Susie Chau had been working for nine years as a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies. But after she and her husband Jan took a one-year career break to travel together, her life took a different direction.
Inspired by the experience of traversing all seven continents, Susie launched her own travel agency, Carpe Diem Traveler, which she now works on full time. Meanwhile, the travel sabbatical also led her husband to a positive career change.
In this interview, Susie talks about the circumstances that led to their travel career break, what they experienced along the way, and how their lives have changed since returning home.
What was your career situation before you took a travel career break?
I was a management consultant for nine years before taking a career break. I did a mix of project management and business analysis work mostly for Fortune 500 companies.
It was a stressful job with very long hours, but all the business travel helped me build up a lot of frequent flier miles and hotel points to use for personal travels! The best project I was ever on brought me to live in Rome for five months, which was a dream come true.
What inspired you and your husband to take time out to travel, and what were the circumstances that brought it about?
It was a ‘turning lemons into lemonade’ situation. The company my husband was working for got acquired by a larger company and was shutting down the Chicago office. We didn’t want to relocate, so I said to him, “You could find a new job now… or you could find a new job later.” After several months I convinced him to find a new job later, and go along with my crazy idea to take a career break to travel the world.
The seed of long-term travel was planted in my hostel-hopping days of my 20s when I met so many people who were travelling for months at a time. I loved the idea, but I didn’t think I would actually do it. However, as soon as this opportunity presented itself, I jumped on the chance.
How did you negotiate a leave of absence from your work for the trip?
At first, I assumed I had to quit my job and get re-hired by the same company when I returned. But then I researched my company’s leave policies and had a meeting with my human resources manager to discuss the options.
I was SO nervous for that meeting. The only people I knew that took a leave of absence were for health-related reasons. However, I had established myself as an excellent employee, and figured it was a lot less expensive for them to keep me on the books without pay rather than go through the whole hiring process again.
It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of your company – and the specific person you will be negotiating with – to form a case that’s a win–win.
How did you prepare at home and at work before the trip?
We were renting our apartment and the timing worked out so that we simply didn’t re-sign our lease for another year. We pared down our belongings by donating a ton of stuff and moving what made the cut of our two-bedroom apartment into a 10×12 foot storage unit.
Professionally, I transitioned my work to a colleague, making sure all bases were covered. Even though I was returning to the same job, I updated my resume with all the little details that I knew I wouldn’t remember after a year on the road!
“I felt a calmness and sense of peace rush over me like I had never felt before.”
Where did you go, and what were the big standout experiences of the adventure?
We went to all seven continents, 22 countries and 23 US states on our year-long, whirlwind adventure. Our original plan was to visit Asia, South America and Europe. However, we kept our itinerary loose and stayed open to new opportunities, like an incredible flight deal to Australia from Thailand and a last-minute cruise to Antarctica!
Antarctica was the most jaw-dropping and stunning destination I’ve ever been to. The highlight was being surrounded by a pod of six whales in Antarctica in a zodiac boat. We silently observed their synchronised dance of alternating tail flips and spouts from their blowholes with awe. I felt a calmness and sense of peace rush over me like I had never felt before.
The most outside our comfort zone was actually our very first destination, Mongolia. We stayed with a nomadic family for nine days who spoke no English. We helped them cook, herd goats, and I even milked a yak (very poorly!). Observing their nomadic lifestyle first-hand was eye-opening to how simple life can be.
Other highlights include hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey, taking a wine-blending and cooking class in Mendoza, Argentina, eating all the food in Italy, doing a cross-country US road trip, and visiting family and friends all over the world.
Were there any aspects of long-term travel you found challenging?
Traveling non-stop, especially at our pace of an average of 3.5 nights per destination, can be exhausting. Constantly on the move, we were always travel planning for our next destination, which is very time consuming. We worked in some longer stays, especially in destinations where we had family or friends. We also learned to plan down days, sort of like weekends, with no scheduled activities.
The other big challenge when travelling as a couple is working through disagreements. There is no other room to escape to when you are angry in a hotel room. Communication is key in any relationship, but even more so when you are together 24/7/365!
“I gave myself permission to take other big risks, like starting my own business, which I never would have done otherwise.”
What did you learn from your travel career break that you would never have learned otherwise?
Taking a career break proved that I can take big risks to do something outside the ‘normal’ life path and have it be the most rewarding decision ever. Once I proved that to myself, I gave myself permission to take other big risks, like starting my own business, which I never would have done otherwise.
I could have easily stayed in my stressful job, working another 30 years on that path and be what the world views as ‘successful’. It’s easy to be complacent, even if you aren’t happy. It’s really hard to push yourself outside your comfort zone to get to what makes you happy, but SO worth the effort!
Did you find it difficult to readjust after you returned home from the trip?
Since I returned to the same job I left, I wasn’t expecting much of an adjustment. What I didn’t anticipate is that I had to essentially relearn the language of business because I hadn’t used it for a year.
It took so much effort to listen to coworkers – I knew all of the words they were saying, but I had to concentrate extra hard to understand them. The business words that used to fly out of my mouth felt so uncomfortable to say (e.g. efficiencies, let’s take this offline, and ALL the acronyms!). This adjustment only lasted a couple of weeks, but it really caught me off guard.
Personally, the transition home was quite easy since things didn’t really change much while we were gone. We found a new apartment and picked up where we left off with the exception of my husband looking for a new job.
What has been your career direction since returning home, and how has this been influenced by your travels?
I went back to the same consulting job, but I couldn’t shake the desire to use my knowledge and passion for travel to help others. People naturally came to me with travel questions and advice, so I decided to start my own travel agency, Carpe Diem Traveler. It started out as a side hustle and I later transitioned to working for my business full time.
In addition to planning travel, I also coach people who want to take a sabbatical. I know how overwhelming it feels to decide on and prepare for a sabbatical. I struggled to find comprehensive resources with everything I needed to prepare personally, professionally, financially and mentally, so I decided to create a program to make the process as easy as possible.
“Travelling long-term made us view money and material things differently.”
How about your husband – has the travel experience had an impact on his career too?
Since he had to find a new job upon our return, he was understandably worried about the gap in his resume and how it would be viewed. I told him that if an employer doesn’t understand why you would take a career break then you don’t want to work for them anyway.
His fears – like most in life – were unfounded. His interviewers were incredibly intrigued by his stories and his out-of-the-box thinking. He transitioned from retail e-commerce into consulting, which was a career move that he probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Have you made any lifestyle changes as a result of your travel career break?
Travelling long-term made us view money and material things differently. After returning home, we were much more careful how we spent our money because we were used to tracking all expenses on the road.
After living out of a backpack for a year, we came home to our storage unit and were overwhelmed by all our belongings. Some things, like furniture, were helpful, but others we laughed at our past selves for keeping. We try to continue to live as minimalistically as possible, because we know there is very little that we actually need.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Short answer: Do it!
Longer answer: Figure out what your big ‘why’ or goal is for your career break. If you get clear on that, then the motivation to achieve it can help you push past your fears that are holding you back from taking the leap. Remember the best things in life are all on the other side of fear.
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