Quit Your Job and Travel: How to Make Your Dream a Reality

backpacker on a beach

We’ve all fantasized about giving our real lives the middle finger and traveling the world like that chick from Eat, Pray, Love. But making that fantasy a reality seems nearly impossible, right? You couldn't possibly pull that off... could you?

Well, not to tempt you -- but to totally tempt you -- you can! And to help you do it, we asked people who've successfully quit their jobs, traveled for at least one year, and transitioned back into the real world for their best advice, tips, and words of wisdom. These are their suggestions.

man counting coins and saving money for trip
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First and foremost, as one of our world travelers put it: “You need to be very conscious of your comfort level to do this.” And a large part of that comfort level is saving enough cash. Most of the people we talked to gave themselves a full year (minimum) of planning time from when they made the decision to travel, to actually boarding an airplane or packing up the car.

Save, save, save

1. Downsize in every way possible
Remember that rule, “If you haven’t worn/used it in a year, you should get rid of it"? Well, if you’re going to be gone for at least a year -- time to start tossing. And unless you have an extremely unhealthy attachment to your coffee table, and actually even if you do, it just makes more fiscal sense to get your furniture on Craigslist than it does to pay to store it. That money can also go towards your travel budget.

Living solo? Consider getting some roommates for the next year to lower your rent costs. “I was living in a house at the time and in order to save money, I unloaded as much of my stuff as possible and moved in with two guys I'd never met,” explained Brooke Reynolds, who left her marketing job in Atlanta  to spend a year circling the globe.

son moving in with parents
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2. If moving home is an option, do it
Obviously, even better than downsizing your rent is paying no rent at all. So if your parents are cool with it, and you’re cool with them for an extended period of time, this is a solid option. Plus, there’s far less stigma to “he/she lives with their parents” when you’re gearing up to live abroad for year.

“I moved home, sacrificed my ‘fun life’ -- when everyone is going out and partying -- to save money to do this. I was putting away every paycheck, and that was a conscious decision,” said Trevor Gribble, who moved to China after graduate school, traveled the globe off and on for years, and then finally launched his own yoga company.

“You have to be very honest with yourself about the money you need -- you need to evaluate a budget. It’s possible you won’t be earning a dime for a year; you need to tell yourself that a lot.”

organizing finances and saving  money
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3. Organize your finances
Create a separate “travel account.” This will be your budget for the entire year, and should be used for only your trip. In other words, keep this account completely separate from the account you use to pay stuff like student loans, car payments, health insurance, etc. “You don’t want to worry about the money intertwining,” added Reynolds. “I put my personal account on autopilot for bills. It’s like it wasn’t even there."

4. Direct all gifts to cash
Have a birthday coming up? Leaving for your trip after the holidays? Great, tell your friends and family you don’t need a new scarf and sweater set this year (or, ever) -- you need cash. According to a couple of our globetrotters, you can even take this a step further by setting up a page for “donations” like those hardcore race runners do -- if nothing else, this could potentially trick your dad into thinking it’s tax deductible. “It’s cool for them to feel like they’re a part of it... that they help you get there.”

man and woman looking at a map planning a trip
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Map out where you're going (but keep your budget in mind)

Obviously, if your dream is to trek around Cambodia, you'll need to save far less money than if you're taking a Eurail across Europe. Figure out where you'd at least like to start the trip, and budget accordingly.

We asked our panel for suggestions on cheaper destinations where you can really stretch your budget and destinations ranged from Eastern Europe (Budapest, Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Prague, Slovenia, and Bratislava) and Central/South America to Southeast Asia and even parts of Spain. If you're looking for ideas, here are a dozen countries you can visit for under $50 a day, the cheapest destinations in the Caribbean, and 12 of the world's most unbelievably cheap paradises.

Quit your job and/or negotiate a sabbatical

These are two very different ways to handle leaving your job, and it of course all depends on your place of employment and whether you want to return. (Also, if you only want to travel for a few months rather than a full year.) But there is one common denominator: be as upfront with your employer as possible, giving them and yourself plenty of time to determine the best plan.

“I quit giving my company almost two months' notice -- this is going to be different for everyone, so you need to feel that out on your own,” said Reynolds. “It’s best just to have an open conversation about it. Be as courteous to your employer as possible; tell them your plan, and they may be willing to work with you.”

traveler with backpack in an airport
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Seriously, pack light

You’ve been hearing this all your life, but this may be the only time it actually really matters. You will be carrying this non-emotional baggage with you around the world for 365 days. Overpacking will literally only hurt you. “You just don’t need that much stuff," laughed Reynolds. "And more than that, you just don’t care after a while. It’s also a huge perk to have a small bag for trains and hostel storage.”

As far as what you do pack, don’t bring anything you’re too attached to or that isn’t useful in more than one climate. “I ended up with holes in pretty much all my clothes. Also, be prepared to hang-dry your clothes in almost every single country. Dryers are a luxury, so bring clothes you can dry fast or plan to wait.”

Backpacker hiking in Norway during her trip
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The time has arrived! You've saved your money, quit your job, and are headed to the airport. Now, here are a few tips to stretch those hard-saved funds and make the most of your big adventure.

Hostels are your best friends

Almost all the travelers we spoke to did this solo, and therefore stressed the importance of forming a community while overseas. And even though it could mean lots of partying (poor you!), hostels are the ultimate way to do this.

“It’s the only way that I met other travelers from all over the world -- people who I’m still friends with today -- and really the best way to see the city through organized tours, bar crawls, excursions, and a local’s eye,” stressed Reynolds.

Here are our guides to:
The Best Hostels in the United States
Upscale Hostels That Are Better Than Hotels
The Craziest Party Hostels in the World (and more of them, here)

backpacker hitchhiking

Relocate cars & stick out that thumb

John Hughes obviously knew Trains, Planes & Automobiles were a harmonious trio, but the third option could actually be your cheapest -- even free! -- bet for a year-long excursion.

“We drove for free all through Australia and New Zealand by using a website called Transfercar, where you sign up to help move cars around the country. It’s a great way to see everything,” said Gribble. “There are always cheap flights, and EuroRail, but you don’t realize how much more you can see when you’re not at the mercy of a schedule. Driving is the way to go.”

And despite how many times you’ve seen Wrong Turn, never fear: it’s actually both very common and safe in most countries to hitchhike... trust us, here's our guide to hitchhiking.

RyanAir plane boarding passengers
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Don't map out everything   

There’s a difference between having a general plan, and a meticulous itemized itinerary. Even if you do the latter, it will almost 100% change to some degree -- so don’t bother. “If you over-plan or try to plot out a year’s worth of travel, you are going to miss out on a huge part of the adventure,” warned Reynolds. “Some of the best places I went were suggested to me days or hours before I actually left.”

Buying your tickets in advance online can also be more expensive, thanks to the American IP address. Talk to the tourism boards, people you meet along the way, and just buy the tickets at the counter for a cheaper and more flexible trip.

Also, snagging a flight at one of the budget airlines like easyJet, Ryanair, and Aer Lingus can actually work out in your favor as they tend to drop the prices, rather than jack them up near the end. Think of it as scalping a ticket for a game after kick-off, they’re desperate to unload them.

man on a hammock working
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Work while you're traveling

If the idea of making zero income for a year makes you break into a cold sweat, there are several ways to earn a buck -- or literally work for food -- during your travels.  “A lot of people I met worked at the hostels, which is really easy to do and usually means you can stay for free, and even eat for free,” said Reynolds. “One of the best places in the world to do that is South America.”

Most importantly, utilize your own skills, which is exactly what Gribble did when he found out he could earn money from one of his favorite hobbies: yoga. “I went with the idea of making some money, somehow,” he explained. “I started teaching yoga classes for fun and realized I could actually make money from this. It was a 180-degree difference because [working] made me a conscious, living traveler -- not a party traveler.”

Don't know a Downward-Facing Dog from Tree pose? Don't worry, you can often find work doing everything from waiting tables or bartending, to painting boats, teaching English, or even picking grapes. For more tips on both working and saving cash abroad, we've got you covered here.

man with umbrella in the rain
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Expecting the worst is a good thing

OK, now to get a little less practical, and a little more philosophical. Perhaps the most important thing to know before and during your trek is there’s only one thing you can actually plan: things will not go as planned. And you don’t necessarily want them to either.

“If you go into this thinking you’re going to make every flight on time, and you won’t go over a budget, or just think everything will be smooth, it’s like setting yourself up to fail -- it’s just not realistic,” explained Gribble. “Be ready for shitty things to happen. You can rebound better knowing that.”

Finally, create a softer landing before you come home

Sadly, coming back to reality is inevitable. But to make it less overwhelming (and less depressing if/when you return to your high school bedroom), here are a few tips to help you get back into the job market:

  • Make a list of places you want to apply to before you even leave
  • Have your updated resume and emails ready to go
  • Blast them all out about a week before you head home
  • Follow up with everyone as soon as you get back

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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist and quit her first job to travel for nearly two months -- and she thought THAT was a big deal. Follow her perpetual wanderlust on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813.