The golden gap year: why the 50-plus generation are setting off to see the world

In the wake of the pandemic, a growing demographic of travellers aged 50-plus are setting off to see the world for months — or years — at a time.

By Simon Usborne
Published 25 Mar 2023, 07:00 GMT
A couple hiking above Lake Lugano, Switzerland.

A couple hiking above Lake Lugano, Switzerland.

Photograph by Getty Images

Izzy and Phil Kelly had it all. It was 2018 and the couple, who were about to turn 50, were lying back in the oversized bath they had bought for the ‘forever home’ they had built in rural Wiltshire. They had successful careers with a manageable mortgage, a car each on the drive and travelled overseas regularly. With the youngest of three children from previous marriages about to go to university, they hadn’t enjoyed so much freedom for decades. “We had a great life,” Izzy tells me. “And we were really, really bored.”

After a chat in the bath about where they might next take a couple of weeks abroad, the Kellys looked at one another across a sea of bubbles. “I think it was me who said, ‘Why don’t we just sell everything and go off in a motorhome for a couple of years?’” says Izzy, who worked long hours in the care home industry — Phil was an army veteran turned buildings inspector. “Within a week, the house was on the market.”

A few months later, the couple were in a plush German motorhome, having sold almost all of their belongings. They were heading for Dover and a grand tour of Europe. “It was incredible,” Izzy remembers. “The sun was shining, we were driving down the M20 and it just felt like we had the world in front of us.”

The Kellys hadn’t heard of the phrase ‘golden gap year’ or any of its variants, but they had unwittingly joined a cohort of careerists aged 50-plus with itchy feet and designs on a rite of passage traditionally associated with school-leavers. For these jet setters, regular Mediterranean trips and occasional city breaks no longer cut it. So, staring at the gulf between their child-rearing or career-building years (or both) and an increasingly distant retirement, they’re turning their backs on convention and taking off.

And by all accounts they’re a burgeoning demographic. While solid stats are so far scarce, surveys and anecdotal evidence point to a new opportunity for the travel industry — and for travellers of a certain age who until now might not have dreamed of stepping off the ladders of modern life.

“This is a generation who probably didn’t take a year off between school and university, but perhaps their kids did,” says Gary Anslow, senior director of sales in the UK and Ireland for Norwegian Cruise Line, which has a global fleet of 19 ships. “Now they’ve got the disposable income, the time and the inclination after two years of perhaps not travelling as much, and there’s a bit of a mindset change — people are thinking, ‘We should be doing this.’”

Gary, who just turned 50 himself but whose kids are still a few years off flying the nest, says Norwegian Cruise Line is seeing signs of this demand, with more people of pre-retirement age booking longer cruises, often as part of a much longer land itinerary, or embarking on back-to-back cruises for two to three months at sea. Late last year, when Norwegian Cruise Line surveyed the ‘baby boomer’ generation, the youngest of whom are in their late 50s, a fifth of respondents said they planned to go away for between nine and 12 months.

Golden gappers are reportedly also increasingly looking for independent adventure, not least to take advantage of relatively better physical health than might greet them at retirement age. “Working in the care home sector, I’ve seen so many people with horrible illnesses and I just thought, ‘If not now, then do we wait until we’re too old to enjoy this properly?’” says Izzy.

Left: Top:

Fine dining at Onda by Scarpetta, the Italian restaurant aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore.

Photograph by Lateef Photography
Right: Bottom:

Driving along a winding mountain road in Madeira, Portugal.

Photograph by Getty Images

Window of opportunity

The Kellys settled on an overland journey, travelling through France to the Pyrenees and on through Spain and Portugal. Then came Italy and Morocco before, eventually, they had to return to the UK to take their motorhome for an MOT test. But they were straight off again, heading to Norway for what would end up being a months-long road trip across Scandinavia.

After their second return to England, the Kellys doubled down, swapping the comforts of their motorhome for a rugged expedition truck. They’ve since toured Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, making good use of Phil’s army background along the way. “We love mountains and big, open spaces and thought, ‘Let’s go to some of these smaller countries that look really interesting,’” Izzy says.

John Constable, CEO of the Saga Travel Group, which caters to the over-50s market, points out that this demographic already has different expectations of what a trip should look like; there has been a steady shift away from brochure tourism towards DIY itineraries and off-the-beaten-track travel. “Now they’re getting the opportunity to go away for longer, they want to explore places more intrepidly and adventurously,” he says.

John, who’s 52 and also still has children in school, says Saga Travel Group is beginning to see growth in this market, although it’s early days. He senses that growing career fluidity, freelance work and the rise in second or ‘encore’ careers is opening up more windows of opportunity for people to take extended time out. “A lot of people move jobs at this age and get a few months in the garden or their children are older and they can go off and do different things,” he says.

Saga Travel Group is also at the early stages of working out how to serve the demand among this demographic for travel with purpose — another trend that’s reflected across the industry. The ‘experienced gap year’ trips it has had in development since last November might include volunteer projects or cultural immersion. “People want to get under the skin of places more and more,” Constable explains.

Specialists in this market, such as Projects Abroad and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), are also reporting growing demand in the over-50s age group. Bob Campbell retired at the age of 60 from his role as a lecturer and department head at the University of York. He has since worked with VSO in countries including Ethiopia, Cambodia and Mozambique. 

“Being mature, you have far more to look back on and a better appreciation of situations in developing countries,” he says, comparing the golden gapper to, say, wet-eared 18-year-olds teaching English in a village school in India. “You’ve got skills and knowledge to share, sometimes perhaps more than you realised,” he explains. Bob finds it hard to express how rewarding the work has been. “I was driven by looking at inequality in the world and, if I could make a little contribution to help, that’s extremely satisfying,” he says.

Extended time away is never without pitfalls. The Kellys planned to travel for two years and then go back to the UK and continue to make a good living, probably in property. But after six months, as they were driving through Portugal, Izzy had some second thoughts as summer came to an end. “The clocks changed and I sort of had a meltdown thinking, ‘What have we done?’” she recalls. They needed purpose, too. Phil decided to learn how to kitesurf. Izzy thought a little longer and, having met several other travellers doing the same thing, wondered if there were a market for some kind of blog.

She did a course in website-building and started writing about their adventure. Her site — called The Gap Decaders, after a friend joked they wouldn’t be back for 10 years — now includes destination guides, motorhome itineraries and advice for a life spent on the road. It’s spawned a YouTube channel and social media accounts, and it has become popular enough that advertising income supplements the couple’s savings and Phil’s army pension, meaning they can keep going indefinitely. 

The couple have now spent more than three years away from home, their previous lives becoming ever smaller in the rear-view mirror of their truck. They don’t rule out a return to conventional life and work, but have a lot more to get out of their system. 

Does she not miss anything about home? That giant bath? “I do miss my garden, but not the bath,” Izzy says. “It was always my stress reliever, and now I don’t need one.”

Things to think about

What does it cost?

That’s very much dependent on your expectations and resources. But, like everything, the answer will likely be: more than you thought. It behoves any would-be golden gapper to do some good, honest research on the cost of living and travelling, including fuel if relevant, in the countries you plan to visit. Estimate weekly expenses and, particularly if you’re relying on a vehicle such as a yacht or motorhome, set funds aside in case of big, unexpected maintenance bills.

What about insurance?

Standard travel insurance is unlikely to cut it for trips longer than 30 days (some stretch to 90). But long-stay or ‘backpacker’ insurance is there for those with bigger plans. As one example, the Post Office offers backpacker travel insurance for a single trip of up to 18 months, including up to three trips back home of up to seven days, for travellers aged 18-60.

And visas?

Always check the requirements of your destination. Brexit hasn’t been kind to long-stay travellers from the UK (who used to be able to roam the continent indefinitely) wanting to stay in the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein. You can now stay in the 27 countries that make up the Schengen area without a visa for up to 90 days in any 180-day period. Crossing borders or returning to the UK doesn’t reset the clock; if you’re in any of these countries during the 180 days (starting with the first entry), you’re adding to your 90-day limit. Tip over 90 days and you’ll need to check eligibility and apply for the relevant visa or permit for each country you want to visit.

Am I ready to ditch my current life?

Any extended travel takes a bit of courage and commitment. But if finances allow it, it’s prudent not to cut too many ties to your existing life in case you want to go home earlier than planned. If you can fund your adventure without selling your house, then it’s better to rent it out, for example. Likewise, it’s worth asking how long a sabbatical an employer might agree to, rather than quitting. Keeping a career ticking over in the background may be a canny move in the longer term.

Travelling as a couple?

Any existing tensions in a relationship, however broadly loving and healthy it might be, are unlikely to disappear when you’re in constant company, perhaps in a confined space, for an extended period of time. Be honest about this in the planning stages to avoid turning a gap year into the wrong kind of break.

What about my creature comforts?

Part of the gap year mindset for an 18-year-old is the non-existent expectation of comfort or quality, whether it’s in lodging or food. Older career breakers may have evolved in this regard, and it’s worth considering how much you or, perhaps, your dodgy back are prepared to sacrifice in the name of adventure. Even the plushest motorhome, for example, is unlikely to be as comfortable as your actual house. 

Travel can be physically demanding, and careful pre-trip preparation can reduce the risk of exacerbating or inducing medical conditions. A consultation with your doctor before a long journey can yield helpful advice about medications and vaccinations.

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Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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