A Total Backpacker's Holiday
I once heard someone say "Once a backpacker, always a backpacker".
I think it's more complicated than that.
I understand the argument that once you've spent a certain amount of time on the road, you'll never be satisfied with two weeks in Benidorm. Let's be honest, once you've experienced the sunrise over Angkor Wat, or driven through deserted outback roads in a rented camper van in Western Australia, Benidorm is unlikely to remain high on your travel 'Hit List'.
After my first RTW trip I was faced with a dilemma. I knew I had to knuckle down and start my career, otherwise I'd never get to where I wanted be professionally, but I'd been bitten by the travel bug and that's not a bite which is easily forgotten.
For the first few years I kept the bug at bay by taking holidays to places like Thailand, and it was great to see the difference in somewhere like Thailand when you're spending a bit more money than a backpacker. I'm not saying I was staying in 5* hotels, far from it, but I'd pay the extra £10 a night to get the beach hut with hot water and the beachfront location, rather than £2 a night to sleep on the floor under the reception desk.
Still, it wasn't long before this was no longer enough, and I needed to feel a bit more like a 'traveller' again. I toyed with the idea of doing three weeks around Vietnam or Southern China, but I felt like a fraud knowing that I could never give these places the time they deserve to see all they have to offer.
It was at this point that I realised that there's a whole world of possibilities out there for people like myself, but you have to look a bit further than the STA brochures to find them. That's why I've prepared a short list looking at the options available in a standard holiday timescale.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; the possibilities are truly endless. I'm just giving a few examples of what I think would be an awesome way to use your time off work. Some of them I've done already, others I'm going to do at some point in the future, but all of them are possible to complete without using more than your basic holiday allowance. Obviously having a sympathetic employer helps, but I've met doctors, nurses, bankers and all kinds of 'serious' professionals on these adventures, so what's your excuse?
1. Drive an 8HP Auto Rickshaw (Tuk-Tuk) 3,000km across India
I know. Sounds effing ridiculous, doesn't it? That's kind of what The Adventurists, the guys who organise this particular adventure, are all about though.
When I did this, we flew into Delhi on the 27th of December 2011, and made our way over to Jaisalmer in the Rajasthan desert. From here, we collected our rickshaw, which had been 'pimped' to make it stand out from the usual taxis and goods carriers, and began our arduous adventure through the desert, over mountains, across rivers, down beaches and finally straight through the tropics to Kochi, 3,000km to the south. Quite a journey, I can assure you.
The Adventurists do a few adventures along the same kind of lines, so it's well worth checking out their website and seeing if anything appeals to you. It's worth mentioning that these kind of adventures are not a holiday. They're hard work, and you'll find yourself in some genuinely dangerous situations and their disclaimer is scarily blunt:
"Individuals who have taken part in past Adventurists' adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled and even lost their life. This is not a glorified holiday. You really are on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. This is what makes them adventures."
Still, be honest, there's a part of you that just wants to do it even more after reading that, right? Add in the fact that they raise massive amounts of cash for charities (it's a charitable event) and it becomes a truly awesome notch to have on your belt.
Provided you survive...
Time required off work: 3 weeks
Cost: Around £2k per person including flights, entry fee, visas, fuel, accommodation and bribes.
2. Become a divemaster
Most people who go on a RTW trip do a PADI qualification at some point. It's almost become a rite of passage for people visiting Koh Tao in Thailand, but once people are back home they invariably stop diving. Who'd want to dive in the freezing, murky waters of the UK, right?
Well, as it happens the UK has some of the best diving in the world. Honestly. Go and Google 'Hebredes Diving', 'Cardigan Bay Diving', or 'Dive Cornwall' and see for yourself.
Still, you want to leave the country on your holiday, right? Well, that's very possible. What I'd suggest is to contact a dive school in Thailand. Or Malaysia. Or Indonesia. Or The Philippines. Or anywhere else you fancy visiting and explain that you have 3/4/5 weeks holiday, and you want to spend it advancing your diving qualification. With minimal research, you'll find a dive school who are prepared to put you up, free of charge, if you're prepared to help out with the day to day running of the dive school.
This will usually involve filling cylinders, cleaning equipment, loading Open Water divers onto the boats, maybe even helping to guide new divers around some of the dive sites. In return, you'll pay a set fee for your course and materials, and you'll progress up through the diving qualification levels while gaining an invaluable insight into what it takes to do this job day in, day out.
If you want to, you can go from an Advanced Open Water qualification to Dive Master Qualification in 3 weeks; but why not make it last a lifetime? I know DMs who hold down high powered careers for 90% of the year, and then just head off and spend 4 weeks working on liveaboard dive boats in Micronesia, or on a beach hut in Sipadan; certainly sounds better than a week in Kavos.
Time required off work: 3-5 weeks
Cost: Varies. For an AOW-DM Internship on Koh Tao, £2k should cover course materials and costs, flights and accommodation. Other countries will be have varying costs, obviously.
3. Get the monkey off your back
Volunteering projects' reputations have taken a bit of a battering lately, mainly due to the hoards of public school kids who fly off to Zambia or Tanzania to pay £5k a week to cuddle lion cubs and get themselves a great Facebook photo.
That doesn't mean that truly worthwhile projects aren't out there however. You just have to do your research before handing over any cash.
Two projects of particular note are based in South America. Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia and Merazonia in the Ecuadorian jungle are both dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals. These centres are run fairly, ethically, and with the welfare of the animals as their top priority.
These are working centres, and you will be expected to shovel faeces, dig holes, build enclosures, chop endless amounts of fruit for food, and other equally physical tasks. This is not a holiday, but it's a truly rewarding experience, and you'll meet some amazing people (and even more amazing animals).
These centres charge a nominal fee to volunteer there, but this is to cover your living costs rather than for the centres to make a profit. As you're working directly with the centres, there is no 3rd party website to take a cut, and you know that any spare money from your volunteer fee is going straight back into the centres. Inti Wara Yassi currently charges around £230 for a 30 day stay, and Merazonia charges around £85 per week. Both costs include accommodation and food.
I'm sure neither centre will mind me stating that this is a working placement, though. You need to be prepared to get your hands dirty, and you may find yourself in some dangerous situations; these are wild animals after all.
I know I've never fully recovered from being punched in the balls by an Andean Spectacled Bear, or coming within a cm of having my intestines removed by a Jaguar who took a swipe at me through the bars of her enclosure. They do make excellent dinner party stories, though... oh, and I still got a decent Facebook photo out of it; it just didn't cost me £5k.
Time required off work: Both centres have a minimum stay of 2 weeks, but 4 week stays are preferred
Cost: Flights to South America are notoriously expensive, but if you're flexible you can pick up a return from London to La Paz for under £900, or London to Quito for £800.
4. Stand atop Africa
With every man and his dog doing the 'Three Peaks Challenge' each summer, climbing mountains is no longer considered a particularly adventurous thing to do. What this has done, however, is make some of the greatest climbs in the world accessible to the everyday traveller.
Kilimanjaro was once a fearsome opponent, defeating many explorers in the late 1800s until the summit was finally reached in 1889. Over 120 years later and now anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and a spirit of adventure can attempt to climb the mountain thanks to the scores of companies set up with the sole purpose of providing support to travellers wishing to trek Kili.
The general consensus from these companies is that provided you're not a complete salad dodger, you should be able to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro if you travel at the right time of year and take precautions against altitude sickness; the number one cause of people having to abandon their attempts.
Granted climbing Kili doesn't have the resonance of driving a rickshaw across rural India, or rehabilitating Pumas, but there's something about it that makes me determined to do it. I don't know if it's the thought of trekking through four seasons in a week; from tropical jungle to snow capped peaks. Or maybe it's just the thought of cracking open a beer at 5,800 meters and sitting on top of the continent. Either way, I think there's a definite appeal to doing something like this during a holiday.
Plus, if you raise some decent money for charity while you're at it, then it's about more than your own self-worth. Let's be honest, a story about putting yourself through an arduous task such of this to raise money for starving kids / puppies / badgers will moisten the knickers of even the most outwardly uninterested barmaid when you're telling over exaggerated tales of your adventures in the pub.
Not that this should be your reason for doing it, obviously...
Time required off work: 10 days-3 weeks
Cost: £800-£950 for a basic trek package, plus extras such as money for porters, etc. Flights to Dar Es Salam can be found for under £500.
5. Visit Antarctica
I don't like tours. It's my opinion, but I think travelling is all about the unexpected, and tours remove this element. I'm not saying that no-one should ever take a tour, far from it, I'm just stating that they're not for everyone; particularly not me.
On this occasion, however, a tour is exactly what I'm recommending.
You see, to visit the most isolated continent on Earth, you need a little help. Namely from someone with a boat. A really big boat.
Antarctica is one of those places that has fascinated me since I was a child. Today it stands as the only continent in the world I haven't set foot on, and this is something I plan to rectify very soon indeed.
Until recently, visiting Antarctica cost upwards of £10k per person, and that was before you'd added your flights to the cost. After the sinking of the M/S Explorer in 2007, however, and the emergence of numerous new companies offering trips to the White Continent, prices have come down.
You can now pick up a nice cabin on a decent Antarctic vessel for £5k per person for a 10-12 day trip. Whilst this is still expensive, it's difficult to put a price on something so... epic.
It's estimated that only around 100,000 people have ever been to Antarctica, and with a world population of over seven billion, that pretty much makes it the least visited place on Earth. Well, apart from the Women's Football World Cup Tournament.
Setting off from Ushuaia in Argentina, the boat heads down through Drake's Passage, past the South Shetland Isles, until you reach the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, the available activities are limited solely by the thickness of your wallet. You can spend a night camping on the ice, be thrown into the sea with the whales (whilst in a boiler suit), even take a dip in the thermal waters of the active volcano. Simply, it's an experience available nowhere else on Earth.
Time required off work: 2-5 weeks
Cost: £10,000 for two people, plus the cost of flights to Argentina.
Are you looking for more info about short gaps? Then check out our short gap year section.
Want to go further? Read this guide on planning your short gap year.
And finally, check out this guide about short gap years. Simples.
About the Author: Warrick Howard
Warrick Howard joined the site in 2005. Since then he's visited every continent with the exception of Antartica, and is planning on ticking that box very soon. His main area of expertise is South America, but can offer advice on travel pretty much anywhere; particularly making the most of short trips.
He's also your go-to-guy if you're in the market for a sarcastic comment or thinly veiled innuendo. Off-site Warrick works for an oil company.