From choosing the destination and deciding what you'll be doing, to the practicalities of the trip, find out how to plan a gap year and make it an experience you'll never forget
1. Consider the places to go on a gap year
The first thing you need to do is work out what your goals are. This will help you to choose a country, as not everywhere will offer every type of experience.
Before you settle on a destination, you'll need to read the government's foreign travel advice for specific countries. It's also worth checking to see if there are any special entry requirements, as some countries expect you to have at least six months left on your passport at the date of entry.
When contemplating the best time of year to travel, think about whether there are any seasonal weather conditions you'll need to account for, such as monsoon season in South Asia or hurricanes in Florida during the summer months. You can also discover if there are any festivals or religious observances you should be aware of.
In terms of your academic responsibilities, make sure you're back in the UK for the start of the university year and to meet any course or job application deadlines.
Unless you're embarking on a structured gap year programme, you should plan your itinerary with a degree of flexibility - including any must-see attractions, activities or experiences you've set your heart upon. This is because you'll need time to discover new places and account for changes to your schedule.
You can get some help deciding what to do with our gap year ideas, or visit specific country profiles on our working abroad pages. Find out what programmes are currently available at gap year opportunities.
2. Decide who to travel with
If you have friends with similar interests, you may wish to go travelling together and coordinate the trip. The advantages of this include:
- not feeling lonely, as there'll always be someone there to pick you up when you're feeling down or homesick
- being able to share the cost of everything, from taxis and other forms of transport to meals and rooms
- feeling safer having someone to watch your back in places where everything's unfamiliar to you and where you may possibly not speak the language.
However, even though it can initially seem like a daunting prospect, there's nothing stopping you from going it alone. In fact, there are many benefits to this, including:
- not being held back by other people, varying budgets or different expectations
- increasing your self-confidence and independence, while developing strong communication and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly valued by employers
- the chance to meet new people and make friends, and joining an organised group or project can help with this.
3. Raise the money
There are plenty of ways to pay for your gap year, including:
- organising a fundraising event and asking friends and family to sponsor you
- selling items you no longer need either online or at a car boot sale
- getting a part-time job
- taking out a bank loan or borrowing from family and friends.
If you have any regular payments such as monthly standing orders or direct debits, make sure you finish paying for these before you leave. Alternatively, check that you have enough money in your account to cover all outgoings while you're away.
Budgeting is important to keep track of what you're spending, even before you set off on your travels. Whenever you go to buy something in the shops, consider what the same amount of money would get you on your gap year - for example, £1 will buy you lunch in Thailand, while £3 will buy you a night's accommodation in India.
4. Book your travel
If you're heading to Europe then an Interrail pass might be the right choice. If you intend on travelling within one country by train, the One Country Pass is your best option. Prices start from £47 and there are 31 options in total to choose from. For those who want to travel across a number of European countries, there's the Global Pass. This gives you access to 30 countries and prices start at £192.
For those heading further afield, you should consider a round the world travel ticket, which allows you to tick off all your must-see places in the one trip, lasting up to 12 months. Specialist companies such as STA Travel and Trailfinders offer a selection of tried and tested routes, but you can also plan your own journey; you'll just need to decide where you want to go and how long you wish to spend in each place. Expect to pay upwards of £1,300 for a round the world ticket.
5. Gap year travel essentials
Your gap year checklist should cover the following areas:
- Healthcare - visit the doctor for vaccinations within plenty of time, as they may need to be administered up to a year ahead. You will also require medical tests (x-rays) or certain medication (malaria tablets) to work in some countries. Get a European Health Insurance card (EHIC) if you're a European travelling in Europe.
- Travel insurance - check that you've got adequate coverage - for example, adventure travel insurance if climbing or bungee jumping.
- Passport - make sure that it's valid for the duration of your trip. Also, some visas require your passport to be in date for even longer after you plan to leave.
- Visas - apply for tourist and working holiday visas. You need to check specific country embassies for information on how far in advance they should be purchased and how long they last for.
- Banking - you'll need to notify your bank and the Student Loans Company (SLC) that you are travelling abroad, and also possibly redirect your mail.
- Safety tips - make a note of your passport, bank and insurance policy details and leave them with a friend or family member along with your mobile phone number and email address.
- Prepare for a culture shock - read up on the country's religion, culture and customs, speak to other travellers and check relevant online guides and forums.
6. What to buy before you go
When you set off, you only need the basics, including:
- a rucksack that fits and won't hurt your back (a good weight is between 50 and 65 litres, but don't go above 70 litres). Pack it and try walking around with it on for several hours
- limited clothing, as you can buy items while you're there
- comfortable, practical shoes that you wear in before you leave
- a travel towel
- accommodation for the first few nights -try Hostelworld.com, HostelBookers, Hostelling International and StudentUniverse.
To make sure you've got everything, take a look at this packing checklist.
7. Plan for your return
After having such a great time on your gap year, you'll need to make sure you have plans in place to avoid post-holiday blues:
- Make sure you keep money aside for a return flight home, plus money for rent and living costs while you're looking for a job. You'll need to be back in the UK for at least three months before you can claim Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).
- Find time on your gap year to update your CV with the relevant skills, jobs and experience from your time away. This means that on your return you should be able to apply for jobs straight away, but remember to tailor each application to the specific job and company.
- So you don't feel down, it's also a good idea to have something lined up to look forward to. This could be an internship with a company you're interested in working for, or a course to develop your skills or knowledge of a topic.