Adventures of the Unemployed

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Career experts say that when you're out of work, your job search should become your new full-time job. Wise advice? Yes. Prudent? Of course. Fun? Not really.

The one nice thing a layoff gives you is time, a commodity that's often in short supply when work consumes 40 hours or more of your week. With that in mind, some laid off workers are taking the opportunity to travel, learn new languages, volunteer or simply spend more time with their children.

Kyle, laid off in March from his job as a developer for a telecommunications company, has been spending five days a week cuddling cats at the Wayside Waifs animal shelter in Kansas City, Missouri. When adoptive families come in looking for a new pet, he helps them find the right one.

"It's helped me to feel useful," he says, particularly after hearing that the project he had spent nine years working on wouldn't be continued by the company's new owners. "I leave there every evening feeling like I've done something good. I've made a contribution that matters. Losing your job is a big blow to your self-esteem, and volunteering helps with that."

Kyle's own beloved kitty, Zoey, came from the same shelter about a year ago. He was so impressed with the staff and facility that he wanted to contribute his own time.

Heather, a 34-year-old Seattle resident, also saw her layoff as a chance for a mental health break. She lost her job in the human resources division of Washington Mutual in January. In February, instead of going to job fairs, she took off to Italy for a month.

"My work in the last year was just so exhausting," she says. "I really needed to do something cleansing. I had a bad attitude and I needed to get positive before going back into the job search."

Armed with a $650 round-trip plane ticket and a 20 percent discount on language lessons, she spent three weeks studying Italian at Cultura Italiana language school in Bologna and one extra week traveling to Venice and Lake Como.

"I'm half-Italian, but I couldn't speak [the language]," she says. "I love the food, I love the language, but I never learned it and I always wanted to."

While traveling, Heather met plenty of people from other countries who had much more vacation time than workaholic Americans. She was the only one who had to be unemployed in order to spend four weeks traveling.

That was the dilemma John has faced ever since he got his business degree. The Californian is an avid skier but his work always kept him too busy to hit the slopes for longer than a weekend. When he saw signs that his company, Countrywide Financial, would either go out of business or get acquired, he secretly hoped it would happen in the winter.

It did, and he was laid off in December. He spent almost all of February skiing in Montana, visiting family in Idaho and then skiing some more in Utah. Skiing's an expensive sport, and the irony of a post-layoff ski trip is not lost on John. "I save a fair amount of what I make," he says. "I had the money – I just never had the time."

But when it comes to travel, it's hard to beat Richard's plans after his job as a lab technician at the University of California San Francisco ends in late April. He's going to Africa for eight months. Making a financial commitment to a trip that will eat up more than $1,500 a month of his savings was a tough decision, until Richard found out that the travel company is offering a 15 percent discount to people who have been laid off.

Intrepid Travel, an Australian company, reports strong sales for its "Laid Off, Take Off" promotion, with most travelers choosing Asia as a destination.

Richard chose the 23-country overland tour of Africa because he "wanted something epic," he says. "I'm enthralled by seeing new things -- the scenery, the wildlife, the culture. And also just being relaxed, just having that free time."

As for finding a new job, Richard hopes that the economy will be better when he gets back. "I'm taking a big risk, and it's scary in this economic climate," he says. "But I don't want my worries to stop me."

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