I was introduced to Erica Levine from @theworldwidewebers by Karen at @travelmadmum, a previous interviewee for our #mastersoftravel series. I’d followed her and her family's journey on Instagram for a while, and then was contacted by JWT to feature in their new report on the ‘new adulthood’ alongside Erica, both being seen as ‘adventurous families’. I thought it was a good time to speak to her.
She’s a serial expat, having lived in 4 countries in the last 4 years, and since having had kids (they recently had their second), their adventurous attitude to travel hasn’t changed. They’ve been able to use their base at any one time as a route to exploring the region, and have been to some amazing places. She now writes the blog @theworldwidewebers, comically talking about their life and travel plans.
I caught up with her to find out more about how they manage travel, and the journey of the blog to date.
Tell us about your family & work situation and how travel fits in with that – what are some of your biggest trips?
We’re from the US originally. When I met my husband, I was working in a global translations company and he was working in commodities. We had both always loved to travel personally and for work. When we got engaged, we had an opportunity to go to Singapore for our separate jobs, which was our first jump abroad. Within six months of Singapore, my husband’s job took us to South Africa. My job was fine about the move, I just had to travel back to Asia sometimes..
We ended up constantly traveling and meeting up in random places. We had my daughter in South Africa and we knew that wasn’t going to be where we stayed long term. His job then took us to Switzerland, and now we are in London. I started the travel blog when we were in Switzerland.
We’ve lived in 4 countries across 4 years and ironically, I don’t actually love to move! We started to realise when we lived in Singapore that we were spending all our weekends travelling. We never know how long we’ll be anywhere, so we really want to take advantage of where we are at the time. Singapore was the gate to SE Asia. London and Geneva offered us Europe. Johannesburg was the door to Southern Africa. We decided that that was how we wanted to spend our time and money. You never know how long we’ll live anywhere. Life is short, why spend it at Ikea?
That’s how we started travelling. It came from a place of ‘why not’? When we had my daughter, it just continued. As a little kid, they’re ‘strap and go’, you can still do everything you want. My husband had work opportunities that would take him to places like Copenhagen and Jordan and we would just tag along.
The blog for me was really never meant to be anything major, it grew legs of it's own. It started as just an email. People would ask me for recommendations on travelling. I would write emails and forward them and friends of friends would ask me to forward them. My husband said I should write a blog, so I did. I found a humorous voice and writing style, which I didn’t even know I had, or that it would be funny to other people.
I find a lot of the content in this area to be really dry. It’s all ‘this is how you do this with kids’. I want people to laugh and be entertained. Parenting is a shit show and I want someone to say that as I read their stuff. That’s the aim of where I come from, useful and entertaining. It’s a mix of me – sometimes useful, sometimes entertaining, mostly nonsense. That’s how it all started. I’m still working to monetise the blog, and make my passion something that is sustainable and can pay a bill, besides products being gifted. I’m still figuring that side out.
What were you hoping to gain from these trips?
Both of my kids are currently little, so I didn’t necessarily have a goal of what I wanted them to take away from it. As my family gets older I’ll have different expectations. At this age, I want to experience it as a family. I’ve always felt closest to my husband when we experience something new together. We are very different people, who come together in that moment. I wanted that to be the case for me and my new version of my family.
What were friends and family’s reactions when you announced you were moving? Did they support you, or have objections? How did you manage this?
I do not come from a travelling family at all. My family is a big family that is super close and they have all stayed in Washington DC.
Travelling was a solo passion for me. When we said that we were moving to Singapore, our family were taken aback and sad that they weren’t going to see us as often. When we moved to South Africa, my husband broke the news to them, as it was his job opportunity. We told them at Christmas, and I remember he just said ‘We’re moving to Africa!’. My mum said ‘Not South Sudan??’ and burst into tears. Never let your partner break news to your parents! Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and I knew they wouldn’t handle it well.
They’ve got used to us being away. They love the sense of adventure, who I am and the life I’ve chosen, although they’d still prefer me to be nearer to home. We don’t exactly tell them where we’re going, before we go sometimes. Ignorance is bliss, and we tell them when we’re back.
My mum has been to visit us in London 4 times since January. I’m really lucky that I have the kind of parents that would jump on a plane without a suitcase if I needed them. I was in hospital recently and my mum was here before I got out of surgery. That says a lot. They fully support their family no matter where we are.
Ultimately, we started travelling with our first child because our family weren’t where we lived, and we wanted her to meet her family back home. It was never a question of whether we’d travel with our kid, we had to travel! Her first flight was an 18-hour flight from South Africa. You do what you do and you don’t necessarily think about the concerns.
How did the blog start, and where are you up to with it?
Right now, it’s the main thing I’m doing. It’s growing as I’m growing as a parent and as a traveller. Life is too short to be serious and dry and boring, so I aim to entertain. I write a lot of travelling tips, with and without kids, and city itineraries. I write about anything that has helped me travel.
Recently I haven’t been travelling, so it’s been more about the parent version of myself, and ex pat life. My insta-stories do well, as they’re just about me mucking about all day, which people seem to relate to.
I’m figuring out how to monetise it. It’s so difficult to stay genuine and trustworthy, so I work with brands I know, trust and like. Part of it is brand ambassadorship, some is writing for other publications. It could go anywhere, from creating my own range of travel products, to a book, and I love the open ended-ness.
How do you make all of your trips happen?
Our trips are mostly short, anywhere from 36 hours to 2 weeks. They are often weekend trips, close by or tagged onto my husband’s work trips. We recently did a month in Asia which was awesome. It was a dream itinerary across Indonesia, India, Myanmar and Bhutan – all of the places we didn’t get to go to when we lived in Asia, because they were too far away or expensive. We could take that long because it was between moving from one place to another.
How did you go about organising the specifics of your trip?
We’re not necessarily budget backpackers, and we love really cool hotels that make you feel like you’re still in a new place. When you have a kid, you spend more time in the hotel than pre-children, so finding one that is in itself a destination is important.
We don’t like lugging around car seats and lots of stuff, so we get the hotel to arrange transportation, with a car seat. It’s safe and convenient. I don’t want to worry that a local taxi will take advantage of us and we’ll have an unsafe ride.
We use private guides in cities. When it comes to travelling with a kid, for us it’s about being flexible, while getting to experience as much as possible. Group tours are too rigid for us. We want someone to show us what we want to see, but go at our speed, in case we’ll only do a half day because the toddler wants a nap.
What are your must have packing items?
We always bring our little version of a medical kit. I want to be the mobile mum medical unit if I need to be, and not to have to find a pharmacy in a far-off land. We bring a lot of aeroplane snacks, but not a lot of food on trips. We talk to a lot of people who worry if their kids will eat local food, or have snacks for the afternoon. We don’t worry about that. We do have a load of snacks for aeroplane journeys though. If she’s chewing, then she’s not screaming!
I just bring one version of any weight of clothing – a tank top, long sleeve top, and a jacket. One version of each and I’m fine whatever the weather ends up being.
When you arrived in a new place, how did you go about finding your feet?
I’ve learned that sometimes living the schedule of a toddler is nice. Everyone taking a midday nap is lovely. A toddler routine, with a half-day tour in the morning, a nap at midday and exploring on our own in the afternoon, is a schedule I’m down with.
What kind of places do you stay in?
One of the things that we learned really quickly was that 7pm and after when we’re travelling is kind of bust. The kid is sleepy, you’re not going to take an 18- month-old to a restaurant at 8pm at night when they’re tired, as it’s not fair to them. We choose hotels that have great restaurants, so if we need to eat at the hotel, we’re not sacrificing a great meal. We love food, so we like foody travel in that way.
I’m realising the difference with booking travel for two kids. A lot won’t let you have more than 1 child per room, so I’m learning about the best accommodation for a family of 4 vs. a family of 3.
I find Air BNB a bit hit or miss, but as our family gets bigger, it might be more of that kind of accommodation, so that the toddler can have their own room. Although it wouldn’t then have the restaurant a hotel would provide.
Because we’re not doing longer term family travel, and our trips are shorter, we are willing to pay more for a nicer place, as we don’t want a bad experience to ruin the whole thing.
How do you travel? Pro’s and cons of different options? Any tips?
I believe in aeroplane travel. Our child hates the car, so therefore we hate the car. Flying is our main thing. Any time the kid doesn’t have to be strapped in is a win for us, so the car is the worst-case scenario. We haven’t done that much train travel, as for short trips, flights makes more sense.
When we were travelling with a baby, the goal was always to get her to sleep on the flight, no matter how long it was. I would hold off on getting her to sleep or nurse so that she was hungry and tired for the flight, and that worked. She was a mess in the waiting area, but the reality was that she was the quiet one on the plane. Now she’s a toddler, it’s a totally different ball game. Now I just throw food at her!
I’m ruthless about asking for upgrades or for our child to have her own seat. 90% of the time before she was 2, she had her own seat on planes. That wasn’t a fluke. I was very persistent about asking people at the checking gate, asking the steward at boarding, and asking the steward on the plane if they could move us to free seats. It’s a win for everyone if she’s happy.
How did you manage feeding on the move? Breastfeeding / bottle / weaning? Any tips?
Breastfeeding is the best thing eve,r as you don’t have to worry about the water source for formula, or the nutritional make up of food. My daughter’s first solids were in a tapas bar in Spain. She’s a human garbage disposal and part of the reason that she is that way, is that she’s been exposed to as many different flavours as we can. Even at home we have a lot of different flavours.
She may not absorb and remember travel, but sleeping in a different cot, and not always being on a strict routine, has made her adaptable and not freak out. We’ve been lucky that she’s a good eater, but that being said I was warned that at two that could change, and it slightly has, which is really sad. In Asia, she just wanted to eat rice and bananas, which is pretty much what she survived on.
I’m in the zone of parenting where we can present her with everything under the sun, but if that’s all she’ll eat, then for a week she’ll be fine. She loves chicken curries, lots of foods from India, as much naan bread as she can fit in her cheeks. We don’t make it a big deal that it’s a different food. We find something on the menu that we think she’ll like, or ask them to make something a little differently. People are amazingly accommodating. People are often afraid to ask for different food in restaurants, but they shouldn’t be.
Why is travel so important to you (and your family)?
I just think it’s so exciting. What’s better than being somewhere that you’ve never been before, eating foods that you can’t pronounce, and doing it as a family? Who cares who remembers what down the road, all the photos will be on iCloud.
There’s a saying about having kids, that the days are slow, but the years are fast. It’s so true, but when I benchmark it against all these moments we’ve had: hiking the monastery steps at Petra, being on the canals in Copenhagen, my daughter learning to crawl in Monaco. These are all moments that I won’t forget, it slows life down.
What's the best experience you've had with your family while travelling?
An impossible question! One of the most recent was hiking tigers nest in Bhutan. It was a very spiritual experience, we were very present in the moment with our daughter. I didn’t know it then, but I was pregnant and it was this beautiful hike, in a beautiful environment. The monastery at the top was stunning and the experience felt very authentic. It wasn’t over commercialised, and you weren’t amongst the masses.
It was early in the morning. My grandmother had passed away the night before and we were lighting candles in one of the most special places in the world for her. To me, that’s life. Being together in the present, looking to the future, acknowledging the past.
My son was conceived in Bhutan, so he is named ‘Metta’ which is a Buddhist word meaning love and kindness. His middle name is Lee after my grandmother who passed away that week. My daughter is named Nala, as she was born in Johannesburg. It means queen in Swahili (and she has her own Disney character, which is always a win!)
And the worst? The biggest challenges about travelling with kids?
We visited Myanmar, as the last country on a 4-week trip. We’d carried a pop up tent with us for the baby, but only used it twice. We’d bought it in case of bugs. Right before we got there it broke, so we had to ditch it.
The first night there, we used the cot where we were staying, and woke up to the baby having been eaten alive by a mutant bug, with 30 bites, and not a bite on my husband or I. It was bad. We had to get doctors to come to the hotel. Everywhere we went, we were that couple who had let their child get eaten alive.
We were used to looks, where it’s intriguing that you’re travelling with a child, but this felt like we were bad parents. In the future, it will probably be because the toddler is having a major tantrum at an inopportune moment. She knows that if we’re on some form of transportation, we’ll give her what she wants to keep her quiet – they’re smarter than they look!
Biggest surprises? Things you didn’t expect?
I didn’t expect it to be not that hard. People instil so much fear and doubt in you about so many aspects of parenting. Travel was always something where people said that it was never going to be easy, or we wouldn’t have that much fun.
But, when she was 0-18 months, we just went, experienced, and we didn’t doubt ourselves or question it that much. I know how I feel about kids crying on planes and when I see kids kicking off in public and I was always scared to be that parent. The reality is that the percentage of time that they’re doing that is small, and people are so much nicer than you expect they’re going to be.
We had food poisoning in India (big shock I know!) and when we first landed in Bhutan, the hotel staff had so much pity for us. They basically just took the baby from us, as they saw us dying. Anywhere we go with the baby, people are just so excited to interact with her, especially in Asia. I’m American, and instinctively think that people are going to hate our American spawn, but everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve just been so welcomed, and it’s been such a nice experience.
What are your best tips for others wanting to travel with children? Things you'd wish you'd known and learnt the hard way?
Don’t bring a lot of gear, ask your hotel to fill in those gaps for you. Ask for the seat for under 2-year-olds on the plane, so you don’t have to hold a squirmy toddler. Food on flights is king for 1-2-year-old kids. For nights of alone time with your partner, we have used babysitters in certain countries. If you’re staying in a nice hotel, they have trustworthy people for babysitters.
We give ourselves a ton of time on travel days. We don’t mess around with cutting things close, as you never know what weird things will happen between you wanting to get to the airport. We don’t give the opportunity for stress where it’s not needed. Kids in general pick up on your vibe if you’re worried or anxious, so being as calm as possible is important. Knowing that they’re watching you helps me put a smile on my face, even if its clenched behind it.
Any future travelling plans?
I’m planning our first trip as a family of 4 to Italy. Where better to take a 2-year-old you can’t control, than to Venice where they can jump into canals?!
Then we’ll do the US for the holidays, but we are hoping to get a few trips in before that. Traveling as a family of 4 will be a completely new experience!
I’m excited to get back out there. In the beginning, it’s quite nice to be home and have a routine, but now we’re ready to get out there, reconnect and slow down. I’m ready for the huge success and failure of it all.
To follow Erica’s blog, go to www.theworldwidewebers.com or follow them on @theworldwidewebers