The ‘Gap Year’ has become an industry. Every day new variations of a well worn theme are advertised to try and sell us the perfect gap year or backpacking trip, and increasingly over the past decade or so it has become seriously big business. Just look at the multitude of companies such as Intrepid or STA travel who market themselves toward a young, educated demographic and target the backpacker audience as an example of that fact.
A large part of that industry relies on selling tickets to and from various destinations, with the famous RTW tickets being marketed as the route to the backpacker experience and becoming a must have necessity for anyone wanting to do the by now almost quintessential ‘Gap Year’. These companies have become extremely successful by catering to the needs of first time backpackers and sell the ‘backpacking experience’ in neat little packages
In essence it has been an absolute triumph in marketing for the companies that have successfully tapped into the niche but lucrative backpacker market that for years the travel industry by and large ignored. Until they found out backpackers where a huge source of untapped income.
Unfortunately, it can be argued that these travel companies condense the independent spirit that made backpacking so popular in the first place into easily accessible and manageable pre planned package tours that threaten to turn backpacking into just another all inclusive holiday, full of packaged complexes and organised tours that independent travellers have scorned for decades.
So those first time backpackers who are excited by the thought of a gap year or independent travel and have been inspired by the tales and journeys of the independent travellers before them, all too often find they are faced with a bewildering array of pre arranged routes, organised activities and pre booked tours to choose from. If they want to head off on a round the world adventure should they take the ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ RTW route, starting and ending in London via Bangkok, Sydney and LA? Or maybe one of the ostentatiously flamboyant monikers such as the ‘Trekker’ route, the ‘Kwikfire Kiwi’ or the ‘Round the Block’ route? All designed to cater for specific demographics or timeframes and no doubt focus tested to within an inch of their snazzy titles. Do these wannabe backpackers pre book accommodation? A tour? How about one of those pre booked ‘voluntourism experiences’ that are always so popular? The choices really are becoming endless.
Now don’t get me wrong, these things do have their place – with the exception of the voluntourism packages – and some can be inherently useful tools as part of the pre planning stage of your trip. If you are not used to it, then organising independent travel can be a little daunting for some people and to have the option of someone doing it for you – despite the often missed irony – is attractive. Sometimes the RTW tickets can be really good value for money and a better option than getting a series of single tickets, and I have used STA travel myself to book flights on many occasions. I can even see the appeal of having pre booked accommodation or tours as a safety net for some people, to ease you into independent travel if you are nervous about going away alone – or with friends – for the first time. That little reassurance can sometimes be the push you need to go, and that can only ever be a good thing.
I say this because I don’t want to sound overly critical of companies that offer the ‘Gap Year’ experience, as they really do have their uses. But I want to stress that as useful as these tools can be sometimes, that is all they are, tools and services to be used as you see fit. They aren’t the be all and end all of taking your gap year or going backpacking. They are just tools to utilise as a means to start your independent travel, they are not crutches that should organise everything for you. Backpacking is so easy to do on your own, and sometimes these pre planned experiences don’t encapsulate what true independent travel is really all about. They reduce the independent spirit to nothing more than a package tour experience. Whilst they can be useful as a basis, you really don’t have to stick to that specific RTW route or that precise, detailed itinerary because that is what the travel agent sold you, you don’t even have to follow all the ‘rules’ imposed on you by the ticket alliances. There is no prerequisite of having to buy an RTW ticket if you want to go around the world. There is no prerequisite that your gap year has to be a year or travel in one direction only, or fit into whichever airlines the RTW ticket has within it’s alliance.
So which RTW route is right for you? The short answer is whichever one you damn well please. The long answer is the route you end up with at the end of your trip after you have decided where you want to go next on the spur of the moment.
Independent travel is about doing what you want, when you want to do it. The world really is your oyster, and that isn’t just a clichéd aphorism. Backpacking gives you the freedom to arrive on a tropical island you hadn’t planned on visiting, fall in love with it and stay as long as you damn well please, it gives you the option of moving on from a town or city that doesn’t quite take your fancy a little sooner than you planned, in fact it gives you the autonomy and self determination to do away with your plans and make whole new ones any time you like. Even in the middle of your trip! If you want to get an RTW ticket but want to stay longer than a year, then consider just making your own way around the world on a series of single tickets instead, if you want a different route than the one they are offering you, you can do it!
The best thing is, backpacking is the easiest and simplest thing in the world to do. People have been doing it for thousands of years before anyone even thought of a package tour or an RTW ticket with the extended insurance plan thrown in! Independent travel really isn’t as daunting as people think it is. All you have to do is just go, just do, that’s it.
So by all means utilise these companies as you see fit, get an RTW ticket if it is the right and cheapest option for you, but don’t be constrained by it. I don’t want to put you off exploring all your options, but remember that the flashy ad in your inbox is not the only option. You have the world in all it’s infinite variety open in front of you, so explore it on your own terms, be bold, be adventurous. To paraphrase Mark Twain, sail away from the safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.