When you quit your job and prepare to travel for several months, you worry. About your finances, about the many illnesses you could contract while abroad, whether you’ll survive without Philz Coffee, etc. But mostly, you worry about coming back.
Questions like “will I be able to get a job when I return?” or “where will I return to since I’m effectively homeless?” run laps in your psyche, right alongside the bajillion-and-one considerations about the trip itself. Sometimes you wonder if the whole enterprise, with all its spreadsheets and vaccinations and purchasing of travel underwear, is worth it.
That’s why it was so helpful to meet David and Alexandra Brown. Five years ago, they quit their jobs and took a year-long, round-the-world trip. That experience is now the basis of their new book, A Year Off. Beautiful photographs and travel essays are coupled with packing lists and travel tips, making the book both inspiring and practical. #swoon.
Several weeks ago I went to see the couple, with whom I have a mutual friend, at their book launch at the Mechanics’ Institute. It was an hour well spent.
Mainly, I gained piece of mind in meeting a fellow pair of thirtysomethings who upended their lives to travel. They emerged with a stronger bond and greater appreciation for life.
(They also found solid jobs in their media-related fields not long after returning. This is a talking point I’ve subsequently used on my mom).
I peppered the couple with questions, ranging from the practical (“what do you pack?”) to the, well, practical (“what do you do when you’re sick of each other?”) They generously answered all of them, and even offered to connect me with their friends in Berlin, our first overseas stop.
They offered general tips too. Here are some of the top ones I’ve kept in mind while planning (and which may help you if you want to take a trip like this yourselves).
When planning a route, avoid high tourist seasons. You’ll encounter fewer crowds and save money. Also, consider weather elements (monsoon seasons, for instance). Greg and I are taking this approach by visiting Eastern Europe in November. It’ll be chilly but not freezing, and way less crowded than in summer months. We miss out on swimming and tanning in coastal towns but will still be able to hike (which we love) before the snow hits.
Visit spots where you know people. Even if you don’t have connections worldwide, I’ve found that sending out Facebook PSAs and telling everyone I know about our trip has yielded results. So many people have generously connected us with friends-of-friends willing to dispense loads of great tips about their city or country via phone, email, social media, and in-person chats.
Choose destinations via cultural diffusion. Begin and close out your trip in places somewhat similar to home, and try traveling regionally to get a sense of landscape and culture (i.e. visit several countries in Southeast Asia before leaping to London or Cairo). We planned this way by heading from the East coast to Eastern Europe first. (Also, starting stateside is a great way to get used to traveling with a giant backpack, and to figure out what’s really essential to pack before leaving America).
Don’t get mired in budgeting. For someone who loathes Excel, I sure love a good budget spreadsheet. It’s a great way to ensure financial control on such a long, non-remunerative haul. But it’s also a great way to make your trip miserable by, for example, sparking a blowout fight between you and your partner because he ordered a beer that put you two euros over the day’s “beverage” allotment. David and Alexandra got over this by designating each place a High, Medium or Low burn area. They ballparked a budget for each of the three burn types that fell somewhere between backpacking and proper vacationing. All told, they managed to drop $37,000 on their trip, which seems incredible…especially considering that’s what Greg and I spent ON RENT last year. (They did admit that $55,000 is a bit more reasonable for two people, since they saved a bunch by staying cost-free in friends’ places in Europe).
Plan 3 to 4 weeks out. I planned our Eastern Europe leg through mid-November before realizing I should probably chill out. A month is plenty of time, especially in off seasons, to figure out where you want to stay and how you want to get there (so long as destinations aren’t terribly far from each other).
Find a spot that you love in each city, and ask a million questions. Find a coffee shop or bar that jives with your vibe? Cool. Now get yourself a latte or lager and ask the barista or bartender where you should go next.
Plan to chill on your second day. You usually feel an adrenaline rush the first day you get to a new location. The second day, not so much. Plan for naps and chill-out time. (Also, don’t plan to be in a place for fewer than five days if you can help it! Travel exhaustion is real, ya’ll, and so is the oversaturation factor of trying to cram too much sightseeing into one or two days).
Take vacations on your vacation. Traveling gets tiring. There’s no shame in staying on a beach in Thailand for a week and doing nothing.
Pick a “Grand Finale” destination that feels familiar. David and Alexandra went to Italy before coming home. It was somewhere they both loved, offered lots of opportunity for gift-buying, and was a last chance to splurge before hitting U.S. turf again. (Greg and I are still evaluating what this might mean for us, since we originally planned to end in Vietnam or Thailand. Maybe we finish up in New Zealand instead?)
I’m grateful to have A Year Off and these tips. Especially for those inevitable “what am I doing with my life” moments on the road, or when my careful budget calculus goes up in flames, or when I forget that what we’re doing is sure to be one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.
Thanks David and Alexandra, for your example and guidance, and to everyone out there sponsoring our McHunterMarathon adventure.