01 Apr How to Plan a Gap Year
With your senior year drawing quickly to a close, things are starting to get chaotic. With the pressure to choose a college building, it seems like life is happening just a bit too fast.
We agree. Before making a bunch of decisions that will have a profound impact on your life, take a step back from it all by taking a gap year.
Less common in America than in places like Australia and Europe, this 12 month (or longer) break allows participants time to find their passion, learn life skills, and unwind after escaping the academic pressure cooker that is the latter stages of high school.
Intrigued? You’ll need to learn how to crawl first before you can go on a year long walk around the globe, so let’s help you learn how to travel, starting with the most important question of all…
Where do you want to go?
Job #1: figuring out where in the world to travel first. This will be an exciting task; however, we beg you – avoid plotting out your entire year in advance.
This is a trap many new travellers fall for – as you travel around the world, you’ll meet tons of amazing people. If you have a rigidly defined travel itinerary, you won’t be able go on an impromptu adventure with them.
By booking a ticket to your first destination and having a loose idea of where you want to go from there, you’ll leave the door of serendipity wide open, allowing you to head off in different direction at will.
Having said all that, it helps to have a general idea of what you want to see on your gap year adventure. Below, we’ll give you a brief rundown of what you can expect to find on each continent:
North America/Central America/The Caribbean
Some may denounce remaining close to home, but there are many tantalizing and rewarding gap year experiences which can be had while travelling through North America, Central America, or the Caribbean.
In the United States and Canada, there are a bewildering variety of natural landscapes to hike and explore, while their cities possess a level of multicultural diversity which can only be understood when you take the time to look closer.
Mexico has a wealth of Spanish colonial architecture, mountains, jungles, desert, and dream beaches, while the nations of Central America offer everything from the ruins of the Mayans to the stunning biodiversity of the Monteverde Cloud Forest (Costa Rica).
The isles of the Caribbean offer more than just relaxing beaches – from observing life in the poorest nation in the West (Haiti) to exploring where European colonization of the Americas began (Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic), there’s lots of cultural experiences to be had in this part of the Americas as well.
South America is packed with sights and wonders from top to bottom, making it an ideal destination for the gap year traveller.
Seeking everything from lazy tropical beaches to Spanish Colonial architecture? Book a ticket to Colombia – from exploring the steamy fortress city of Cartagena to trekking atop equatorial glaciers, its civil war wracked past (a peace agreement was signed just a couple years ago) will be the last thing on your mind.
Want to ply the Amazon River, then get a fabulous tan while playing numerous games of beach football/volleyball in the week following that adventure? Center your trip around Brazil.
Want to sample one of the continent’s best cuisines before bearing witness to its best preserved set of ancient ruins? Include Peru in your travels, as you’ll get to eat meals like rocoto relleno before setting off to see the world famous remains of Machu Picchu.
Love steak, soaring peaks, and staring into the abyss? Make room for Argentina, as its gaucho culture will keep you well fed with the best meat on the planet, the snowy mountains of Patagonia will satisfy your soul, and visiting Ushuaia will give you a chance to gaze into the nothingness of the Southern Ocean, which is all that stands between civilization and Antarctica.
Some travellers balk at the thought of including Europe as part of a gap year adventure, as it is one of the more expensive parts of the world.
Let’s be honest – this reputation is somewhat deserved, as dorm beds in Amsterdam can average $50/night, and it can be tough to find lunch in Switzerland for under $20.
Other parts of the continent are far more budget friendly, though, as $10-$15 beds are common in many Central and Eastern European countries.
However, you can spend serious time in pricey Western European nations if you are prepared to take up a hospitality industry job or make most meals in hostel kitchens.
While it may not be the carefree existence those travelling Asia and Latin America will have, the life experiences you’ll have here will make your sacrifices worthwhile.
Interested in tracking your European roots? Take up genealogy prior to your gap year so you can track down your Old World relatives. The initial research may be dull, but once you are seated across the kitchen table from long lost family members in places like Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine, the effort you put in will be worth it.
Consider yourself a castle buff? The countryside of the British Isles, France, Germany, and many other nations in the European Union are littered with them.
Are an active lover of the outdoors? Follow the Alps and hike/ski in countries like France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, as you’ll be exposed to some of the most beautiful mountain vistas in the world.
Don’t have a huge travel budget, but still want to experience the rich culture of this amazing continent? Stick to the Balkans, and Central/Eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania, and you’ll have plenty of amazing food to eat, castles to tour, and beaches to lounge on, all while spending a fraction of what you would in nations further to the north and west.
Considered to be too dangerous and arduous to visit by some, many nations in Africa can be safely visited by the average gap year traveler with a modicum of preparation beforehand.
Often, it is simply an issue of preconceived notions being false: for example, most cities in South Africa are no more dangerous than American ones (Cape Town has a similar murder rate to St Louis, and Durban/Johannesburg are markedly less hazardous than Detroit).
In others, a few simple precautions will reduce or eliminate legitimate concerns (having Malaria pills, applying insect repellent, taking licensed taxis at night, respecting the boundaries of wild animals, etc).
Now that we have allayed your concerns, be sure to include countries like South Africa (safaris, apartheid), Tanzania (Mount Kilimanjaro, the exotic island of Zanzibar), Ethiopia (killer coffee, old Christian churches), and Morocco (intoxicating markets, excellent surfing beaches) in your gap year itinerary.
Out of all the continents, Asia can be the toughest continent in which to plan a gap year adventure. This isn’t due to its cost or security concerns, but because of its sheer size and diversity of options. From the ghats of Varanasi in India to the futuristic streets of Tokyo, Japan, the possibilities are endless.
Looking for fun in the sun? The nations of Southeast Asia will accommodate you handily. Thailand is a popular option, as it offers decadently decorated Buddhist temples, fine white sand beaches, and world-class cuisine, all at prices which represent some of the best value per dollar spent in the world.
Indonesia and Malaysia are excellent alternatives to Thailand, as there is less emphasis on partying (except for Bali), there are opportunities to explore predominately Islamic societies, and their food is uniquely awesome in its own way.
East Asia, while pricier than its tropical counterparts, offers plenty of chances for cultural immersion. The best way to accomplish this (while topping up your bank account) is to apply for one of many lucrative English teaching positions.
Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan are all great choices if this profession interests you, but be sure to apply for these opportunities before landing, as getting hired under the table can get you in trouble with the law.
Want to thrust yourself into one of the most chaotic (but functioning) societies in the world? Spend several months in India. The pollution, traffic, and drastically different social norms will frustrate you at first, but its culture, historical sites, natural wonders, generous people, and absurdly cheap cost of living will win you over.
Another common gap year destination for travellers from Canada, the US, and Europe, Australia and New Zealand grants visitors the opportunity to experience life on a continent half a world away, but without the language issues and extreme culture shock present in other parts of the globe.
With exotic wildlife, laid back culture, and stunning scenery, it is understandable why you may have these two distant nations at the top of your list. However, you need to be aware of one major problem – both countries have an extremely high cost of living.
Anyone planning to spend significant time in either of these nations should apply for a working holiday visa before booking a flight to Auckland or Sydney.
With hostel bunks averaging around $50 AUD per night in Sydney, restaurant meals which set patrons back $20 per sitting, and alcohol being noticeably more expensive than elsewhere in the world, anyone travelling on savings alone will likely find themselves in financial trouble within a month or two.
Getting at least a part-time job will help remove financial stress, as wages in Australia are among the highest in the world.
While you will have to exchange some of your free time for money, you will derive much more enjoyment from your travels by doing this rather than watching your bank account do a swan dive.
When you aren’t working, learn how to surf on Bondi Beach, go camping in the outback, dive the Great Barrier Reef, go bungee jumping in Queenstown, or go hunting for hobbits in the wilderness of New Zealand – there is much to see and do Down Under, so make the most of your time there.
Of all the gap year ideas listed in this guide, checking out Antarctica is one of the most ambitious (and the priciest). While even a budget cruise will set you back $5,000, the lack of humans, soaring glaciers and icebergs, and an abundance of penguins make the months of saving needed for this experience well worth the sacrifice.
On this adventure, you’ll earn your sea legs on the angry waters of the Drake Passage, experience what sub zero sea water feels like (and the joys of hitting the sauna immediately after), and you’ll lay eyes on the only land mass not extensively populated by our species.
Just the same, you’ll also see how this frozen continent is far from immune from our activities, as guides will show you how climate change is impacting life here – and how this has profoundly negative consequences for all humanity.
Sort out travel essentials
Once you have your destinations sorted, you’ll then need to put together a list of things you’ll need to procure, and tasks that will need to be completed before departure.
Before being allowed on an international flight, you’ll need a passport. Apply for one by visiting a federal government office – they will hand you the forms you’ll need to fill out.
Once you have received your passport, research the visa requirements of the first country you’ll visit. Some grant a waiver or a visa on arrival, but some destinations (like Vietnam or Brazil) require you to arrange a visa beforehand.
Visit the consulate or embassy nearest to you and apply – they will hand you forms which will direct you on the procedure you’ll need to follow.
Once you have secured your visa, go ahead and book your flight. However, you’ll first want to confirm whether or not your destination requires proof of onward travel. If they do, you’ll need to book an additional flight to satisfy immigration (and airline) agents.
To maintain spontaneity in your travels, buy a refundable ticket so you can cancel it immediately after arriving in your first destination country.
Following this, book a hostel/hotel in the city where you will be arriving. If you are new to overseas travel, wandering around with all your stuff while trying to nail down a room is the last thing you want to be doing.
By booking a place to stay beforehand, your first day of international travel will be spent resting and relaxing with fellow travellers rather than trudging from one cheap hostel to the next in an attempt to find a room.
Tired yet? There’s one last thing you need to sort out before leaving home for parts unknown: travel insurance. While some balk at the thought of handing over money when they are convinced nothing bad will happen to them, all it takes is a sudden illness or a serious accident to land you in hot financial waters.
Would you rather pay a $400 premium or $20,000 in hospital costs? We think you know the answer to that question.
What to pack
With all these mandatory tasks out of the way, you can start plotting out what to pack. The items you’ll take will vary greatly depending on the nature of your trip, but in general, make room in your pack for the following items:
- Casual tops – 3-5 t-shirts, blouses, dresses, etc
- Bottoms – 2-3 pairs of shorts, 1-2 pairs of jeans/pants
- Underwear, socks, etc
- A swimming suit
- A good sweater – even if you will be travelling exclusively in the tropics, buses in this part of the world often crank the A/C to arctic
- A pair of sneakers – these will do just fine on most hikes … hiking boots are only needed if you plan on scaling mountains
- A toiletry kit with all the essentials (toothpaste/toothbrush, razors/shaving cream, cosmetics, etc)
- A couple rolls of toilet paper – good as impromptu napkins and when you encounter a washroom with no TP
- A first aid kit – should contain water-resistant fabric bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain killers, anti-diarrhea drugs, etc
- A burner smartphone – while some hardcore travellers consider electronics to be a luxury, the flexibility of this 21st century Swiss Army Knife cannot be understated
- A box’s worth of ear plugs and a sleep mask – don this combo, and you’ll be much less likely to notice the drunken idiot who noisily turns on all the lights at 3 am
- A money belt to conceal your passport, cards, and money beneath your clothes while on the move
This is a partial list open to interpretation – there may be items unique to your trip which are not listed here. Also, you can buy many of these items overseas when you need them – doing this will help you travel as light as possible.
Before leaving, weigh your pack – it should be no more than 26 pounds. Any heavier and you risk having to pay surcharges to airlines, you risk back injury, and you’ll be miserable any time you have to lug your bag from hostel to hostel.
That was an exhausting slog, wasn’t it? While planning for a gap year can seem like a never-ending chore at times, these tasks will fade into insignificance once you stand on that picture-perfect beach, help build a school in a poor community, or watch the sun rise after a night of revelry with your new travel buds.
Get excited, and savour every moment of the coming year – the memories you’ll make will stay with you for the rest of your days.