In the midst of Meet Plan Go planning activities for the San Francisco event on October 16, I took a break in the day and stopped by AFAR Media’s offices in downtown San Francisco to host a chat on career breaks with AFAR’s followers on Facebook. Davina Baum, the digital director, welcomed me, and walked me down a hallway where future magazine pages were hung. We passed large, stunning pictures of people and places around the world. The office staff sat at low desks spread over an open space, humming away, at what I presumed was AFAR.com, the magazine, and the upcoming AFAR Experiences trip to South Africa. This office was all travel.
I’ve come to know AFAR Media closely over the past year, first as an attendee in focus groups and then all over the travel circles in San Francisco and online. Recently, I became an AFAR Ambassador, posting highlights, making the very-addicting wanderlists, and answering questions on AFAR.com.
However, this was my first Facebook chat. I was nervous, but ready to cover all sorts of questions that their 12,000+ followers on Facebook could possibly have. The hour flew by and so I leave the informational remnants for you here. Below is an abbreviated recap of the chat, meant to capture the essence of the discussion and my answers on career break topics like planning, budgeting, solo travel, living, working, and volunteering abroad.
The world’s a big place. How do you decide where to go?
I think the best way to decide where to go is to ask yourself, “If anything was possible, where have I always wanted to go?”
That’s kind of obvious, so it’s important to pay attention to things we naturally gravitate towards like Parisian style cafes or Korean BBQs, or pictures that spark our interest like the blue Tahitian waters. It’s best to follow that spark and ask yourself why want to go there and dig a little more.
What about money? Obviously, it depends on what kind of trip you want to take, but is there a rule of thumb for how much you should save up?
Practically, I have a budgeting method that I follow once I decide on the places and activities I want to do. For each country you want to visit, look at the lodging costs a place you’d feel comfortable in, then times that by 3. That’s a good estimate of cost per day. Then, times that by the number of days and you should have a good estimate what your time in that country will be. Do that for each country and add it up.
Getting a good budget estimate, I feel, takes the abstract and makes in concrete because you know the amount to save for.
How did you manage to pay all your trips?
The easy answer is that save a lot when I’m ready to go on a big trip. The bigger answer is that when I traveled from 2008 to 2010, I freelanced between trips and then saved. Here is more information on how I worked as a consultant to pay for my big trips.
Other career breakers I’ve met live off of savings or work abroad. It’s surprising, but it may actually be cheaper to live abroad than at home in the US.
I also love this article on why living and working abroad is good in a down economy. The US is recovering right now, but still the reasons hold.
If you had one chance to go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
This is a question I am always thinking about: I’d like to do a culinary tour of Mexico, Carnivale in Rio, travel the Silk Road, do a foodie tour of Paris and France with my best friend, and trek in Ethiopia.
If you wanted to take a career break, how far in advance do you suggest people start planning?
I recommend 6 months to 1 year. It’s a big investment and (beautifully) disruptive to live, so taking this time to think about where you want to go, save up, make contacts, and then arrange what you need to works best. If your work has a sabbatical program, that’s even better and you can plan accordingly with your manager.
Do you have any tips about booking flights for long-term travel too? Did you book yours in advance or as you went?
For flights, I recommend 21-90 days out for your big haul flights, but leave the in country travel to more the last minute. In my experience, I feel that if I have my beginning and end, I’m ok. When I have done short in country or between country flights, I felt trapped by an itinerary once in country because there’s such a beautiful serendipity once you’re on the road that makes “must get to airport on this date” seem overwhelming.
Others may like that though. For example, I was going from Jordan to Turkey in 2009 and really wanted to go to Syria, but couldn’t because I booked a flight so far in advance and had to be in Turkey on a certain date. I even found out that there were no savings with the flight booked in advance, so that I regret that.
Another community member recommended using Airtreks for around the world point-to-point tickets.
What do you absolutely need to bring with you when you’re traveling for a long time?
Life on the road means everything you need must fit into a backpack. For must haves: iPod with This American Life podcasts for long bus and train rides. Then, I bring a good pair of hiking shoes and flip-flops, a headlamp for reading, my Moleskine for notes and contact information. I bring my sarong and swimsuit for impromptu beach happenings, sunscreen (it’s expensive abroad!), natural mosquito repellent and pictures of my family, friends, and places I grew up or live. Clothes can be found anywhere and replaced, but I start out with three pants, five to six tops, and a warm fleece. Here’s my list of what I packed for four months in India, Southeast Asia, and Morocco.
What are your thoughts on the decision between long-term travel through multiple countries and actually living in a foreign city for an extended period?
It all depends on the type of trip you want to take. Do you have a bucket list of activities and places, a finite period of time off, and a plan for when you come home? Then, I recommend getting an around the world ticket and checking those items off your bucket list. Two of my speakers at this year’s event did just that (with a little serendipity mixed in) and had their trip of a lifetime.
Personally, I traveled with intentions: I stuck to a particular region and gave myself enough time to hit on main places and activities I wanted to see and do and then let the rest fill in itself on the road. Sometimes this meant staying in one place for a long period of time and others it meant moving on. My regret was always moving on too soon.
I think it depends on the experience that a traveler wants. My friend Sarah loves wine and Italy, so she spent six months working for an agriturismo in Northern Italy. She took weekend trips and friends visited, but she “settled down” and soaked in all her tiny lake town had to offer. My friend Alex promotes the idea of slow travel, which is all about letting the place reveal itself to you.
My preference for a big trip is a mix of both because I feel that connection comes when you are in a place for a while and that tie results an opening in the country and culture one wouldn’t get if they just saw a site, stayed for a couple of days, and moved on.
Have you taken big breaks traveling alone? If yes – did you find it challenging in any way?
I have taken the big trips alone, solo travel is incredible because I get to do everything I wanted to do. Still, it did get lonely on the road, so when I felt that way, I made friends. On the road, especially the backpacker route, I found it very easy to meet people – every one expects you to talk to each other.
For safety, I followed a few rules: I didn’t go out at night alone in the Middle East and India and I dress country-appropriate (no shoulders or knees), and finally, I didn’t smile back at everyone. Worse case, I had to make up a husband in Egypt and shout at a guy on a train in Denmark, but overall I felt safe.
I think the biggest hurdle was convincing other people (friends/parents) that we weren’t throwing away our careers/real life. Did you run into that? What did you tell people?
I get a lot of question on “what happens to my career if I travel” The good news is: It’s right there where you left it. Your professional experience, network and connections do not go away when you travel and you are more well-rounded person when you return. Your career is what you make of it so you can shape it any way on the road or when you return.
How did you handle naysayers who disagreed with your plans to travel the world?
To deal with naysayers, I did a couple of things: said some version of “This is what I feel is right for me at this time.” and “I am not afraid of finding a job when I get back.” I also found that people responded with admiration that I was following my dream and focused my energy on conversations with them vs. the downers
Do you have any suggestions for volunteering or working during your travels?
There are a couple of resources I can point you too – it really depends what you want to do:
- International Volunteering Resources, Stories, and Advice
- Working-abroad Travel Stories
- One of my fave articles: Work and play: 10 volunteering holidays
Did you do any volunteering/working during your big trip?
I did volunteer three times when I was in India – teaching street kids in Jaipur, helping mentally disabled women in Kolkata with Mother Theresa Charities, and then doing a clinic ridealong in Bihar with the Root Institute. Here are some posts I did about my volunteering experiences to get a sense of what they were like.
How do you bring the lessons of travel into your daily life at home?
I am much more patient waiting in line after having traveled in India It’s actually true; I developed a lot more patience that I practice at home in small situations and then in bigger things. Also, I have tried to let go of needing to plan everything after realizing that everything on the road fell into place, and everything at home usually.
Overall, I really love this post by Jodi of Legal Nomads from all of her travels: It sums up the lessons and experience of long-term travel and career break nicely.
What would be the one most important thing that your extensive travels have taught you?
I have found that I am very comfortable with ambiguity, I trust myself a lot more, and have learned that people have much, much more in common than their differences.
Long-term travel, the career break – It was the best thing I ever did for myself.
Whew! What a great chat and the hour had flown by. The questions the community asked are very typical of those I hear from most people around long-term travel.
Join me and 10 other career-breakers on October 16th in San Francisco or another city and learn how they would answer your questions too. A portion of the proceeds benefit the AFAR Foundation, which is all about getting young people out to travel.