I’ve been meaning to write this post for months now. I think when we got home from our trip in May 2018 there were just so many other things I wanted to do and say on my blog it just kind got pushed to the side. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing as now I have had more time to reflect. So it’s time I think, to give you a brief overview of how our adult gap year went.
The Adult Gap Year Plan
I had been talking about doing this gap year since around about when my youngest daughter started high school. I remember being at work and telling my colleagues that in six years, when MacKenzie finished high school, I was leaving my job and going to travel the world for a year! I figured I had been working my butt off to give my kids every opportunity and pay for their expensive school fees, it was finally time for Simon and I to do something for ourselves.
I’m not sure if I even believed it myself back then. I had probably only travelled internationally two or three times in my life. I had yet to discover travel hacking, and even a brief trip into Asia was a challenge financially. It was probably about three years later when I was starting to believe it myself. I had come up with a plan as to how we could do this financially, I had a vague idea in my head about where we wanted to go, and my ideas about travel had changed. In my late thirties I had done my first backpacking trip, with the kids, into Asia, and realised travelling did not have to be expensive. And I discovered travel hacking.
Planning the trip before we left was not very difficult – mostly because we didn’t plan. We decided to just “wing it” for most of the trip. The first month in Europe was planned, because the kids were with us, but after that, we were free to go wherever we wanted.
Most of the planning revolved around things for our house. The kids were still living in it, and they would be getting another person in to share. Between them all they would pay the mortgage and the bills. They would also be driving our cars. We were lucky not to need to put anything in storage, and on returning home, would just walk back into our lives without too much drama.
Where We Went
The general plan changed a few times in the lead up to the trip, but I made a conscious decision that I was not going to plan too much. I am a planner at heart, and I love my spreadsheets and budgets, so letting go a little and not even planning exactly which countries we were going to go to was a bit of a challenge for me. The basic plan was to leave home on 13th April and after a couple of stops along the way, fly to Oslo, then backpack through Europe, the Middle East and Asia, until quickly popping back to France at the end for an event we had on.
To prepare, I listed all the countries that were along this route, then I looked into visa and entry requirements for them all. I clearly had too many places to go, so a few were almost immediately excluded if the visas were too expensive or hard to get while on the road. This cut out China, and took with it Japan, Taiwan and Korea, as I would leave them until another time. I also took Spain off the list, since we plan to walk the Camino at some point in the future, so our visit there could wait. Belarus had onerous visa requirements (which have now changed), as did Russia. I had another future trip in mind to the UK, so I didn’t need to go there.
Before we left, I thought we would spent about 2.5-3 months in Europe before we moved on to the Middle East and Asian. As we travelled, we made decisions only a few days in advance about where we would go next, but soon discovered we had spent over four months in Europe! Whoops, that wan’t part of the plan. We had the opportunity to meet up with some friends from home in Dubrovnik, so we decided that would be our last Europe stop, and I booked flights to Turkey about six weeks in advance before I could change my mind.
My next dates to be set in stone were for Dubai, a month later, as we flew one of our daughters over to meet us for a few days. That was in early November. It was around this time I realised our year was well and truely going quicker than I thought. I had planned to visit the ‘Stans, but I had to concede that wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to spend a couple of months in India, but that was also looking unlikely. Iran I still wanted to squeeze in, but because independent travel there is hard to arrange I put it off. I was just going to do a week there for a taste, then discovered the exorbitant visa on arrival cost for Australians (€145, or about $230AUD each) and we decided Iran could wait!
We wanted to have Chinese New Year in Penang with Simon’s family, and this was the perfect opportunity to fly our other daughter over to join us for a while. We had now set our return date to Australia as 1st May too, so had an end point in sight. Since we had to go back to France late in April, I thought I might like to visit some friends in the UK, and why not try to see the Northern Lights, so with two months to go, on 1st March, we flew from South East Asia back to Europe.
All up out of about 12.5 months, we spend 7.5 in Europe, 1.5 in the Middle East and 3.5 in Asia. Not what I expected before we left. We visited a total of 40 countries, some of them twice, and one, Singapore, three times. We took more than 50 flights, and too many bus and train trips to count.
Here’s a map of our approximate route, with each different form of transportation in a different colour.
I have so many memories of our trip, and as I sit here and try to think of a few of the most memorable, it’s hard to decide. Some things that pop into my head are memorable for all the wrong reasons, some are amazing moments, and some are memorable for the people we were with. Here are just a few (and I’m sure I will forget some!)
- Watching the sunrise on my birthday from the top of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo
- Hiking Petra. Not just the Treasury (although that’s pretty cool too), but the colours of the rock as the sun rises and the ability to have absolutely no one around in a places where thousands of tourists go each day, but hardly any venture just a bit further.
- Floating in the Dead Sea – just surreal.
- Nearly freezing to death while watching the Northern Lights in Tromsø
- Standing in awe with chills down my back in the Orthodox cathedral in Timisoara, Romania. I had seen a lot of churches/mosques/temples, but this first orthodox church, with singing and chanting, was mesmerising. We visited three times over four days and it was always the same.
- Not seeing the Taj Mahal in India.
- Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
- Eating a dodgy burek in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
- Visiting friends in the UK, and meeting up with other family/friends in Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Dubai, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore
- Pushing my limits with a crazy cheerleading stunt in Prague
What I Loved
I just loved the travel. Oh yes, travel days are exhausting, packing up is exhausting, learning to navigate a new city, currency and language is exhausting – but it is also so rewarding. It soon became “normal” and all part of the experience. I got to enjoy the downtime as we sat on a plane or train or bus. I got into a routine of screenshotting maps and details for when we had no wifi. I learned words in dozens of languages. I know, without a doubt, that I can travel anywhere and I will be okay.
I loved the freedom. We could do what ever we wanted. Did we want to lay in bed all day? We could (and did, more than once). Did we want to change our minds and go to a completely different country? We could (arriving at Hong Kong airport with no flight booked was still a little stressful though).
I loved meeting new people. I always like to talk to new people, even if it’s for a few minutes in a bar or on a walking tour, or it’s over a few days in a hostel. We made some friends I hope will be friends for years, and hopefully we will be able to catch up with all over the world.
What was Hard
Did I just say I loved the travel? Travel days were also the hardest days, for all of the same reasons. It can be stressful heading into the unknown. Sometimes it’s getting out of bed at crazy hours of the morning (I remember waiting for a bus at 4am in Ohrid, Macedonia). Sometimes it’s the language barrier, sometimes it’s just because things aren’t done the way I am used to. It could be ending up at a different bus station than thought (looking at you Sarajevo) with no currency, no ATMs nearby and no internet. My problem solving skills were always tested.
For me it was also hard being within arms distance of the same person 24/7. I am someone who likes my peace and likes my space, so I just wanted to escape sometimes. I don’t think it would matter who I was with, I would have felt the same. In fact, I probably would have felt much worse. I don’t like travelling with groups for this exact reason. Simon and I have been together 29 years though, and this was just another thing to deal with. We did not have a single decent argument for the whole trip because I think we have both learnt exactly when to bite our tongues! When we did bicker, it was almost always over navigation!
Of course missing everyone at home was hard. Mostly our daughters, but other family members too. We had a niece and nephew who were babies when we left and toddlers when we came home. My Dad was diagnosed with a secondary melanoma around about when we left and spent the whole year doing chemo. We each missed the funeral of a Grandmother – a risk we knew we were taking when we left, but nevertheless was hard.
While I loved the freedom, not knowing what to do in cities was hard. Sometimes we would just pick our next location off of a map, planning to research before we arrive. Often we just didn’t find the time to research, so landed in a place, then pretty much said “well, now what?”. I felt like our time was sometimes not well spent, but rather we wandered aimlessly, then ended up missing things because we would find out about them too late to fit them in.
The day to day things were often hard. It was hard to eat well without access to a kitchen. I relished it when we rented an apartment or stayed at a hostel and we could make our own meals. Laundry was also another annoyance. I was forever looking up where the nearest laundromat was and hand washing clothes in the sink. I looked forward to coming home just for my kitchen and laundry.
How we Paid for It & What did it Cost?
Because we were talking about our adult gap year for a long time before we left home, we had a long time to save. We were also able to save in more than one way. Of course the obvious way was to save money each week, and we did that. The other method of savings was to do with our jobs.
For me, it meant I had to stay at the job I was in until we were leaving. Here in Australia, a great part of our employment laws is Long Service Leave. What this means, is that once you have been in a job for ten years, you are entitled to an extended period of paid leave. You cannot actually take the leave until after the ten years is up. If you leave the company once you have completed seven years of service but before ten, then the portion of long service leave you have earned is paid out to you in a cash lump sum. I was in my job for over eight years, so when I left I received a substantial cash payout of the leave owed to me. Nice!
Simon’s job was even more lucrative. He earns substantially more than me, and is in a specialised profession so he chose not to leave his job, but rather take a twelve month leave of absence. He had been in the same job since he was eighteen. With 25 years of service, he had accrued a whole lot of long service leave he had never taken. He had also been saving his annual leave so that he had a few more weeks up his sleeve too. Rather than taking paid overtime shifts, he was able to “bank” these shifts as extra leave days too. This meant that for the first nine months of our trip, he was on full pay. With this income, we did not have to worry too much about the budget. So long as we were careful some of the time, we could afford to splurge at others. What a great position to be in!
This is one distinct benefit to doing a gap year in our forties rather than our twenties – we were able to leverage that leave owed to use through our jobs.
So how much did it cost? We got a bit slack with our record keeping right near the end, and I still haven’t gone back and recreated it. I’m fairly sure we spent somewhere between $90000 and $100000AUD. This includes paying for flights, insurance, accommodation etc for each child to visit us and the whole first month in western Europe with them. At the end of that first month we were already past the $20000 mark.
Some of the biggest expenses were (all figures approximate) :
- Flights $20000AUD
- Other transport $5000AUD
- Accommodation $30000AUD
- Travel Insurance (including claims excess) $3000AUD
- Climbing Mt Kinabalu $2300AUD
- Norway in a Nutshell $1300AUD
- Clothes & Shoes $1500AUD
I don’t have food separated out on our spreadsheet, but that would have been a good number to have and I will include that as a seperate item next time.
Would I do it Again?
The big question! If you had asked me right after I got home I would have said (and did say) “hell no”! Now, I’m not so sure about my answer. If I did it again I would like to slow down a lot more. I say that though, then never take my own advice – my six weeks coming up in Europe currently has me going to ten different countries (admittedly some are very small like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein!).
In a perfect world, I would love to spend three months travelling, then three months at home, repeat! That seems to be about the right amount for me either to stay still or keep moving without getting too bored, exhausted or completely “museumed out”! (Replace “museum” with “church” or “temple” as required)
I already have three international trips planned for this year, the longest being six weeks in Europe, so I guess we will just have to see what the future holds. While Simon is still at his job, I can’t see long term travel being a thing, but once he stops working, I totally see us taking off again.
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