Gap year safety tips

Henry Godfrey-Evans, Editorial assistant
June, 2022

The prospect of living independently in an environment you're not familiar with can be scary, but there's nothing to be gained from being anxious and everything to be gained by being smart, educated and prepared

Safety when travelling abroad might not be at the forefront of your mind, but thinking ahead can help prevent disasters rather than having to deal with them. If you're heading to a country in which you don't speak the language, getting help might be harder to come by and you'll wish you had prepared adequately.

Advice will vary between countries so for specific tips see GOV.UK - Foreign travel advice.

Things to do before you leave

  • Travel/medical insurance - you may be refused treatment if you don't have medical insurance, or you can't prove you'll be able to pay. Travel insurance can cover the loss of items such as passport and luggage or cover the cancellation of your trip due to disasters, illness or flight problems. An important tip would be to pick a plan that allows extension in case your plans change, which may well happen during a gap year.
  • Make copies of important documents - this includes travel insurance details, driving licenses, proof of residence and income, bank details and work placement details. Don't be limited by this list though, a black and white photocopy costs pennies and may serve as a lifeline if you lose the original. This will help ease the anxiety caused by bringing such items out with you or leaving them anywhere.
  • Save the numbers of your home embassies - find and save all the numbers of the embassies of your home country in the countries you plan to visit. Your embassy will assist you with everything from retrieving lost passports and documentation to facilitating emergency evacuations and filing taxes in your home country.
  • Prepare an itinerary - planning where you're going and what you're going to visit on a definitive timeline is a great way to be efficient with time and money. You can spot the best route and budget with more accuracy without missing out on your bucket list due to poor planning. An itinerary also provides a record of where you are and how to find you if things go wrong. Therefore, it is essential to give a copy of your up-to-date itinerary to family or people that you trust in case of emergency.
  • Get your vaccinations - depending on the country, there may be none or many vaccinations necessary for travel. Take a look at NHS - Travel vaccinations to find out what you might need and seek country-specific health advice at GOV.UK - Foreign travel advice.
  • Bring a first aid kit - it's definitely important to achieve some competency too. It's worthless having the kit and no knowledge, and depending on your circumstances you may only have yourself to rely on. Note that hazards that occur when you're isolated are the first ones you want to be prepared for, such as choking.
  • Avoid packing valuables - there are things you may need to bring like your phone and wallet, but beyond that, really question if you can function without items such as watches, laptops and gaming consoles. Regardless of the likelihood of them getting lost or stolen it's just another concern to add to the list.
  • Be sure your phone will work - within the European Union (EU) there are often partnerships between providers that make the transition seamless. Most of the time you won't know anything about it unless you use it or 'roam' considerably more than in your home country. The alternative if you're outside the EU and/or these partnerships don't exist, is buying an international plan or purchasing a local SIM card which will change your number temporarily (let friends and family know about this).
  • Learn the local language - or at least a bit of it. The bare minimum is carrying around a phrasebook and memorising emergency phrases for if you're injured, lost or in trouble. Outside of just safety, making the effort will make your stay more immersive and enjoyable, and it could eventually become an employable skill.

How to stay safe on your gap year

  • Use a money belt - the belt is worn under your clothes so it isn't visible. In areas where pickpocketing may be rife the theory is that having it in front of you in your eyeline stops most attempts. Similarly, a forward-facing backpack is a good idea in those areas.
  • Become familiar with your surroundings - take the tour and study the maps meticulously. Identify and make a note of landmarks that indicate where you are and what you're close to. Identify important places like hospitals, shops and emergency assembly points for fires/natural disasters.
  • Respect the local laws and customs - this is different for each country so take a look at the government's foreign travel advice page for specific advice. Serious crimes such as drugs can carry a severe punishment but in certain countries public displays of affection and how you dress can also cause a problem with locals. However, the bottom line is that your embassy cannot help you if you break a different countries' laws.
  • Stay in groups - getting lost is one of the biggest dangers, therefore any new territory should be explored during the day with a guide or other travellers. Always try to stick with other people but if you are going alone make sure someone knows where you're going. Make sure your phone is fully charged and that you have water and anything else you may need.
  • Keep in touch with family - if you feel ill, go somewhere that wasn't planned or have concerns about your safety, your family need to know so that they can raise the alarm. Scheduling phone/video calls at the same time each week or agreeing to send an email every few weeks can ensure that you keep in touch and that the alarm is raised if your family don't hear from you at that time.
  • Be mindful of what you eat and drink - the food and hygiene standards are regulated differently country by country. For instance, even within some EU nations it isn't considered safe to drink tap water, and instead you must buy bottled water. If you're trying street food, stay safe by only choosing food that is steaming hot. A buffet that is barely kept warm can be a source of contamination.

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