A gap year is an extended break that some people take at a life transition, such as between studies, between study and work, or between careers.
There's no need for such a trip to be precisely a year, of course, but a year is a typical length of time for people who have just finished secondary school: they typically have to delay university entrance for a year to take the time off. Some of the same principles can be applied to just a summer between school and college, or any extended break "between jobs".
This article discusses options for low budget long-term travel of the type that a gap year traveller might be interested in. See Volunteer travel and Working abroad for more general but related discussion.
Pre-departure planning is important. No matter how much you plan for the trip there may be instances where you have to throw all the planning out the window. However, there are certain things you should watch for and plan for:
Check with the appropriate consulate or embassy in your country to find out if you will need a visa to visit the country of your destination, especially for an extended period of time. Some countries have extremely detailed and complicated entry/departure laws, and treat visits of a week or two very differently from longer stays. Some pairs of countries have an agreement for working holiday visas which allow a citizen of one to work in the other for a limited time.
The IATA Visa Database, provided by Delta Air Lines, is an excellent place to check whether you need a visa or not. That database is what airlines rely on; if it says you need a visa and you do not have one, then they will not let you on the plane. Many will not refund the ticket either; they consider visa troubles your problem, not theirs.
The need of a visa also depends on what you are going to do; even if tourists may be visa exempt, travelling for studies, volunteering or work (or anything that may be regarded as such) can require the appropriate visa.
To get a visa for work or studies you probably need a letter from the employer or institution, and possibly other paperwork. Details vary. Such other kinds of visa may take several months to process, check in time.
Itineraries are important for two people: the traveler and the traveler's family. Some parents will be more supportive of allowing their son or daughter to go abroad if they know where they'll be. An itinerary may be helpful in the event that an emergency happens and somebody needs to contact you while you're away, and helps to satisfy a parent's instinctive need to know where their children are. An itinerary describes the route of the journey or tour or the proposed outline of one.
- See also: Budget travel
Since gap year travellers are gone for long time, forfeiting their work income, they usually need a tighter weekly budget than they would have as holiday travellers.
If you're traveling to one area, check the cost of living there. If it's high you'll probably want to budget more carefully and save some money before leaving. The lower the cost of living the less you'll have to save, but be sure to have a back up reserve in emergency cases.
Consider opening a second account in your home country and allow your parents or a close relative to have access to the account. In the event that you have to come home early they can withdraw money from the account, which can be used to purchase a return ticket for you – or the other way around. Consider whether making the accounts as independent as possible makes sense. In some situations, such as if your ATM card gets stolen or compromised, it can help to have access to another account, but this can also make things overly complicated. Some cash in a secure place can help in similar situations.
Gap year travellers are less dependent on time management. At major holidays and tourist seasons, both transportations and venues are overcrowded and expensive. If you have an empty schedule, visiting tourist destinations off-season on weekdays will save both money and effort.
Get in and around
If your gap year is going to involve several stops in several different countries and continents, you should look into the many budget tickets designed for long term travel. Gap year travellers are often referred to as backpackers and will often receive discounted travel. Examples include:
Open ended return tickets allow you to come home at any time within a given period (often a year, sometimes six months, rarely 60 days.) They're generally more expensive than regular discount round-trip tickets, but generally much cheaper than a fully-flexible/refundable round trip (or two one ways, except on some routes where there are the inflexible discount one-ways.)
Open-jaw tickets allow you to return from a different city than the one you flew into, and may be worth saving you the cost and time of returning to the city you started in; fares will be highly variable - in the best case, the cost will be in essence the average of two discount round trips, in the worst it will be comparable to two one-way tickets. It always pays to check for yourself in these cases.
If your travel plans are more ambitious than that, round the world flights might fit your needs.
Some options and issues:
- Most major airlines schedule flights out to 330 days out, rather than a full year.
- While it's generally possible to change discounted tickets for a fee to allow more time, most discount fares have a limit on their time of validity (often 30 or 60 days, sometimes 6 months) and exceeding it will often result in a very large increased fare on top of the change fee.
- Another alternative a one way ticket is to buy two return tickets and "toss" the second half of the ticket. While this is fully legal, it violates many airlines' "Conditions of Carriage" and can mean a loss of frequent flier miles earned on the first half of the flight.
- This can also be handy if your travel plans are open, but border crossing or visa rules require proof of an onward ticket (alternatively, look at low-cost carriers within the region.)
- Also with legacy carriers, never "toss" or skip a middle segment of a single ticket without formally cancelling it, as a no-show segment will result in cancellation of later segments. Cancellations in advance may or may not be allowed, and if allowed will often require paying a change fee or fare difference. Low-cost carriers are often more flexible on this – check with the individual carrier for their rules.
- In some cases for legacy airlines, it's cheaper to buy tickets departing from within the developing world from the airline or local travel agency after you get there, rather than directly from an airline or from a travel agent at home. This is almost never the case with low-cost carriers.
There are long term train tickets aimed at backpackers and travelers. Sometimes these will let you travel more cheaply than any local fares. Examples include the Interrail and Eurail passes in Europe and the Backpacker rail pass [dead link] in Australia. For travelers in North America, see Rail travel in North America.
- See also: Cruising on small craft
A less common option is to go for a cruise with a boat of your own (or as crew with somebody else). For a year of travel this often means crossing oceans, which requires solid skill and experience, at least if you are in charge, and commitment regardless. A yacht cruise of a few months is quite feasible also along coasts or inland waterways, with somewhat lesser requirements on you and your boat.
On a long cruise, you probably want to spend quite some time in places you like. The main marina may not be the cheapest option, and the marina may have special offers for long time stay, at least off season. There are several ways to cut down living coast with a city in reach.
If staying a long time in a single country (abroad, or with a foreign flag), check customs rules etc., as you probably don't want to have to pay import taxes. In Europe, all of EU counts as one country in this respect.
If you take your car with you, you probably want to be able to camp to maximize your liberty. You'll at least want a tent that suits the local conditions (weather, pests) and a camping stove (for which fuel is available locally). These can be bought locally or brought in.
Foreign cars and driver's licences are accepted in most countries, for a limited time. In some cases buying a local car and bringing it back makes sense, at least if you can work the tax and duty system to your advantage. You could also buy a used car cheaply and sell it when leaving, but this includes many pitfalls, both in avoiding lemons, and tax-wise.
- See also: Bus travel
A long trip may be impossible to save for in advance. Often gap year travelers want to support their journey by taking work, often of a low-skilled and/or intermittent nature. Unfortunately, working in other countries often requires a work visa. Typically these are onerous for gap year travelers: you need to find an employer to apply for the visa, the visa is expensive, and the employer must show that they cannot hire someone with your skills locally. The work visa will be tied to your term at that employer. However, there are some visa schemes and work schemes that cater specifically to those who are looking for a job to support their travel.
If you are a citizen of certain countries, you can work in some other countries without needing a visa at all:
- citizens of a European Union country can work in other EU countries without a visa
- citizens of Australia and New Zealand can each work in the other country without a visa
Gap year travelers who are under 35 should look into working holiday visa arrangements where you can go to a country for a certain period of time, often 12 months and sometimes up to 24, and work intermittently. The intention of the visa is that you work to fund your trip, and there will typically be restrictions on your working, including: not working for more than a certain amount of time during the visa period, not working for any one employer for a long period, working only in specified industries and sometimes not working in jobs that further your career path.
These are typically reciprocal arrangements: your country will offer visas of this sort to citizens of certain other countries and those other countries will do the same for you. Hence it is best to check with your own country's foreign affairs officials to see if you have reciprocal visas, and if so, with which countries.
- See also: Studying abroad
An increasingly more popular option for those planning a gap-year is to travel and learn. This is especially popular with school leavers, allowing them to take a year out before university, without compromising their education. In many cases, enrolling on a gap-year course abroad can actually improve your chances of moving into higher education back in your home country.
Typically there will be a tuition fee to enroll in these educational programs. There are two reasons for this: firstly, many of these courses are run by private institutions, and secondly, because international students rarely attract government funding.
There are a number of organisations offering gap year educational programmes.
If you are enrolled already, you may have the opportunity to study a semester or a year as exchange student, at an institution your university or department has cooperation with, or through multilateral programmes, such as Erasmus. The studies may be in a speciality directly relevant for your exam or on separate related subjects. Some universities offer self-contained cross-subject packages for exchange students, to be added to your exam (such as studies on human rights and related issues, or on the region of the country). The exchange is usually not targeted at first-year students.
It is every traveler's dream to take an extended trip - whether it's three months in Europe or a year of around the world adventures. The first thing to realize when considering a long trip is that travel can be hard work. A trip isn't the same as a vacation and can often be more taxing than the work or school that you're leaving behind. A long trip can involve dozens of new places or an extended stay in just one or two. In either case there will be the daily challenges of functioning in a new environment. Things as simple as buying a bus ticket or fresh vegetables at the grocery store need to be relearned - often again and again.
Before you go
- Talk to other people who have done a trip similar to the one you are planning. If you don't know anyone personally, try any of the dozens of online travel web sites full of first-person travel stories covering every possible type of trip.
- Plan big and loose. Read everything you can about the area you will be visiting. There may be sights and attractions you didn't know about. A rough outline of your trip might have three or four target points and a variety of ways to get between them. You don't want to find out that the weather isn't what you thought, or the guide book was incorrect, after committing to 6 weeks in a specific spot. Some trips will allow you more leeway than others. Travel plans in Asia can often be made day-by-day while summer travel in Europe should be organized at least a few weeks ahead, unless you're prepared to hunt around for hotel rooms and train seats.
- Set up a pre-trip time-line so you don't end up with a full todo list your last week of work or school. Things to consider are doctor's visits for a check up, inoculations, and prescription refills; purchasing plane tickets; renewing passports and obtaining visas and other documents; checking your insurance coverage abroad and purchasing additional travel insurance if needed; and don't forget visiting friends and family members!
- The longer the trip, the lighter you should pack. This might seem counterintuitive, but it's true you can afford to lug a heavy bag around for a week or two, but do you want to have anything extra for a year? Stick to the absolute basics and know what you can and cannot buy at your destination(s). There's no point in bringing 6 months of toothpaste to Europe or buying a sarong at home to take to the tropics. If you are visiting several climates, try to arrange it so you visit the warmer places first and coldest last. That way you can purchase sweaters and long pants and not have to carry them any more than needed. Alternately, visit cold climates first and then ship unneeded layers home – or sell them off. A good rule of thumb is to bring one outfit for the hottest day you're likely to encounter, one for an average day, and one for the coldest. Make sure everything goes with everything else (if that's important to you), and remember that layers are always best.
- Be prepared for uncomfortable trips. You will often find yourself in a busy, cramped, economy class environment and it could be for many hours – especially long plane trips and long bus trips. If you want to arrive at your destination refreshed and able to enjoy the sights, then try a good quality travel pillow to support your head, some ear plugs to block out the screaming babies, and an eye cover to block out the sun or cabin lights. Just avoid those cheap U-shaped pillows from airport shops – your head drops forward and you wake up with a stiff neck.
- Plan your trip around activities, not just sights. Looking at every church in Paris or every temple in Katmandu can quickly turn into a blur of monotony. Activities such as cooking, language classes or volunteer work can keep you from turning into a spectator in your own adventure.
- Make contact with the locals before you go. Maybe you have a friend-of-a-friend or a foreign exchange student from high school you remember, or just found a friend through a travel web site; almost everyone is happy to welcome a foreign visitor to their home town. This might be as elaborate as a home-stay for a few weeks, or just coffee in their home or dinner at a local restaurant.
On the road
- Keep a travel journal. This can be as simple as a list of dates and places or as complex as a full diary and scrap book. Looking back over your trip can bring back amazing memories that might otherwise be buried under new sights and experiences. Set a time each day to write - over breakfast or an evening cocktail are both good times to step back and reflect on all you've accomplished. If you are traveling alone a journal can be a companion to confide or complain to. Journals are also great ways to give advice to other travelers by recording recommendations or criticisms of hotels, restaurants, and travel services.
- Budget time and money to treat yourself along the way: living hand-to-mouth just to add an extra week or month to your trip can sometimes drain the joy out of the entire venture. A special meal once a week, or a night at the movies once in a while.
- Take vacations from your trip - and travel partners: look for local treats like sauna and massage in South East Asia or hot springs in Europe. Sometimes a few hours of indulgence can recharge your travel batteries. Plan a few days or hours each week where you and your travel partners can have some time alone. This will help ensure you remain happy to see each other for the rest of the journey. Two people can see more than one, and this way you'll have something new to talk about over dinner.
- Vary your style. It's easy to get into a rut on a long trip - always the same sort of hotel, always the same mode of transportation and soon every place starts to look the same. If you're an independent traveler, try taking a guided tour - you'll make friends and find out new things about the places you're exploring. If you're usually a tour groupie, strike out on your own for a day or two and find adventures off the beaten path. Many travelers buy one guidebook before they leave and stick to it like a holy book. Think about trading guidebooks with a fellow traveler for a day (or forever). One night spending a little more or a little less on hotels, restaurants, and transportation can show you a whole new side to a city. Even just seeing a different time of day can keep the days from running together. Night owls might be surprised at what's going on at day break - especially at local marketplaces or just watching the morning commute from a cafe.
- Make a basecamp: pick a central transportation hub (someplace with a lot of travel resources and cheap plane or train tickets. You can use this as "home" even if you only spend a few days there. Pack several different small bags for each park of your trip and keep them in a locker or left luggage in your "home town". After each portion of your trip you can stop by, rest up for a few days, and grab another bag for the next part of your trip.
- Learn a language: a long trip is the perfect time to really get to know a culture and its language(s). Even if you are planning on visiting several countries, pick one that you have always been interested in and set a goal of learning as much as you can.
- Bring your hobbies: doing any activity, even traveling, all the time can get boring quickly. Find something you enjoy and make that the point of your trip. Bring a musical instrument and play it in every park, learn a local board game like Chinese chess and play with a new person everyday. Any interest can be the backbone of your adventure: follow in the footsteps of a historical or literary figure, journey from the ancient past to the present looking at art or shipbuilding or military costumes, learn a new recipe every week.
- Leave the guidebook in the hotel room: try showing up in a new town knowing nothing about it. What do you find there? What do the locals suggest going to?
- Get some exercise. Exercise helps you maintain a good mood.
- Socialize. Other travelers are easiest to meet and will probably be most amenable to befriending you while you're passing through.
- Stay in touch. Reach out to people back at home every so often.
- Know your travel partner. After a long trip, two great friends can easily turn into two great enemies, and this will make for a much longer trip. A way to find a good traveling partner is to pick one with whom you have had a fight, so you have seen them at their worst.