Gap Years – Preparation

Most good gap years comprise a medley of activities which complement one another, work and play, earning and spending, challenge and self-indulgence, worthiness and fun. The marketplace is full of companies offering structured gap years of all kinds that might include lemur-monitoring in Madagascar, teaching in China, orphanage placements in Ecuador, picking fruit in Australia, archaeological digs in the Middle East or learning Spanish in Guatemala. Most of these programmes are open to anyone willing and able to pay or fundraise the set-up costs. Some of the marketing of these programmes makes extravagant claims about doing good for humanity, enhancing employability while expressions like ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘fair’ are intended to make them sound very virtuous. In recent years there has been in some quarters a backlash against the utopian prose resulting in plenty of anti-gap year rhetoric. Of course the reality is somewhere between the two extremes. Gap years are neither 'for posh wasters' as a recent headline in The Times maintained, nor will they save the world.

Once you have fought off the doom-mongers who maintain that flitting off to a distant corner of the world on a gap year is irresponsible in these unstable times, turn your attention to deciding where to go, what to do and who to go with (if anyone). Googling ‘planning a gap year’ will turn up more than 6,800,000 results. Many feel overwhelmed by the welter of choices, and gravitate to the big commercial companies with high Google rankings. The best advice is to do lots of research – talk to others who have done a gap year and let the ideas swill around in your imagination until a preference floats up.

The next step is to do some hard-headed planning. The first question is always: how can I afford a gap year? Most gappers spend at least half the year working and saving hard, knowing that their reward will be a full moon party, a watersport instructor’s course on the Mediterranean, a bungy-jump in New Zealand or any of a thousand other adventures. The average cost of a gap year trip is £3,500.


Practical top tips – preparation and safety

  • Look at the detailed country-by-country travel advice concerning personal safety given by the Foreign Office
  • Shop around for travel insurance and make sure you are covered for everything you intend to do e.g. working and sports. On a policy covering the whole world for 6–12 months, expect to pay from £20 per month for basic backpacker cover and £30-£40 for more extensive cover.
  • Keep a record of travel documents like passport number, insurance policy, driving licence, tickets, emergency number for cancelling credit cards etc. Scan and email this information to yourself so that you can access it at any time.
  • Have several ways of accessing money rather than relying on one bank card that can be lost, stolen or damaged.
  • Carry valuable items (like passport, essential medicines and of course money) on your person rather than relegating them to a piece of luggage which might be lost or stolen.
  • Only pack items you are prepared to lose. Flashy clothes and high-tech equipment may attract the attention of pickpockets.
  • Learn a few key words and phrases in the local language, so as not to seem arrogant in assuming everyone communicates in English.
  • Be aware of the laws, customs and dress code for the country. Guidebooks should provide all this information.
  • If you are volunteering through an organisation, ask for the contact details of some recent volunteers on your project. They should be able to give you advice about the project.
  • If you are staying in one country for several weeks, consider getting a cheap local mobile phone or a local SIM card for your mobile.
  • Most importantly, have a ball. Pay attention to your instincts and aim to achieve that perfect balance between travelling safely and enjoying yourself. If you are over-cautious you might miss out on something amazing, but at the same time you want to avoid unnecessary risks.

Content generously provided by Trotman