There are endless options when it comes to taking a gap year, do you fly around the world or stick to one region? Get a one way ticket or a single RTW one? It can be extremely confusing trying to choose between the wide range of choices for round the world tickets and gap year routes, so how do you decide which one is right for you?
The ‘Gap Year’ has become an industry. Once a simple description of a year long adventure travelling the world, a rite of passage that every backpacker took upon themselves, it has now been packaged, wrapped up in corporate marketing speak and ruthlessly sold for a profit. 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.
Packaging The Gap Year.
In many ways this has changed forever what the experience of a gap year is. Can it still be described as an independent adventure when every single aspect of it has been pre planned, pre packaged and pre booked? I mean don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this at all, but the balance has largely been lost.
Just look at the fundamental aspects of choosing where to go and buying your plane tickets. This used to be a largely individual thing, you chose where you wanted to go and you bought tickets there, it was that simple, but even that has been turned into a ‘package’.
A large part of the gap year industry relies on selling tickets to and from various destinations, with the famous RTW tickets – with very specific stops on those routes – 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 tickets, all based on airline partnerships known as alliances such as Star Alliance, One World and Sky Team, work on keeping you tied to certain travel hubs and flying with specific partner airlines. If you get an RTW ticket you can only fly airlines that are in that alliance and are generally limited to the routes they fly and the hubs they fly into. That is why you generally see the typical routes such as London, Singapore, Melbourne, Auckland, LA and back to London. And of course don’t forget to pre book all your accomodation and tours while you are at it.
Now these tickets do have many benefits of course and can absolutely be used to your advantage. If you want to travel the world and definitely want to include all of these hubs in your travels then you can be smart with it and use other means to get around each region to include other countries on your travels. You can use the system to your advantage, get a good deal on the RTW ticket and go from there. But regardless of what the tour operator says, they aren’t always the best deaal for you, and they certainly aren’t the only one.
These companies have become extremely successful by catering to the needs of first time backpackers and sell the ‘backpacking experience’ in neat little packages. The essential gap year routes now coincedentally follow those same major travel hubs that the alliances fly in and out of. 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 of course. Now they are raking it in.
Unfortunately, it can be argued that these travel companies have chipped away at the adventurous spirit that made backpackers who they were. They have made their fortunes off the back of that image, but at the same time have condensed 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.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Is This Really Backpacking?
Gap year companies have become experts at selling the independent experience as an organised package. They see the wanabe backpacker coming and entice them in with the idea of what backpacking should be. They will ask if you want to head off on a round the world adventure and then show you 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.
Whatever happened to independent travel?
Now don’t get me wrong, these packages do have their place – with the exception of the voluntourism packages of course – 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 – can be quite 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 because after shopping around they have had the best deal. I can even see the appeal of having pre booked accommodation for the first few nights or pre booked tours for a specific activity like trekking Machu Picchu 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 this can be useful. 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.
Independent travel is just that, independent. Going backpacking around the world is about the journey as much as the destination, and the freedom to choose where you travel and how you get there.
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 a RTW ticket if you want to go around the world, you can look into buying single or open jaw tickets to a region and then overland or use cheap budget airline options. 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.
My point being you don’t have to choose where you go on your gap year based on where the airline alliance you have chosen flies to.
You don’t have to fly the typical ‘Gap Year RTW route’ from London to Singapore, Melbourne, Auckland, LA and back to London. You can fly to Russia and take numerous trains through Asia and se Asia if you want to.
You don’t have to pick a package with a snazzy title.
Do What You Want, When You Want.
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 are thinking of getting a 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 or one open jaw ticket 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 full of a PRs idea of what young people should be doing on a gap year 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.
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