Twenty years ago, back before Airbnbs, Skype, Facebook, Netflix, or Zoom, my husband and I took off on a six-month self-designed sabbatical that turned into a year, and then into 20 months. Barry and I were having so much fun, we couldn’t stop! We started in Mexico, then spent eight months in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Ireland, and then back to Mexico, where, five years later, we bought a 200-year-old adobe house in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Guanajuato. We now spend a third of every year there. That’s the thing about taking extended time off: It can change your life in ways you don’t expect.
Although our world is vastly different today than it was in 2000, in many ways it’s easier now than it was then to take a sabbatical almost anywhere you want.
You may be thinking, Isn’t this a weird time to think about international travel? Counterintuitively, the pandemic is the perfect time to plan a sabbatical because while it’s true few of us are getting on airplanes right now, it’s likely we will be traveling sometime in the next 12 months, and you’ll need this gestation period to make decisions and prepare. For a successful sabbatical, here’s what you need to do, starting now:
1. Commit To A Date, If Not A Destination
You may not have decided where you want to go, but you need to know when. Mark it off on your calendar! Having committed, you can work backward and think through everything you need to handle.
2. Plan … Lightly
When we left the U.S. in 2000, our home wasn’t rented, so we didn’t want to be too far away until that was confirmed. We bought a one-way ticket to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we stayed for all of four days. On day three, a couple we met invited us to go to nearby Guanajuato for the day with them in their car. We liked the city so much that we returned the next morning with our bags and stayed for four months. The beauty of a sabbatical is that you can seize the opportunities that show up unexpectedly, so don’t plan everything so tightly that you can’t flex.
3. The Web Is Your Friend
Research! If you’re not sure where you want to go, you can discover a lot before you leave home. Many towns abroad have English-language chat forums or Facebook user groups which provide information on costs, rentals, house-sitting opportunities, and other useful details.
4. To Work Or Not To Work?
If you’re like me, you may want to work part-time because it provides a structure around which to build the day. A sabbatical isn’t a vacation: You’re not going to visit museums and tourist sights every day and you’ll probably need to develop some kind of routine.
If you’re employed, ask management if you can take a leave or work remotely. This may turn out to be easier than you think. According to many sources, including The Atlantic, Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other digital platforms are here to stay, pandemic or no pandemic. Just be very clear how much time you want to spend working.
Many people take advantage of a sabbatical to contemplate a career change, using the extra time to brainstorm ideas and pursue training. One friend became certified to be a life coach; another studied painting and began selling her artwork on Etsy. Francophile Marianne C. Bohr, author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, took intensive French in Aix-en-Provence. When she returned to the U.S, she quit her job in the publishing field and started teaching middle-school French.
5. Mind Your Money
Most of us can plan an extended period away only if we keep a check on our finances. Your biggest expenses will be airfare and housing. Although Barry and I fly to Europe from the West Coast every year, we haven’t paid for a ticket in over 15 years. By applying for a credit card with 40,000-60,000 bonus frequent flyer miles every couple of years, we’re able to build up our miles. We apply only when we know we can compress a lot of expenses into a short time period because you typically have to spend $3,000 to $4,000 within three months, which, for us, is much more than normal. When you know you have expenses coming up (dental work, kids’ college tuition, work on the house or car, et cetera), apply for a card with bonus miles, and your international flight will be paid for since you can usually book a one-way ticket for 32,500 miles.
As for housing, here are some tips on reducing your accommodation costs:
Avoid Northern Europe, Especially The Cities
Iconic European cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam are beautiful, historic, culturally rich — and uber-pricey. Unless you have family or friends there, you can easily blow your budget in a couple of weeks. Just about anywhere else (other than North America, Australia, and New Zealand) will be much easier on your wallet. This leaves a lot of places! Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, even eastern Europe are good bets.
Rent For Longer Periods
Not only will you form a deeper connection to the area and get to know some locals, but the longer you stay in one place, the less you spend on transportation, and the more affordable housing is. When Barry and I rent an Airbnb, our goal is to stay a minimum of two weeks, and preferably a month or longer. Many Airbnbs offer a discount after a week and a bigger one after a month. If the Airbnb you’re interested in doesn’t, write the owner and negotiate.
Join A Home-Exchange Agency
As members of HomeExchange, where Barry and I list our Mexican house, we’ve stayed for free in Brittany, France; Prague; the west coast of Ireland; Medellin, Colombia; and Portland, Oregon. We’ve been successful by writing owners in a particular area to tell them when we’ll be in their location and asking if they’re interested.
Rent Or Sublet Your Home
When away from Guanajuato, we rent our Mexican home on Vrbo (formerly Vacation Rentals by Owner). If you live in a college town, try renting your home to a visiting academic for a semester.
6. Get Your Affairs In Order
In order to be carefree while away, you need to take care of logistics in advance. Twenty years ago, we had to hire a friend to take care of our business affairs, but happily, nowadays, most details can be handled automatically.
Money And Billing
Put utility bills, phone, internet, et cetera on automatic deduction several months before you leave so you’re sure they’re working; check that your passport and credit and debit cards won’t expire; join a bank that doesn’t charge for ATM withdrawals; call your bank to let them know you’ll be out of the country so your credit card isn’t declined.
Reduce your mail and have a friend check it occasionally. The Postal Service won’t hold mail past 30 days.
Make sure car registration and insurance are current (or cancel them) and decide where to store your car.
You may be able to get medications abroad (typically for a lot less), but if in doubt make sure you have an abundance.
Use a cloud app like Dropbox to store important data. Back up all important documents. If traveling with a partner, carry photocopies of each other’s passport, credit and debit cards, et cetera.
At the airport where you arrive, look for a data provider that will insert a SIM card into your phone or iPad so you can have cell service. This is usually much cheaper than the international plan offered by your U.S. carrier. Save your SIM card for when you return to the U.S.
7. Pack Light, Feel Light
As without, so within: the less you schlep, the lighter you’ll feel. Although my bag is small enough to carry on as hand baggage, I still love having certain favorite belongings that meet my “Three P” criteria: personal, portable, or practical, such as my lightweight hiking shoes, my black PaperMate felt-tip pens (I’m notoriously picky about pens), favorite teas, a portable immersion water heater, spices that aren’t easy to find (because I enjoy cooking when abroad, and it’s another way to save), and of course, Alice, our stuffed rabbit.
So, mark your departure date, do your research, take one step, now another. Once you’ve completed the footwork, you’re set. You can travel, study, rest, earn — or all of the above. See you on the road!