Whether you’re finishing school, in your last year of university, or just fancy a career break, a gap year is a great way to take time out and see some of the world. Not only will you probably return with unforgettable memories, you’ll also gain life experience and could learn valuable skills.
But before you jet off into the sunset, there are a number of practicalities to consider. Doing your research now and getting clued up about what to expect will ensure your trip really is a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Here we cover planning, organising your money, all important travel insurance, documents and health matters.
First things first – planning
Planning your gap year should be fun. As well as researching potential adventures on your trip – elephant trekking, anyone? – there are some practical things to consider:
- Do at least some basic research on the destinations you’re visiting. Find out about the country’s customs and laws and ensure you learn a few key phrases from the language – it’s respectful, costs nothing and will make your life easier.
- Although you’ll be keen to start your gap year adventure, make sure you have at least your first night’s accommodation booked. You’re at your most vulnerable when you arrive at your first destination, setting foot on unfamiliar turf, so give yourself a chance to acclimatise.
- Sign up for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s travel notification service. This will alert you to any changes in the countries you’re visiting that might affect your trip.
- Find out the locations and numbers of any British embassies in the places you’re visiting in case of an emergency.
- While you’ll probably want to take plenty of snaps to document your journey, you should research whether photography is restricted at any sites you’re visiting – perhaps for religious or political reasons.
Managing your money will be one of the most important aspects of your trip. Here are some basic tips:
- Don’t forget to check the expiry dates of your credit and debit cards before you leave. Getting a new card sent out to the back of beyond is unlikely to be easy (or speedy!). Know your charges, too, as some cards are very costly to use abroad.
- Tell your bank you’re travelling – and where – to ensure it doesn’t block your card, as a precautionary measure against fraud, when it sees transactions in far-flung destinations.
- Take your money in a variety of forms – for example, cash, prepaid cards and credit cards. With the latter, it’s worth applying for a credit card designed for overseas spending so you won’t be hit with fees. Ensure you have some local currency ready when you arrive for taxis, phone calls and essentials.
- Follow FCO advice on the country you’re visiting and, if there is a risk of theft, keep your money in a money belt worn under you clothes while you’re away.
Protect yourself with travel insurance
Most trips go without a hitch, but it’s still important to have travel insurance in place to protect against the unforeseen. Medical care while abroad can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, so you need a comprehensive policy. Here are some things to consider before you buy:
- As you’re likely to be away for a long-ish time and possibly getting involved in adventurous activities, a standard policy is unlikely to cover you. Specialist backpacker travel insurance will provide you with a better safety net while you’re away.
- If you’re taking gadgets – such as smartphones, tablets and cameras – away with you, you’ll need to find out what the valuables limit is on your policy. Be aware it can be fairly low – often refunding you only around £200-£300 – so it pays to compare policies. Also check what the single item limit is: the maximum amount the insurer will pay out for a single item, no matter how much cover you have overall. Single item limits vary between providers but are often around £150-£250. It’s also worth noting that not all policies cover items such as phones and cameras.
- If you’re travelling to countries within the European Economic Area or Switzerland, carry an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) with you. This covers you for free or reduced medical care in these countries, but it is not a substitute for travel insurance. It won’t cover you for the other eventualities that could potentially ruin your trip, such as baggage loss.
- If you’re planning to do any paid or voluntary work while away, then check your insurance policy to see if you’re covered. Manual labour is not covered by most general policies, so you may need specialist cover.
- Keep updated via the FCO website to check there is no official government advice against travel to the countries on your itinerary. Be aware that, if there is, it may well invalidate your insurance.
Not only should you carry certain documents with you on your gap year trip but, if possible, back them up in an email and on your mobile phone. These crucial pieces of paper include:
- Insurance policy documents and 24-hour emergency number
- Photocopy of your passport
- Details of your next of kin
- Tickets and all confirmations for accommodation and travel
- Details of any medications/prescriptions, plus your blood type
Health problems are the last thing anyone wants to deal with while travelling so, again, it’s vital to be prepared:
- Visit your GP in plenty of time to find out what jabs or medications you might need, as these often need to be given weeks in advance.
- If you need to take medication while away, ensure you have enough to last you and a copy of your prescriptions.
- Carry medication in your hand luggage in case your baggage is lost.
Some common medications in the UK, such as certain pain killers, are actually banned in other countries. So check with the embassy of the country before you travel.
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