Could you take a grown-up gap year?

The gap year: that distinctly Australian rite of passage where school leavers travel the world with a backpack and their savings. Is it possible for those of us further along in life to enjoy this experience?

Written by Kasia Kaczmarek
An illuminated tent under Milky Way at Matterhorn in Switzerland

Like a sabbatical, a grown-up gap year can offer a much-needed emotional rest from work or everyday life. Taking a few months off to travel can be a means of self-discovery during a period of transition, such as after a break-up, the death of someone close, children leaving home, or changing career or workplace. It can also revive and reenergise you if you’re feeling burnt out.

When digital analyst Laura’s marriage broke down, she decided to revisit the things she’d dreamed of doing when she was younger. “I got to a point where I thought, ‘You know what? This isn’t what I want. I’m not happy.’ I’d always wanted to travel to South America and after two years in my job it felt like a fairly good time to move on.”

For legal professional Sam, seven years of study followed by two years working in a high-pressure industry left him feeling burnt out. “I was in my late 20s and all I’d done was study. So I decided, ‘That’s it, I’m buggering off for as long as I can.’”

It’s well established that travel can change your perspective, but there’s even more compelling research on how a gap year can lead to personal growth.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychology found that new and exciting activities (like the ones you have when you travel) can increase your sense of self-expansion, or how you feel about yourself and your ability to accomplish new things. And self-expansion has been linked to increased creativity and greater motivation to stick with difficult tasks.

Laura’s year in South America, and especially her experience of walking the Inca trail, led to big changes both personally and spiritually. “Being alone changes the way you think about life. I had a lot of conversations with myself. A lot of time to think ‘What do I want to focus on when I get back?’”

Before his gap year travelling around the US, Canada and the UK, Sam was unsure about his career direction. On returning home, he took a role in a niche field he hadn’t previously considered. “I think that was the point of taking the trip” he says.

If the thought of throwing caution to the wind and setting off without a plan seems a bit daunting, it can help to give yourself some goals. Digital producer Blair says “When you’re travelling for that long it’s important to have something else otherwise you get to a point where you think, ‘What am I doing. What’s the point of this?’” He chose three things to achieve while away: learn a language, practice photography, and get his scuba diving certificate.

There are also organisations that offer international volunteering opportunities for skilled workers. Just make sure to thoroughly research the organisation before applying. You can read about responsible volunteering on the smartraveller website.

Before you go

You might be travelling like a student but there’s no reason you can’t prepare like an adult.

Save some money

Decide where you want to go, and how long for, then figure out how much you’ll need to cover it. Or you could work backwards and choose a location and duration based on your savings. Before his trip to Canada, Blair saved for about a year. “I downloaded an app called Daily Budget, was careful about my spending and just saved.” Also leave some money to cover living expenses when you return, as you might not have an income right away.

Get your house in order

Rent out your home if you’re happy to move things into storage, or get a house-sitter if you have pets. If you need to put your fur babies in a kennel or cattery, book this well in advance. And make sure your home and pet insurance are up to date.

Organise your visas

Leave yourself plenty of time to arrange visas for all the places you want to go, and make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months past your return date.

See your doctor

For some countries, you’ll need to get vaccinations 6 to 8 weeks before you travel. If you take regular medication, you might want to travel with enough to cover your trip. Just make sure to have the prescription with you when going through customs. It’s also smart to take out travel insurance in case anything goes wrong.

Plan your trip… but not too much

Depending on where you’re going you might want to have some internal flights and accommodation locked in before you go, but don’t be afraid to leave a few things to chance. Blair says, “Have a rough idea, but be flexible. Because you might go somewhere and completely love it, and you don’t want to be restricted by your next hotel booking.”

If you’re on a budget, housesitting websites offer free accommodation in return for pet or plant care, or you could try couchsurfing.com if you’re ok with not having your own room.

Having the courage to take a prolonged trip away on your own can have profound effect on your life, and happiness. Sam says, “It gave me a greater sense of confidence in myself.”

Laura’s trip made her realise “I’m strong enough and independent enough to do anything I want on my own.”

Written by Kasia Kaczmarek

Kasia Kaczmarek is an actress, writer and dodgeballer living in Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kashbot.

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