This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on a link, I may receive compensation at no cost to you.
Did you hear Malia Obama took a gap year before college? And were 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.
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 snorkeled 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 only spent about $1200 per month. 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.
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.
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.
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.
How to travel long term on a small budget
Volunteer in exchange for free room and board
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.
House sit for free accommodation
After my grown up gap year, I discovered house sitting. Now I stay in people’s homes and take care of the pets in exchange for a free place to stay (and sometimes a stocked fridge plus use of the car.)
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.
Follow traveling music festivals
Strut your stuff at Fashion Week events
Visit the settings of your favorite books or movies
Drive the world’s most famous scenic routes
Re-energize at yoga and meditation retreats
Take dance lessons from various cultures
Trace Paul’s missionary journeys
Study martial arts
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Whether 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.