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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Take Off: How to Prepare for a Sabbatical

You don’t have to be a professor to take a sabbatical! For the first part of our series on how anyone can take a long-term trip, check out How You (Yes, You) Can Make a Sabbatical Happen.

After eight years working at a New England boarding school, two of my friends are setting out into the unknown. They are leaving their jobs for a year-long sabbatical—to try something new, to travel, and to learn as much as they can. On the itinerary: a road trip of America and six months traveling around India and Korea.

But as excited as they are, they’re quick to admit that preparing for this kind of journey of a lifetime is intimidating. Between moving the accumulation of your stable life into storage, worrying about insurance, and making sure your travel arrangements and accommodations are lined up, there’s a lot to do—and think about—before setting out.

And the travel industry doesn’t always help. There’s plenty of information out there for backpackers and short-term travelers, but you’ll find there’s a large gap when it comes to young professionals, couples, or friends who are ready to start a journey (or a life) somewhere new.

As a long-term traveler myself, though, I’ve learned that beginning a life somewhere new doesn’t have to feel like starting from scratch or journeying blindly into the unknown. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up about how to prepare for a sabbatical and make sure you have the foundation back home to enjoy your time off, grow, and explore in ways you’ve always dreamed of.

Develop Your Pitch

Fiji, Borneo, Bali—all of these places are amazing, but they don’t exactly seem like “work.” And with pictures of blue skies and white beaches in their minds, your co-workers may have a hard time understanding why you’re taking six months off to travel there.

To make sure you convey your goals accurately, you’ll need to craft your pitch for a few different audiences.

Of course, your first priority should be talking it over with your boss or business partners in order to plan your departure on a positive note. You’ll want to talk over the logistics (e.g., will your position still be available to you when you return?) as well as who will take over your work and how you’ll transition your responsibilities.

Then, you’ll have to come up with an approach for explaining the trip to your co-workers, clients, and contacts. Try crafting simple but thoughtful talking points about where you’re headed and how the journey will enhance your career growth or fulfill personal goals. The key is to keep it digestible for your audience—your office doesn’t need to know the details of your dream of becoming a zip line instructor or doing international development work in a high-risk zone, but they may want to know why now is the right time and what you hope to get out of the transition.

Make sure you take the timing of your announcement into consideration, too. Decide well ahead of time whether you want to discuss your ambitions in a public setting like a team meeting or if you’d rather inform people one-on-one. And to let your co-workers know that you won’t leave them hanging, discuss specific ways that you plan on keeping up with your networks, carrying on your work, and leaving everything in order for the people who have to pick up your duties while you’re gone.

Be Open to Feedback, But Don’t Let it Stop You

“Wait, you’re leaving all of this to do what?”

While you’ll probably get a range of support, encouragement, and envy when you tell people that you’re about to take time off to travel, you may also initially get a lot of raised eyebrows and skepticism. For example, one of my colleagues from Norway decided to take a sabbatical while her son was studying abroad—she decided to study abroad, too. When she told people in her small village that she was going to New York, they were shocked and had plenty to say about her decision. But she took the leap anyway and fulfilled her dream of living and growing professionally in the U.S.

If your peers are surprised or critical of your decision, focus your conversation on how you’re excited for the growth and learning ahead, and while there will certainly be challenges, you’re ready for them. What will matter in the end is that you’re taking the steps to reach your goals.

Get Your Life in Order

This is probably the most daunting part of prep work. You’ll want the transition to your new life to be seamless, leaving no loose ends behind—but that can be an incredible amount of work.

It will include some basic decisions, like what you’ll do with your belongings while you’re gone (e.g., leave them in storage, sell them, or stow them at a friend’s house) and coming up with a plan for your current living space (e.g., will you sublet it to a friend? Have someone come check up on it and water your plants every couple weeks?).

Then you’ll get into the slightly scarier part of making sure all your bills are paid and that you have enough savings to live out your dream. You can choose to set up automated payments or ask a friend or family member to send pre-written checks in each month. Check out LearnVest’s financial planner to help you get organized—because the last thing you want is to be in the jungle of Costa Rica and find out you have a credit card payment due or not be able to buy a plane ticket home because your checking account is overdrawn.

Getting organized also includes finding traveler’s and health insurance. When a friend of mine got sick in India, she didn’t have either, which would have covered her treatment, plane ticket, and entire hospital stay. Instead, she ended up at a rural clinic overrun with monkeys. To avoid that, purchase long term traveler’s and health insurance before you leave. (SOS International, International Medical Group, and World Nomads are all reputable providers.)

Create a Road Map

Do you have a precise outline of your sabbatical and where you want to be on a day-by-day basis? Or will you just head wherever life takes you?

You probably have your journey at least partially outlined in your head, but now it’s the fun part: making the trip a reality—by doing things like booking plane tickets, lining up rental cars, arranging housing, finding a job abroad, and connecting with faraway friends (or friends of friends) to network with.

It’s also the time to start thinking about your list of must-sees and must-dos (like working at a lion sanctuary or going to teach at a rural school) since those experiences may need to be planned out well in advance. Figure out which organizations you want to volunteer or work with and reach out to them. Finally, I suggest creating a list of five things you want to achieve while on your journey. Of course, those things may change along the way (it’s amazing to see how your experience evolves), but having a rough plan will keep you focused.

Keep in mind, however, that not everything will go exactly as planned, and visiting a place is completely different than living there. Build flexibility into your road map, and be open to the opportunities that come your way. The best parts of your journey will often reveal themselves unexpectedly.

Have a Backup Plan

Imagine you’re about to leave your current job to work as a teacher abroad, but at the last minute, things fall through. Or worse, politics or a natural disaster leaves your destination in turmoil. Is your journey over before it even began?

Travel is unpredictable, and a lot can happen in a matter of days. Everything from political upheaval to travel cancellations can seemingly ruin a trip. My advice? Always have a backup plan, whether it involves traveling to a completely new place, rerouting your journey, or, in the worst-case scenario, even returning home. As long as you have a plan in place, if and when things change on the ground, you’ll be ready to act quickly.

As you journey, however, keep up with travel advisories and make sure to hear the perspective of locals. Any issue that arises at your next destination may be confined to one place, while everywhere else may be life as usual—so make careful considerations about safety before you uproot your plans.

And remember, not sticking exactly to your plan is not a failure. (Dealing with the unexpected could happen back home as well!) Keep a positive attitude and focus on the fun of the journey—not just the original plan.

Start the Journey

Now you’re ready to launch into the unknown—but it’s not really unknown, because you’ve taken all the right steps to prepare. You’ve shared your plan, have your plane tickets in hand, and you’ve ensured your life back home is in order.

Whatever happens on the ground, remember that the most important thing is that you’re taking a leap and launching into a whole new level of personal and professional growth—so enjoy it.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about how to make the most of your time on the road and find the right type of travel for you.

Photo of woman traveling courtesy of Shutterstock.