Whatever you want to do with your gap year, a little planning goes a long way. As Stefan Wathan, CEO of the Year Out Group, emphasises: “You could ‘suck it and see’ if you want to be flexible and spontaneous,” he says. “But you run the risk of leaving it too late to really get value out of your year.” Better to have a plan in place as early as possible – if you need to raise funds, set aside some time for paid work, with a deadline to motivate you to save.
You can combine classic money-saving tricks with new technology to save effectively, adds Rosie Bannister of MoneySavingExpert.com. “Put money in a savings account, and think about having a new clothes ban or making your own lunches,” she says. “Track your spending too – there are lots of apps out there now to help you.”
Climate crisis concerns are making stay-at-home or Europe-only gap years increasingly popular – especially interrailing – though long-haul trips are common among a generation that views travel as part of life. STA Travel’s most popular long-haul destinations are still Australia and New Zealand, but Japan and the Philippines are gaining fast. Whatever you plan to do while you are away, avoid programmes that exploit people or animals. Using an approved provider is the best way, or, failing that, do some research before you commit. “Orphanage volunteering” is becoming taboo and the Year Out Group is among those that have pledged not to support it.
The gap year holy grail is one that takes in meaningful activities and CV-building alongside fun. “If you’re taking that time out, make it count and learn something from it,” says Erin Bartley, careers adviser at Skills Development Scotland. “That’s not to say that you can’t have fun too – even if you build a six-week volunteering placement into a year out and travel for the rest, it will look fantastic on your CV.”
Gap year tips
Planning a gap year is all about working out what you, personally, want from it – not anybody else. Here are three very different ideas for what should be one of the most exciting years of your life
This is not, financially speaking, for everyone, but if you can do it, a year of pure travelling in south-east Asia or Latin America, or less obvious areas such as the Caucasus (Georgia is a treat) or central Asia (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are top picks) can be as valuable as any other kind of gap year. Staying in the UK to work or volunteer and going on a few different trips is another way to get a lot of travel experience out of your year. G Adventures is one of the best resources for small-group adventure tours, and the “travel deals” section of its website has attractive discounts on trips.
Wildlife or environmental conservation-focused gap years can be a great way to balance concern for the environment with the urge to travel. There are endless options, but Costa Rica, with its extraordinary jungles, coastlines and biodiversity, is one of the best. Placements are available helping to protect nesting turtles, sloths and great green macaws, and the country makes for wonderful backpacking and hiking trips. The opportunity to learn some Spanish is another reason why Costa Rica is one of the best gap-year destinations.
Sites such as myworldofwork, gapyear and projects-abroad all contain information on CV-building gap years. Working in Australia or New Zealand for a year remains a hugely popular choice and many companies have excellent assistance to make it happen. Lattitude Global Volunteering offers tailored placements in New Zealand, working at outdoor activity centres and helping teach in local boarding schools. STA, meanwhile, can arrange your Australian working-holiday visa and help place you in a job, with deckhand, grape-picking or cafe work among the most popular.
Experience: Cicely and Phoebe Blandford
Sisters share their gap year choices
Besides my desperate need for a break from academia, I chose to take a gap year to ensure university was the right step for me (before I was thousands of pounds in debt). Unlike most, I avoided south-east Asia and instead spent two months living in Nepal, working in a school that educates children from areas affected by the 2015 earthquake. It was so rewarding to fully immerse myself in their lifestyle rather than spend only a few days visiting the main attractions. The whole experience of adjusting to a new environment made me a much more self-assured individual, far less afraid to step outside my comfort zone.
I, on the other hand, took the “classic” gap year route, spending three months travelling around south-east Asia and Australia. My time away strengthened my character considerably and for the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be truly independent. Experiences such as losing my passport at the Cambodian border, or the feeling of arriving on the night train into a bustling Vietnamese city at 5am, were daunting, but the cultures we were immersed in and the places we saw far exceeded my expectations. I was not originally considering a gap year, but I am hugely grateful for the time it allowed me to rest and mature before the next stage of my life.
No time for a gap year but want to expand your horizons pre-university?
Five tips for summer breaks:
1 Travel bargains
Super-cheap breaks to interesting places are readily available on an ongoing basis to those who know where to look – sign up to email services such as Jack’s Flight Club and keep an eye on sites such as flynous.com and holidaypirates.com for the latest sales and error fares.
From Devon and Cornwall to the Peak District and all the way up to the North Coast 500 road trip around the north of Scotland, the UK is teeming with bucolic staycation options. London, Glasgow and Manchester are top picks if the bright lights are more your thing.
3 Language learning
Intensive language-learning courses can be a great way to cram some serious personal development into a short time, and they often entail travelling to a fascinating location. Why not try searching studytravel.com for ideas? You could end up spending anything from a fortnight mastering Spanish and flamenco in Seville to a month combining French with surfing in Biarritz this September.
4 The new volunteering
STA’s Thailand “voluntour” trip manages to include three vastly different experiences: exploring Bangkok, volunteering to work with elephants, and time on the alternately idyllic and party-hearty island of Koh Phangan. The trip promises to pack in a whole gap year’s worth of experiences – in just 15 days.
5 Festival fun
Partying in a field is always a recipe for a good time, but festivals can also be great ways to discover new cultures. Even though summer is drawing to a close, there are still plenty of options for intrepid music lovers. These range from lakeside reggae, skating and dance workshops at Uprising in Slovakia to thoughtfully curated beats and art in a former military site at Horst in Belgium.