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The Leap - How to start planning the perfect gap year

Date added: Friday 14th October 2016

We can talk at length about the pros and cons of a gap year. What do universities think? Do employers think you will return with empty head syndrome (I promise you won’t), or if you’ll disappear down the Amazon? But more often than not we forget it’s the simple stuff that needs discussing – the how, what, why, when?

Leaving school, going on a gap year and then starting college covers a period of 14 months! I meet a lot of would be Gappers on my school rounds who don’t know where to start. They feel completely bamboozled by the enormity of the empty time beckoning and the overwhelming choice provided by Mr. Google.

So, if we were to meet and you gave me the look of “where do I start?” this would be my advice:

Step one: Break down the 14 months into bite size chunks

Your parents are probably used to you having every moment filled but may now have visions of you loafing about the house, channel surfing and emptying the fridge…again. You’d forgive even the most laissez-faire of parents a nervous tick.

A simple, clear plan of attack is required and in the perfect world would look like this:

June: Finish school: Survive leavers week in some hot party town in Europe.

July/August: Happy summer, Family holiday or spot of inter-railing ( it seems to be the current firm favourite).

September: Get to work. Earn as much money as possible.

December/April: Do something organised with focus, challenge and a positive outcome… ski season, volunteer, trek across Mongolia, swim the channel. Whatever you choose, my message here is – put yourself on the line -  help, contribute, leave your comfort zone. A personal challenge is the objective.

April/June: If you are already half way across the globe – don’t rush back – keep exploring.  Think about friendships, fun, explore, adventure – time is on your side. Visit those places that need more than a 2-week summer holiday.

July: Home – creature comforts, home cooking, clean bed – family reunion, (rejoice).

August/Sep: Reflect on your experience - try not to bore people ;-),  prepare for Uni, go back to work.

Step two:  Decide where are you going to go?

Every year something comes up which steers and influences our decision making.

Ebola ruined tourism in Africa, East and West, and it is only just recovering.  Now we have the Zika mosquito who is threatening to do the same in South America, or at least anywhere north of Ecuador.

But putting world crises aside, the gap experience over the three main continents (being Africa, Asia and South America) is very different, they offer different experiences and challenges with regard to ease of travel, budget and time. The question to ask yourself is what type of challenge are you after?

Take Africa for example, which is best for a wildlife, community, bush and the tropics. It’s easy to travel around an individual country but not between.  Local buses or Matatus are a great option for short hops around a country, but for longer journeys take a coach or even a train. Inter-country hopping will involve expensive flights or “overland” trucks. These are converted lorries which journey on set routes providing a hop on, hop off scenario. Uncomfortable as they are, they do the job but it’s best to focus on one country and do it well.

As you know every country in Africa is huge and provides contrasting experiences within to keep the inquisitive explorer busy for months. Take Tanzania for example, you have the famous grasslands of the Serengeti, the Ngorongoto Crater and Lake Manyara, all in the West. Kilimanjaro is next door and the tropical Indian Ocean over on the East coast.  Different in every way but all worthy a place on an itinerary.

Asia on the other hand is super easy and quick to travel about– both in country and in-between, made possible by aircon coaches or low-cost airlines. Add this to the weather, culture, food, market, beaches and you have the ‘hot to trot’ destination of the moment.  It gets my vote for a gap experience.

Thailand is a good old favorite and perfect for a first timer. Cambodia and Vietnam carry more adventurous clout and are getting there with their transport systems and standard of hostels, but will require more vigilance and research.

Burma is amazing and for those who really want to impress try Sulawesi. Trust me it’s a winner. An island shaped like an octopus, it’s still the land of head hunters, hanging burial sites (sounds a touch gloomy) but I promise it will wow you. Word of warning – they speak NO English.

South America is really popular but needs a decent bit of planning, for the route and for the clothes list. You’ll need just as much Gortex as you will bikinis, as you shiver in the Andes, sweat in the rainforest or hang out on a beach.

Air-conditioned buses on good roads are the favoured way to travel in and between neighbouring countries but if you think you want to skip across a couple of boundaries – flying is the only way. But be aware these fights must be pre-booked on an ‘around the world’ routed ticket. Buying a ticket in country will completely fleece you.

Step three: Set something in stone which gives personal challenge

When you have narrowed the world down and focused on the ‘where’, now is the time to focus on the ‘to do what’?  Message here is - do something extraordinary, that will incorporate my favorite buzz words of challenge, experience, resilience, comfort zone. This is your time to do something which veers into slightly uncomfortable…

Take The Leap’s new volunteering program in Madagascar for example, where volunteers head off to teach, study lemurs, conserve sea turtles and learn to scuba. This all sounds very easy but what they are signing up for is an experience in remotest Africa, to travel and live with a group of people they have never met before, to eat local food and survive in 99% humidity all before they throw themselves into physical and mentally challenging projects.

On the other hand, book a ski season working in a hotel or chalet. Sound like a walk in the park… er I mean a stroll in the snow? Not at all. Most gappers have only done a week’s cookery course and suddenly they find themselves cooking, cleaning and organising guests (some happy, some not so) for a little money but also the opportunity live, ski and party in the alps

But why are these challenges so important and what are the benefits? Very simply  they provide the perfect medium to assist with personal growth, to boost, shape, form and showcase your personal attributes. Madagascar provides the perfect story to demonstrate personal courage and resilience. A ski season, on the other hand, would shout ‘I’m sociable and have patience, organsation and diplomacy skills’ in the bucket loads.   These challenges add colour to your CV and certainly help to set oneself out from the crowd.

A couple of considerations:

One thing to consider here is ‘ backup’. More often than not challenges, by their very nature, are found off the beaten track and those adrenalin sports you might be tempted by along the way are not risk free. To alleviate part of the “what if something goes wrong” I would recommend accessing support from experts in their field, remembering at all times – you get what you pay for.

When researching this phase please ask the SOS question. The Leap for example, provides 24-hour support, which goes all the way to the High Commission in any of our destination countries. One emergency phone call from a parent or volunteer would set off  tried and tested crisis management procedures.

You also need to ask what would happen if your phone or money was stolen, to the other extreme of a major accident or even an earthquake?  Put us all on our toes and see what the reply is, you will quickly find out who fills you with confidence.

Venturing off on your own or with a friend? Part safety, part personal challenge and one to consider around the kitchen table. Some volunteers at The Leap want the challenge of heading off on their own but with the comfort of knowing they will be travelling within a team (which we put together).  Others simply want to be on their own and see who they meet along the way, whilst there are also those who wouldn’t consider leaving home without a wing (wo)man. Non are better than the other – this all comes down to your own personal level of challenge and what you will find enjoyable.

Step four:  Set some time aside for travelling, don’t rush home

Although The Leap promote organised placements, I am a real advocate for free backpacking/travelling time.  There aren’t many periods in life when you can travel on the ‘open road’, with time on your side, allowing yourself  to head further off the beaten track and go where fate takes you.

More often than not a personal challenge that fulfills step 3 will be in one of the continents described in step 2 because it is that very continent which also holds the childhood dream of seeing something first hand- Machu Picchu, the migration or Angkor Wat perhaps? Some agenda free, independent travel, visiting such icons along the way is much better than dropping in and out via a hotel tourist bus.

Get Planning

So there we have it – 4 simple steps to help formulate a plan for the perfect gap year. You’ll find that by making one decision the rest falls in place, as is often the way.

One last piece of advice - start discussing the gap year way before the exams have started – in fact the Christmas holidays in the last year of school would seem about right. Nothing more disappointing than a wasted, unplanned gap year as we know a chunk of time such as this, won’t come round again.

We love a gap year but make it count.

Milly (The Leap)

Download our free gap year guide for more information on this.