The ultimate guide to gap years for grown-ups

Think that gap years are just the preserve of affluent 18-year-olds, biding their time before heading off to university? Well, think again, because so-called ‘grown-up gap years’ have become increasingly popular with mid- to end-of-career professionals, whether tired of the daily grind, keen to give something back, or simply struck by a sudden case of wanderlust and a desire to travel the world.

A break from the daily grind

According to Max Kuenssberg, sales manager of gap year programme provider Nonstop Snow Ski & Snowboard Coaching, there’s been a marked increase in the number of people over 30 – those traditionally thought to be at the peak of their careers – asking about taking a year out in order to give themselves respite from their busy work schedules. ‘We’ve seen an increasing number of enquiries from prospects considering a later gap year or career break for their longer courses,’ he confirms. ‘Over the past two seasons, 26% of our clients site taking a career break as a primary reason for signing up with us.’

Giving back

And it’s not just people looking for a break from the daily grind. Businesses are now being set up in order to cater for older people or entire families taking time out in order to volunteer. Christopher Hill, founder of Hands Up Holidays, a company that specialises in tailor-made luxury trips that include a hands-on volunteering component, told us: ‘The trend of wanting to give back and make travel more sustainable is increasingly popular with people aged 30 and over – we now primarily cater to families and older couples.’ It appears that taking time out with children – young and old – is no longer seen as anathema; it’s becoming a legitimate choice that many normal families are considering

How it's done

An 18-year-old traveller with few responsibilities can live for a year with only a few thousand pounds and a copy of The Beach. But professionals with mortgages, tax liabilities, pets, pensions, bills and even a brood of school-age children upping sticks and setting off into the sunset can be a complicated proposition. We spoke to those who’ve done it to find out how and why they decided to take a gap year later on in their lives. 

The career breaker

Stephanie Green, 41, is a university administration manager from Kent. She volunteered in Tamale, Ghana, with VSO,  an international development organisation that works through and with volunteers. She began her journey in Northern Ghana, where she stayed for two years (from September 2013 to September 2015) working with female shea fruit farmers. Before volunteering, Stephanie used to work in marketing and credits her gap year as being instrumental in securing her current job. She recently married Israel, a Ghanaian man she met when she was living in Tamale.

‘I decided to volunteer as I wanted to do something to help people less fortunate than me,’ she tells us. ‘I was at a stage in my career where I felt I could still get a good job when I returned to the UK, and I decided to rent my house out in order to pay my mortgage while I was away.

‘The real highlight for me was working with local women – they were so intelligent, but were illiterate because they hadn’t had access to education. When you empower people through sharing your knowledge and helping them to organise themselves, it’s amazing what can be achieved. Together we set up community savings schemes, which literally changed their lives.

‘I think it’s important to be financially prepared, so that you’re not worried about money while you’re away or rushing to find work when you return. The volunteer allowance provided by VSO only covers basic living costs, so you need to use your own money to travel and go on day trips in the surrounding area. Saving for your return before you even go takes the pressure off. It gives you more options when you arrive home and need time to readjust and think about what to do next. But the lessons I learned are invaluable to an employer – you become an expert on a country without even knowing it.’

Recovering from a bereavement

Jenny Dale, 52, a crime scene investigator, is currently on her gap year caravanning around New Zealand with her husband, where they are living off her retired husband’s pension. So far, they've experienced missed flights, difficult terrains and even camping in a known crime spot, but Jenny believes the experience has been the best thing she’s ever done. 

'The sad truth is that we decided to go on a gap year because people in my family had died far too young – my cousin was only 37 and my brother-in-law died when he was 63. As my husband is 66, we decided not to wait another year to get off the hamster wheel and go on our dream trip.

‘We did have concerns about leaving two elderly relatives in their 90s at home, but we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that we’ll get on the first plane home if anything happens. We also have a new granddaughter in the UK who we haven’t seen yet; on the other hand, we already had a granddaughter in New Zealand who we hadn't met until this gap year. It involves some sacrifice, but so does everything.

‘So far, the pitfalls have just been unforeseen expense. Shipping the caravan was very expensive, and we deferred my husband’s state pension – trying to claim that in New Zealand has been a real pain. We overcame these unforeseen costs by renting out our house in the UK and, so far, there’s only been one unplanned plumber’s bill for £35 in eight months.’

The empty-nester

Ann Marcer is in her 60s and is a retired teacher from Devon. She’s a widower with two grown children and, after a very busy life including 15 years working as a primary school teacher, she wanted to do something that would make a difference.

‘I decided to take this trip as I felt fit and healthy, and I also wanted to add some renewed purpose to my life. I knew I had many skills in teaching that I was keen to share.’

‘I was placed by VSO in Nepal, on the edge of the beautiful Annapurna mountain range. For two years I worked on the Sisters for Sisters project, encouraging more girls to attend school and complete their education – something that hasn’t been of importance to traditional rural families in the country.’

‘After the earthquake in April 2015, I stayed in Nepal to help with the recovery response, ensuring that children in remote communities continued to have access to vital education. It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.’

Dealing with redundancy

Sam Harris, 35, was director of fundraising and communications for an NGO in Africa. When he and his boyfriend Chris were facing possible redundancy this year, they decided it was the perfect opportunity to leave their jobs and fulfil a lifetime ambition to travel.

‘Starting in Cuba and heading to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and ending in Panama, my boyfriend and I saw this three-month career break as an opportunity to feed my obsession with big cats – as well as (very elusive) jaguars, Central America has pumas, ocelots and margays. With redundancy looming, we thought we were unlikely to have such good timing again and ought to make the most of it by leaving our jobs and heading off.

‘Our major concern was making sure the mortgage and bills were paid, given there would be no income coming in or job to return to, and the trip was funded by our savings. We also decided to put our flat on Airbnb to try to cover the fixed costs. It was a nerve-wracking decision as the flat is our home, but we found a professional company who managed the process. They met and vetted the guests before they stayed in our flat, and handled the bookings while we were away – it was absolutely worth the cost for the peace of mind.’

What to consider before you organise an adult gap year

Stefan Wathan, the chief executive officer of Year Out Group, shares his ultimate checklist of what to consider before you go travelling. 

Your pets: leave them with a family member or a close friend. There are dog-sitting networks, but they may not be a practical or realistic financial option if you’re away for a whole year. Make sure your pets are insured to avoid any unforeseen vet bills, and give instructions about what to do regarding annual vaccinations, worming and fleas, etc. And be clear about your choices in the event of an emergency, such as your pet needing an operation.

Your home: check your house insurance to see if it covers extended breaks away from your home; be aware that an unoccupied house may not be covered by insurance.

Your health: book a check-up with your doctor and tell them where you’re travelling to. If you need regular medication, you’ll either need to take it with you or access it abroad, so do some research and perhaps register with a doctor local to where you’ll be. Remember that you won’t necessarily be entitled to any free medicine overseas.

Your visas and passports: get any visas (making sure they’re correct if you plan to work overseas) arranged well in advance of your start date and make sure your passport will be valid for the entire duration – some countries require your passport to have a minimum number of months left on it before it expires.

Your bank and credit cards: ensure your bank and credit card provider know you’ll be out of the country. Consider the best way to access funds from overseas, as charges and exchange rates will vary while you’re away.

Your mobile phone and data: find a plan that will charge local rates, or at least cheap international rates, because chances are you’re going to want to stay in touch with family and friends.

Your important documents: put these into safe keeping, but take copies and keep these secure while you’re travelling

Your will: make sure you have a will. You should have one anyway, but it’s worth reviewing and perhaps leaving instructions in case you should die overseas. What would you want to happen to you and your belongings? Do you have someone to act on your behalf?

Your insurance: make sure your travel insurance covers you for the entirety of your trip and any activities you think you may take part in while overseas, such as adventure sports or driving. Read the small print.

Make sure you have travel insurance before you set off on your trip. You can find a list of deals right here.

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