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How International Travel Guide Danna Brumley Makes It Work

The reality of combining a fantasy travel career with family life

Bryony Angell

Published on: June 09, 2015

What if your next work trip lasted 10 days, 12 hours a day, and landed you in a foreign country meandering art museums and jazz clubs? Danna and Matthew Brumley of Bainbridge Island run the small group-travel-adventure company Earthbound Expeditions, which organizes and curates international travel packages catering to those with passion for music, art and gastronomic discovery. You might be familiar with Matthew’s name from his Thursday morning commentary as part of 88.5 KPLU NPR affiliate’s “Going Places” series, where Danna can be heard on occasion as well when the focus is France or Italy (she warmly greets listeners in perfect French or Italian).

Since 1997, when Danna and Matthew founded Earthbound Expeditions (after careers working as guides at Europe through the Back Door, Lindblad and other travel companies), the company has grown from an inaugural tour to Costa Rica to more than 40 tours a year to Europe, Africa and Latin and North America. Earthbound partners with public-radio stations across North America to offer tours appealing to listeners, from a jazz-and-garden tour of the Mississippi Delta to a visual-arts tour of Northern Italy.

The Brumleys are also parents to 14-year-old Liam and 11-year-old Aiyana. On the eve of a late spring trip to Paris for research, Danna shared her experience of balancing what to the layperson sounds like a fantasy career with family life. (This same trip to Paris also included her daughter.)

Danna Brumley and her two children
Danna Brumley and her two children

How did you come to the profession you are in now?

I studied languages (French, Spanish, Italian) at university and thought I’d be a teacher. I continued with post-graduate studies in sociolinguistics of the Romance languages at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. I stayed in Paris for more than three years (after my studies), teaching English as a Second Language and even working at EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris).

When I returned to the U.S., I moved to Edmonds, Wash., practically next door to Europe Through the Back Door — Rick Steves’ business. I worked in the tour department and as a tour guide there for six years. I also met my guide-husband there and we married and moved to Bainbridge Island.

When we decided to start a family, I knew I could not make the three-hour daily commute from Bainbridge to Edmonds, and my husband was ready to branch out on his own. So we started our own tour company, Earthbound Expeditions.

What is the best advice you received when you started down your professional path?

The advice we still use all the time in our business is setting expectations. It’s very important to share and remind our guests and hosts of what’s coming up on a tour, what’s expected of them as Americans, and what they should expect in the countries they’re visiting. We don’t have many problems on our tours, but when we do, it’s usually because the expectation didn't match the reality.

The other great advice I received was as a guide; my [now] husband told me when training me on my very first tour, many years ago: It doesn't matter so much that you know every important historical date, or speak every language fluently or know where every restaurant or museum is. What’s important is that your guests like YOU.

What’s your favorite current project?

If I have to choose just one, it would be a tour I’m coordinating for a California Jazz station that will take guests from Paris to a Jazz festival in the Loire Valley in France, where they’ll stay for three nights in a chateau-cum-hotel and go wine and cheese tasting by day and attend concerts at the nearby festival by night. The next stop is in Dijon, Burgundy, where they’ll eat and drink some more as well as visit abbeys and museums, then head back to Paris for an exclusive tour of chocolate shops. I can’t believe this is my job sometimes.

Husband Matthew on a trip to Cuba
Husband Matthew on a trip to Cuba

What's family life like? 

[We have] two children: a 14-year-old son Liam and an 11-year-old daughter, Aiyana. Liam’s first trip to Europe was at 3 months old, Aiyana was 9 months old. They’ve both been many times to Europe, Central America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, not to mention Canada and Mexico. As you can imagine, they actually sometimes say “do we have to go to [fill in the blank]?"  

What is your work space like?

Our first office was a spare bedroom, where you could hear the fax machine ringing in the middle of the night, thanks to the time difference in Europe. We then moved into the guest house we built above our garage. When the kids were younger, I could dash out and send off an email or make some calls and not have to worry too much about them. Thanks to laptop computers, I could also work in the house, though that entailed lots of distractions! The downside was that there was no boundary between work and home.

Currently we have two offices: one of which is in Winslow [which] has made a big difference in terms of a healthier work boundary. My husband still works in the guest house office, but he’s comfortable working on a daily basis, even weekends, taking breaks, then returning to work. I prefer to have the weekend off — two days in a row!

How do you determine when in the year to guide, and do you take kids with you? How did that work change through the years?

The tour dates are determined by the hosting organizations and I mostly limit myself to France and Cuba (two of my favorite places!). We don’t really get a lot of choice as to when the tours will be, though in my case France trips tend to be in May and September and Cuba in the fall or winter. We have mostly in-country guides working for us, so Matthew and I only guide a small portion (I guide two to three a year and Matthew five to six a year of the 40-plus trips our company operates annually).

The children don’t come on the tours, as they (the tours) are designed for adults. When they were younger, we would occasionally bring them at the same time one of us was guiding and stay at the same hotels, but the children wouldn’t travel with the group or participate in the activities. My 14-year-old son recently accompanied my husband for the first time (on tour) to Ireland. It was wonderful for him to see his dad in action as a guide. My daughter’s trip with me next week to Paris is three days of research and four days of staying with a friend’s family.

What are 2-3 solutions or strategies you use for “making it work” – balancing running a vibrant business and family life?

I couldn’t survive without the Google calendar. We have made Sunday a “No-tech, Family Day.” We try to find some fun thing we can do together as a family. We also ... try to sit down to dinner together every night.

Describe your typical weekday:

On a good day: At 6:15 I get up and do 30-45 minutes of yoga. 7 a.m., wake the kids, make coffee, make the breakfast sandwich (see below), feed the dog, make lunches (if not done the night before). 7:45 a.m., shoo kids to bus stop. 8 a.m., I drive to work. 3-4:30 p.m. Depending on schedule, taxi service begins (guitar lessons, tutors, ride home from weight-lifting, etc) then back to work. If one of us is traveling, the other parent drives, or my parents-in-law very often chip in. 6 p.m.-ish back home, make dinner, homework. 9:30 p.m. force kids to bed.

You mentioned grandparents helping — how much did that play a part/plays a part in your child-care mix over the years?

We did most of the kiddo juggling, but we are lucky enough to have both sets of grandparents living nearby. Matthew¹s parents live on Bainbridge and mine on Camano Island. They step in a lot to look after the kids when we are gone at the same time and also for occasional date nights or weekends away. It¹s wonderful on all sides: for the kids and the grandparents .. and us!

How does your family get out of the house in the morning?

Coffee. Just kidding. I pre-set the breakfast bar with breakfast dishes ready to go and I (or the kids) try to make lunches/snacks the night before.

Also, we have a little bench with drawers and cubbies by the front door, in which we keep the kids’ socks and shoes, so they don’t have to run upstairs to get socks at the last minute. Backpacks are also kept on top of the bench. It’s all ready to grab and go!

What are a couple of favorite outings that you do as a family that are outside your family business of travel?

We have a little speedboat that we love to zoom around in. When the weather gets nice in late May/early June, we’ll zip over to Seattle for happy-hour snacks and drinks or sit in the sun on Blake Island. We also like to walk or ride bikes in Fort Ward, then go get pizza at the Treehouse Café here on Bainbridge .  

Costa Rican beach
Costa Rican beach

Favorite family getaway?

Domestically, we love Leavenworth, Wash., where we stay in secret little cabins and go cross-country skiing in the winter and float on inner tubes down the river in the summer. So much fun!!

Internationally, I think my kids would say (and I may have to agree): Costa Rica!! We’ve been many, many times and you just can’t beat the flora, fauna, weather, food, people, beaches and surf.

What is your “just for me” indulgence, and how do you find time for it?

For years I have attended a weekly, two-hour book study class. The book changes every 12 weeks or so; topics have included meditation, comparative religion, study of the Enneagram and Buddhism. I simply decided to make it a priority. Period. Most of the time it takes place during the day, but right now I’m attending one on Wednesday evenings.

Who inspires you?

I’ve recently made some friends while working in Haiti and Cuba. I hear from them on a weekly basis. It’s humbling to witness how cheerful they all are in spite of their circumstances.

What professional or personal achievement are you most proud of?

My children. I can’t take all the credit for who they are becoming. Besides their parents, they are surrounded by wonderful aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents who have doubtlessly influenced their character.

Most important to me however, is that they are both very kind human beings. They are also intuitive and funny and smart. I can’t believe they’re mine.

Have you ever reached the point where you realized you had to do things differently as a working parent and if so what did you do?

While my children were young, I stopped working as a guide for several years. And I didn’t miss it. I preferred to be home with my kids. I simply did not want to spend two or more weeks away from them.

When my daughter was around three, my husband had to push me pretty hard to guide a Paris tour, to which I finally agreed, under the condition that he also come to Paris with the kids, so I could see them in the evenings after work! I’m glad he did that for me though, because it’s easy to fall out of practice and lose confidence.

I’m back to guiding two to three trips a year now, which is plenty for me. I’m usually only away for 10-15 days. The rest of the year, I work full time in our office.

How has travel impacted your relationship with your children?

Travel has made us closer as a family and helps tighten our bond when we go somewhere, just the four of us. We have a lot of fun together.

I like to think we’re broadening their perspective on our country and hopefully dispelling stereotypes about other countries. I want them to be citizens of the world and ensure they’ll always feel comfortable stepping off of our little Island and into the big, wide world. 



Danna's top family travel tips

- Pack light! I try to do this anyway, but with kids, it’s even more imperative. You may have to have car seats, strollers, children may be unable to carry their own bag, so you’ve got to be organized and streamlined. 

- Bags must be on wheels and strollers/car seats should be collapsible, small and ideally stack easily on each other and/or the suitcase.

- Plan ahead: Include changes of clothes for kids and parents in the carry-on (in case luggage is lost).

- Allow more time than you think you may need (and certainly more than you’d allow a single adult traveler) to get to the airport, get through security, change trains/planes/buses etc. You have to plan for restrooms, snacks, water breaks, etc.

- Find out if and where “play places” for kids are located in the airport.

- Bring extra food and water for the plane. Granola bars, little non-perishable snacks. Cheerios, gummi bears, graham crackers or other snacks that can double as toys: counting, stacking, etc.

- If child is old enough, have them carry their own, kid-size wheeled bag and let them choose some of their favorite toys.

- Bring extra hand wipes/cloth for cleaning/mopping.

New toys or games can help prolong the attention span (ideally disposable or edible).

 - Bring drawing materials/erasable pens or “invisible ink” that won’t stain.

- Reading material is great, especially anything interactive play (opening windows, fabrics to feel, etc.)

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