Think you might be ready for a sabbatical? If you struggle to watch a film in one sitting or find time to read a novel, you may well be.
Increasing numbers of frazzled employees are taking mid-career breaks to realign a lopsided work-life balance and learn new skills while they’re at it. Others hit the road for 12 months, determined to see as much of the world as possible. With a bit of planning, there’s no reason why you can’t combine both.
1 Costs Tell friends you’re taking a year off work and they’ll look at you in disbelief. That’s probably because they’re recalling how much they spent on a luxury seven-day break in Phuket and multiplying that figure by 52. Helicopter rides and tables at exclusive restaurants are fine when you have a regular salary but if you’re planning a grown-up gap year, you’ll need to rein in the spending.
Negotiate a monthly rate on a cottage in Scotland, a riad in Morocco or a beachside bungalow in Goa when the high-season hordes have returned to their desk jobs. Opt for self-catering accommodation so you can cook some nights and eat out on others. Buy your travel wardrobe in Bangkok rather than Central, then use the money saved to pay for a scuba-diving course on Koh Tao. Join a local library, gym or camera club in Adelaide or Alaska. The aim is to trim outgoings without becoming an obsessive penny pincher. You already live in the world’s most expensive city for expats, so wherever you end up will seem cheap.
2 Where to go Planning an itinerary has never been easier. There are websites for homestays and home swaps, voluntary work and visas, maps and translation apps. Where you choose to go will affect living costs. Limit your time at expensive destinations, such as Tahiti or Iceland, and book longer stays in equally stunning locations such as the Himalayas or Greek islands, where money goes a lot further. Three weeks hiking in Nepal is likely to be cheaper than three nights in a Swiss chalet.
3 Fellow sabbaticalists Deciding to take the plunge is the hardest decision of all. It’s easy at 18, when everyone is taking a gap year, but heading off into the unknown is more daunting as we get older and responsibilities start to weigh. Fortunately, nothing puts the anxious traveller more at ease than discovering how many other people are doing the same thing. Fellow globetrotters reassure us that we haven’t made a terrible mistake. And the happiest sabbaticalists are those who have stepped off the sightseeing treadmill, have found a place to pause awhile and are busy with new projects and hobbies.
I recently met an Irish couple learning Turkish in northern Cyprus and a Canadian taking sitar lessons in Goa. You’ll rub shoulders with born-again painters, writers and photographers, pensioners studying martial arts, 40-somethings on cookery courses and mature students working on distance degrees from palm-fringed beaches, Wi-fi signal permitting. Many grown-up gap-year veterans reckon they wouldn’t have got half as much out of the experience if they’d done it years earlier.
4 Accommodation An internet connection means you’ll never be short of lodging options. House-sit for free in Canada or exchange a few hours of light labour for room and board on an organic farm in New Zealand. Rent a studio in a gorgeous hilltop town in Albania (I paid €4/HK$35 a night) or a luxury townhouse on a golf course in Portugal (€35). Location, supply and demand, and a willingness to stay for at least a month, will determine the price you pay.
Be realistic about what you need and what you can live without. You’ll pay more for a room with a flat-screen television but do you understand Tamil? Is air conditioning essential when the ceiling fan goes like a helicopter? Do you really need to be a few paces from the ocean or would you settle for a farmhouse 10 minutes inland? Are you OK sleeping in a tent in Botswana or will only a safari lodge do?
5 Health While there are plenty of nasty diseases out there, the chances of contracting one are slim. Taking out an annual insurance policy is a must but assembling a first-aid kit is something experienced travellers often leave until arrival. Malaria pills, bandages and hepatitis jabs are far less expensive in Tanzania than in Tsim Sha Tsui.
In Hong Kong, we’re used to eating additive-laden food from distant continents but markets in many parts of the world overflow with freshly picked fruit and vegetables. It’s difficult to buy processed food in some countries (good luck trying to find microwave lasagna in Sri Lanka), so you’ll be detoxing without trying.
6 Back to the life you left behind Returning from your adventure can be even more traumatic than setting off. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate career options. Your experience, confidence and resourcefulness may be invaluable at job interviews, and that’s just for starters. Some employers, at least, recognise that hiring (or re-hiring) a self-reliant, reinvigorated employee with a world of experience can only be good for business. Or maybe you’re ready to put your newly acquired sabbatical skills to practical (and financial) use. Does your proficiency in Spanish, picked up while volunteering in Venezuela, open any doors? How about the English teaching qualification you worked so hard for in Cairo? Or your self-taught Photoshop expertise?
If the worst comes to the worst, you could always dig out that dog-eared diary you kept. There might be a book in it.