Monday, June 24, 2024

‘Other cultures seem to respect rather than ignore older people’ – how to have a ‘golden’ gap year

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A gap year is about more than just taking a holiday, according to Milly Whitehead, the co-founder of, a company specialising in gap-year travel for young people. She explains: “Gap years are about pushing boundaries, challenging yourself, being curious about culture.” And now empty-nesters and other midlifers are getting in on the act. “As we age and our children leave home, our focus shifts back onto ourselves. We want to recapture that spirit of adventure,” she adds. 

Whitehead has seen such an increase in demand among the older demographic that she’s established The Leap MidLife. “Parents of the young people we help started saying, ‘I want a bit of that!’” she says. And David Flaschner, the marketing director of Projects Abroad, which organises overseas volunteering opportunities, agrees the trend is here to stay. “Older people are realising they have the time and freedom to take longer trips. They’ve holidayed in France and Spain a million times and want to explore further afield. They have the ability to travel outside summer, which makes things cheaper, and with advances in healthcare, age really is just a number now – we get people in their 80s who travel with us.”

So if you’re keen to pack your bags and go, what’s the best way to organise it?

Getting the time off work

“A golden gap year is absolutely feasible,” says Tina Woods, the chief executive of Business for Health, a coalition of major UK businesses pushing for preventative healthcare in the workplace. In fact it’s never been a better time to ask your boss for time out, with businesses looking for ways to retain talent in today’s competitive labour market. This, combined with employee burnout and stress levels on the increase, means ‘an extended pause from work acts as a great way to reset,’ says Woods.

A growing number of companies actively offer sabbaticals or opportunities to work abroad, while others may offer unpaid leave or a guaranteed role on return. Woods’s advice for those requesting a gap year includes taking time to understand your company’s policy and checking your contract for fine print. “You need to make your case,” she says. “Talk about how exploring another culture could be beneficial to the line of work you’re in – or explain that taking a break to reset your mindset will boost your productivity on your return.”

Funding your trip with your property

Unless you have a specific plan to downsize, selling up is a drastic move, particularly if you’re only away a year. Property experts advise that letting your house through a reputable agent offers the potential to provide useful additional income during your travels, while making sure your home stays occupied and secure. Properties are usually let on an assured shorthold agreement basis, which has a minimum six months’ term. If you have a mortgage, you’ll also need to ask your loan provider if they allow you to let your home.  If they’re not keen, you may need to review your mortgage options. You’ll also need to check your home can be let legally and safely meeting the Housing Health and Safety Rating System requirements.  When choosing an agent to look after the property for you, ensure they are members of the Association of Residential Letting Agents. 

Planning your adventure

Planning is the fun part, but can also be tricky and stressful. What you do and where you go will depend on your budget, your circumstances and what you want to do while you’re there. If you are wanting to travel independently you can hire a travel consultant to help you do this. It’s also worth getting advice from the point of view of laws around visas – particularly as Brexit has not been kind to UK travellers in terms of extended stay or working in certain countries. If you’re a travel newbie or a solo traveller, consider booking onto organised or volunteering trips where local travel and accommodation is covered as part of the cost and there will be staff on the ground to help you. Although jobs abroad for seniors are more limited – for example in Australia, New Zealand and Canada working visas are limited to 30-35 years-old – opportunities do exist, for example via the TEFL Academy, where you can train to teach English abroad.

Setting a budget

Setting out a budget beforehand and keeping to it is vital for a stress-free gap year experience. Apps such as Tripcoin can help you stay on top of your finances. “Take time to really crunch the numbers,” advises Izzy Kelly, gap year traveller and co-founder of The Gap Decaders blog. “A gap year always costs more than you think. Our website offers a budgeting tool to help you stay on track.” You can keep accommodation costs down by using hostels, which due to a boom in global tourism can be as comfortable as a boutique hotel – a bunk in a shared dorm will set you back around £4 a night, while a private room could be as little as £10. 

Be safe and don’t skimp on insurance

Never try to save money at the expense of safe travel. For example, hitchhiking may seem a popular activity in some countries, but is it really worth it for the cost of a bus or train fare? And always take out insurance. Midlife British couple Rachel and Paul Chandler who were sailing around the world regretted skimping on £15 kidnap insurance when they were snatched from their yacht by Somali pirates. While this horror story is an unlikely scenario for most gap yearers, when it comes to insurance, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. The insurance industry is amending its products and services to match the needs of golden gappers: Tom Riley, the managing director of the insurer True Traveller, says, “An increasingly large proportion of our Gap Year and Backpacker policies are bought by people in their 40s and 50s. Each of our policies has been designed following feedback from grown-up gap year travellers, so includes great medical cover of £10 million, with baggage cover as an optional extra, and our entry-level policy, True Value, has lower cover for cancellation.” If you’re planning on bungee jumping, diving or rafting you’ll need cover for extreme activities. Always look for insurance which allows breaks in your travel to come home for emergencies and bereavements, too.

Meet the empty-nest gappers

‘We were met with nothing but warmth and kindness. Other cultures seem to respect rather than ignore older people’

Clare Brown, 57, from Wiltshire, works in brand licensing. She and her husband Mike, 58, a self-employed property developer, spent 2023 backpacking around the world.

Mike and I had been working without a break for more than 30 years. Both of our children had enjoyed gap years and our youngest would soon be going off to uni. We thought, “Why not us? Why not now?” We still feel young, we’re fit – we felt there was an “adventure before dementia” window before our health potentially waned and we started needing hip replacements. 

Mike works for himself so could take a break between big projects – and take his laptop just in case – but I have a corporate role. I felt nervous about talking to my boss, but he immediately agreed to 12 months’ unpaid leave, saying I was coming at the right time, that the firm – like many others – was really considering ways to improve the wellbeing of staff.  

We let our house – the rental income would cover our mortgage and give us a bit extra each month. We used a small amount of savings and money from selling our cars to book our flights and the first accommodation. We didn’t have a huge budget so would be backpacking and staying in double rooms in hostels most of the time (£10 a night), with the odd cheap Airbnb thrown in. 

We flew out to Mexico City on January 10 2023. Friends worried we’d run into trouble, be held up at gunpoint, but there – and to be honest everywhere we went – we were met with nothing but warmth and kindness. Other cultures seem to respect rather than ignore older people. We did hang out with lots of younger backpackers we met in the hostels, but as we have kids that age that felt invigorating and familiar rather than strange.

The highlights of our trip were endless: trekking up a volcano in Guatemala, diving with sea lions in the Galapagos – our kids flew out to join us for their Christmas present. The experiences were intense: we visited salt flats in Bolivia which are so vast they’re visible from space, and attended Spanish school for two weeks. We had some beautiful experiences learning about people and it brought us closer together. I really relaxed and rediscovered the real me without the weight of work, mortgage payments and the minutiae of daily life.

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