The Difference Between A Gap Year And Career Break

July 20, 2010 by Anil Polat  

This is a guest post by Sherry Ott, a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcase to Backpack, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She also runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat experiences at Ottsworld. She is one of the driving forces behind Meet, Plan, Go! events across the country to inspire more people to get out and travel.

There are many terms for extended travel:

  • Vagabonding, Round-the-World (RTW), Travel Sabbatical, One Year Off, Backpacking, Location Independent, Extended Travel, Gap Year, Career Break.

kid with rolling suitcase

They all kind of mean the same thing…don’t they?

I think not.

Let’s take Gap Year vs. Career Break; in my opinion these are not interchangeable.

golf in cubicleWhat’s The Difference? – The Foundation

If you are taking a career break that implies you actually have a career to break from. If you are 18 and just graduated high school or 21 and graduated college, then you don’t have a career; instead you take a gap year and go backpacking.

For those of you who are commuting to work everyday sitting in a sterile cubicle answering emails and attending conferences, then you have a career; and you’d probably like a break from it!

The word ‘career’ actually implies progression so for that reason I would say the average career breaker is someone who’s been in their job a while and is in the age range of 27 to 47.

sliding out of office chair

Style of Travel

Gap year travel tends to be about budget backpacking. The backpacking youth of the world stay in hostels, bus station floors, Couchsurf, and party their way through Europe or Thailand. While the career break traveler is also on a budget, it’s a bit more comfortable. One good thing about staring at those cubicle walls for years is presumably you may have some savings; at least more than you did when you were 18. Career breakers also use hostels, but they can also splurge more frequently on a nice dinner, hotel, or a tour.

How To Keep Your Blog Active When You Are Traveling: Part 1 Of 2


Whereas the Gap Year traveler is more likely to travel and socialize their way through countries playing beer pong; the career break traveler is more likely to include some sort of educational activity in their travel itinerary. They may take language classes, and most of them build volunteering into their plans.

couple at grand canyonTravel Partners

Gap year travelers tend to travel with a friends; or meet friends along the way and travel together for a while. Many gap year travelers even start relationships while on the road. However a significant number of career breakers are couples.

Frequently couples who are burned out on working 9 to 5 and are looking to simplify their life will seek out a year off. Some couples even do career break travel as an extended honeymoon. In addition, you will find full families out doing career break travel; this is more rare, but it certainly happens.


Here’s where the real difference lies. Gap year travel preparation is very different than what a career breaker goes through. Typically a career breaker has to consider the fact that they are deeply entrenched in their mid-life pursuits; meaning they have homes, apartments, significant others, cars, pets, kids…and careers. This ‘stuff’ keeps them tied down to their jobs, so breaking away to do career break travel is significantly more difficult than taking a gap year after college.

Because of these differences, career break travel preparation, both mental and physical, require some added thought and hurdles to get over. However the hurdles of career break travel are surmountable.

How To Get A Visa For Every Country In Central Asia

meet plan goMeet, Plan, Go!

If you are a want-to-be career breaker and need some extra inspiration, then come meet travel experts who have successfully taken a career break and overcame those hurdles.

  • On September 14th, Briefcase to Backpack and Three Month Visa are holding free career break travel events across 13 cities. Meet, Plan, Go! is bringing together experienced extended travelers with those who have only dreamed of traveling to help inspire them in person.
  • In addition to offering inspiration at these events, they are also offering resources to help get them started. GAP Adventures is even giving away a trip to Peru and GeoVisions will be giving away a volunteer trip abroad.

briefcase to backpackView the Meet, Plan, Go! website and sign up for the newsletter for more details! If you can’t make it to a Meet, Plan, Go! event then check out Briefcase to Backpack where we offer travel advice and inspiration to corporate Americans planning a career break or sabbatical year round!

Thank you very much Sherry for this guest post highlighting the differences between gap years and career breaks. For those of you interested in taking some time off from your career to travel, look for a Meet Plan Go! event near you on September 14th or head to Briefcase To Backpack for more information on getting started. You can also follow Sherry on her own travels around the world at Ottsworld, one of my favorite travel blogs.

[photos by: firma (kid with rolling suitcase), ryarwood (golf in cubicle), joelogon (sliding out of office chair), airtrent (couple at Grand Canyon)]

Comments - 15 Responses   (Need a pic to show with your comment? Go get a gravatar!)

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.

Sorted by rating: (Click arrows up or down to to vote anonymously.)

  1. Like Sherry, I left my career to travel and never looked back. The idea of returning to the corporate world is anathema to me. No way I could tolerate it. I really admire those who go right back into corporate life. But whether folks go back to their careers or follow other paths, I really feel that a career break to travel is a very valuable experience that can have life changing results on many levels, in a good way.

    • Anil P. says:

      I’m always amazed at how many Europeans, Aussies, and Kiwis do it but the concept is really foreign in America. From those who have though, I’ve never heard any complaints – you only live once 🙂

  2. I can’t claim I’ve been a career break traveller or a gap year traveller although I did work in my gap year in France and Hong Kong – I’d have felt a bit scared in those days to set off on a round the world trip. Now I’m just the kind of traveller that works and does family stuff and goes on holidays in between – can we think up a glamourous name for people like me?

  3. Jackie says:

    It’s great that North Americans are beginning to see the value in gap year programs!

    Stephanie and Sherry – Where did you travel to for you gap year? Are you interested in sharing your experience with other women?

    It would be great if you could post about your travels, providing anecdotes and photos from your time abroad on You might also want to provide tips for women travelers who also want to get out there.

    I look forward to hearing more about your experiences abroad!

    Hope to hear from you soon,

    [email protected]

  4. Stephanie says:

    It’s funny- I’m speaking at Meet Plan Go in DC and just realized I don’t fit your definition of career breaker at all! At 25 I guess I’m just not old enough to ride yet.

    I took a gap year post-graduation, then went to work for two years and now I’m taking time off again to travel. I’m leaving my job, I don’t particularly want to return to it- not really sure where that puts me in the label spectrum.

    In any case I think the spirit and to a degree, the motivation, is the same no matter what your life situation!

    • Sherry Ott says:

      Stephanie – I totally agree – spirit and motivation is generally the same! We love that we have a rookie career breaker at the DC Meet, Plan, Go! event! Plus – I don’t think that you HAVE to return to your job to be a career breaker – lord knows I didn’t!

  5. Great post! Definitely want to take a gap year before I get my self into a situation where I am forced to take a career break!

  6. ayngelina says:

    After 10 years of working I’m taking a career break and while it’s hard to cut ties, I also had more financial means and feel so privileged to be able to travel for so long and not worry about money.

    • Anil P. says:

      I’ve never taken a gap year before but wonder if the career break also adds a bit more travel satisfaction since you’ve spent the time saving up. Seems like a bit longer and more time consuming might make the reward sweeter.

  7. You can almost immediately tell if the person traveling is a gap year traveler or a career breaker. Sound like a good and interesting event, would love to go if I was in North America.

    • Anil P. says:

      I’d love to attend as well. I hope it encourages more people (and Americans specifically) to travel since many of them don’t or are reluctant to.