Lara Hayes works for the Civil Service in the United Kingdom. After taking a 14-month career break to travel in Asia and South America, she returned to her job but has relocated from London to the countryside and works remotely. In this interview, she talks about the challenges of planning and saving for the trip, the life lessons she learned, and how the experience has led her to make some major lifestyle changes.
Lara writes about her experiences and off-the-beaten track on her travel website, The World Is Your Lobster.
What was your work situation like before you took a travel career break?
Whilst I had (and have) a good job, I was a little apathetic about it and a tad directionless. Despite this, I worked hard in the charity sector and then landed myself a shiny job in the UK’s Civil Service and got promoted twice within five years.
How did you make arrangements with your workplace to take a travel career break?
I was lucky in the sense that the Civil Service has a policy around career breaks. I was a permanent employee and had been in my department long enough.
My boss was also super understanding. When she was my age she wasn’t able to travel, I think she felt like she had missed out and didn’t want to stand in my way.
Why did you decide to take some time out to travel, and what did you hope to get out of it?
I caught the travel bug years ago. I met my husband when we were both travelling in Central America. I was on a short trip and he had been away a year, and to be honest I was jealous. I wanted to experience the amazing things he spoke about from his travels.
What preparations did you make for the journey, at home and at work?
I was focused on my career, but probably as more of a means to allow me to travel. So I pushed for promotions, worked my arse off to get pay rises and saved, saved and saved.
It was tough at times, I had to be really strict. I often said no to expensive drinks and nights out in London and to the many temptations life throws at you. To manage it, I’d think to myself, “where would I rather have a mojito – in a somewhat overpriced bar in London or on a beach somewhere tropical?” That helped focus me.
Where did you go on the journey, and were there any stand-out experiences?
My adventures took me to Southeast Asia, South Asia and South America. Some of my stand-out experiences were learning to scuba dive in Indonesia, where I met a turtle on my first ever dive. Learning Spanish in Colombia, climbing to 5500 metres altitude in Nepal and trekking in Patagonia during the harsh, yet magical winter months.
Did you find any particular aspects of long-term travel challenging?
Long-term travel, like anything in life has its challenges. At the beginning of our trip we travelled around far too quickly (due to visa restrictions in South East Asia). Often rushing to see everything and moving on every few days, but we slowed it right down in South America. Also, I absolutely hated packing and unpacking my backpack. It was always a faff!
What did you learn from your travel career break that you would never have learned otherwise?
I am totally obsessed with history, politics and social issues, and find emersion and talking to people the best way to learn. I learned so much about the Vietnam-America war, the civil war in Colombia and the environmental issues facing countries like Chile, Indonesia and others.
At home this seems very far away, but after travelling I now read the news and feel connected in a different way to the rest of the world.
“Since getting back, I’ve developed a ‘soft skill’ of letting things go.”
Did you develop any skills or aptitudes that have been particularly useful in your career since?
Since getting back, I’ve developed a ‘soft skill’ of letting things go. Previously I would get myself in a total pickle about small things, but after 14 months of having all sorts of travel emergencies thrown at you (getting stranded at airports, getting sick, my bus almost driving off a cliff in Nepal and such) you learn to let things go.
That has become extremely helpful as I work in a bureaucratic and sometimes frustrating organisation. I also developed my own travel website and got pretty good at photography whilst away, although these have been less handy in my day job.
How did you find the experience of returning home and to work after the break?
I am not going to lie, I cried on the plane home, then cried some more when I got to the UK and cried in Pret on my first day back at work.
Travelling was the best thing I ever did, and coming back hit me hard. It gets easier though, but I still miss travelling every single day. I miss things feeling so different, learning how countries work and gaping in wonder at a colossal mountain, enchanting waterfall or temple.
What changes have you made to your lifestyle as a result of taking a travel career break?
Before travelling I was rushing around, always exhausted and always on. I didn’t have a moment of time to myself to actually think. Hours on buses (particularly across Patagonia!) and long treks whilst travelling gave me time to think about what actually makes me happy.
Since coming back, I have decided to leave London. I negotiated working remotely and moved closer to the countryside. I now prioritise my wellbeing, being near nature and giving myself more space to think.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I have a new love for photography, so I am hoping I can at least develop a ‘side hustle’ (although I hate that term!) out of that. I am busy developing myself as a location-independent worker and also learning to teach English as a second language.
Travel has made me realise I want to live abroad, really immerse myself in other cultures and learn another language fluently. It’s going to take time and hard work, but anything that is worth it isn’t easy! But at least I know where to aim now, rather than before I went travelling.
“Career breaks take hard work and proper planning.”
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Unlike the films, you can’t just throw caution to the wind, quit your job and waltz off to some tropical paradise for a year or so (unless you are a millionaire). Career breaks take hard work and proper planning. To make the most of the opportunity, you need the funds, and saving for that can take years.
But I promise it will be worth it. I don’t regret the nights I didn’t go out, the meals out I didn’t have or the clothes I didn’t buy because I was saving for travelling. Travelling was better than all of those things by a mile.
Also, always give 100% at your job, even if you are feeling apathetic and a bit lost. Thanks to my years of hard work and dedication, my work granted me a career break.
For everything you need to plan your own travel career break, our ultimate guide walks through each step of the process. Read more inspiring travel and life stories in our career break interview series.