Gap Year for Grown Ups

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Did you hear Malia Obama’s taking a gap year before college? And are you just a little bit jealous? Is your phone home screen a picture of a place you’ve never been?  I know those symptoms. You want to take some time off and see the world on some once-in-a-lifetime, Bucket List-style mission. Maybe hug koalas in Australia or ride an elephant in Thailand. I can help you.

Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park
For the record, I did not ride my elephant. But there was bathing and kissing involved.

First, koalas have very sharp claws, and they smell like menthol. Second, people should not ride elephants. It’s cruel.

Now that I’ve crushed your dreams, let’s build them back up together. Longterm travel is realistic. How do I know? I quit my job to travel for a year on my savings. I snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I toured Vietnam by motorbike. My Eiffel Tower selfies are adorable. It was an even more amazing trip than I expected. And I want you to do it. Soon.

Waiting for retirement isn’t the only option. Yes, there are plenty of “active seniors” frolicking around. But I’ve also met families traveling with preschoolers, thirty-somethings who were between jobs and extended honeymooners.  To live your dream, now’s the time. I don’t mean to be Stephie Somber, but “someday” never comes. Ever. Pick up a calendar and look for yourself. So decide to schedule your priorities and go.

Let me introduce you to the Gap Year

While traveling, I initially struggled to explained to strangers what I was doing. “I’m, um,  traveling for a year, um, before I go back to work, you know?” The Europeans helped me out. “Right, a sabbatical.” In the US, a sabbatical is usually taken to pursue research or artistic work. But it seems the rest of the world finds pure travel sabbatical-worthy as well. The romantic Spaniards made me think my “año sabatico” was a noble pursuit. The matter-of-fact Germans were unimpressed, but surprised to see an American out and about. They’re right; we’re underrepresented. There are some recent champions of extended travel. Tim Ferriss uses the term mini-retirement, but that makes me feel old.

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Tweet: Maybe you feel agitated when you aren’t doing something constructive. I’ve met people like this before. And they travel too. #adultgapyear

Maybe you’re a person who feels agitated when you aren’t doing something constructive. I’m definitely not one of those people, but I’ve met them before. And they travel too. <

If travel for travel’s sake seems frivolous to you, you can tie your travel to volunteer work. Or work work. Or play.

There’s this futuristic creation called the internet, and it means that lots of people can work from almost anywhere. The popular term is “digital nomad”, and you might be surprised how much of the world is set up to accommodate these remote workers. WiFi in Vietnam was quicker and easier to find than in Western Australia, and there aren’t any deadly koalas. There are even groups of digital nomads who relocate together every couple of months arranging travel, accommodation and work space for you.  Working poolside in Panama ain’t bad.

Gap year for grown ups

WorkOptions.com is an amazing resource for employees wanting to negotiate flexible work environments with their employers. Pat has a 20 year track record of helping people propose and get approved to work remotely. Her tools are very thorough but easily implemented and include proposal templates and conversation prep to help you predict and overcome possible objections.

Get started on your telecommuting proposal here. 

If you already work remotely, or are a freelancer, you’re in an even better position to begin than I was.

But maybe you don’t want to spend your gap year working.  Use the time to make art, as in a DIY artist in residency program. And you don’t have to already be a pro to get satisfaction from a sabbatical. How much progress could you make in a few months? More than if you don’t put in the effort. I met several musicians and photographers plus a ton of writers and bloggers out on the trail who were taking time to focus on their craft. And what better creative inspiration than travel!


I didn’t have a digital-friendly job. I’m a pharmacy technician. And I didn’t become an artist while I was on the road. Unless you count selfie mastery as art. But I did manage to squeak out some constructive work where I contributed to society from paradise.

I volunteered through Workaway in Cambodia and in Australia. For my most recent volunteer gig I worked as a demi-pair for a family in exchange for room and board. I originally signed on for a 3 week stay, but I ended up living with them for almost 2 months. I helped the family unpack from a recent move and did carpool duty for a total of 4 or 5 hours a day. And I spent the rest of my time not getting boxed by kangaroos and enjoying Australia’s overabundance of beautiful beaches.

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Choose your location(s)

There’s a well-worn backpacker circuit that will take you around the world, but you might find some of the locations uninteresting if you aren’t into EDM and casual drug use. (Kidding, mostly.) Plus, some younger backpackers try to fit an around-the-world trip into their school gap year. But maybe you’ve already done some traveling, or you want to focus on a region or two. I specialize in warm-weather beach towns with good street food and cheap accommodations.

Perhaps you want to travel based on your ancestry DNA results or Beyoncé’s tour dates. All good ideas. Don’t know how to pick a place? Here are 10 of my favorite ideas to get your imagination running.

  1. Trace your ancestry

  2. Follow traveling music festivals

  3. Strut your stuff at Fashion Week events

  4. Visit the settings of your favorite books or movies

  5. Volunteer at English-language immersion camps

  6. Drive the world’s most famous scenic routes

  7. Re-energize at yoga and meditation retreats

  8. Take dance lessons from various cultures

  9. Trace Paul’s missionary journeys

  10. Study martial arts

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Determine your budget  and pick your date

Other travel bloggers have done a more thorough job than I ever could in tracking their travel spending. I just traveled until my bank account was empty. But to give you a starting place for a rough estimate, airfare, accommodation and meals are usually the biggest expenses in longterm travel and are the place to start calculating your budget. In SE Asia I spent around $30 USD per day. In Europe (Portugal and Budapest) it was closer to $40.

Get $40 off your first adventure with Airbnb!

I like to check Skyscanner and Momondo for flight prices. You can sign up for alerts when prices change. Don’t be afraid of one-way airline tickets. Round-trip tickets and booking far in advance can lead to wasted money when you’re traveling for a long time with a loose schedule.

Shop the Vaycarious Travel Collection at Society6. 

Your accommodation will be the largest chunk of your daily spend (not including special lessons and tours). If you’re staying in one place for a month or more, consider getting a short-term rental after you arrive to save yourself some money. And don’t skip the travel insurance that includes emergency medical evacuation. I’m insured through World Nomads. You know the saying: “Better safe than in a hospital 8,000 miles from your family.”

Once you have an idea how much your trip will cost, determine how long it’ll take you to prepare, and SET A DATE! Don’t plan and plan until the cows come home; go out and look for those heifers yourself. Analysis paralysis will suffocate you. Action is the antidote.

See? Adorable.
See? Adorable.

Summon the Courage

Folks at home had a surprising reaction when I told them my plan to take a gap year in my 40s. Most people didn’t try to scare me straight with stories of solo female travelers becoming victims of murder, mayhem or malaria . Instead, they usually said the same two words: “You’re brave.”

Brave. My co-workers, friends, family, the customer service lady at DirecTV all said it. Not as an American-style, exaggerated exclamation. Just as a statement. The same way you state your hair color. But the sentence is loaded. What they meant is :You’re brave; I’m afraid. That’s a problem. Bravery isn’t something you are. It’s something you do. A lifetime ago when I was in the Army, Uncle Sam taught me a very valuable lesson. Everyone feels fear. What we call “courage” is the taking of action after feeling that fear. Brave is the step after fear.

Of course taking a gap year can be a scary thing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Remember that time you did that thing you were afraid to do? Remember the confidence and sense of accomplishment you felt? You deserve a repeat performance!

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Stay Motivated

It took me 15 months from the day I decided to take a gap year until the day I boarded the plane to Malaysia. Not everyone can make the decision and execute their travel plan quickly. While you’re planning and preparing, stay excited! Don’t let the work of gap year prep drain you of your enthusiasm.

Pick a book about your region. Transport yourself before you even leave home. Maybe you’ll gain a little bit of savvy before you arrive. Read someone else’s tale of ordering “chips” but getting french fries to save yourself some confusion. If you’re planning an “Eat, Pray, Love” journey, at least you could read the book first. I saw the movie, which totally counts.

 

 

 

 

Learn the language. Or at least a few basic phrases. Being an English-speaker is extremely convenient in most of the world, but it’s helpful to be able to extend greetings in the local language. Before traveling to Brazil, I picked up a few words of Portuguese using the Duolingo app. And YouTube videos gave me a handful of Thai words. The word for “delicious” was surprisingly helpful, and I recommend making it one of the first you learn wherever you’re going. It’ll earn you smiles from the wait staff and maybe a free desert or two.Gold CoastWhether you plan to enjoy your adult gap year swinging in a hammock or from a zip line, you WILL enjoy it.  It’ll be worth the prep work you put in. And you’ll come back with a renewed sense of self and faith in your problem-solving abilities. That is, if you have to come back at all. Then you’ll be the one spreading the word that extended travel before retirement is a rewarding experience.

That’s not all!

Since we have this travel jones in common, why don’t we stay in touch? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter for grown up gap year inspiration and tools to check it off your bucket list!

Bon Voyage!

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Gap Year for Grown Ups

32 Comments Add yours

  1. Molly says:

    Ahh indeed, not doing this when I was young is probably one of my biggest regrets. I have HUGE admiration for you, you made it happen. That is absolutely fantastic. I can’t see it happening for me any time soon, a mixture of finances and children that are locked into an education system for now prevent it. I do live in hope though, maybe one day…. Even if I don’t manage the whole travel thing I would love to rent a little cottage somewhere in Greece and spend 6 months there exploring, writing and taking photos.

    Mollyxxx

    1. I hope you get to Greece, Molly! And maybe it’ll happen sooner than you think. Until then, follow along with me! I’m hoping to spend the summer in Europe, so maybe I can give you a peek of Greece. 😁

      1. Molly says:

        Ohh I look forward to seeing that.

        Mollyxxx

  2. Sarah C. says:

    Ditto-ing Molly with the “wish I had when I was younger.” I did jump on the opportunity to tag along with my husband on a business trip to England 3 years ago and it was well worth it. I can’t complain though – most of the past 7 years since becoming a parent I’ve had the joy & privilege of being home with my kids so I do have “gap years” in my resume. Just not traveling ones! But you are right, time is often shorter than we realize. Gears churning for ideas to make happen in the not too distant future. A funeral I attended yesterday furthered that. A life cut too short and yet there were lots and lots of photos he, his wife, and children had taken over the years. It made an impression on me for sure.

    1. My condolences, Sarah. I experienced a similar loss that convinced me to take the gap year. Too bad it takes that kind of thing to get us to do the things we’ve been wanting to do. I was really surprised by the number of families I saw living the slow travel life. I hope you get a great trip in! And because I’m an enabler, let me introduce you to my favourite traveling family at Our Open Road. http://www.facebook.com/ouropen.road

  3. Melanie says:

    Love this post!! I never even considered a gap year in between HS and college and wish I had! I am not even sure I knew what one was. Now here I am about to turn 30 and dreaming of taking a gap year (or two), if only I can convince my husband! I loved this “Maybe you’re a person who feels agitated when you aren’t doing something constructive. I’m definitely not one of those people, but I’ve met them before. And they travel too.” I am definitely in the same boat as you, but my husband has that need to be doing all the time. Trying to remind him that travel is something and that just taking in the world around you is constructive in it’s own right! Great post! So glad you found this linkup!

    1. I’m so glad for the linkup, Melanie! Keep working on your husband. And find that passport! 😆

  4. ‘Nice one Stephanie! Keep doing what you’re doing and keep on truckin’!

    A GAP year is an excellent thing for anyone to do, at anytime! And for the parents among you, if your kids are under high-shool age, it’s the perfect time, as school is more flexible, the children learn loads about the world, and you get an insight into your children that you would never have been able to do, whilst at home doing your normal day-to-day stuff! Go for it! 😀

    1. Yes to all of this! You’re the expert, since you travel a lot with your son. The family that holidays together, stays together. lol. I think we’d make excellent Gap Year ambassadors!

  5. Love when I read inspirational posts like this! I dont understand why Americans are so stubborn about doing a gap year. I kind of did that in college by “studying abroad” wink wink nudge nudge and then in 2012, I sold all my belongings to move alone to Germany so I could travel. It’s the greatest experience and working abroad or volunteering are a great way to do a long term gap year! #MondayEscapes

    1. Moving to Germany to travel is BRILLIANT! Talk about centrally located. Waffles and chocolate and beer, Oh My 🙂

  6. Love this. I’m often filled with regret for not having a gap year frollicking around the world but I’ve learnt travel never runs out of time. My Dad was 50 before he first left the country and got a passport. You just have to prioritise travel rather than dream about it or feel regrets.

    1. Yes, Juliette! When it’s a priority, it happens. Don’t regret not doing it in the past. It’s not too late. 🙂

  7. Ruth says:

    Love your post, photos and attitude. I totally get the concept and I have been thinking about doing something similar. I may start with a short period of time to see how it works out. I am known for planning too much and ending up exhausted. On a longer trip, I may need to take it easier. #MondayEscapes

    1. Thanks for the kind words! 🙂 I hope you do get to take some extended travel time. And I hope it’s sooner, rather than later, Ruth. I think the cure for over-planning is to actually plan down time. Like LOTS of down time.

  8. Becki Svare says:

    What a fantastic adventure! We travel with our family, but with the kids in High School it gets a little harder to wander. I really admire people who figure out how to do what they want/need! Well done!

  9. travelingchristie says:

    Stephanie I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post, yes you were brave but in an exciting way. Living for today is the only way and you will never ever say I should have done that. Thanks so much for linking up #MondayEscapes

    1. Christie, I was reminded that this is not a dress rehearsal. And thank YOU. 🙂

  10. I laughed out loud multiple times reading this!! Such an inspiring article! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m glad you stopped by. 🙂

  11. carrieemann says:

    This is so inspirational! I did a gap year after college and can’t shake the feeling of wanting to do it again. Not sure how many times you can get away with that before you become unemployable… 🙂

    1. I’ll keep trying, and I’ll let you know! lol.

      I hope you do get the chance to take another gap year, Carrie. There’s so much to see!

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