So, you’ve decided to take a gap year…
You won’t regret this decision or the adventure of a lifetime you are about to embark upon! Taking a gap year is one of the best choices you can make as you navigate life after high school and transition into adulthood.
I understand that this choice might seem a little overwhelming right now (god knows it was for me). When you’re looking at the freedom of an entire year to fill with explorations and memories, you might feel a little lost on where to start. There’s endless opportunities and infinite options. The world really is your oyster.
Here is my advice from one gapper to another on how to plan your gap year to maximize growth, exploration, and adventure.
(Full disclosure: I think that every gap year is very different depending on where you’re going/what you want. For me: this was the best approach. I think it’s fairly applicable to many people/locations, but there are definitely some aspects that are more tailored for a trip to SE Asia.)
Step 1: Be realistic
What do you need out of this year? How much can you afford? How much travel do you want to do?
For me, I knew I needed to finish visiting schools/college apps/scholarships essays as well as save up before I traveled. So, I decided to split the year in half: six months at home finishing college prep and working to save money, and six months abroad backpacking in SE Asia.
Step 2: Get a notebook/computer and get researching
The next step is deciding which location you want to go to. Ask yourself what kind of adventures you want? What do you want to do? What do you want to see? What languages do you speak? Do you want to volunteer? How much can you afford? Are there others you can talk to who have taken a gap year? Is there a gap year fair in the area you could attend? Read lots of blogs/ask people lots of questions and see what area of the world will reap the most benefits for you personally.
Step 3: Print some maps
No, don’t just look them up or save them in a word document. Physically print maps out and lay them out on the floor and try to get a visual of where you’ll be going. Draw on them and mark them up. Make them a visual plan of action.
Step 4: Research (the Skeleton approach)
You did your first round of research in picking a location, but this second round is the most important. At this point, you’ll basically be making a bucket list of the stuff you really really want to do. Look into holidays or festivals in certain countries. Check out volunteering/working opportunities (I had great success with workaway.com). Of your long list of awesome stuff you want to do- pick the must do’s. For example, I knew I wanted to go to the Songkran festival in Thailand, volunteer in Cambodia/Vietnam, and attend a yoga retreat in the Philippines. This becomes your backbone (I thus planned on being in Thailand November, Cambodia in December, Vietnam in January, and the Philippines late February). This was super helpful as I could apply for Visas where necessary and book some flights early (which is a money saver).
I call it the skeleton approach because you’ll be making the backbone of your plans here. This will be the overall structure you stick to, while letting the rest fill in while you’re there. Having a skeleton to follow ensures you don’t get stuck in one place for too long due to lack of planning while also allowing a lot of flexibility. It’s great to have some things inked on the calendar while also having gaps of time between those “must-do’s” to see where the wind takes you.
(The other “non-essential” stuff that didn’t make the must do list should be kept in your back pocket at all times. It’s nice to have a physical list of ideas so you don’t end up on your phone/computer trying to see what the attractions are in each place you visit, rather than going out and experiencing more. Trust me, you’ll be happy when you get to that one town and remember that there was that one cool restaurant you read about.)
Step 5: Budget
Try to read about how much other gappers were able to live off of in said location. When I was reading about SE Asia, I found a range of advice from $15-35/day, depending on how frugal you were planning on being. Personally, I saved enough to live off of $35 a day. I would recommend leaning towards the higher side of the budget range. When I was physically in Asia, I aimed for spending $20 a day. This left me some wiggle room in case I had a splurge day or in case an emergency happened. (Trust me, both will happen). You need to budget accordingly. I would also recommend putting aside 2 sums of money for 1. Travel (trains, planes, taxis, tuk tuks, etc.) and 2. Emergency (you do NOT want your gap year to be ruined because something happened and you had to come home due to lack of funds).
Step 6: Book your flight
Your options are pretty clear here:
- One way
This depends on how flexible you are with funds and time. Usually round-trip tickets are cheaper than buying two one-way flights. BUT this limits you as you will have to start/end in the same location. I booked a one-way flight as I wasn’t quite sure if I would want to travel for my total six months or if I would want to stay longer. It also leaves you more wiggle room if you aren’t quite sure how long your funds will last you. Both options have pros/cons so weight the logistics of your funds/flexibility of your return.
Step 7: Shop/Pack/Prepare (the logistical preparation)
- Don’t forget to call your bank (I actually opened an account with Charles Schwab bank for my travels specifically as they don’t charge ATM fees- I saved a lot of money this way).
- Doctor appointments for vaccinations and shots (ask for some extra meds: travels diarrhea, altitude sickness, malaria, antibiotics- this might seem like overkill but you’ll thank me later). Pack a first aid kit, bug spray, and sunscreen. (Also, girls: birth control. Don’t forget. You will need to get a supply for all your months before you leave and will need to pack a good amount of the feminine stuff- depending on where you’re going, as this can be harder to find the more rural you get.)
- Sleeping bag/pillow: came in handy, but was a pain in the butt sometimes. (I definitely recommend the blow-up backpacking pillow for sure.)
- Toiletries: not too light, not too heavy. You’re not going to need a curling iron and makeup primer. Keep it simple. (Lush shampoo bar is awesome as it’s a solid form of shampoo= less mess in your bag. Just 1 of these guys will last you all 6 months).
- Get smaller bags to organize the stuff in your backpack. I didn’t have this when I left and it was an investment I made abroad. It’s a pain in the butt when you go to grab a shirt and everything in your pack comes out while you’re digging around.
- Make sure you have a good journal and a camera!!!
- Make copies of passport and ID’s! (for visas, hostels, etc., you may have to leave them some form of ID and a copy is way better to give away than the real deal.)
- Pepper spray and money belt/necklace: This is optional but I think it came in handy for peace of mind.
- Travel towel (wish I had this…I brought just an old towel from my house which was too big to carry around in a backpack for six months.)
- Headlamp: I threw this in last minute and ended up using it all the time.
- Earplugs/eye mask: This might seem like overkill but if you’re planning on taking the hostel route (and the various sleeper buses) you will be thankful when you’re in a bunk room full of drunk 20-year old’s turning on the lights at all hours of the night. (Don’t panic: it’s not that bad and by the time my trip was over, I can now sleep anywhere).
Step 8: GO!!
All your hard work saving and planning is finally here! Go, live, travel, explore, learn, cry, laugh, enjoy. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity: make the best of it!