Best advice for quitting job and traveling the world for a year?
April 12, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 36 year old single male American living in northern California. I've always wanted to travel the world for a long time, and I finally have enough money to do it. What's your best advice for making it happen?

The hard part is that I have a great job, with stellar health insurance, almost 100% job security, 6 weeks of paid vacation per year, doing work that I love to do (it's exactly what I went to school for). It's a unique job that if I quit it, I'd probably never be able to get it again. And I feel lucky that I have it when I look around at friends who are struggling with low pay and terrible benefits. It's difficult to imagine walking away from everything I've worked for (and sacrificed for) my entire adult life.

But the travel bug has been nagging at me for a long, long time.

I have some experience traveling as I've lived in Ecuador and Costa Rica for a few months, went to New Zealand for a month, and travelled around western Europe for a few weeks. I'm more of a backpacker type who meets people along the way to stay with (or on couchsurfing). I enjoy a minimalist, local, unpredictable travel experience the most.

So I'm here to ask you MeFites who have quit your good job and travelled the world:

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?

(I've heard you can't stay in some countries as long, for example)

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?

6) Did any of you end up living abroad after doing extensive world travel? If so, how did that go?

Anything you can tell me will be helpful. I'm giving myself 3 months to figure this out.
posted by buckaroo_benzai to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?

Study the language, and integrate. Language is the only true barrier to getting to know people and cultures. Plan your trip around intensive experiences like language schools, cooking classes, volunteer experiences, couch surfing, etc.

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?

World Nomads - a bit expensive, but good policies.

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?

Tough question:
Italian cooking and wine in Piacenza, Italy.
Scuba certification on Ko Tao, Thailand.
Olympos, Turkey.
The Gibbon Experience, Laos.

Yeah, that's four.

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?

You might feel out of place among the younger backpacker/hostel crowd, but that's okay. You'll probably be less likely to get hammered and have teenage drama. That's a good thing for international relations.

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?

We travelled with smallish carry-on size bags for 8 months. In my case, it was this one. Don't take the giant backpack. Make due with a smaller bag and you'll be the first one off airplanes and buses, and you'll find the actual travel (from A to B) so much easier without 60lbs of junk on your back. Just bring a clothesline, universal drain plug, and willingness to wash your clothes by hand. It's amazing how much travel stress this can reduce.

6) Did any of you end up living abroad after doing extensive world travel? If so, how did that go?

Not really in my case, but Mrs. Cheese and I now know several places that would top that list.

As for your job, can you not request a sabbatical? Worst case, they say no, and you go anyway, but employers can sometimes surprise you. Good luck!

Finally, just go. Regret only applies for the things you didn't do...
posted by hamandcheese at 9:53 AM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding the idea of requesting a sabbatical...seems like the trip would be a lot more fun knowing that you had a great job to come back to.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:02 AM on April 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Take a sleeping bag with you, not to sleep outside but just because it comes in handy.

When I did this (but for a longer time period) I focused on a single region and lived in 2 countries in that region for an expensed period of time, (months /years)

I made smaller trips to the areas around and to other countries nearby.
This way you aren't a constant traveler but a resident who actually makes real long term friends and learns more meaningful things
posted by mulligan at 10:45 AM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Get Google voice so you can have a local # forwarded to you anywhere in the world for free. Take your smart phone, you can use the maps app with GPS without any internet or Wifi. Use couchsurfing. You are your best doctor, take care of your health, and visit Costa Rica or Thailand and see really good doctors for very cheap. I am 31 and have spent most of my adult life abroad. Thailand is nice, you can go rural if you don't like the big cities Vietnam and Cambodia are nice warm and low cost of living. Keep travelling until you find a place you like, then stay there for a while. I'm in Finland now, and going to Brazil soon. I am from USA. Install Skype on your parents computers for them, show them how to use it so you can stay in touch. Have someone at home willing to scan pics of important mail and email it to you. Get good audiobooks on your device for boring times. Never go anywhere without diarrhea medication. I have a million of 'em but that's off the top of my head. GL
posted by crawltopslow at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I did something similar to this recently. 32 year old (when I left) single male from Ireland. I had a decent job but wanted to travel. I spent 14 months on a RTW trip. I'll try to answer as many questions as I can.

1) Do your homework. Check if you need a visa to enter a country and how long it is valid for. Sometimes you can get them on entry but sometimes you have to apply in advance. I had to apply for my India visa weeks in advance of leaving but for Nepal I just paid my cash at the border and it was fine.
Be aware that as an American you will get stung with some pretty heavy entry fees.

1b) Another important piece of advice is to be flexible. Plan your route but be able to change it. Some of your best adventures will come from moments when you say "screw it. I think I'll head to Borneo instead!" or something like that.

2) I just bought travel insurance.

3) I went to lots of countries but usually only spent about a month in each. I ended up spending around 7 weeks in total in Thailand. 1 month in the north half for the culture and 3 weeks on the islands in the south. I would definitely agree with above and learn to dive in Ko Tao if you don't dive already. I wish someone had told me 10 years ago how cool scuba diving is.

My three favourite places were (probably) (a) Everest base camp trek in Nepal (b) Scuba diving at Sipadan island (c) the Galapagos islands. I spent three weeks here. Diving, chilling out and a cruise as well.

4) You won't feel the urge to get hammered like the younger travellers. Crowded, drunken dorms aren't as much fun when you are in your thirties either. There will be plenty of older travellers to socialise with too, so you won't be lonely. My trip would have been VERY different if I had done it in my 20s.

5) indispensable: notepad and pen! names, addresses, phone numbers, directions and badly drawn maps were stored in mine. I still have mine from the trip and it is the perfect souvenir for myself.
Don't bring : too many clothes. The lighter the better. I went with three t-shirts, 1 jumper, 2 pairs of trousers, a light jacket, a pair of shorts for the beach, 1 pair of good quality hiking boots and some socks and underwear. I did bring a small laptop and an SLR camera. My bags for the whole trip were smaller than some peoples' bags for a two week holiday. I didn't take a sleeping bag. You can rent or buy one in the places where you really need them.

6) No. I just got back in January and have only just started looking for work back in Ireland.

My job situation is different from yours though. I got a nice big bag of severance pay when I left. I also left knowing that it would be fairly easy for me to get a job when I came back (I'm a lab analyst).
It seems like a sabbatical would be the best option for you. If it is feasible then do it. Do it!
posted by drugstorefrog at 11:26 AM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?

Just do it! It can cost a lot less than you'd expect. However, your nature will only be highlighted. If you do well on you're own, that's good. If you always like someone to talk to, think about places and activities more on the tourist trail.

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?

To be honest, most of the time I went without insurance. But you can get decent coverage easily.

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?

This is a difficult question since some people like resorts and some like it rough. Personally, I loved Sudan, Mongolia, Guyana, Malawi, Bangladesh, and spent 3 years traveling in India since 2005.

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?

Once you've been around a bit, you are less likely to see travel as a big party. Though I've met plenty of older travelers doing just so. I stay away from drink and party when traveling; as a woman it means a lot to locals that I behave as the majority of their own women.

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?

I disagree about the sleeping bag... I've spent 7+ of the last 8.5 years traveling. My longest trip was 2.5 years (Africa, Asia, Middle East) and my bag was always under 15 pounds. Pack only what you will use almost daily. I've honed a great list and can pass it on if you'd like to memail me.

6) Did any of you end up living abroad after doing extensive world travel? If so, how did that go?

Last October, after a year in India, I intended to head to West Africa via Ethiopia. But I never made it and now live in Ethiopia! I've also spent a year living in the Marshall Islands and consider some of my time in India as 'living' rather than traveling. As I said before, it depends on you. Are you frightful of change, or if things will work out or not? I'm not. I figure everything will work out and I go with the flow. It is not so much about luck as it is about accepting whatever comes!

Oh, I have a crazy spreadsheet with all my expenses for the 2.5 year trip- I can help with budget considerations too. I'm on Couchsurfing if you'd like to see where I have been, too. I'm of the mind to say GO- who cares, you can always work as a barista if you need to when you're done. There's no afterlife as far as I believe- this is your chance. Good luck and be in touch.
posted by maya at 12:13 PM on April 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I've travelled a lot but I am also very cautious. I would ask re sabbatical or consider laying out a 5year plan of 6 weeks trips if possible. 6 weeks vacation in the US is actually quite good.

However, if you are determined to go, just make that decision, do your research and everything will fall into place. I did the Camino de Santiago last year and it was a phenomenal I need to plan the next one.

Bon voyage either way!

(Oh and dont forget the cliched-but-for-a-reason-advice- bring twice as much money and definitely half as much stuff as you were planning to bring- except for socks and underwear).
posted by bquarters at 3:28 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're on board with the gist of what Maya is saying then go for it. It sounds like you are. I've done 12 month and 9 month trips here in my 30s and they were totally worth it.
posted by MillMan at 4:12 PM on April 12, 2014


• get your shots now, some take a while to be completed.

• Bring the bare minimum, you can always buy what you need when you need it.

• Borrow someone else's Lonely Planet or read it in the bookstore: avoid the hotels/bars/restaurants listed there unless you want to spend all your time with people who read Lonely Planet.

• Grow a beard, no need for shaving kit.

• Go up to people that appear to be in a similar position to you and say: "You look like you know what you're doing, I'm going to follow you today." They won't know any more than you, but at least you'll have a new buddy.

• decent busses in hot countries can be so air conditioned that you'll wet your pants: only time I'd wear pants, socks and a hoody.

3) South East Asia: esp. Laos, Angkor Wat, and Thai islands.


• I had a small keychain on my daypack's carry strap that had a thermometer and compass. A few times I had a bad feeling on a bus/taxi and was able to confirm that we were heading the wrong direction, and it's nice to know what the temp is sometimes.

• Also, I came across 100 moist towlettes for $3 at a store (the type you get with a chicken dinner, very easy to find online) (this was in the days before hand sanitizers) and I can't count how many times I just needed to clean my hands or face and those proved invaluable, they're also great fire starters. I used to keep a dozen in my shaving kit and 2-3 in my day pack.

• A small day pack (12L or less, YMMV) that has the following features: good side pouches that can hold a water bottle that won't fall out, no padding in the back so that it can easily be packed in your larger backpack when you're traveling (although when I'm on the plane/bus/tuktuk/boat/whatever it was always my carryon bag) and ideally it has a way of holding a wet bathingsuit/towel on the outside so it can air dry without messing up the rest of your stuff. Use a magazine to give it structure when you need to, make sure it can fit a sweater or a towel+bathing suit. I always kept the following in mine: hoody, sunglasses, sunscreen, medication, copies of key ID, water, camera, guidebook or map, pen+paper.

• One of those fast dry shammy towels as your main towel. They feel a bit more viscous than a normal towel, so it's like being wiped down by a shammy, but they air dry a million times faster than a standard towel. Nobody likes a backpack with a wet towel in it. Also nice: a small pocket size one for washing or drying your hands/face/pits as needed (i just cut a square off the corner of my towel).
posted by furtive at 10:22 PM on April 12, 2014

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?

Have flexibility! I went to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. 3 out of the 5 days involved either intermittent or constant pouring rain - so my original plan of going city hiking was thrown out of the window. Instead, I just curled up in the hostel lobby with some hot tea, a magazine, and a sketchbook. I still had a fantastic time. If I would have had a more strict agenda, I would have been less amused by the weather.

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?

Indispensable: Earplugs. Multiple pairs. Especially if hostelling; you will need them. Holy crap earplugs. If you can't sleep with them on, learn - you will be grateful for when you're next to a snorer. Or a couple having sex.
A notebook and pen/pencil. Perfect for recording notes, addresses, how to get from Point A to Point B, maps, etc. Sometimes your phone won't work, or you don't want to take it out to use.
Some method of paper entertainment, like a book or some puzzles or magazines. I usually stack my bag with some back issues of the New Yorker, and leave them behind when I'm done reading them. I also rip off the address labels first.
Some Dr. Bronner's soap. Will wash everything from your hair to your underwear. If TSA is an issue, just pack a bar or two of the stuff, and then shave off what you need. Dissolves easily in water if needed. I use the unscented baby stuff.
If hostelling? A Hostelling International membership. Will easily pay for itself after a few nights lodging.
A good padlock.

Not to bring: A lot of clothes.
A neck pillow; you can just roll up a shirt or something similar, and use that.
Clothes that has great meaning to you - still bitter about losing that Bauhaus tshirt in Milwaukee.
Lots of OTC medication - unless you have allergies and need something particular, you can usually find something at a local store.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:02 AM on April 13, 2014

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?
Go wherever you want, regardless of what other people (who haven't been there) will tell you. My best times traveling were off the beaten path at places that most people wouldn't think to go.

Also, if you're going to hostel around, make sure to cross reference reviews on more than one website (hostelworld and hostelbookers are the two that I used). Sometimes one site will have great reviews while another will have terrible reviews. If that's the case, the quality usually matches the negative reviews. If multiple websites check out, then it's probably a quality hostel.

Depending on where you are, the Hostelling International Hostels will be the least good hostels to go to. They will be large, and have standard amenities, but can be very impersonal and serve no other purpose than to be a place with a bed. My favorite hostels were really small, family-owned and runned joints. These places are a lot more homey and you'll get to meet your fellow travelers. The personal service and attention you get will also be of much higher quality. Plus, they're usually cleaner and better kept than the HI places.

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?
Can't help you there

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?
I massively enjoyed the Balkans (mostly Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro). I spent about a month there and feel like I could have easily spent several more in the region.

I wish I had spent more time in Turkey. I was in Istanbul for a few days, but I feel like I missed out on a lot of what Turkey has to offer.

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?
I traveled when I was 23, but as I got to places less traveled, I started to meet older people. For example, everyone in Paris who is backpacking is in their early-mid 20's, but as I got more into eastern Europe, the average age started ticking up to the point where in Bosnia, I was on the lower range of ages. Granted, most were in their late 20's or early 30's, but many were in their mid 30's as well.

I think the biggest difference, as stated above, is you'll probably be doing a lot less drinking. But for serious travelers, drinking is just a convenient way to hang out and meet other travelers to swap stories. I had plenty of very enjoyable outings with other travelers at cafes or hookah bars. Also, I don't know your specific condition, but your nights might also end a little earlier than the younger folks' nights. But other than that, if you're out traveling and backpacking, your age won't be that big of a deal.

(I've heard you can't stay in some countries as long, for example)

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?
To take: Good walking shoes. Some OTC medicine (pain pills, allergy stuff, etc) in case you need it and wherever you are doesn't have a good pharmacy. A solid, pocket-sized notebook/pad that you can take notes in constantly. When I traveled, I didn't bring a computer or anything with me, and internet cafes were sometimes far and few in between and having a sturdy notebook where I could write down train schedules or draw rough maps was a huge lifesaver.

Nowadays, I'd probably also take a kindle or something loaded with some good books. Traveling means spending a good amount of time in transit, either on a train or bus or otherwise, and having good reading can be help a ton.

Don't bring a ton of clothes. One comfortable pair pants, shorts, and a few shirts you don't mind wearing a bunch will go a long way (plus clean underwear and the like). When you're moving a lot, carrying a backpack full of clothes that you never wear will make you loath moving around. Basically, pack the bare minimum amount of clothes for the climate you'll encounter
posted by Geppp at 9:59 AM on April 13, 2014

1) Matrix ITA to find flights. Way cheaper than those Star Alliance type deals. And look for flights where you can schedule several day layovers - gets you two locations for the price of one ticket. Air Iceland and Sri Lankan Air are both good for this (and in fact, combining them would work well, Sri Lankan flies from Paris).

2) Pretty heavily dependent on where your going…in most developing countries I've visited, you can just go into any clinic and get treated without spending a lot of money. So if you're doing that, focus on emergency medical evacuation insurance. It's surprisingly affordable. I carry International SOS - they aren't the cheapest, I don't think, I've just had several people recommend them. Happily I've never had to make use of the insurance, but I always get it.

3) Angkor Wat in Cambodia is pretty killer. We got a little architectural guide on my Nook. Bangkok is a great city. That's all assuming you've been to Paris. You have right? If you haven't, do that.

4) No idea, I've only traveled in my 30s. It was fine.

5) You need almost nothing besides the paperwork to get into the countries you're going to and a way to get local cash; there are no necessities you can't buy. Everything else is gravy. That said, one thing I do always pack is my safety razor - you can get blades pretty much anywhere, and it's cheaper and nicer than using travel razors (not as nice as when using high quality blades, but still not bad).

6) I did it the other way around - I lived abroad in Burkina BEFORE doing any extensive traveling.
posted by solotoro at 10:23 AM on April 13, 2014

A friend has travelled around the world twice, and has written about it. The advice is sprinkled throughout. She's a no-nonsense person who is very frank about when things suck, so her view of places tends to be free of the false positivity that sometimes accompanies the rationalizations people make about time and money spent in a place they didn't like very much.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:52 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband and I are doing this right now!

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?
We owned a house filled with stuff, had professions in which we appeared to be entrenched, cars, etc. One of the things I found quite interesting was just how quickly your life can be dismantled. The only thing you need to plan some time in advance is saving money; the rest can be done in a matter of 2-3 months (alongside your job). So don't get overwhelmed by thinking that organising this is too difficult to accomplish, just decide to do it and it will happen. Boom!

As for leaving a good job, that is what both my husband and I did. But neither of us wanted to reach age 60 (or whatever) and find ourselves in the same place doing the same things. For us, quitting was worth the risk of not having great "careers". We didn't love our jobs though.

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?
We have travel/medical insurance with a company called TravelSafe. Unfortunately, we had to test it out fairly quickly. Fortunately, they paid out in full without any hassle.

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?
We're still in the midst of travelling and have a lot of ground to cover yet, but Central and South America are great.

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?
I didn't travel in my 20s, so I can't make a within-person comparison. What I can tell you - based on what I see - is that "partying" and doing any/all possible adventure activities seems more important to the younger peeps. Mind you, I am travelling with my husband and am not single; so that changes things too (no hook-ups which other travellers, hostel managers, or locals!). So yeah, as someone else said, travelling (single) in your 20s is a VERY different experience. We meet other 20-something and 30-something+ couples along the way and have good fun still.

5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?
We have a lot of electronic gadgets with us and this has been fantastic:

And a rain coat that folds up into a pocket-sized thing is very handy.

Bring strong sunscreen that you know doesn't do bad stuff to your skin (if you have skin sensitivity problems).

We had reason to return to our home country in the middle of the trip and some things we left behind were a security door wedge and a water purifier. We hope we don't eventually regret leaving these, but in 6 months we haven't needed them.

6) Did any of you end up living abroad after doing extensive world travel? If so, how did that go?
We're hoping to find somewhere new to live along the way. I've heard, however, that once people do a huge trip like this it is very hard to stay in one place ever again. I.e., Once you travel in a big way, you always have itchy feet. So one idea would be to make sure you develop an occupation that you can do "on the road" ( e.g., over the internet). You could live anywhere and anywhere. :)

Good luck!
posted by Halo in reverse at 6:52 PM on April 13, 2014

In my idle Googling, I discovered this blog, So Many Places, which has about three years worth of posts documenting precisely this kind of life change.

Looks like she's also written a book. It's a pretty good blog.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:17 AM on April 14, 2014

I did this. I sold almost everything I owned and went traveling in Central and South America for 14 months. It was an amazing experience :) Some of this advice applies mostly to that region.

1) What's your one piece of best advice that you can give me?

Nthing "just do it". Stay open. Don't plan everything out in advance: often you'll find the best places to stay once you land somewhere and start talking to locals and other travelers. Or you might find an awesome group and decide their plans sound fun, so go with it! Do check out visa requirements before you get to a new country. Learn the local language, or at least a few phrases. People appreciate it. Take time to really soak in a place and it's culture. Country hopping can be fun, but I find it's more rewarding to land somewhere and stay a month or two if you have the time. Don't always stay on the tourist path.

2) How did you deal with practical things like health insurance?

You can buy travel insurance, I found one through IM Global that was like $180 for 6 months. But especially in Central and South America, medical and dental costs are super cheap. Also, most airports will vaccinate you for free right there if you need something specific (like yellow fever, etc) Malaria pills are a waste of money to buy in the States. Sleep with a mosquito net and wear bug spray and you'll be fine unless you are super deep in. In that case, buy pills locally, they are 90% cheaper there (ask me how I know...ugh)

3) Where were the top 3 places you went and stayed for a while?

Cozumel, Mexico; Utila, Honduras; Atitlan, Guatemala, and a little jungle village in northern Peru called San Roque...ok, so that was 4, there were many more :)

4) What's different about traveling the world at 36 vs early 20s?

Not much, there are lots of people your age who travel. I've met people in their teen to in their late 70s. Don't stay at the party hostels unless that is truly your scene. There are always alternatives.

(I've heard you can't stay in some countries as long, for example)<>
5) What item did you find indispensable? What should I not take?

Earplugs. A small, cheap laptop. Get a local phone if you land in a place for a while and want to call your new friends. Do not take a lot of clothes. Try to get down to 8 pieces or so. It's totally possible to wash your socks and underwear every other day and not be loaded down with clothes :) You can always buy more if you need. Some hostels also have free boxes where you can swap stuff. Minimize toiletries and things that need electricity.

6) Did any of you end up living abroad after doing extensive world travel? If so, how did that go

No, but I now travel a lot for projects I started working on through connections I made during that trip.

Happy travels!
posted by ananci at 3:50 PM on April 14, 2014

If you love your job and you'll be unlikely to get it or one like it back when you return, I wouldn't quit just because you think you might want to travel for an extended period. But you get 6 weeks of vacation, which is kind of amazing in the US. Take all your vacation in one lump and go on a cool trip. See if that will keep the travel bug under control. Think about it, that way, you can do more than a month of travel every year, and be able to pay for it, too. If after that first trip, you decide that 6 weeks a year isn't enough, you can ask for that sabbatical or quit.

FYI: Google Voice only forwards to American numbers, not international numbers. But the texting will work via the data connection if you have the app installed. Pretty much everywhere in the world, you can buy a SIM card. Local number, and a whole lot cheaper than paying roaming.
posted by yggdrasil at 9:01 PM on April 16, 2014

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