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Fairly often during my travels, I run into travellers on – how shall I put it – a somewhat different time frame.
They are the travellers on their long-term trips, covering multiple corners of the world – the ones whose happy glow conveys only one message: that they, the unattached to any one location and with plenty of time on their hands, are somehow more fortunate than you on your measly holiday allowance.
‘Aren’t you dying not to have to go back to the office in-between trips?’ they ask me.
And bam, they couldn’t be more right. I would love to cancel the lease on my London flat, cash in my savings and go on a whirlwind trip around the world. I would start off with some quality time with my parents in Riga, then get a quick Russian visa, catch a train to Moscow and embark on a long adventure on board the Trans-Siberian. I would take time to make my way past Russia’s endless steppe to reach Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok. Or I would possibly detour to Mongolia, spend at least a month exploring the country, cross into China and finally discover the mysterious Tibet. And from there? I would see where the road would take me, but my adventure would only be starting.
Embracing travel at Mirador Los Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile
Enough day-dreaming though! My travel wish list consists of so many destinations that working through them on holiday allowance is likely to take me years, if not decades. Frankly, I am tempted to cut my wait short, abandon it all and travel without this job thing looming in mind. I have never taken a sabbatical or extended time off to travel (those eight months in 2008 were spent mainly in Greece and didn’t count), and it would be great to have a well-deserved break after a marathon 8 years with my current employer.
…WHICH DOESN’T MEAN THAT FULL-TIME JOBS ARE EVIL
A full-time job does have advantages. For one thing, I absolutely love organising my day in a regimented way, with time allocated for work, eating, running errands, pursuing hobbies and exercising. This way I feel that my life is not only under control, it is also well balanced and healthy. Being on the road constantly could easily destroy this beautiful balance.
And then there are the more obvious advantages many full-time jobs come with: medical insurance, pension plans, corporate gym memberships and – last but not least – paid holiday allowance. Yes, when the holiday does arrive, the thought of my bank account silently replenishing itself while I am cramming in as much travel as possible is soothing.
Finally, despite my admittedly slow career growth so far, I have not yet completely given up on the thought that, one day, I might have grown through the ranks of my large organisation and morphed into this senior person striking exciting banking deals left, right and centre. I hear you all laughing as I type this, but I remain optimistic.
I remain optimistic: jumping for joy on the rooftops of Sucre, Bolivia
To sum up, I am not yet convinced that the time is right to give up my job to travel. I am not ready to drop everything and take flight into the unknown – which leaves me as a full-time office worker for the foreseeable future.
That said, I am a great believer that full-time employment and an active travel life are not mutually exclusive. And even with a full-time job, I do not exactly suffer from a lack of travel. Without saying that the below combination would work for everyone, this is what I do to maximise my time on the road – while maintaining a full-time job.
1. I MAX OUT MY HOLIDAY ALLOWANCE
My holiday allowance is quite amazing, especially by UK standards. Currently I get 29 paid days off a year, with an option to take up to 5 unpaid days off. Needless to say that I always take the unpaid days in full: life is too short not to. And we usually get a “gift” of an extra 2 days off around Christmas.
Add to that the UK’s 8 public holidays per year, and I arrive at 44 working days off every year to spend as I please. Together with adjacent weekends, this equates to around 9 full weeks available for travel before we even start taking into consideration all those other weekends scattered throughout the year.
NINE weeks of travel, folks! It is 2 full months on the road, or one-sixth of the year when I am not required to be working. This is nothing compared to the self-proclaimed “digital nomads” out there, but quite a respectable allowance nevertheless.
Putting my salwar kameez to great use in Tehran, Iran
I do understand that not everyone has as much holiday as I do – vacation days in places like the US are famously limited – but I recommend, if given a choice, paying close attention to holiday policies at your employment options and making an educated choice. And don’t be afraid to ask for unpaid leave! I am the first person to break this as I have never summoned up the courage to ask for a sabbatical in my 10-year career, but I know I will get there one day.
2. I USE MY HOLIDAYS FOR TRAVEL AND TRAVEL ONLY
It is very easy to lose days on unimportant things. Some of my colleagues take days off here and there to do gardening, shopping, running errands and – something that sends shivers all the way down my spine – chilling at home because they “simply have too much holiday left”. There is absolutely nothing wrong about taking holidays to stay at home – I am a firm believer that everyone’s holiday choice is right for them – but this is simply not who I am.
I make a conscious effort to dedicate holiday time to one purpose only: travel. Every single day matters! I have never not travelled on a holiday in my 10 years as an office worker. In fact, when my flight to Hong Kong way cancelled because of a volcano eruption in Iceland in 2010, I went on to cancel my time off altogether. What was the point in a holiday when I couldn’t travel? I already spend about two thirds of my time in London and don’t need holiday time to do (more of) my laundry.
Speaking of that Icelandic volcano eruption, I ended up seeing it live!
Another way to maximise holiday? Do shorter trips on weekends! I do not travel every single weekend, but, in the past few years, have averaged about 20 weekends away (not already included in longer trips) per year. That is an extra 40 days away, or about 5.5 weeks available for travel. Again, it is no match for the fully location-independent individuals, but it sure is a nice way to break up an office routine.
Finally, I often plan my leave around public holidays to be able to travel longer – and further away – for “less” holiday spent. My favourite time to travel is Easter, when both Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays in the UK. I normally leave on Thursday night, arrive in my destination on Friday and do not return to London until a week on Monday morning. This means a 10-day holiday for merely 4 days off spent. I am smiling just thinking about it.
3. I PLAN HOLIDAYS A LONG TIME IN ADVANCE
The relative stability in my day job allows me to make travel plans at least a year in advance, including booking flights during airline sales and planning activities early. Especially for obvious festive seasons like Christmas, I plan my holidays as early as possible to strike better travel deals. This allows me to plan much more holiday than if I was coming up with my trips spontaneously (I have written about my obsession with booking holiday early here: Holiday addict).
At any point in time, there are usually dozens of destinations in my wish list, and picking a few destinations for the year ahead is never a problem. Depending on my current travel interests, I may decide to prioritise one or another destination in a given year, and book to visit it immediately. Not everyone has the luxury of a stable job with amazing employment security, but planning a little ahead is really not that difficult. And this way you always have a trip to look forward to!
A long weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was one of my very few spontaneous trips, to a friend’s wedding (not held in a favela, of course)
4. I USE BUSINESS TRAVEL TO DISCOVER NEW PLACES
Until recently, I used to go on business trips around 3-4 times per year. Because I cover the power sector, such trips would often involve site visits to future sites of power facilities, often in unusual, interesting locations way off the beaten track around Eurasia and North Africa. Thanks to business travel, I have explored a patch of dusty desert near Aswan in Egypt, visited a picturesque lakeside village in the vicinity of Dubrovnik in Croatia, enjoyed staying in the historic centre of Belgrade, Serbia’s bustling capital, and watched mist rise on the Danube on a frosty winter morning in the middle of nowhere in Hungary – to name but a few.
My favourite business destination of all time though is Georgia. I have worked extensively on Georgian projects and travelled to Georgia several times, always ending up in a different part of the country. Georgia is rich in hydroelectric potential, and site visits would nearly always involve stunning mountain scenery so favourable to run-of-the-river hydro projects. In-between meetings and technical discussions, a group of us would enjoy monumental feasts on Georgian specialities, wine tasting and, in one instance, even a 7am schnapps with an Orthodox priest heading a church in the vicinity of the power plant we were financing. Indeed my visits to Georgia felt more like a holiday than a business trip (view my photos of Georgia here and my write-up about my first business trip to Georgia here).
Unbelievably, I’m on a business trip: near Akhaltsikhe, Georgia
One of my favourite tricks on a business trip is to arrange it around a weekend and use the time to explore more of the country. After a business meeting in Istanbul, I would spend a weekend in Cappadocia; before a Monday site visit in Ljubljana, I would bus it to Slovenia’s Adriatic coast; and, after days of zooming around potential hydroelectric sites in Georgia, I would unwind during a weekend in Tbilisi. You get the idea: I have extensively used business trips to broaden my travels.
Since a change in my role last year though, my business travel has slowed down significantly. I no longer work on new projects and instead look after a portfolio of over a hundred existing transactions. A less sexy role on paper, it also involves substantially less travel – unfortunately – but I remain optimistic.
5. I DO NOT LET WORK DEFINE MY LIFE
In an ideal world, I would turn off my work computer at 5am sharp (or even earlier), go about my business and not think about work until the next morning. In reality, as much as I am tempted to (and legally allowed to) do just that, some stupid sense of responsibility forces me to answer emails late into the evening – though I try to keep actual work outside working hours at a minimum.
And the tension isn’t just coming from within. I constantly feel an almost intangible pressure to demonstrate that work is my top priority, far ahead of personal interests and relationships. This can involve being criticised for leaving work at 6pm (which used to be perfectly normal years ago), an expectation, by default, that I cancel a lunchtime gym appointment at short notice for an unimportant meeting to discuss nothing in particular when pretty much any other time slot would do, and being contactable during holiday. I also feel judged for taking my holiday allowance actively during the year, with some colleagues almost priding themselves on having accumulated 30 or more unused days. The horror!
I should stop waving that Greek flag and think instead of all the work I could have accomplished in place of this holiday
I know that I am very privileged to have a great job and absolutely do my best when I am working. However, I do not think that work should become somebody’s main focus in life. Work is something I do to pay bills and finance my personal interests – travel, photography, fitness and language learning, to name but a few – while always making sure to do a good job. If someone is actually passionate about their day job, I think it is wonderful. However, I will never truly understand the people who consistently sacrifice their lives to work. Will their final thoughts be of that exciting project they signed at work – or a spectacular personal experience, be it travel-related or not? I think the answer is clear.
And remember: if your employer didn’t want you to take holiday, they would never have given you all those days. Happy travels!