The prospect of taking a career break to travel is daunting. But it is also achievable with the right approach. I am a firm believer that it is possible for anyone, no matter what your circumstances. If a career break travel adventure is something you dream about, these six steps show how you can make it a reality.
Step 1: let go of your preconceptions
Taking a year out of your career (or even a few months) is not just for young people, nor is it just for rich people. What’s more, contrary to what many people believe, it will not necessarily hinder your career progression.
As soon as you start thinking more positively about a travel career break, you will start to make small decisions that will help you make it a reality. Treat it as an opportunity rather than a roadblock.
You can do it at any stage of your life. As with any plans, there will be risks and problems, whether that’s time, money, knowledge, access, resources or anything else. But there will always be a way to solve it.
I really believe that whatever your circumstances, if you’re committed and you approach it in a focused, logical way, you can achieve any goal you want.
I’ve emphasised ‘you’ because no one else will do it for you. Even with the encouragement I had from Alex, my husband and travel partner, I had to be the one to take the decision to save money and take that leap.
When I was about 27 (still young, yes I realise that now) I had a steady life. I had a good job, good friends, I enjoyed where I lived and I’d just met Alex. This scenario is a goal for most people and I was happy, but I’ve always had bigger dreams to travel and explore.
I just figured that at this point in my life I’d missed too many opportunities (gap year). I told myself I didn’t have enough money or time. I would not save money because I wanted to ‘live like there was no tomorrow’ and I believed that the key to being ‘awesome’ was to say yes to everything. Wow, how wrong I was.
With help from Alex, I realised that travel could become a reality. He had always wanted to see the world. Together, with careful planning, we saw that it could be achievable.
We worked out how we could make savings that would be comfortable for us – which included having enough money for me to be a bit spontaneous – and then figured out how long it would take us to save enough for our grand plan. Sure, it took us nearly five years, but we saved, we planned and we did it. And we did it well.
As soon as you ditch the preconceptions about career breaks – that it’s only for people of certain ages or in particular circumstances – then you are ready to make it happen.
Step 2: start saving – just do it, no excuses
Before you start even thinking about making a travel plan, just start saving. Save anything. Work out what you can save and just start doing it. Don’t worry about a big target or deadlines (we’ll come to that later). Just put some coins in a piggy bank.
Having never saved a penny in my life (I’m terrible with money, my mum will vouch for that one) I found the initial few months of saving really difficult. I had to start small and build up.
I kept a piggy bank and literally just put my change in it. Over time it amassed £200 that I put into my bank account. When I felt comfortable doing that I set up a small direct debit into an online savings account. Over time I gradually increased the amount I put in and slowly made changes to my life that allowed me to do so.
I appreciate that you may feel that you barely have enough money to cover living costs right now. Believe me, living in London I knew that feeling all too well. Most of my money went on bills and rent. Or so I thought.
When I started looking more closely into what I was spending, I found there were ways to make little changes to save small amounts of money that built up over time.
I reduced my phone bill, I cut back on drinking (but not going out), I created meal plans and stuck to them. I also allowed myself a little pocket money to fill that void of being able to spend what I wanted, when I wanted.
Step 3: think about your basic travel route
It is important to remember that this is your first attempt at travel planning. At this stage you just need a general overview of where and when you want to go, and how long you want your break to be.
It might be simply “in two years’ time I want to take a six-month career break to travel in Australia and South-East Asia”.
Then start doing some research into how much things will cost in the places you want to visit. We found that Budget Your Trip is a great resource for this. You can then use this information to create a rough estimate of how much you will need to save.
For our trip, we set an initial ballpark figure of £35,000 for the two of us. This was for a one-year career break with a really jam-packed travel itinerary. To hit this target, we would need to save around £300 each on average per month.
Your goal might not be anywhere near this, or it may be bigger. It’s possible to travel on much less money than we did. Spend some time looking into destinations to suit your budget – take a look at Alex’s breakdown of our travel spending for some insights.
If this still sounds intimidating, don’t worry; the next step will help you hit that savings target.
Step 4: Create a savings plan with achievable goals
Once you’re saving regularly and you’re starting to build up a pot of money, you can review how much you are saving and how quickly. I wasn’t great at saving to begin with, and I got scared by large targets, or even small targets. However, once I’d put a few pounds away I felt more comfortable setting goals.
At this point you should have set yourself a ballpark figure for how much you want to save. Based on what you have been saving already, work out what you can comfortably increase that to next.
This should give you a timescale for how long it will take to reach your goal. It probably won’t match up with when you want to travel. Don’t worry, we’ll come to that.
There are three aspects of planning you can control: timescale, money, and activity. You will need to create a balance between these three things for this to work. Here are some questions to help you do just that:
- If it will take too long to save what you need, is there something you can do to tighten your belt and save a bit more?
- If saving is tricky, could you allow longer to reach your target? (Don’t worry, the world isn’t going anywhere and there is no such thing as a perfect age to travel. Even if it takes you 10 years to save it will be worth it.)
If it’s going to take you too long and you’re not happy to wait, think about the possible changes you could make to your travel plan:
- Can you shorten the amount of time you spend travelling?
- Can you visit cheaper countries?
- Can you modify your travel style to suit a tighter budget?
It’s important not to just say you’ll travel on the tightest budget possible, simply because you want to get out and do it as soon as you can. Although it might seem like a solution, you have to be realistic about whether or not you will actually enjoy it.
Step 5: firm up your career break travel plan
This is the exciting bit! (Or at least it was for me…)
When you’re well into your savings plan and you feel confident that you will make your target, you can start really delving into what you are going to do when you travel.
We spent countless hours doing internet research into all the places we wanted to visit. We built a monster spreadsheet that included – day-by-day – where we would go, how we would get there, the activities we wanted to do and how much it would cost.
Of course, you don’t have to be that intense. If you’re happy just going with the flow then that’s fine too, but it’s still good to have a plan of where you want to go and what you want to see, even if you do throw it out of the window as soon as you leave.
We booked our flights a year before our trip through TravelNation, who also helped us plan our itinerary.
From here, you just need to keep going with your saving goal and be happy that you are in the last stretch before you take your travel career break.
Step 6: approach work about taking leave
Approaching work about taking a career break might not be easy, but it is a perfectly reasonable thing for you to do.
I’ve known people who haven’t wanted to leave a place of work because they “didn’t want to let them down”. The truth is, no matter what employers or colleagues say about how they “won’t be able to cope without you”, if you disappeared tomorrow they would find a replacement in a couple of weeks.
Too often employers and colleagues can lay on the guilt without thinking about how that makes someone feel about making the decision to take a career break. Always remember that work is work, and there will always be more when you get home!
I decided that I would be honest when I started my job back in 2013, and I told them I would be leaving to travel in four years. This gave me space to ask for a sabbatical contract so that I wouldn’t have to give up a job I loved. Alex decided to wait to hand in his official notice.
There is no right way of doing this. You need to use your judgment about your line of work and decide what will be best for you.
Lots of employers will be willing to discuss the idea of a sabbatical contract. If this is something you’re hoping for, it would be better to speak to your employer sooner rather than later.
If you decide you are going to leave your job and find another when you get back, check out my article on finding a job when you return from travelling. You might also find some inspiration in my article on why travel has made me better at my job.
It might seem like there are oceans of time and hardships separating you from your dream trip. I won’t lie, it is extremely difficult at times. But the reward at the end is worth every minute.