I took almost a year off work several years ago. I was laid off during the GFC so I decided it was the perfect time for me to pack up and travel. So I did. I packed everything and just left (Melbourne was home for me at the time) and started a journey that changed my life and me as a person.
For all of you who have thought about it but have yet to pull the trigger, I understand your reservations (almost everyone feels that way) but I think most people who have done it will tell you if you are worried about getting a job again, you shouldn’t. If you are employable now, 12 months is not going to make any difference. If anything, the personal growth you will go through during that 12 months, will probably make you more employable!
In terms of what to do after you return, why decide that now? You have a whole year to decide that, and honestly there is no better way to figure that out than travelling on your own for an extended period of time.
Now, next and the more important question — where to go?
Short answer is everywhere. Long answer is you need to consider the following factors (I will also weave in some of my most memorable places):
1. When is the best time to go to for the different parts of the world?
Since you have a year to explore the world, then i would plan it around the best time to go for each region. You may need to research the details but the key things to watch out for is summer vs winter destinations, wet vs dry seasons. I can offer some suggestions here：
Scandinavia is good for both summer and winter (i did a very similar trip in summer than winter again and i was amazed both times).
You can see the Northern Light in winter and there is nowhere like Iceland.
Driving in Iceland was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Winter is almost all dark in Scandinavia, quite a unique experience
There are also a number of ice hotels you can try! I did one night in Ice Hotel in Sweden, quite a cool experience.
Go in summer and go hiking in Norway! This photo was taken at Trolltunga (a 22km hike), totally worth it! I recommend you go in early summer before the snow is fully melted because mountains are always prettier when it is capped by a thin layer of snow. Also it will make it easier to hike when the snow has melted a bit.
Seljalandsfoss in Iceland (winter vs summer — you can go behind the waterfall in summer!)
Australia and New Zealand — I would suggest you go in summer. Australia (I grew up in Australia) is definitely a summer destination. New Zealand is best for hiking and adrenalin sports so I would recommend it as a summer destination. I just went there for Christmas and did some amazing hikes there. Focus your time on Queenstown and the nearby towns (Milford Sound, Wanaka etc). Should try to allocate ~2 week per country.
South America — Best to go during the dry season. South America is huge and i have only been to a few of the countries with Chile being on the top of my bucket list. If you haven’t done so already, definitely do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, do the 4 day / 3 night one not the day trip since you have time. It is not that physically demanding so don’t worry about that if you are. You can spend 2 days in Cusco (the starting point before the hike) to acclimatize and also well worth your time!
Asia — Asia is big and I am going to say each country is very unique so very hard to give a generalised recommendation. I have lived in Asia for the last 6 years and travelled to almost every country in the region. I am going to mention one in particular — Japan is a must go, the food, culture and scenary, it is probably the most unique place to visit in Asia and you will taste some of the best tasting and meticulously presented food in the world. I would probably spend 3-4 months in Asia. Myanmar, Cambodia, Korea, China, Bhutan and Vietnam are also very interesting and definitely worth going. In terms of season, North Asia has clear 4 seasons and I would try to avoid the summer months as it gets really really hot here. South East Asia is generally warm throughout the year. It has wet and dry seasons and can get really hot so just bear that in mind. Countries like Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are less known travel destinations but they are absolutely stunning. They do get really hot in summer so I would recommend to go in the cooler months.
Western Europe — probably one of the, if not the, most popular travel destinations. Spain, Greece, France and Italy are all beautiful, and each would need a good few weeks if you want to do them properly. Personally I see Western Europe as more a summer destination and if you want to avoid the crowd and go in winter months, then please remember to check opening times as many small tourist towns (sights and restaurants) are closed during the off season. Switzerland (technically Central Europe), is beautiful in both summer and winter.
Eastern Europe — my favourite part of Europe actually. Underrated compared to Western Europe, but IMO it is even better — it is just as beautiful and rich in history, people are nicer (based on my personal experience) and so much cheaper! Poland, Bosnia, Germany, Prague, Budapest are good for both summer and winter. Croatia and Montenegro i think are better for summer (at least starting April / May).
A cool thing to do in Croatia was going into the water with restaurant boat (Bota — Sare is the restaurant) and eating freshly harvested oysters (picture below).
Going more east, Turkey is amazing too (my Turkey trip is coming up in 2 weeks, so excited!)
North America-I have only been to a few cities in US and Canada but i think both countries are summer and winter travel-friendly. Lake Louise was very memorable for me
Now for the practical aspects of your trip planning…
Most things you can find or sort out on the road but getting visa can get tricky once you leave your home country. So, I would recommend once you have a vague idea of where you want to go, try to get visas sorted beforehand, especially with some of the Asian countries. It will save you a lot of hassle to get them done before you go then when you are on the road and trying to find a consulate, though bear in mind most visa has an expiry date.
Most people don’t think about this but it’s more important than you think! lol. Some country’s visa application may even require certain vaccination, eg yellow fever vaccination is a common one for some parts of South America and Africa. Most people get sick after it too (only for a day) so probably best to get it done before you leave for your trip. Go to your local doctor and they can help you to find out which region needs which vaccination (some are mandatory some are just recommendation so entirely up to you)
4. Buy a good camera!
Doesn’t have to be a hardcore top of the line DSLR, but get a nice camera (there are a lot of smaller size but high tech cameras) so you can take photos of your journey. I still go through my photos from my past trips and they bring back great memories.
5. Do your pre-trip research
Looping back to my first point, do some high level planning and city research, but leave plenty of flexibility too because you will meet people along the way and you will learn about new places which may not have been on our original list. Also since you have a year, special flight and hotel deals may come up, so leave some flexibility in your plan and keep an eye out for the special deals.
Pre-trip planning will also help you to have a vague idea on how much money you need for the trip. Most places I have been to can be done on budget or super lux so I would recommend do a high level budget based on what you can afford and how you like to travel (the two are not always correlated).
How has it changed my life?
The time I took off and travelled made me realise how much I love travel. Now 7 years and 60+ countries later, I have started my own travel startup focusing on making trip planning easier. In the age where we have driverless cars and drones, we are still using spreadsheets and word docs to plan our trips?! Come on! We can do better and we have.
So, if you are looking for a web-based trip planning tool to save your pre-trip research notes and have everything integrated with Google map, then give pebblar a try (http://www.pebblar.com). I use it for all my trips now and wish i had it when i was backpacking! Our read-only app also lets you access your e-tickets and booking confirmations even when you don’t have internet access (we are the only travel planner that does this).
My final comment — JUST DO IT! You will love it and wonder why you ever waited!