Beware the pitfalls of a travel-intensive career…

“Your life sounds so glamorous!”

One of these days I’ll hear it enough times to believe it. I laugh silently inside as the checkout assistant, fellow coffee customer or friends at home comment on my jet-lagged appearance, layers of warm clothing on a “nice” day in the UK after months in the tropics or the latest inevitable Facebook check-in at any given international airport. If only they knew!

The reality is a lifestyle of travel and work 100% of the time is anything but glamorous. While there certainly are perks, there are also some serious drawbacks you really need to take into account when considering a career involving this much travel. I’ve touched on some of these briefly before, but with more time working in the field, I’ve realised that is more to some drawbacks then I realised, while I’ve also become aware of other potential pitfalls that come as a result of this job.

EVA Airlines

Another day, another airport, another seat in economy class…

Why write about this? Isn’t this coming across as being very negative about my job? Well not really; I’m really just being objective. When I was first interviewed for this job, by numerous members of my company’s senior management team, they all started the same way: you don’t want this job –seriously! Most of the SMT in my company have also done the same role as me (and that was back in the day before widespread high-speed internet, mobile phones and remote monitoring software, so the job was very labour intensive, working 12-hour shifts around the clock – by contrast I have it pretty easy) so they understand the sacrifices you make to a job like this. Their advice was pretty clear; don’t take the job for the perks, take the job for the job, and know that it’s going to be tough and very demanding of you personally. Not many companies, or even careers websites etc., will give you much, if any, of that kind of advice (and as such, it’s the thing I get asked about most by readers).

So what are the things you really need to be aware of, when considering such a job or when starting out, and what can you do to manage these issues?

Obviously your social life is going to be the first victim if you begin to undertake a crazy amount of traveling, especially if you are working in very remote places, rather than big cities. Friends’ birthdays, weddings and other events will be missed. An unpredictable work schedule can mean that when you are back home your friends are busy or don’t get your notice soon enough to arrange getting together. Facebook, Skype and other 21st century ways of keeping in touch are great, but are no long term substitute for time spent face to face. As a result, it’s very realistic to expect that you and your friends back home will probably drift apart and start to lose contact. My best advice is to think about which friendships are most important to you, and make the effort to keep them going – send postcards, arrange to Skype every few weeks, surprise them with a phone call if you get a free moment – anything to show that you value that connection and haven’t forgotten about them. On top of that, when you travel, make sure you make a special effort to check in on old friends from around the world when you have the opportunity – there is definitely something special about reconnecting with someone you haven’t seen for several years and didn’t expect to have the opportunity to see.

Girls in Hong Kong

When I stopped over in Hong Kong for a couple of days I made sure I caught up with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

Unsurprisingly the distance and duration of absence can also have an even bigger effect on your most significant relationships – your parents will have (hopefully) started to realise at some point that it’s time for you to leave the nest and they have mentally prepared themselves for seeing you less often. Siblings too will be moving on with their lives. Its people like your extended family – grandparents, close cousins etc. you’ll fall out of touch with most. Grandparents are especially important to maintain a relationship with. Remember they aren’t getting any younger, and especially if you don’t see them often, take extra care to make the time special and say proper goodbyes (I’ve been doing this for years). What’s more, no one appreciates unexpected phone calls and postcards more than them.

Another thing that can suffer is your professional development. Of course you might be getting international exposure, but is that also at the expense of other experience or training? Is work preparing you for promotion, or are you finding yourself simply doing the same thing, different location? Are you traveling so much that you struggle to keep on top of simple paperwork (such as travel expenses), let alone things like professional accreditation? These are all things that can happen – but it is possible to make sure your career development continues in a well-rounded way. Raising any concerns with your line manager is obviously the first port of call, however you can also be proactive in additional ways, such as writing your own personal development plan, networking while you travel and setting aside regular time where you get up to speed on paperwork.

Curry Recipes

After gaining some weight in India, I mostly ate vegetarian and began running in Australia. Pumpkin curry was a favourite of mine.

For me, looking after my health has been a big issue while traveling so much. Being aware of your health and travel insurance cover is essential, as is actively educating yourself about health issues that can affect people who travel. That isn’t just about what vaccinations you will require, but also things like mental and sexual health (especially if you are living a “girl in every port” lifestyle), what to do in an emergency, how to stay fit and active while traveling, maintain healthy eating habits and so on. I don’t know how many hospital appointments I’ve missed because the appointment times were mailed to me while I was out of the country. I went without glasses for the 3 months because I lost a screw and wasn’t anywhere near an opticians or didn’t have the time to go find one (lesson learnt: bring a spare pair). I’ve spent well over £100 on medical treatment on two occasions, in Australia and Thailand. The physical and mental strain of so much travel, isolation and stress has also been one of the main reason’s I’ve had to now reconsider my career priorities and work-life balance, as it seems even prior preparation is often not enough to avoid a noticeable effect on personal health.

There are a lot of other things you should expect to have to sacrifice. Perhaps it will be your time – not just to see friends and family, but even of evenings and weekends as much of your free time will be consumed by recovering from work if you do not get sufficient and regular time off. You might be initially excited about the prospect of travel, but you need to remember that with it being work, you don’t usually have a say in where you go, meaning instead of the New Yorks and Singapores of this world, you could end up in some dusty, godforsaken hole, miles from anything of interest. Even if you are in an otherwise “exciting” destination, you might not actually get the time to even see it. There could be any other number of drawbacks I haven’t even thought of.

Beautiful Sunset Australia

My approach to life has become “make the most of every opportunity”.

I guess it all comes down to what I’ve been saying for almost 2 years: this kind of job isn’t for everyone. Before you pursue a travel intensive career, you need to ask yourself if it’s the right thing for you and what you will need to sacrifice. Definitely don’t do it because it’s a job that pays money – you won’t have time to spend it, and the novelty of money gets old very quickly. Maybe it’s just something you will do for a few years, and then move onto something else. Perhaps you might be more suited to an expat lifestyle, or only traveling at the weekends and during vacation time. Think about what you can manage, and what is right for you.

Managing these pitfalls can definitely be a challenge, but if this is what you decide to do with your career, with a little bit of care and mindfulness it’s not impossible to make sure that the job works for you.

4 responses to “Beware the pitfalls of a travel-intensive career…

  1. Nice read Josh! I know all too well the exhaustion that comes with constant travel and I don’t even work full time while doing it. So I can’t imagine the exhaustion you must feel at times! I do agree, people need to look beyond the shiny, sparkly face of a travel intensive job and see if it’s really something they can get into at its core. Works for some, not for all!

    • Definitely! I made my self sick in the space of week between leaving Australia and arriving to work in India because I traveled too much. Sure I took some nice photos and saw some amazing places but it does take it’s toll. I think people who want to travel full time are crazy. I only do it because it’s my job!

  2. Pingback: Oh shit! I can’t believe I’m seriously considering this… | Engineer on the Road·

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