Perhaps you’ve seen it done in the movies. Maybe you’ve read about it in a book. If you’re from Europe or Australia, you may have even experienced it for yourself: a year of travel. Call it a gap year, call it a personal growth journey, call it a vacation, call it whatever you want - this type of travel adventure can spark new beginnings, change lives, and push innovative ideas forward. It used to be the type of experience that inspired people to sell all of their belongings and quit their jobs to set out on the road.
With the proliferation of technology, quitting your job is no longer a prerequisite to seeing it all. But does 12 months on the road, living in different cities, and embracing new cultures really make that big of a difference? Do you really feel irrevocably changed or would you return to “normal” life as the same person who left left?
Is traveling for a year as inspiring as the blockbusters and best sellers list make it out to be?
What happens when you travel for a year?
Traveling is a different experience for everyone and that’s precisely what makes it so impactful. You could print out a detailed itinerary for your next destination written by your favorite travel blogger and follow it to a tee, and have a completely different story to tell in the end.
So how can people possibly recommend traveling for a year to their friends and family if they can’t promise that they will have a similar experience? How can they be so sure that it will be life-changing for others? For a journey that takes so much commitment, time, effort and resources - how can they assure their friend that it’s worth the investment of time and money?
The thing about traveling for an entire year is that it’s nearly impossible to summarize your experience. No two days are the same on the road, so when you try to string together 365 days full of moments of connection, discovery, doubt, missteps, epiphanies, and growth moments it can be, um, difficult to describe. You could give a short answer like, “Traveling for a year changed the direction my life was taking” or “I saw so many corners of the world that I would not have otherwise ventured into”, but those answers just don’t seem to paint the whole picture.
So, what happens when you travel for a year? It’s hard to say.
After speaking with thousands of travelers who commit to these long form journeys, it’s clear that while paths differ and each person’s memories are completely unique, the emotions that they feel are similar and so is the way that they tend to tell their story. Instead of breaking it down by the places they’ve lived or by chronological calendar month, they describe their year of travel using four key stages:
There is nothing like the feeling of this is it. It’s the moment you’ve been preparing for for months as you’ve watched YouTube videos on how to pack your bag to maximize the compact space, while beating the airline’s weight limit.
You spend your flight wondering if you’ve made a mistake. You’re either setting out on this journey on your own, or you’ll be meeting up with fellow travelers once you reach your destination, but either way you’re feeling nervous. What if you have a hard time connecting with people? What if you can’t find your way to the Airbnb that you’ve booked? What if it turns out you’re allergic to all of the culturally-specific food that you’ve been dying to try?
In this moment, you think back to the reasons why you wanted to do this in the first place. You remember sitting on your couch after a long workday, too exhausted to pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read, ordering takeout, and turning on the TV to watch a show that you aren’t actually that invested in - yet again.
That was the moment when you realized you couldn’t do this forever. You needed to get out of the routine that had been holding you back from living the life you imagined. You pulled out your laptop and started making a plan. What better way to totally shock your routine into submission than to travel the world for a year?
The plane shudders as its landing gear makes contact with the ground in your new home, and you’re broken out of your reverie. This is it. Time to give your life some purpose.
When you arrive in your new neighborhood, you unpack and immediately head out into the world. There’s no use sitting inside on the first day of your adventure - you came here to experience a different way of life. First stop? A great ice cream shop with interesting regional flavors that’s just down the road from your digs.
You peruse the menu and choose your flavor, only to realize that the shop owner doesn’t speak the same language as you. After a bit of back and forth, you try out some of the (limited) local language that you attempted to learn before you left your hometown. It must have worked, because the shop owner smiles and hands you exactly what you asked for. You smile. You’re going to be able to do this after all.
Hello, doubt. Our old friend is back again. Maybe it’s because you’re starting to get homesick, maybe you’re realizing that a year of travel isn’t 24/7 fun and adventure, maybe you just can’t imagine eating another taco. We don’t really get that one, but moving on!
After three months on the road, you still don’t feel quite settled. You’ve made a few friends, both locals and fellow travelers, and you’ve made a ton of memories - but this still kind of feels like a dream with no end. It doesn’t feel like real life yet.
Things have probably gone wrong once or twice. Your favorite sandals broke when you were out on a grocery run, so you had to make the mile-long trek back to your apartment with one bare foot, fresh produce spilling from your bags as you hobbled along. You got food poisoning after trying a kabob from that street vendor. Things just aren’t as easy as they were back home, where you know how to find everything you needed.
Your frustration is growing after months of being outside of your comfort zone. You have the urge to run back to your comfortable bed curl up in the covers, forgetting about all of the “change” you were hoping to experience over the course of the year.
And yet, you have changed. You can sense yourself opening up to new people, feeling more sure in every step that you take. No matter what issue arises, you’re confident that you can figure it out. You’re more willing to take risks and less willing to spend your days indoors letting the clock tick down until it’s time to go to sleep.
Now that you’ve given those missteps some time to marinate, they’re actually pretty funny. You realize that if someone asked you right now, “What have you been up to lately?” you’d have a few stories to tell instead of replying with, “Oh, nothing. You?”
Maybe it has all been worth it after all.
You can’t believe that you’re already halfway through your journey. It doesn’t feel like you’ve been away for that long - although now that you’re thinking about it, you’ve accomplished a lot.
You’ve been to many different cities by now, basking in the feeling of entering a world that is so unlike your own, instead of being fearful of something new. You’ve accumulated a long list of friends from around the world, whose homes would be open to you if you ever needed a place to stay.
Time is starting to speed up, you can feel it clear as day. While the first few months of your journey felt long and full of opportunity, you’re starting to feel a bit of pressure to fit everything in before your year of exploration is up. Have you seen enough? Have you grown enough?
Then you remember that it’s not a race. This experience wasn’t meant to be something that came with a to-do list that had to be fully checked off by the time you headed back home. It was meant to throw you out of your comfort zone and encourage you to live a life full of purpose. And haven’t you done that?
Everyday on this trip has been packed with moments that have made you grateful for this life. Sure, you’ve spent a night or two binge-watching Netflix when you need a break from the never-ending adventure, but those night have been worth it too. You’re finding out that self-care is not just a trend after all.
These past six months have rocked your world in a way that a different experience just couldn’t. As a person, you’ve become more sure of yourself and the world, more empathetic, and more open to new ways of life. On a professional level, you know that the experience that you’ll bring back to the office will be invaluable. You have a hold on the latest industry trends around the world, and you’re ready to provide those perspectives to your team.
Yeah, this trip has already made a huge difference in the way that you see your life. You just can’t believe that it’s already halfway over.
You’re having some serious déjà vu. You’re back in the mindset that you had when you were first heading out on this adventure. Everything that you’ve been doing for the past year has been leading up to this moment in time: the end.
You’re wrapping up loose ends, trying to figure out how you’re going to edit down your belongings to fit them into the bags that you started this journey with, and saying goodbye to all of your local favorites. Goodbye to the park that you’ve run through every morning for the past few weeks, goodbye to the dog who sits outside the convenience shop next to your apartment, goodbye to the woman who always gives you a free flower from her stand on Sunday mornings.
This is almost harder than it was leaving home the first time.
You’ve gotten used to this lifestyle and you know that it’s going to be difficult to transition into your next chapter. Will you stay in one place for more than a month or two? How will it feel to not have a group of people by your side that understands the highs and lows of this journey?
Will you ever find people like them again?
Will you still relate to your old friends now that you’ve been on this whirlwind trip? Will you be able to adequately explain the impact that each country and culture has had on your personal and professional self? How can you possibly describe the ways in which you’ve grown throughout your time on the road?
The short answer is: you can’t.
This experience has affected you so deeply and so personally that no one else will be able to fully understand it. The people that you were traveling get it more than anyone, but even they might not realize the intricacies with which you have evolved.
Here’s the bright side: it’s okay.
You didn’t head out on this year of travel for anyone else but yourself. You don’t need to be able to fully impress upon people the magnitude with which you have grown over the past year. You went out of your comfort zone in search of opportunities for development and cultural understanding and you found them. You found them with more strength than you could have imagined.
You did this for you - and you’ve done it incredibly.
As you zip up your final suitcase and jump into the cab that will take you to the airport, you smile. No matter what comes next in the story of your life, you know that you can handle it. It’s all been building up to this moment. With your memories, lessons and life-changing moments in hand, you brace yourself for the impact of your next chapter. As you turn the page, you know that you’re more ready than ever to take on the world.