Going On Sabbatical: Taking Extended Leave To Travel
Going on sabbatical was once reserved for academics and clergy, but is now becoming a popular trend for professionals seeking to build ‘mini-retirements’ into their career.
With many companies now offering sabbatical programs they are now more common than ever and can give you the time to experience the world in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a couple of weeks.
I am lucky enough to be the veteran of three sabbaticals and have used them to backpack through multiple countries, book a house to stay in one place for a month and spend quality time with family before moving to Australia.
In this post I am aiming to give you a quick overview of sabbaticals – with some practical tips for turning your sabbatical dreams into reality.
Sabbatical Leave: What Is It?
A sabbatical is an extended period of time away from work granted by your employer. Generally they are unpaid, though some businesses do offer them as a paid incentive for long service.
Many companies now offer them as an employee benefit. For example Adobe offer a sabbatical program that starts after you’ve been employed for five years.
Whilst you are away you normally continue to accrue service-based benefits such as holiday pay, so it is more like an extended-unpaid holiday than a break in service.
Learn More: What Is A Sabbatical? The Complete Guide
Why Do People Take Sabbaticals?
In my experience there are four general reasons for someone taking a sabbatical:
Spending time with a person/people
…though in most cases it is a combination of one or more of the reasons above.
1) Spending Time With A Person/People
Many sabbaticals are taken with the aim of spending more time with a person or a group of people.
Sometimes it is through necessity – such as taking a sabbatical to look after an elderly relative – though often it is a conscious decision, such as a family packing up for a year to travel in a camper van or a couple taking a career break to see the world together.
A lot of sabbaticals are taken to travel, and this is by far the most common experiencial sabbatical, though often it’s often not travel alone that is the motivation.
In interviews I’ve spoken to people who have taken a sabbatical to:
Follow a sporting team on tour
Volunteer at a game reserve in Africa
Helped out on a Kibbutz in Israel
Used a house-sitting website to stay for free in one place for a month
Whilst strapping on a backpack and heading out to see a corner of the world is by far the most popular reason people take a sabbatical, you can also see there are other options available, and the list above doesn’t even scratch the surface!
The third main type of sabbatical normal involves some kind of achievement or goal.
There are lots of different ways to do this, usually driven by a passion to learn something new on tick off a big event from a ‘bucket list’.
From a learning perspective, sabbaticals can be used to enhance your skills by taking an intensive period of time to focus on one thing. From a one-month cooking course, six weeks learning to code or three months becoming a divemaster, a sabbatical gives you the time to make a big step forward in one particular skill.
There may also be other things you’ve always wanted to achieve but simply haven’t had the time to do.
Always dreamt of publishing a novel? 550 words a day, seven days a week for 13 weeks and you have yourself a 50,000 word book!
How about restoring a classic car? A sabbatical is the perfect time to get that project off the ground so that when you go back to work it’s easy to do in a few hours a week on days off.
It might be a more physical challenge such as cycling around your home country or completing a pilgrimage such as the Camin de Santiago.
The big thing a sabbatical gives you is the time do do things that are simply not possible on annual leave or days off, so let your mind wander and dream big!
This will be a key part of any sabbatical, getting away from the stresses of the workplace and spending time doing what you want to do, when you want to do it.
My sabbatical was the first time I got bored in many years, and I mean that in an entirely positive way! It’s nice not to feel the overwhelm of work emails backing up, day-to-day business based crises and the time pressures of early morning meetings. Having time to think, read and just do nothing was an absolute revelation!
Some people take the recharging element to an even higher level by booking in to complete a Vipassana or meditation retreat. It can be an incredible way to completely switch off and reset your mind.
Getting A Sabbatical Signed Off By Work
It may come as a surprise but sabbaticals are not a legal requirement in the same way sick pay, holiday allowances and maternity leave are. They are a benefit offered by your company to keep employees loyal and fresh.
What this means is that you have to be well prepared when asking for a sabbatical so that you give yourself the best possible chance of getting it signed off.
I would start by putting yourself in your boss’s shoes.
We are generally fairly selfish as individuals, so the first thing our minds turn to when we’re being pitched to is ‘what does this mean for me?’.
The biggest thing your boss is going to be worried about is how to cover your role whilst you are away. If you can come up with a plan for this before you even ask about taking a sabbatical your chances of getting one will go up by a huge amount!
A sabbatical can actually be of great benefit to your workplace as it strengthens the future of the team by giving other people the opportunity to take on more responsibility.
When I requested my sabbatical I identified two people within my team who could step in. I split the responsibilities in half and had a clear plan for who could backfill them. I then spent the two months in the run-up to leaving training them and gradually handing over responsibility so the process was smooth for everyone. When I got back the business then had two people who were a perfect fit for future leadership roles as they’d had three months worth of experience that they would not have been able to gain elsewhere.
This for me is the biggest hurdle to getting a sabbatical signed off by work, though if you need some more advice check out ‘How To Ask For A Sabbatical [& Get One!]’.
Planning A Sabbatical
Once you’ve got your sabbatical signed off it’s time to start planning.
Planning Your Route
This should be the most exciting part of planning a sabbatical, but it can be very overwhelming. Planning where to go for a two week holiday is easy, but when you’re faced with 13 weeks or more it can be hard to know where to start.
If you’ve settled on a broad idea of the countries you want to visit, then my advice would be as follows:
Research places to visit
Plot locations onto a Google Map
The first step is to research specific locations you want to go. We did this over a period of a few weeks, and dropped them all into a big Evernote file. We did this by searching through travel blogs, a Lonely Planet Guidebook, Instagram hashtags and travel forums. We then made a big master list of all the places in each country that we thought looked interesting. After that we dropped all of the locations into a Google Map. This allowed us to see where they all were but also gave us a broad outline for a route. At this point we discarded a number of them because they were so far away from anywhere else it would have been really difficult to get to them.
The final stage was detailed planning. For many people this stage can be skipped, as you might just want to go with the flow, but we had a number of timescales we had to meet, such as being at Angkor Wat to meet my dad on his 60th birthday. I dropped the route into a spreadsheet to give ourselves an idea of how much time we wanted to spend in each location and where we needed to be on which date.
All of this together gave us a firm outline for our trip, though this changed multiple times when we were on the road!
Getting Ready To Leave
There is so much to sort out before leaving it’s important to start planning early.
My advice would be to set up a notebook or use a to-do list app and every time you think of something to add it to the list. Plan in time once a week to review everything you’ve written down and either take action there and then or add it to the calendar to be completed at a later date.
Here is a list of tasks that we completed before our sabbatical which should help get you ahead:
Check passport is in date
Make a decision on what to do with your house (house-sitting, neighbour looking after it etc)
If you have pets, decide who will look after them
List out any gear you will need to buy for travel and look for it in sales
Buy travel insurance
Check credit/debit cards are in date
Order a low interest foreign exchange card
Check if you need vaccinations for the countries you’re visiting and book in
Check visa requirements for your route
Register for proxy voting if you’re going to miss a key election
Get your phone unlocked so you can use foreign SIM cards
Set up mail forwarding
Order additional medical prescriptions
Apply for an International Driver’s Permit
Photocopy key documents (passport, travel insurance, driving license etc) and upload a copy to a Dropbox file
Put your email on out-of-office and set up a voicemail on your phone
Making The Most Of Your Time Off
It may sound a little strange but one of the biggest fears people have when taking a sabbatical is that they won’t make the most of the time off.
If you’re travelling here are a few bits of advice that I found helped me…
Do Things You Wouldn’t Normally Do
We only learn when we’re uncomfortable and only remember things when they’re different.
Try and push yourself outside of your normal routines and do things you wouldn’t normally sign up for. We learned to dive in Nha Trang, took a lantern making course in Hoi An, washed elephants in Chiang Mai and donated blood in Luang Prabang! All experiences that we’ve not had before or since!
It helps to travel with someone who has different interests to yours as you’ll find yourself doing things that don’t come naturally and were not on your wish-list.
I am a big advocate of meditation and the core principle is to live the only moment you ever truly can – NOW!
The past is gone, the future will always be in the future, so try and take in what is happening around you. Notice the smells, sounds, faces and tastes that are unique to the moment you’re in. This combination of things will never be repeated!
I always ask myself three questions that keep me in the moment:
What do I notice?
What do I like?
What do I wonder?
By asking asking myself these questions when I arrive somewhere new, it not only gets me focused on what’s happening but also sparks my curiosity to learn more.
Keep a Record
Whether it’s photos, words in a journal, or a travel blog, taking the time to record what you’ve experienced will help you to remember it and make the most of the time you have.
My website came from my sabbatical and I still look back now at the posts I wrote whilst on the road. It is a brilliant record of a wonderful time in our lives.
When you’re writing it also pushes you to learn more about the places you visit. The ‘what do I wonder?’ question from above prompts me to research where I’ve been to truly immerse myself in the culture and history. Going on to write about what I’ve learned tests my knowledge and allows me to pass it on to others.
P.S. Be brave, you only live once 🙂
Travel tip shared by benreeveuk