A few months back I had a quiet chat about long term travel with a high school graduate. She has wanted to travel for a few years now but didn’t want to do it in a way that hurt her future.
Her concern was that by taking a gap year before university, she would fall behind her peers when she did attend. If she took a gap year after graduating uni, she would find it hard entering the job market. If she took a gap year after finding a solid job, she may find it difficult to find another high paying job and buy a house. You know the rest of course; there’s the wedding to pay for, the children to have, the retirement to save for…
So when is the best moment to take a gap year?
The answer is different for each person, so I’m going to go through the pros and cons of taking time out at each life stage and hopefully, you can find the one that best suits you.
But first, what does it mean to take a gap year?
In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, a gap year overseas is almost a rite of passage. Everyone, at some point in their twenties will take some time out from work or school and spend it finding themselves while drinking their weight in Chang beer on a popular Thai beach. I’m certainly no exception.
But why? Can’t you ‘find yourself’ just as easily at home? Well, maybe. Going somewhere where nobody knows you will help filter out the opinions of what others want for you (parents, teachers, boy/girlfriends), so that all you can hear is what YOU want to do with your life. And all much easier to do in a country where you can have a ball on $40 a day.
A gap year after high school
Best for those who are unsure about what career they want to get into. Don’t spend that money on further education until you know how it will add to your life because it is a lot of money to spend just to keep up with your peers. Your confusion may be down to having overbearing parents, or just feeling societal pressure to have a direction in life. You may find that a gap year spent volunteering and travelling around Latin America may be just what you need to find your vocation in life, but on the flip side you may return to find you’re back where you started.
But at least you had a fantastic year.
By the way, a half year of travel in Latin America costs about $8 000 USD. Get a part time job while you’re still in school and take advantage of having no living costs under mum and dad’s roof. Here’s my guide to saving for and planning a big trip!
A gap year after university
By now, you’re probably sick of study, tired of classes and writing papers, doing the same old stuff day in and day out. You likely have a student loan that you’re trying to pay off too. Now is a good time to take a gap year IF you’ve had no luck entering the job market. If you’re trying to find an entry level job within your field and getting nowhere, either because at this point in time, there are no jobs going and the job market has been flooded by other uni graduates also trying to find a similar job, or, your C.V. lacks anything to give it pizzazz, say, twelve months work experience picking fruit in far flung New Zealand.
You’d be surprised at how well received a job applicant is who had the courage and determination to successfully work and live in another country. I’ve spent almost whole job interviews reminiscing with the interviewer about travel in Southeast Asia and comparing our experiences of then vs now. Of course, I got the job.
So, are you waiting tables, letting that shiny new diploma go to waste? Save some money and apply for a one year working holiday visa in New Zealand available only to those under 30 years old. Fruit pickers currently earn NZ$16-17 per hour and there’s always jobs going year round, often with accommodation provided.
A gap year before the mortgage, spouse and children
Gap years aren’t just for the twenty-somethings. More and more I’m seeing couples in their thirties exploring the world together, or parents who have taken their kids out of school for a term to home school them on the road and teach them about life beyond the classroom.
Maybe you’re considering a career change, or thinking about the commitment involved in mortgages and children and you want to have a little freedom first. If you’re settled in your job and don’t want to leave permanently, then talk to your boss about taking a sabbatical. If you already have a mortgage, rent out your home and house sit for others around the world to save on your living costs. It's much harder to take a gap year at this stage because most of us have placed roots at home, with solid routines and a secure job, so it’s difficult to validate leaving it all behind on a whim for travel. This one will take a bit more thought and planning.
A gap year during retirement
I love reading all these stories that are flooding the net of retired couples selling their houses and spending the kids inheritance on the trip of a lifetime. It’s so cute! I can’t speak from personal experience on this one, but I think that the biggest deterrent of travel during this period in life will be health. You probably won’t be slumming it the way you did when backpacking in your twenties, now your bad back won’t let you sleep on the airport floor and hostels are much too noisy. But that’s okay, hopefully you’re much more financially secure these days and those hotel upgrades are well deserved. Enjoy yourself!
Wherever you are in life, regular breaks from the monotony of day to day life is an absolute necessity for your mental health and well being. Don’t ever pass up your vacation days in favour of impressing the boss, don’t give up all of your years for something as common as money.
Taking time out to do something new with your life should never make you feel guilty or directionless and it’s totally okay to feel a fair bit of trepidation at the idea of leaving home for months on end. I’ve done these kinds of trips a few times and never had an issue finding employment following my trips (although some jobs are definitely better than others) and there is no perfect moment to go live in a new city, or leave a job. So, if this is something you really want to do, then you need to take a leap of faith and know that life has a funny way of turning out alright in the end anyway.
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