The A to Z of gap year planning, Part 1: A to H

“How do I even start to plan my gap year?” “What about a gap year budget?”

You aren’t alone in asking these questions – there can seem like zillions of things to think about when planning a gap year. Do I want to travel, volunteer, learning a new language? How can I save up? What about my job?

In four instalments, I’ll be bringing you an A to Z lowdown on how to plan a gap year that works for you. In this post, it’s the letters A to H, featuring aims, expectations and having a gap year budget. 

A is for Aims

Whether you’re thinking about a couple of months or a year, it’s important to know what you want to achieve from your gap year.

Whether it’s to see the world, renovate a house, write a book, teach English abroad, or become a qualified divemaster; have a clear idea about what your aims are. My own aims and objectives evolved over time.

B is for a Gap Year Budget

Once you have an idea about your aims, get some idea of how much it will cost to achieve them.

Having a simple Gap Year budget – costs on a piece of paper / in a spreadsheet – is good start point that may also help you narrow down your options.

When I did a long-term trip in 2007 I really wanted to see both Australia and New Zealand. Writing down the costs helped me realise that visiting both was going to be a financial no-no; meaning I had to decide which was most important to me in the plan for my gap year (Australia won out).

C is for Comfort Zone

career break planning: get out of your comfort zone

Hanoi – the kind of place that will stretch your comfort zone

Why not use your gap year as an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone? Whether it’s going to a country where you don’t speak much of the language, working abroad, or learning to skydive; having an open-minded approach in your gap year planning will expand your options for your break and your future career.

D is for Dreams – go live them!

Do you have a dream? Have you always wanted to hike the Inca Trail? Be a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago? Become a qualified yoga instructor?

Have you consistently put these things on the “one day” list, ruling them out because they take longer than your annual holiday allowance, and never believing you’ll actually do any of them? A gap year is the ideal time to remind yourself of your dream list – and go and DO!

E is for Gap Year Expenses

Yup, all that stuff you need to allow money for, but may well forget. Three things I forgot in my first gap year budget were:

  • Medicines and incidentals such as contact lens solution, sunscreen
  • Gifts and souvenirs
  • Posting parcels (usually of souvenirs) home. Consider cheaper sea mail if you don’t need to see it again for a while.

F is for Foreign Language

If learning a language is a priority for your gap year, keep an open mind about HOW you go about it.

Let’s use an example. You want to improve your Italian. You have three months and your gap year budget is pretty limited. At the end of your break, which of these two folks do you want to be?

John’s story

“I really wanted to learn Italian, so for my gap year I spent three months on a college course with some extra private tuition at home. I also had a couple of city breaks to Rome in a decent hotel. The course and tuition were pretty intense, but I can now hold a decent conversation in Italian.”

career break planning: Foreign language learning on your career break

Lucca, Italy. The kind of Italian town that someone like Dave would go to

Dave’s story

“I really wanted to learn Italian, so whilst I was still working in my last job I bought some audio CDs and joined a local language Meetup group. For my gap year I rented an apartment in a mid-sized Italian town for a couple of months, and joined groups and events with local people. It was a pretty intense approach but I can now hold a decent conversation in Italian and learnt so much culturally as well – my cooking’s come on a treat!”

If you’re thinking you prefer John’s approach, re-read C is for Comfort Zone.

G is for Gear

Depending on your gap year aims, you may need to get yourself some gear – travel stuff, language course books, whatever it is.

If you’re planning a lot of overland travel, a well-fitting rucksack is something I wouldn’t skimp on. Similarly, decent walking boots if you plan to do a lot of hiking.

Yup, you’ve guessed it, add the costs for these to your gap year budget spreadsheet.

Otherwise, most things can be borrowed, requested as Christmas/birthday gifts, or bought cheaply from ebay / gumtree. Similarly, you can sell stuff post-trip. Note to self: I need to sell my Goretex jacket 🙂

H is for Gap Year Health

Look after it. My personal health check-list for any trip:

  • When you book your trip: Buy travel insurance that covers you for medical evacuation and any “risky” activities you may be doing. For example, insurers often deem hiking > 3000m as being risky, so check the small print of standard off-the-shelf policies.
  • At least a month before: Visit a health centre to get the advice of a healthcare professional on vaccinations and any anti-malarials / other medicines for your trip. Arrange to get said vaccinations and medication well in advance (some can take a while to kick in). If you’re going to be away for months rather than weeks, make sure you’re up to date with optical and dental appointments.
  • Take with you: A first aid kit, prescription medications with their packaging, a EU health card for EU residents, copy of travel insurance policy and their contact details (I put the latter three in my hand luggage).

In the next I to Q installment of gap year planning, I’ll cover your job, your mortgage, and new experiences.

Is there something here you’d like to see more info on, or need help with? Leave your comment or question below, and I’ll get back to you.

Setting aims and objectives for your career break

When I was planning my career break, a friend of mine suggested I write down everything I wanted to achieve during my time away from the 9-5 (or 6, 9, 11) routine. Brilliant idea and one I’d really recommend – it really helped me capture everything that was swirling around in my head.

So, here’s what I committed to paper back in February. Comments and feedback welcome!

My career break aims and objectives

By the end of March 2015. I’ll:

  • Build this website and build up a following for it. In doing so, I’ll learn WordPress software (eek!) and improve my online and digital skills – search engine optimisation (SEO), social media and more. I’ll also build some income from my web ventures, either directly or through associated work, though this isn’t a primary objective. I’ll approach it like a business.
  • career break aims and objectives

    Audio Spanish guides – genius

    Spend at least a month in a Spanish-speaking country, and improve my Spanish to at least A Level Standard. I’ll also practice closer to home through Meetup groups.

  • Do some volunteer work, focusing on marketing / campaigns / fundraising / events. I want to use my skills to (cliché alert) give something back.
  • Grow my network in all things “career break”. This’ll take a while, but my network will include readers, journalists, contacts in the travel industry, HR professionals and legislation-makers, fellow language learners, other bloggers and writers.
  • Keep my good circle of friends – they’re amazing (and supportive). I’m a big fan of surrounding myself with people who aren’t “negative Noras.”
  • Find myself a decent “glass half full” boyfriend who has a good sense of self, friends, and interests. Not a “bless him”, but not an a-hole either. I’m convinced he exists. Somewhere.
  • Explore alternative options to earn some passive income in the medium- to long-term.
  • Do some general up-keep on my house: paint my kitchen, paint and re-grout my bathroom (dullsville but necessary), frame the pictures that have been sat there for 18 months, that kinda thing.

And an idea I ditched:

  • To do a one-month CELTA course to make me a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language.

So there you have it, a pretty busy 2014/early 2015! More in the pipeline for the future too, and I’ll be looking back over the coming months to see what’s evolved and where I’ve got to.

Have you set yourself aims and objectives for your career break? Have you found it helpful to have a plan? Or do you prefer not to have one? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

How to flight hack five international flights for less than £500 ($850)

Flight hacking for amateurs alert!

Read on to find out how I used assorted loyalty programmes to flight hack:

Flight hack one – Manchester (UK) to Budapest

First up, there was a one-way flight from Manchester to Budapest in late September.

Thanks to my Jet2 loyalty points built up over a less-than-significant 4 or 5 short-haul flights with them over a couple of years, this cost me the princely sum of £4 plus taxes. OK, once I added in a checked bag that meant it was about £50. But still …. £50 ($85) …. I can’t get from York to London for that!

Jet2 have now discontinued the accumulate-points-to-earn-free-flights elements of their loyalty programme, but you can still spend the points you’ve already accrued with them.

Flight hack two – Athens to Edinburgh

Next up, it was Athens. I’ll be losing my travel bloggers conference virginity at TBEX there in October. I’ll make my way to Athens overland from Budapest over the course of a month; so needed a one-way fight back to the UK after the event.

This was where Nectar came in. For those in the UK, a Nectar loyalty card accumulates points for purchases at BP petrol stations, Sainsbury’s supermarkets and more, and assorted online stores. Points can be spent on shopping and more, and also on flights with Easyjet – a budget airline who I’d class as pretty decent.

The brilliant thing about booking via Nectar’s website with Easyjet is that you can part-pay for flights with your points. Awesome! My one-way flight from Athens to Edinburgh including taxes and check-in bag came to about £70 ($120) once I’d used £50 ($85) worth of points towards it.

Flight hacks three and five – London to Miami (return)

Then … a two-month trip to Nicaragua and Colombia. This one’s work in progress, but I was the proud owner of nearly 80,000 Virgin Atlantic airline miles; earnt from of a couple of flights with them, plus by converting my Tesco Clubcard points into Virgin Atlantic miles over the last year or so.

Virgin miles expire after 3 years, but only if you have no activity with them. Clubcard points count as activity and keep ALL my miles fresh, even though I’ve not flown with Virgin for more than 5 years.

Miles in hand, I started to get creative about how to get to Nicaragua and/or Colombia, given that Virgin don’t fly to Nicaragua (why ever not??!)

Internet scouring gave me three options, all flying to/from London:

  1. Fly to Cancun, using about half of my miles. Maybe stay for a day or two, then sort a flight from there to Nicaragua or Colombia
  2. Fly with Delta to Bogota via Atlanta, using all my miles
  3. Fly to Miami, using about half of my miles. Stick around for a bit, then sort a flight from there to Nicaragua or Colombia

Hmmmm.  Choices, choices. I did a quick pros and cons check of the three:

Cancun

  • Pros – it should only be a short hop on a plane from Cancun to Nicaragua (or somewhere in the vicinity). Mexican immigration is quick and simple.
  • Con – I really don’t like Cancun. The hotel zone is my idea of hell. Centro is ok though.
  • The deal-breaker – There’s no direct flight from Cancun to Managua; and the ones to Bogota were quite pricey.

Bogota with Delta via Atlanta

  • Pro – straight through check-in with one airline / ticket.
  • Con – connecting in the US. It can take hours. Memories of running through Chicago airport after three hours in the immigration queue and only making my connection because the plane was delayed are still in my memory.
  • The deal-breaker – it uses all my points. All of them. And the taxes are £400 ($680).

Miami

  • Pro – I’ve not been to Miami, and a few days of Art Deco architecture and Key West in the sun in January have a certain appeal.
  • Con – a few days there is going to be baaaaaaad news for my budget.
  • The deal-breaker: There are flights from Miami and nearby Fort Lauderdale to all sorts of central American destinations, plus Medellin, Cartagena, Baranquilla and Bogota in Colombia – choices, choices!

So, Miami here I come! Return flight booked with decent availability choice, leaving early January and returning early March. I used only half my miles, and it cost me just short of £250 ($425) in taxes.

Flight hack four – Fort Lauderdale to Managua, Nicaragua

Next up, it was a check of google flights (thanks for that tip, Nomadic Matt). Google flights told me that a one-way ticket from Miami International to either Managua or Bogota would cost between about £220-£300 ($375-$510).

OR … if I flew from Fort Lauderdale (20 miles from Miami), and went a day later with budget airline Spirit, I could get a direct flight from there to Managua for about a third of that. Even once I’ve allowed for bag check in and taxes (and wow, US airline taxes are waaaaaaay cheaper than UK ones!) it comes in at only £80 ($135).

Flights six and seven will be some sort of Central America-Colombia flight, and a one with Spirit back from Colombia to Fort Lauderdale –I’ll organize those when I’m on the ground.

To sum up …

So, there you have it. Five international flights for less than £500 ($850). For a foray into flight hacking that is focused on your regular spending, and occasionally (but not vigilantly) using online points e-stores for special offers and spending, you too could benefit from some flight bargains.

My top tips

  • Many credit cards earn you airline miles. In the UK, Tesco Clubcard Mastercard is my preferred choice.
  • Use online shopping portals where you can boost your points totals on your regular spending. In the UK, that means remembering to log onto ebay, Amazon, Apple via Nectar e-stores (or others) to earn more points.
  • Sign up to airline loyalty programmes for carriers you’re likely to use at least a couple of times.
  • Check out google flights. It can offer options from nearby airports you may not have thought of (as per my Fort Lauderdale example).

*Flight prices rounded to the nearest £5. Exchange rates calculated on 30/6/14 at a rate of £1=$1.705 via www.xe.com, and rounded to the nearest $5.

When I quit my job

Nerves. Not so bad that I’m shaking, but bad enough that my stomach is doing somersaults and debating if it wants to revisit my breakfast.

Why? Today I’m going to quit my job of five years. My job with a company I like. And people I like working with. Why indeed?

To pursue my dreams.

To finally do all the things I kept talking about, but failing to find time for.

To volunteer. To improve my Spanish beyond the ability to ask for food, accommodation, a bus and respond to any offers of horse-rental. To see more of the world. To try some alternative ways of making a living that don’t involve the 06.31 train to London on a semi-regular basis.

It’s been a long time planning. About eighteen months in fact. Those months of planning, saving … populating my bank account sufficiently to help banish the worries of my mum.

Even though I know I’m making the right choice for me, I feel slightly scared. I imagine this is how I look…

When I quit my job

Me looking scared. Or another adjective.

I’m at the door to my boss’s office. It’s just past nine on a Tuesday morning. “Have you got five minutes?” I say.

“I’m afraid I haven’t. I’m about to go to a meeting.”

Godamn it! Best laid plans and all that …

My stomach continues to churn for the rest of the day. The butterflies flutter.

Ten past five. He’s finally out of his meeting. I’m reminded that, thank heavens, my own days of never-ending meetings will soon be over.

Deep breaths. I walk into his office and start my well-prepared spiel.

The journey has begun …