Are you independently wealthy, don’t have children and need to ‘find yourself’ while traveling for free around southeast Asia? Contrary to this popular myth, you don’t need to be rich or privileged to take a sabbatical, and thousands of regular people are taking sabbaticals right now.
On our travels we have met all sorts of people — particularly families, with children of all ages — taking sabbaticals. Some of them in pursuit of a new lifestyle, others backpacking around the world, and some professional travel bloggers with large Instagram followers. But none of them fit into a single mold, they all just took a bold step in their lives.
Myth #1 – I’m not important / highly skilled / academic enough to take a sabbatical from my job
Truth: There are many different mechanisms to take a sabbatical, find one that works for you
A nurse on study leave spends her winter in the Caribbean. A father delays his paternity leave and takes his six month old baby traveling around SE Asia. A professional festival organiser spends his summer touring European festivals with free room and board.
Sabbaticals are no longer just for academics. Companies are recognising the value of taking a sabbatical and many organisations are making sabbaticals part of their employees’ learning and development. If your company does not have its own sabbatical program, there are resources to help you pitch the idea to your company, or you can try to switch to an office abroad or work remotely as a ‘digital nomad’ for a while.
If none of those options are possible, look into the leave options at your company such as study leave or parental leave. And many people simply quit their jobs and find a new one when they get back — a strategically positioned sabbatical can actually boost your resume if you have picked up a new skill, gotten exposure to new markets or expanded your network while away.
Myth #2 – A sabbatical will solve all my problems
Truth: If you are escaping a problem with no plan to solve it and are re-entering the same situation, nothing will change
Research has found that the beneficial effects of a holiday wear off in as little as one week, regardless of length of the holiday’s duration. Unless you have a purpose for your sabbatical — like bonding with your children, or learning a language, or making a career change — you may quickly find yourself in the same rut you were trying to escape. Easy isn’t a place on Earth.
Sometimes a fresh outlook is exactly what you need to get yourself out of a funk, but only if you make a change to yourself, your situation, your relationships or whatever is creating your unhappy situation.
Have a plan and use your sabbatical to break bad habits, oppressive routines, auto-pilot mentalities and unhealthy dynamics and make sure that plan considers your re-entry.
And remember that sabbaticals are not for everyone — there are plenty of other ways to take a break, make memories and create changes in your life that are less disruptive.
Myth #3 – It’s unsafe and irresponsible to travel with (young) children
Truth: Locking up your children isn’t necessarily safer than traveling with them
The world is much safer than many parents realise. According to the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2017 edition, the United States is ranked #84 for safety and security, while the 2016 Global Peace Index ranks the US #103 in terms of peace and safety. Think only highly developed northern countries are beating the US in safety, security and peace? Dozens and dozens of developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia are also ranked higher.
Plan on locking up your children at home to protect them? In the UK, more accidents happen at home than most people expect — far more accidents happen at home than at work and on the road. Familiar may feel safer, but familiar places aren’t necessarily any safer than unfamiliar places. Take some basic safety precautions — which you should take at home anyways — and travel can be a highly enriching time for the development of your kids, getting you out of your habits and making you available for better bonding with your kids.
Limited movement ≠ greater safety
(and free movement ≠ recklessness).
The truth is that your children can be injured no matter where you are — at home, at the park, in a hotel room, at Disneyland. Step away from fear, open yourself to newness and you will be surprised how much your comfort zone can grow. Surprisingly, we actually found the safest time to travel with our healthy children to be 3 months-crawling — at that age our babies were virtually attached to us, not eating much except breastmilk and unable to do much damage to themselves. Now that our baby is crawling and has coarse motor skills we need to be much more alert about our surroundings and our baby’s movements, whichever country we are in (currently in Canada).
Myth #4 – I can’t afford a sabbatical
Truth: Sabbaticals come in all different budgets, and there are many different ways to generate an income while you are away from home if you need to
The affordability of your sabbatical depends on what your ‘home’ expenses will be while you’re away, what you want to do on your sabbatical, and what income streams you will have during your sabbatical.
For example, if you are able to rent out your home to cover all of your ‘home’ expenses and are working remotely during your sabbatical, then your sabbatical can easily break even. Many digital nomads choose to live in countries where the cost of living for a comparable quality of life is cheaper than at home, and can even save money during their sabbatical.
However if you are planning on traveling extensively and have romantic expectations about your accommodation, food and other comforts, then your sabbatical is obviously going to cost more money.
We chose to focus on our children and doing different things than we do at home during our sabbatical, so there was no time for working. We saved money before we left and adjusted our plans when we realised our budget wasn’t enough to meet our expectations while away.
Myth #5 – It’s cheaper to live in Southeast Asia / South America / South Africa than where you live
Truth: The same material standard costs roughly the same wherever you are in the world, savings lay in services
It is easy to find sources on the internet telling you how cheap it is to live in Thailand, Argentina, or Morocco, but finding sources that give you actual up-to-date information on what different standards of living cost in different places is much more difficult to find.
When budgeting your trip, ask locals / expats / friends for advice on where to go and what to do, but don’t ask them about costs. Do the math yourself based on real numbers from actual accommodations that are available during your travel dates, and ask your host for examples of transportation and activity costs to form your budget.
We under-estimated our monthly budget for our four month trip around southeast Asia by about half. Our actual monthly costs were roughly double what we had originally budgeted, and our expenses ended up higher than back home in Amsterdam — not a cheap city to live in.
Where did our budget go wrong?
- Long-term accommodation is generally cheaper than short-term accommodation
- It’s often cheaper to phone / go in person and negotiate your accommodation price rather than taking the best price posted on the internet
- Public transportation is different in developing countries, and if you are not brave enough to ride a scooter, taxis can cost you as much as your accommodation
- One jar of baby food costs more than an entire local meal for an adult — four times what it costs back home
- Other western comforts (e.g. sunscreen, peanut butter, syrup) also cost 2-4 times what they cost back home
- If you want a home decorated ‘tastefully’ (according to your western ideas of taste), it will cost you western prices. If you want to eat in a restaurant in a country where everyone eats at home / streetfood, it will cost you western prices.
Where the real savings lie are in services. Tailoring, house cleaning, spa treatments, child care, driving — these luxuries were very affordable compared to what we would pay at home. Transportation costs were a higher percentage of our budget than expected, but there is still no way we could have our own driver for $30 / day back home.
Every place in the world has its own unique perks and pitfalls, and it’s important to research places thoroughly for the practicalities of being on sabbatical. Arm yourself with facts rather than myths to have reasonable expectations of safety and budget. If these basics of your sabbatical are worked out in advance then your energy can be spent on the joy of exploration and sharing real stories about the places you discover.