Stylist contributor Chantelle Horton, on how a travel sabbatical could be the most enlightening decision you make in 2016
On a rainy January morning last year, as the rest of the world returned to work, I boarded a plane with my husband and flew to Singapore for the start of a three-month world trip. As I scrolled through endless ‘first day back and the Northern line’s already suspended’ Facebook posts, I was that annoying person who checks in at Heathrow Terminal Five.
A mixture of redundancy and selling our house spurred us to do it; it meant we had some money in the bank, no idea about where to live or what to do next, and rather than rush our next life decision, we decided to use the mortgage break as a chance to see the world. The next minute we’d put everything we owned in storage and booked a Trailfinders multi-continent ticket. It was terrifying.
Organising the trip involved days of poring over maps, reading hotel reviews and sketching routes (how did anyone do this before the internet?!). We’d decided to do it in style, choosing hotels and apartments over hostels and campsites. A friend advised us to enjoy our blowout hotel experience in South East Asia, where you get serious bang for buck. And once in Khao Lak, in beachfront villa overlooking the turquoise Andaman Sea for just under £200 a night at Casa De La Flora, I silently thanked my friend for her wise words. In fact, I had a little cry. Because by that point, even though we’d visited traditional hawker centres for fresh dumpling soup in Singapore and viewed stunning temples in Malaysia, it wasn’t until Khao Lak that it sank in: it was January, and I wasn’t freezing and skint - I was in paradise.
With a private pool and morning beach yoga lessons, I was full of Zen…until we hit Hong Kong. A city of clutter, noise, exciting smells and neon signs, it’s an exhilarating city but somewhere you definitely need a retreat in after a day’s exploring. We stayed at the homely J Plus hotel, and on a practical level, appreciated the hotel’s free rooftop laundry room which offered complimentary wine and snacks while you did your washing looking across the city!
Next, New Zealand was a stunning gear change and, despite being as far away from home as possible, with its Cornwall-esque beaches and rolling meadows was wonderfully familiar. A highlight was meeting old friends to visit the Martinborough wine region, and we spent a perfect Valentine’s day cycling around boutique vineyards, sampling local pinot noir and BBQ’ing New Zealand lamb.
LA followed, along with the pacific coast highway drive to San Francisco, via Big Sur, Monterey… Basically anywhere with a song name attached to it. The diversity of the landscape in California is something you can only really appreciate by travelling through it.
We mainly stayed in Airbnb rentals in the US (we were there for six weeks), which provided the opportunity to live as locals in neighborhoods like West Hollywood, where spending a night in a rock bar with £5 martinis, a 24-hour deli attached, and Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men turned out to be pretty much my husband’s dream night! Airbnb rentals also give you the opportunity to cook and have a night in. Something you don’t realise how much you want to do until you’ve eaten out every night for six weeks.
After a stint in Vegas, we found ourselves in New Orleans. Despite only being there for four days, we witnessed three street parades, and whether it’s Mardi Gras or just Wednesday, N’awlins loves any excuse for a party. With jazz musicians on every corner and the smell of gumbo everywhere, it was much more my kind of partying than Vegas. Next was a six hour Amtrak journey to Memphis.
As most Americans think you’re insane if you even mention public transport, I was surprised at the comfort of Amtrak. We had a traditional southern gravy dinner in the restaurant carriage, then retired to the glass viewing carriage and played cards with a group of Harley Davidson bikers who were fascinated by our journey. What had made us go travelling? What was the best place we’d seen? We’d now recounted our story a lot. But with each person asking us something new, we never got tired of telling it.
We arrived in Memphis clutching the email addresses of our new biker friends. Then as we waited on the platform for our bags, a retired farmer we’d been chatting to over dinner got off the train, shook our hands, and said our story had inspired him to “book me a trip of a lifetime” as soon as he got back to Chicago.
Memphis was a musical journey through Graceland and Sun Studios. Then we were flying to New York, our final destination. Usually, before a trip to NYC we’d be obsessively planning what to do and see. But we were tired. And cold (it was March, snowing and we only owned flip flops.)
But the real difference is we were no longer viewing places as checklists of things to see. The journeys themselves, the people we met, the places we did our washing - everyday things became just as important the sights. A stint of travelling will change the way you view many things, including how you travel. And if you ever get the opportunity I’d thoroughly recommend it.
HOW TO PLAN A GROWN UP GAP YEAR
Book a ‘round the world’ ticket with an airline alliance for more freedom and cover. Smaller trips can cost less than £900 whilst a fully flexible multi-stop ticket starts at £2000. One World is a popular choice, plus their threshold pricing system is an absolute bargain for savvy travellers. oneworld.com
Set yourself a realistic budget based on exchange rates and spending habits. STA Travel recommends allowing for a budget of approximately £1500 a month for a mid-range/luxury experience across the globe. On this basis, a six month trip including fully flexible air fare will cost around £11,000. statravel.co.uk
Keeping your job open
Apply for a leave of absence and sign up through thecareerbreaksite.com to overseas projects/courses where you can develop skills that will benefit your company when you return.
Covering costs at home
sabbaticalhomes.com will rent out your fully furnished home during your time abroad, bringing you a steady income while you’re on the road.
Load up a prepaid currency card like My Travel Cash for top exchange rates and no ATM fees abroad, saving you money and the fear of losing your Barclaycard overseas. mytravelcash.com/
Hostelworld.com is a great resource with reviewed properties in 170 countries to browse through, charging from just £1.96 for a bed in Chiang Mai. Download their app to access last minute while on the move. hostelworld.com/mobile-app
If you go souvenir mad enroute, send a suitcase home with the international door-to-door shipping service: sendmybag.com.
Staying in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year or in Rio for Carnival may sound idyllic but it could mean things you want to see are either closed or busy. Research the best times to travel for every aspect of your trip. whentogo.org/