Target and buy three or four things from the dollar section that they're excited about. So they know what's coming — they know the snacks. Just bring them along for the experience so they know what to expect, even if they don't fully grasp what you're doing, where you’re going.

Ok so how many pairs of underwear is the correct number to pack?

I literally saw a post on an account three days ago when people were like, how many pairs of underwear do you bring? And they were like three a day. I was like, what are y'all doing?

The thing is, I pack the same for a week away as I do for three weeks away as I do for three months of travel. So I'm going to have eight to 10 pairs of underwear, and then I wash them, and I'm not afraid to wash them in the sink. And it's probably not the best, but that's what I do.

What's the worst packing mistake you've ever made and what did you learn from it?

Early on, especially first-time parents who are going somewhere, you pack the household, you have the pack and play, you have the car seat, you have the sound machine, you have the blackout curtains. You bring everything. And I know this is definitely an unpopular opinion, but I do think you need to train your kids to not be such high maintenance sleepers.

We've just been taught as parents to have these very set routines, which is great when you're at home, but then the second you do go on vacation or do travel, it all goes to pot because they're so used to their tiny little thing. A friend with young kids recently asked me how do we prepare for a trip? And I was like, "Put your kid in the bathroom for a night, put the pack and play in the bathroom. Just give them a second to see what it's like being in a different room."

Where have you traveled that felt the easiest to have kids?

I think Japan comes to my mind first. It's such a different country, but also you see these young children — six, seven years old — on subways and in train stations alone. It was just easy and clean and you didn't have to worry about your kids on the ground. And there are parks everywhere. I think Japan is a great family friendly destination. There's also New Zealand. For some reason, and I think it's brilliant, New Zealand has decided that almost every restaurant will have a kid's corner. So you could be at any restaurant and they're like, oh, here's coloring and toys and crafts. I don't know why the rest of the world doesn't jump on board with that.

You've had 11 years of travel experience with kids. Is there an age you think that is ideal?

Our youngest is five, and last summer Garrett and I just kept saying, “We're in the pocket.” I felt like all of our kids were at such good ages, so I would say that age five is just so fun. I would never say wait until you're five to travel, but I think once they're five, that's a great age that they can enjoy and remember and learn a ton.

What is the best airport snack?

I'm so sick of snacks. For years it was protein bars and dried fruit and nuts and crackers, and that's fine — that's what we still do. But I pack meals if I can. If I can, I make little breakfast burritos for us to take on a plane because I just don't want a bar. I want more substantial food.

Traveling as a family can be wonderful, but can be very intense. At home you have school and work and maybe separate bedrooms, but on a trip, you might spend every minute of your time together. Do you have any advice for how to handle all that togetherness?

I do think Garrett and I, we crave routine and we just come up with our own routine wherever we are. When we were traveling full time, he woke up first thing and he went and worked out, and then we would meet up for breakfast and then we would swap the kids, and then I would go and work out. So yeah, I think just trying to find a little bit of routine for where you are.

And downtime. We are definitely not generally the family that packs it in, packs it in, packs it in. We like to have that time. Callie, my youngest, he's 6, he still needs a nap probably half the time. So I'm always like, "Callie needs to nap and so does Mom."

I’d like to switch gears and ask you a little bit about how you navigate some of the challenges and potential pitfalls of being an influencer. You write in the book about starting the Bucket List Family during the height of mommy blogging, but before influencing. Now there's just a lot more discussion about kids and influencing and the potential perils of featuring kids prominently in your feed. I know from some of the stuff you've talked about on your feed that the criticism is intense. How do you guys think about that?

That’s something that's heavily on my mind right now. I am always concerned about how things are going to play out and the effect of this long term, for sure.

I’ll start with the fact that I am very adamant about only having my husband as the cameraman. I never want my kids behind somebody else's camera. Occasionally we'll do a big project where somebody is, but in those cases my kids are making a lot of money and it's going to be put in their piggy banks. But that happens maybe once every other year.

But aside from that, I think if people saw the families that came out for the press trip that I did for this book and the difference that we have made in families’ lives, encouraging kids to travel, encouraging kids to swim or try something or be brave. I always say, you can put out good, bad or nothing. And for me, I think my natural inclination would probably be to put out nothing — I am the one who is always like, well, “What are people going to think?” But Garrett has very much convinced me that putting out good is what the world needs. People need to see families adventuring and having fun and doing service and being kind and being brave.

And selfishly, we've had incredible experiences. Our kids know that we make these videos and we get a free trip to the Maldives, and my kids love going to the Maldives, so they get how the world works. And they get that mom and dad work really hard and that our family is a symbol for travel and for being brave and being kind. And hopefully people are seeing that.

But I think only time will tell. I think this social media world is weird to navigate. The examples we have are the horrible examples of Disney and Nickelodeon child stars. We have some friends who have been on YouTube for forever, and we've seen the good and we've seen the bad. It's so hard to navigate parenting right now. And I will say that our kids are not on social media whatsoever. They can watch our YouTube videos, but they've never seen TikToks. So that's our personal line.

Does Dorothy have questions now that she's older? If she comes to you and is like, "I don't want to do it anymore. I'm going to be 13 and I don't want to be on camera," what would you say?

So we had a book signing in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, and I told the kids about it, and I said, "Do you want to come?" We're to the point where I want to have my kids have their agency. And all of the kids were like, "Yeah, we want to go." And I was like, "Well, do you want to stay and take pictures with people?" And the boys are like, "Nah, nah." And Dorothy's like, "Yeah, I do." Dorothy loves it. And I've told the kids, if someone ever asks for a photo, you can say no. And they do. And I'm okay with that. And a lot of times people will say, “Hey, Dorothy, or Hey, Manila, you want to get in the picture?” And they're like, "No." And I'm like, "Yep, they don't want to, that's okay." But yeah, it's definitely a weird thing to navigate and it constantly weighs heavily on my mind because I think you're right.

But that said, if you follow us, you know that we are working on a cartoon, and that is our solution to this problem. Fade off into the sunset with me and my family, and then we can continue to share this message with a cartoon. That was a big reason why I was super excited to do the cartoon.

Are there things that you don't share?

Yeah, definitely. When you're as big as we are now on social media, you have to be really thoughtful about what you share and what you don't share. Our friends, our family, and religion, those we very much decided to keep private.

One of the tricky things about what you do is that authenticity comes with sharing the difficult parts.

For sure. Maybe three, four years ago, we got to the point where I just realized you can't please two and a half million people and you got to be okay with it. And that's part of why I've had to pull myself away more from making the content, because you can't win.

I appreciated that in the past few years, you’ve talked a bit on your platforms about your anxiety, because I do think that, to bring it back to travel, travel often involves a lot of anxiety. You have to confront the things that make you uncomfortable, the things that make you feel safe or not safe. And travel is certainly a way to push yourself.

I think a lot of people don't travel because they're like, I can barely handle my home situation. How is travel going to make it any better?

You can't leave it behind. But having a break from your routine, from your home can be liberating in a lot of ways as well.

Actually, I'm so glad you said that. I had an experience a while ago that we didn’t share at the time. I had just gotten back from Tonga and Garrett was still there. He stayed a couple extra days with some friends and I was home alone with the kids. I woke up one night because I heard something upstairs, and I thought it was a kid. I came upstairs and there was a woman in my house robbing us. It was my worst nightmare. And I couldn't sleep well in my house for months after that. Then I had to go on a trip for my sister's 40th. I wasn't excited about it because I just wanted to be home, but I went. Leaving for that vacation, completely reset me. Every time we come home, it's a reset. It was exactly what I needed to feel comfortable in my house again.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.