Plenty of people panic after losing a job. But instead of staying home to polish their résumés (or nibble their fingernails), these women fearlessly packed their bags, embracing the freedom that comes with a wide-open schedule. Sayonara, vacation request form!
The group beach tradition
The travelers: Chana Rosenthal, Lila Rossi, Caroline Pettinger, Fara Alvarez, and Jennifer Trant
Chana's lost job: Fashion designer
Destinations: Thailand, Greece, Croatia
It may be an outdated notion these days, that an annual vacation is a God-given right: Work obligations increasingly consume more and more time, and scheduling a two-week excursion has become the exception, not the rule. But lately, in the ultimate lemons-to-lemonade response to a changing economy, many people are finding that the best time to seize the moment and take their dream vacations is just after they've been laid off.
Back in February 2006, when Chana Rosenthal's employer closed its New York office after a corporate merger, the young clothing designer suddenly found herself with endless free time on her hands, a decent severance package to tide her over for a few months, and a ready-made group of traveling companions in the four colleagues she had been working alongside for two and a half years. Seeing the unique opportunity—how often do you have the same time off as a handful of your closest friends?—they hatched a plan to take an 18-day trip around Thailand.
In the first few touchy weeks of unemployment, the five women threw themselves into researching hotels online, which softened the sting of being downsized. Instead of sketch-review meetings, they had a new agenda: hunting down the perfect bikini. And once they set off on their two-and-a-half-week journey through Bangkok, Phuket, and more, feeding and bathing baby elephants at a rescue camp in Chiang Mai proved to be a particularly potent distraction. (The fruity drinks they downed in the bars of Phi Phi Island didn't hurt, either.) "Going away was pure escapism," Chana says. "It definitely made us forget about losing our jobs."
Early on, the women developed strategies to help the trek go smoothly, pairing up for activities rather than making an itinerary that forced them to spend every minute together. "And we each took a turn staying in for a night when we needed a break from partying," Chana adds.
Slideshow: Capturing Kyoto The success of that trip gave Chana newfound confidence as a traveler and inspired her to set off on a six-week, five-country solo tour of Europe, starting in France and ending in Greece. Looking for one last hurrah before their severance packages ran out, the rest of the gang decided to meet up with her in Mykonos. They kept one rule that they'd established on their first outing: No significant others allowed. (An exception was made for Lila Rossi's dog, a miniature dachshund that accompanied the girls to beaches and bars alike.)
While their original vacation together was planned post-pink slip, the fact that they all have jobs now hasn't kept them from continuing the group-travel tradition. Each year, they set off on a new adventure—always the same people, always the same rules, and always with a beach in sight. In 2007, they spent nine days in Croatia, and the following year they returned to Greece; Brazil is next on the list. "We've found something that works for us, and none of us wants to change it," Chana says.
The career-changing Asian adventure
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The Travelers: Romaana Zia, Lasana Smith, and Renee Chase
Romaana's Lost Job: Credit analyst
Destinations: Japan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia
Slideshow: Thai treasure Romaana Zia was laid off from her high-pressure banking job at a particularly unexpected time—just three days after her final business-school exam. She immediately hit the pavement in pursuit of her next gig, but although several offers came through, she found herself turning them all down. "I had been burning the candle at both ends for three years, with 14-hour days and grad school, so I decided to take some me time. I knew that I had accomplished my banker dreams, and this was my opportunity to reinvent myself," she explains.
Meanwhile, Romaana's close friend Lasana Smith was wrapping up a grad-school internship in Tokyo, and Lasana's younger sister, Renee Chase, had just finished her undergrad studies. "We were all on the brink of change, with lots of endings and beginnings happening at once," Romaana says. So the trio decided to take a month off from all the decision-making and explore Asia together.
They plotted a route from Japan to Indonesia with stops in half a dozen countries along the way, and their experiences varied widely: They stayed in high-rise hotels, a tropical resort, and with Romaana's relatives in Malaysia; their meals came from street carts and fancy restaurants; and their itinerary held as much shopping as Buddha-spotting, each presenting its own type of enlightenment.
Slideshow: Beijing booms "Once, we spent an entire day accidentally taking trains in the wrong direction and running from shrine to shrine before they closed. Finally, we made it to our last stop, Kamakura, to see Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, just before the sun set. It was the first time on the trip—or in ages, for that matter—when I really embraced the present moment," Romaana says.
She also fell in love with Tokyo's street culture and shopping: "It was like one big catwalk," she recalls. "The clothes, the hair, the makeup, the nails—it was constant stimulation." And after making her way through the boutiques of Harajuku and Shibuya and, later, the mega malls of Kuala Lumpur, something started to click. "Taking in all the style and culture around me, I felt like I was authentically me," Romaana says. "By the time I got back to the States, I was seriously considering fashion as my next career field."
More than any single city or sight, however, it was the sheer time and distance that made it possible for Romaana to think about her future in a new way. "I was able to clear my mind, refocus, and really find out who I was now that I was no longer a bank employee or a student," Romaana says. So who was she? As it turns out, an aspiring entrepreneur. One month after she returned home, Romaana joined forces with her sister, Saifra, who had also been laid off from a banking job, to launch their own line of handbags, Nyla Noor (nylanoor.com), which debuts this winter.
The next-day escape to South Beach
The travelers: Lydia Bell, Susana Cardena, and Alex Cooney
Lydia's lost job: Magazine journalist
London-based journalist Lydia Bell didn't waste any time planning her post-employment jaunt. In fact, within 48 hours of getting her walking papers, she was already en route to Miami to meet up with two friends for a week of sheer, mindless indulgence. "I had heard that layoffs were coming, so before I even got the news, I booked a holiday—knowing that it would either be a chance to celebrate that I hadn't lost my job, or to console myself because I had," Lydia says.
Best vacation deals of 2009Unlike on Romaana's trip, soul-searching was nowhere to be found on Lydia's agenda. "As a travel journalist, most of my holidays were either work-related or off-the-beaten-track adventures," Lydia says. "This trip was a throwback to the old-school pleasure break with friends, which was a really nice change for me."
The women splurged on their digs, spending a few nights each in three of the city's hottest properties—the Mondrian Miami, the Setai, and the Gansevoort South—knowing that they would have all the free entertainment they could handle in the form of pool-hopping and people-watching. "It's hard to be deep or regretful when you're pondering which of the Setai's three temperature-controlled pools to dip your toes into," Lydia says. The women also ventured out to hear the salsa bands at Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer and dropped in for a visit to the Tides South Beach, where they got to know the Coral Bar's dedicated rum expert, or rummelier.
"I made the decision right at the start not to worry about money," Lydia says. "Very foolhardy, but lots of fun." Fortunately for Lydia, although she wasn't worried about money, she did end up landing an opportunity to make some, selling a story about Miami to a magazine—and setting the stage for the next phase of her career, freelance journalism.
Lydia also has some sage advice to impart to those who find themselves suddenly jobless: "Don't stay at home feeling sorry for yourself," she says. "You can do your thinking later."