When I was 26, I quit my job as a researcher for a consulting firm in order to travel the world. On my 15-month journey, I volunteered with nuns in Mexico, then worked in marketing at an Auckland yoga retreat center. I washed dishes for a book launch party in Christchurch in exchange for a night in a spare bedroom. I road tripped 5,000 miles of the American West and visited eight national parks with my nieces. I volunteered in return for room and board at a Tasmanian B&B, surfed gentle waves off Bali, and slogged through the nightshift as receptionist at an Anchorage hostel. I backpacked several of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and I hitchhiked in four different countries.
Sounds cool, right? But what I’m omitting is the part before I left — how I agonized and prayed for months over the decision to actually go. How I worried whether I was taking this journey for the right reasons, and whether it would line up with my goals. And if I would return changed for the better.
On my journey, though, I was able to more clearly understand the factors that not only shaped my decision but that made my journey a successful one. So I crafted the following questions to help anyone considering or planning a gap year of their own.
1. Are you running from something, or running to something?
The most important question surrounding a gap year is whether it’s the right choice in the first place. Take a gap year because you want to find, learn, or experience things you could not do while working full-time. Don’t do it because you hate your current job. As I said, I prayed and discerned for nearly a year. I explored other possible changes such as moving or getting a new job before I finally felt confirmation that my urge to travel was grounded in the right motivations. Ask God to make your motives clear. Listen to the answer.
2. What are your budget and time constraints?
These are pretty straightforward factors, but they will build the scaffolding for your travels. Know how much you can afford and how long you can be gone. Those parameters will guide the types of accommodation, food, and experiences you choose. Are there life events you absolutely have to return home for? Are you taking a break from your job, or are you leaving your job altogether? How much have you put aside for your journey? Are you intending to work during your travels?
Depending on the answers to these questions, you might travel simply and make your money stretch as long as possible, or you might live large during a jam-packed three-month sabbatical. I intended to return to a “normal” life once I spent $15,000 — which I had guessed would take me a year. Instead, I traveled for 15 months and came back stateside for a wedding before I used up my budget.
Now that the logistics are out of the way, let’s move on to the central questions — about the goals and intentions tied to your journey.
3. What values and intentions will guide you?
The complete freedom of the jobless life can be both beautiful and paralyzing. Make sure you have a plan and know your values. Otherwise you risk just going to random places and having random experiences for the heck of it. To some extent, that’s the point, but too much and you become less like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love and more like putty getting thrown against the wall until it might stick.
However random the experiences of my travels may seem, my key values and goals stayed consistent throughout my time away. For instance, my desire to spend more time in the wilderness guided me to western U.S. National Parks, to Alaska, and to New Zealand’s stunning alpine landscapes. My interest in spiritual growth led me to spend seven months living in spiritual environments (first with nuns and then at a yoga retreat center). To achieve my goal of learning about other cultures, I used Couchsurfing, Airbnb, and WWOOFing to meet locals. My desire to pursue art and creativity sparked my current freelance writing side-job and revived my love for poetry.
4. What are you looking to learn, experience, or test out during your gap year?
This answer will be the foundation of your journey. Pray for clarity here, too. Let’s say you want to take your high school Spanish skills from conversational to working fluency. Then your gap year priority would be placing yourself in Spanish-speaking countries. If instead you’re hoping to dive into your passion for alternative medicine, then India might be the place for you. If you’re looking to stretch yourself by making friends with strangers while exploring a cool region, try the backpacking circuit of Southeast Asia.
5. What might you do after traveling? How do you see your gap year fitting into that?
Consider the ending before you ever take off. Do so even if your reason and endgame for a gap year is as straightforward as having some fun and returning to your current lifestyle with renewed energy.
The goals I made for my gap year were mainly created for fun and self-discovery. But on the more practical side, I hoped that diving into those passions during my gap year would eventually lead to a career change. I feel blessed that this, indeed, happened. After returning from my travels, I got my current job as a program facilitator for an outdoors-based gap-year program for high school graduates — an awesome blend of my prior career experience and gap-year exploits.
6. How will faith practice fit into your travels?
My connectedness to God admittedly ebbed and flowed throughout my gap year. You might wind up learning that the hard way, too, through trial and error. For me, travel meant I had to try harder to attend Mass and maintain my personal prayer life. There weren’t always people around me who shared my values. There were times I lost myself and did things that violated my deepest sense of right and wrong. It sucked. Eventually my gap year forced me to sharpen my own routines for prayer and faith practice in order to stay accountable without a regular faith community, which is an obvious advantage in a normal pattern of life.
The most difficult part of a gap year — the discernment and preparation — happens before you even leave. Once you do take off, seek experiences that will nourish you for the rest of your life, not simply those that will be the best days of your life. That way, you’ll enjoy the benefits of your time off for years to come.