A few years ago, when my husband and I were just starting our careers, we would take long walks together and daydream about the day – WAY in the future – when we’d be able to travel the world full-time.
As anyone living with wanderlust knows, we are inundated with intoxicating blogs and perfect Instagram feeds telling us over and over: Quit your job! Sell all your belongings! Be a nomad!
But let’s be honest: That’s just not the way most people travel. We’re all trying to take trips on fixed incomes, squeezed into pitiful vacation-day allowances. Plus, Aaron and I finally realized something: Even if we could travel full-time, we didn’t want to.
We own a home in a great city that we love (Seattle). We have an awesome community of friends and family nearby, and we rescued the best pup in the world (go ahead, try and prove me wrong!). Plus, we actually like our jobs (I’m a labor and delivery nurse, and Aaron teaches elementary school). We didn’t want to leave all that permanently behind.
But we did still want to travel. A lot.
So we got serious about making travel a priority in our lives and figured out ways to make it happen. We dug into budget hacks and credit card miles, and found endless resources to help us.
And here’s what we discovered: You can have both. You can have a career, a house, a dog, a full life in a permanent spot AND you can go traipsing all over the world.
Nowadays, every time we return from (yet another) trip, people are shocked that we find the time to travel so much despite our real-world jobs. So in the hopes of encouraging others not to get chained down by the 9-to-5, we want to share our best tips for making time to travel.
– Here’s how we make it happen –
» Learn your employer’s vacation rules – Really dig in. Get to know your human resources rep, and make best friends with your scheduler. If you’re a union employee, learn your contract backwards and forwards.
How much vacation time do you accrue per month? Can you work overtime to earn extra? Can you use your sick time if you have plenty left? How many days off can you take at a time? How early can you request them to ensure that no one will beat you to it? Which holidays do you get off automatically?
Oftentimes your employer will reward you after you’ve worked with them for a while. A friend of ours gets a month-long paid sabbatical every 10 years with his company. That goes for non-corporate jobs, too: My husband teaches elementary school, and after 3 years in the same district, he’s allowed to take unpaid leaves up to a year long.
» Use that vacation time – ALL of it! Don’t let a culture of over-working shame you into letting your vacation time slip away. You earned, it’s yours. Every last second.
If travel is really your priority, don’t be distracted by the temptation of cashing out vacation time or embarrassed because your coworkers are letting their time go unused. That’s all too common, especially in America.
And be careful not to let your hard-earned Paid Time Off vanish when you’re not looking! When I first started working at my hospital, I didn’t realize that every time I called out sick, the first 16 hours were taken out of my vacation time before my sick time kicked in. (You know what sucks? Using your PTO to be at home with food poisoning. Not exactly the vacation I had in mind).
» Stockpile vacation time – Yes, this is kind of the opposite of the advice I just gave, but here’s why: Banking your time can allow you to save up for an epic trip.
When we wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, we needed more than a week off. For me, that meant not using any vacation time for as long as it took me to save up enough to get a whole month off. (For Aaron, it just meant waiting until summer, but I guess that’s the upside of getting paid a teacher’s salary!)
Just be careful to play by the rules! For example, I’m only allowed to carry over half my vacation time into each new year, and Aaron’s two measly vacation days disappear at the end of every school year if he doesn’t use them.
Plan ahead for where you want to go and how best to use your time accordingly.
» Be strategic with your travel dates – Organize a trip around a holiday weekend. Book a flight that leaves in the evening after you get off work, or a return trip that lands in time for you to make it to the office in the morning. You can take a 9-day trip using only 4 vacation days if you leave on Friday night before a 3-day weekend!
Even a couple of days can be leveraged into an awesome trip. Travel doesn’t have to mean 3 months backpacking through Southeast Asia. It can just as easily mean a weekend road trip to the next state over, or a quickie 48 hours in Vegas. From Seattle, we can take the bus to Portland in just a few hours or grab a ferry to the San Juan Islands – no PTO required. When Aaron had one day off of school, we flew to Hawaii on a Friday afternoon and came back late Monday night. People thought we were crazy, but three days on the beach were totally worth it.
Do you get several days off around Christmas and New Year’s? Don’t treat the holidays like they’re off limits for travel. Your family will understand if spend your break on the beach in Costa Rica instead of coming home – better yet, they’ll join you there!
» Be a great employee and coworker – Be willing to work longer and harder when you’re around and no one will balk when you want some time off. Are there times of the year when everyone wants to take vacation, but you’d be willing to work in exchange for time off during a less-popular season? I’m happy to work holidays for my coworkers if it means they’re more likely to pick up my shifts when I want a random extra day or two off for a trip. Everybody wins!
» Get innovative with your schedule – Can you work out of the office sometimes, or do four 10-hour shifts a week instead of five 8-hour days? You’ll never know if you don’t ask.
Last year I took the leap to working per diem – which basically means that I can pick up shifts whenever the hospital needs me, but I’m not guaranteed work. I can take time off whenever I want, but I’m never paid for it and I don’t get benefits. Is this a risky choice? In some ways. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. I know I have to hustle and work a lot of shifts when I’m in town, but it gives me the freedom to take off at any time.
» Integrate travel into your job – Take advantage of business trips and professional conferences. Tack on a couple of days wherever you’re already going. Pursue out-of-town educational opportunities that would sound good to your boss.
I was given a month off to take a Tropical Nursing course in Liverpool, after selling my manager on the portion of the class covering emergency obstetrics (I’m a labor and delivery nurse).
» Ask for what you want – For some reason we feel it’s reasonable to negotiate for a raise or a promotion, but not for extra vacation time. If you’ve proven yourself as a great employee, your boss should be happy to reward you with some extra days of PTO rather than increasing your salary.
I was given 7 weeks off to serve in an Ebola clinic in West Africa during the outbreak, just because I asked my boss nicely (treating Ebola may not be everyone’s ideal holiday, but as a nurse it was a great opportunity for me!)
» Don’t be afraid to take unpaid time off – I know, this sounds scary – but it has worked wonders for us. If your work will allow it, and you can plan ahead and budget around the lost income, this can change everything! Even if it’s just a couple of days, that’s the difference between having the time to fly somewhere or not.
» Pursue a flexible career – Certainly not everyone can do this, but if you’re not deeply committed to your current job and you want travel to be a priority in your life, why not seek out a position with a flexible schedule? I love being a nurse, but I would never take a clinic job that required me to work five 8-hour shifts a week. Right now I can power through three 12-hour shifts and then have a string of days off at the end without ever using a second of precious vacation time.
» Tell your fear to shut up – Honestly, what made the difference for me was deciding that my passion is worth taking some chances and feeling the fear that comes with that. I asked for what I wanted and took risks (within reason), and they paid off. Isn’t that infinitely better than sitting quietly and waiting for the “right” time to chase your dreams?
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