Sunday, 9 March 2014

Gap Year Travel

Why Should Kids Have All The Fun?

Many of us parents now find ourselves talking to teenage kids about what they will do on their gap year. So excited was my youngest daughter at 13, to see my son set off to cycle across the world, that she immediately began planning her own pre-university adventure. I began to take notice; and there was no doubt about it, the majority of teenagers now see it as an issue of not if they will have a gap year, but when - perhaps along with who will pay for it. For many it comes a close second to completing a university entrance form (UCAS in the UK). I don't begrudge them that. I do believe that a gap year can be a valuable part of a kid's education – learning the stuff they don't teach you in school. Useful stuff like how other people live and how lucky we are to have what we have. Learning how to speak other languages or even how to better communicate with people who do speak our own tongue. They can learn a lot. Learning where other places are in the world and what kinds of people live there. Learning how to get out of trouble and how to avoid it. Learning how to seek out a bargain or the best quality in things with limited funds. Learning the value of a good pair of boots, a comfortable bed and a wholesome meal. Why kids don't learn most of these things at school or at home anymore I don't know, but I won't get going on that one.

So basically then, a gap year is a great idea, even if you can't get your parents to pay for it and it has to involve work (actually I think it can sometimes be better that way). But what about those of us who left school before gap years were thought of? Well in fact there were gap years for the well-off around the turn of the 19th century and before – they were know as The Grand Tour – but I doubt anyone reading this will be that old. I have to say that was my feeling when my kids started to talk about gap years. "I wouldn't have minded having one of those myself!"

Grown-up Gap Years?
And why not? Sure it's great if you can go off and learn about the world before you embark upon a life of adulthood. There's no doubt in my mind that travel or working abroad will make a young person far more employable in the world of work and far better parents too, when the time comes. But that is not to say that this is the only way. There are a great many reasons for taking an extended break from work later on in life. Here are a few:

1. You didn't get one when you finished school so you feel you missed out, compared to others.

2. Your experience of the world is limited so you feel unable to share conversations with friends or your own children and grandchildren.

3. You are bored with the same old living and working environments.

4. You are stressed after years of work and have seen others getting sick from overwork.

5. You need fresh impetus in your life - both privately and in your work. A fresh look at things. An extended trip away might help you to find a new direction.

6. Your job has ended and you don't know what to do next. You need to clear your head – look at things from a distance.

7. You have retired and you want to catch up on things you've missed out on.

8. You find yourself single again and want to meet some different people in new environments that might spark unexpected friendships, or even a romance.

9. You are tired of short, expensive package holidays and want to go overland travelling, like you did when you were young. Backpacking and staying in hostels.

10. You want to have some adventures before it's too late. Before you are too old or unfit to enjoy it.

I did not necessarily think I needed an adult gap year. At 42 I had been running my own successful consultancy business for 3 years. Before that I had had several careers and had lived in many other countries. I had taken lots of breaks from work to go overland travelling before my children wore born, so I did not feel deprived. But I was working too hard. My son was 10yrs old and just getting to the age where we could go off on little adventures together – cycling, hiking and camping, mainly. It was after our first cycle / camping trip together one freezing English December, that Sam asked me if I would take a year off work when he finished school.
"What for?" I asked him.
"Well, I wondered if you'd cycle to Japan with me," he replied, nonchalantly.
8 years later we set off. But not before I had gone through a good deal of worry, trying to find someone to run my business while I was away.

As I have said, I did not need a gap year in the same way that other parents undoubtedly do. Or at least I didn't think I did. But the truth was I was overworked. Stressed. I had begun to focus only on work, with my family-life coming a poor second. I was there to provide for my family, I told myself. Someone had to pay for it all! But what I discovered over the next eight years, while I prepared for that gap year (actually I only started taking it seriously as a prospect about three years before we went), was that my family didn't want me to work so hard. My kids just wanted more time with me. My wife too, I think. She certainly didn't want to see me get a heart attack – and that was probably the way I was heading. So as I said, finding someone to run my business was a tough challenge just in order to escort Sam on a cycle trip from Ireland to Japan, but once we set off I realised something important. I didn't care about not earning so much money for a year. I didn't even care if I came home to find my business had folded. I had enough money for the trip and an adequate house. Why did I need more? My wife told me I should become a sculptor upon my return, since that is what I love doing. But the absence of phone calls, letters on the mat, bills, toilet cisterns needing mending or light bulbs changing – it was a revelation. I felt free in a way I almost never had. Not as an adult anyway. I felt reborn and I had hardly even been away for three days!

Why had I not done this before, I asked myself? I think because it never seemed possible. Too expensive. Too much time away. Perhaps it would have seemed irresponsible? My wife had certainly helped by telling me it was okay to do it. Good to do it, in fact. "You're allowed to enjoy it," she said.
But in the main, it happened because my son asked me to do it. Looking back, I can see that otherwise I probably would not have taken a break at all. Most likely I'd have kept driving myself to make my business evermore profitable, until I got sick or had an accident. Then I would have taken a break. Except I would never have been able to cycle 10,000 gruelling miles with an 18yr old. Not after a heart attack or cancer. No, I have my son to thank for my health, my peace of mind and a great later life.

Incidentally, I did not come home to find my business had folded. I found my new business partner had increased business by 45%. He told me he was happy continuing to run it largely without me. As a result I sat down to with my son to write a book about our experience (more about the trip and the book on my cycle travel blog) which subsequently became an Amazon bestseller. I never imagined myself becoming a writer or giving motivational talks to businesspeople, but I can see now that was my destiny. It's a life that fits me well, but I would probably never have achieved it if I had resisted taking those ten months off work to go with my son on his gap year. You will be unsurprised to hear that the trip did wonders for our father-son relationship (also an issue covered in the book).

Video of us cycling through 'The High Range of Travancore,' Munar, India. Click arrow.

My gap year was an adventure trip, covering 10,000 miles from the west coast of Ireland, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea and finally ending in Tokyo. But not all gap year trips need to be this way. I had an older friend in Japan who I taught English to when I was 25. He was a senior manager of a major Japanese trading company. An important and well paid job, but one he found rather mundane. Outside of work he had an interest in wild flowers and also watercolour painting. When he retired, he took a trip to a number of countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and China – seeking out unusual indigenous wild flowers and painting them. This eventually brought him to the attention of an international botanical society who asked him to submit some of his work. Over time it led to his becoming an honorary fellow of the society, giving talks all over the world. He had never imagined he could do such a thing. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago. He told me he felt fulfilled by his post-retirement activities but wished he might have taken that first trip when he was a little younger. Who knows how that might have changed his life?

To find out more about my adult gap year, try reading the book about the trip, Long Road Hard Lessons. You will find links to the book in the right hand margin of this blog, or just enter the title of the book into your local amazon search box. You can also search for other books by Mark Swain or see other blogs via the links at the top of this blog.
Thanks for reading – and remember to make the most of your life. 


  1. Was just thinking I needed a spring break, at 51! You'd like my friend, Phil Burgess, author of "ReBoot". I wonder if one can take a gap year but close to home? Test runs before the big leap? Thank you for sharing your thoughts, very helpful insights for me. Janice

    1. Hi Janice. Gap year close to home is fine. Cycling to Japan, one of our best bits was the Danube Cycle Path in Germany - right on our doorstep. My wife & I are cycling the Danube, the Elba path & the Bohemian forrest together over a few months this summer. Will check Phil's book. I'm sure I've seen it.

  2. Mark,
    Edging towards sixty.
    Cycle around 100 miles/week..favourite bike my Crossroads 2003 hybrid.
    Sometimes around 6.30am stop off for a while in Regents Park, reflect and sit quietly for 10 minutes.
    Your blog sounds like a very liberating experience