How to plan a grown-up gap year

I think one of the things that is most daunting when you decide to take a career break or sabbatical is figuring out how to plan a grown-up gap year.

When I first started trying to organise my 30b430 trip, I remember pinning a huge map to the living room wall. Then I just sat staring at it, thinking “Where on earth do I start?”

However, if you’ve decided to take your own grown-up gap year and are feeling the same never fear! There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to narrow down where you want to go and how you want to travel.

Is there a particular continent or country you’ve always wanted to visit?

I love the reasons that people give you for visiting a particular place. I sometimes think it’s the stories behind the trips that make them so special. In Argentina I met a lady who had waited more than 30 years to visit Iguazu Falls after an Argentinian penpal had sent her a postcard of it as a little girl. While in Tokyo I met a guy who had a lifelong love of Manga comics and had always dreamed of visiting Japan.

For me, it’s always been South America. I fell in love with it the moment I arrived in Brazil with three friends from university. I love the passion of the people there. I love that they are always laughing and shouting. Plus the fact that if you can speak two words of Spanish, they take that as a sign that you’re fluent and spend the next ten minutes gabbing away to you even if you have no clue what’s going on!

I love that it’s crazy and there are times when you have no idea what is going on. But you can always guarantee that whatever happens, it’s going to be fun. So in 2011, when I managed to get three weeks off work, it was an easy decision to book a ticket to Colombia.

However, when I began planning my grown-up gap year – aka my 30b430 trip – I organised it in a slightly different way. I decided to plot the route around things I had always wanted to see or do. So I began in Peru where I’d dreamed of walking the Inca Trail and ended up in China where I stood on The Great Wall.

The 30b430 adventure begins in Peru.

If you have absolutely no idea where you want to go on your career break or sabbatical, then check out travel blogs and guidebooks. I’ve added so many places to my travel wish-list from posts I’ve seen mentioned on Twitter. If you at least give yourself somewhere to start then the rest kind of works itself out. Plus, it feels a bit more organised than just closing your eyes and sticking a pin in a globe. (Although that could be just as fun…)

How much time do you have and how do you like to travel?

It’s a bit of a running joke among my friends about how much I try to pack into a day. I’m always running around and am one of those people who, if I have a free morning, believes I’ll have time to clean the house, go swimming, meet a friend for coffee and bake some cakes. Inevitably it never happens and yet it surprises me every time.

I think that’s why when I travel I prefer to do the opposite and go slowly. I’m not a fan of rushing around from sight to sight. Particularly as most of what I love about going away is people watching and seeing day to day life. So if I only have a few weeks to travel, I prefer to stay in one country so I have time to explore it.

Always time for a tea break…

However, that’s not to say that’s the right way for everyone. I met plenty of people on my trip who only had a short amount of time to travel and preferred to pack lots into every day. I even met one guy who came to Burma/Myanmar for a day, just to “get a feel for it”. While I’m not sure you can ever sum up a country in a day, I had to admire his tenacity.

But thinking about how you want to travel can help you decide how to plan a grown-up gap year. For example, if you’ve got a month but you want to take it slowly it might be worth considering going a bit further afield. You could visit a single country in South America or Asia and take your time exploring. But if you’d rather go flat out and sleep when you get home, then something like Interrailing around Europe, which gives you the scope to take in a number of countries, might be more your style.

Do you want somewhere which is easy to travel around or a place which is a bit more of a challenge?

Before I arrived in China I heard a lot of negative things about the country from other travellers. So I was quite nervous and then very pleasantly surprised when I arrived there and found that it was completely different to what I’d been expecting.

Be prepared to be the centre of attention in some countries.

But it got me thinking about different people’s comfort zones. I don’t think China is a difficult place to travel in if you don’t mind asking people for help and you don’t get embarrassed with people staring at you/taking photos/laughing in your face when they’re nervous. Having previously spent a month in Burma I think I was prepared for the challenges. But I imagine if China was the first country in Asia you ever visited it might be a bit full on.

So thinking about the kind of experience you want to have will help you decide how to plan a grown-up gap year. If it’s your first trip, you might prefer somewhere fairly established on the traveller route. Or if you’re looking for a bit more adventure, you might try going off the beaten track. Either way is fine, it’s about choosing what suits you.

What comfort levels are you expecting?

After spending nine months living in hostels, having my own room back at home felt like such a luxury! However I when I spoke to a friend who told me she couldn’t ever imagine staying in a hostel again.

That conversation reminded me that as we get older and become used to a certain lifestyle at home, roughing it while we’re away isn’t always appealing. Even I got a shock at an Australian hostel, when I realised I no longer thought it was acceptable to share a frying pan with 20 people!

That’s why it’s worth thinking about which of your creature comforts you’ll be able to do without when you’re thinking about how to plan a grown-up gap year.

For example, I absolutely loved Burma/Myanmar. But for all of its charm and the kindness of its people, there is no denying that years of military leadership has slowed down its development massively compared to its neighbours. The hotels were the most basic I stayed in for my entire trip and getting around still usually involves piling into some kind of pick-up truck, which isn’t for everyone.

What do you mean full? There’s still plenty of room!

Deciding on the kind of trip you want, along with the budget, can often help to structure your trip.

Most importantly

Remember, nothing is set in stone. My favourite thing of all about travelling is that plans can be flexible. A night in a hostel can be extended to a week; plane tickets can be changed and people met on a random day trip can become travel buddies for weeks.

Also, don’t forget, you’ll never be able to do everything on one trip, even if it is a grown-up gap year. So what you can’t do this time you can always save for your next adventure!

If you need more advice about saving money for a gap year, this may help and if you’re wondering how to go about setting a budget for career break or a sabbatical, check out this post.

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3 Responses

  1. Charlotte Atkinson
    Charlotte Atkinson / 10-13-2015 / ·

    I’ve been so stuck on what to do once I finish my au pair contract in Germany, I think I might spend a month travelling through Europe now – thanks for the great post!

  2. John Williams (@eurapart)
    John Williams (@eurapart) / 11-2-2015 / ·

    One thing that should be considered is that many people take sabbaticals and never return to their former career.

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