Starting to plan an entire gap year can be a daunting process at first, but it really isn’t that difficult. Before you start getting ahead of yourself and thinking about the practicalities and logistics of specific issues, you need to start with the very basics.
Get your budget sorted.
This is the first big step. Budget is everything when you are travelling independently so you need to start saving. You won’t be going anywhere unless you have the funds to back it up.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, take all the overtime you can or cut back on the money you waste on nights out, takeaways, DVD nights, whatever. Where there is a will, there is definitely a way.
How much you save depends on where you are going and how long you are going for. Budgeting for an extended gap year is slightly different than saving up for a short trip, and not just for the amount either. Obviously you will have to save up quite lot, but how much exactly?
The first thing is to split your budget into different categories, the first is the amount you will need for your flight and pre trip expenses such as insurance. This is the easier part to budget for as it is easier to know what you will need and aim for it.
The second part is your overall trip budget which is meant to last the entire length of your trip and covers everything you will need to buy when on your travels. On average you should start aiming at around £30 – £40 GBP a day to cover basic food and accommodation, travel and activity expenses. You won’t need anywhere near this amount if you are travelling on a budget in predominantly developing countries, but will need a little more if you want mid range comfort or are taking in a lot more developed countries such as Europe, Australia and New Zealand for example. Here are some starting points to help you get your head around how to budget.
Get inspired and build a rough plan.
While you are saving, keep the inspiration alive by planning for your big trip. Get on the internet and read about the amazing travels and adventures other people are having, find people that really inspire you. Look at images of where you dream of going. Grab every and any brochure or travel literature on places you think you may want to see or things you may want to do. Join a few travel forums and talk to like minded people.
Your head will be swimming with all the possibilities at this point. Don’t worry, this is normal. Just enjoy the excitement of knowing the whole world is literally open to you and starting to realise exactly what you can do and who you can become on your gap year.
As you do this, you should start formulating a rough plan of where you want to go. Get a big map and pin it on your wall, then stick a load of pins in the places you must visit on your gap year or backpacking adventure. It doesn’t matter about the practicalities at this point, just get excited about the places that inspire you. If you need more inspiration at this point, these may help you.
Narrow your plan down.
By now you should have plenty of ideas in your head and your savings should be starting to pile up. Now is the time to start getting serious about that plan. Narrow down the rough route you have into something more practical. This is the point where your dreams start to coalesce into something more tangible. This is the point where your fantasies about travelling the world are about to become a reality!
A little bit more specific research is required here. Have a look at suggested route itineraries adventure travel companies have on their books, there are plenty of RTW routes and suggestions from travel and gap year companies such as STA travel or Intrepid. The major guide books also have plenty of suggestions or you can look at the destination guides on this site for some great inspiration. Go and speak to the experts, travel agents who specialise in backpacking or other backpackers on travel websites and forums who will be able to advise you on how to whittle your rough plan into something practical and reasonable.
When choosing where you want to go, resist the temptation to try and fit in too much in too little time. On average try to take at least one month to explore one country, more if it is a large area such as Brazil, India or Australia for example.
It is also a good idea to think in terms of regions in order to cut down on costs and transit times. The traditional RTW route may take in one country on every continent, but this isn’t necessarily the best option. Sometimes it is better to explore one region such as South East Asia, Europe or South America for six months or longer, then move on to the next region. Moving from Thailand to Vietnam, Laos or Malaysia is easier, less time consuming and a lot cheaper than jumping from Bangkok to another continent. This way you really get to explore the region and get a much better feel of the places you are visiting too.
Plan not to plan.
This sounds a little strange but hear me out. I know the temptation is there to fit in as much as you can, to obsess over the guide books and fit in 2 days here, 1 day there, 3 days in that place, but don’t. You will end up tiring yourself out.
Whatever you plan to do on your gap year, you should leave soom room for exploration too. This means keeping a bit of flexibility in your plans.
Two things are a certainty on an extended backpacking trip. One, you will either fall in love with a place and want to stay a lot longer or you will arrive at another destination, not like it so much and want to leave a little early. Two, at some point you will get tired and just want to rest, to put your feet up in a hammock and recharge your batteries. Don’t worry, it’s normal. But you can’t do these things if you have tightly crammed your itinerary to a day here and two days there. Leave it far more flexible.
Remember also that a gap year does not have to just be 12 months, it can be 10, 11, 13 14 or even longer if you wish. It is not set in stone and is entirely up to you. Many backpackers plan for a gap year and then decide to stay longer.
Buy your ticket.
Sorting out your ticket is a huge step, but can often be quite confusing. Which type do you get? There are a whole range of options out there from RTW tickets to single tickets that will get you to a destination and that is it. Speak to a travel expert who specialises in backpacking trips to see which is best for you.
Often the easiest and most economical way to do an RTW trip is to buy a round-the-world air ticket that uses one airline alliance, and this is the route many people use. These RTW tickets are easy and popular, because the travel agencies can sort them out for you and all you have to worry about is which stops you want to make.
Theoretically, any routing is possible, but knowing how the RTW booking system works will make your trip cheaper. You have to choose one alliance, such as Star Alliance for example, and then only use their partner airlines. Sticking to the popular routes and destinations is generally cheaper, the more out of the way destinations you choose the more difficult and expensive you will find it. You also have to stick to the rules, you must follow one global direction with no backtracking, you must start and finish in the same country and and you must book all your flights before departure. Any changes later will incur extra charges. They are also limited to one year maximum, which is no good if you want to travel longer.
This isn’t the only option however. Sometimes it is better (and perhaps cheaper depending where you want to go) to get a single or return ticket somewhere and then work your way around a route of your choosing by cheap budget airlines (which RTW tickets do not use), overland or even by boat. This is the infinitely more flexible option, often much cheaper and allows you to go wherever takes your fancy whenever you want to go, but you will have to sort out each individual leg of your trip yourself as you go.
There is no right and wrong way to travel, it just depends on your individual trip and which type of ticket is right for you.
Do you want to volunteer?
This is a very tricky subject and one that deserves a lot more specific research than what can be written here. Volunteering can be a good thing, but you have to be very careful. Basically speaking you want to avoid the traditional voluntourism route which costs a lot of money and usually does a lot more harm than good. Ask yourself what specific skills or qualifications you have to offer, and manage your expectations too. Don’t do what a lot of naive young backpackers do and rock up to an animal sanctuary with no skills, qualifications or experience and want to cuddle a baby Leopard or Orang Utan for a nice selfie. It isn’t going to happen in any organisation worth its salt.
If you do go with a volunteering organisation, then research it very carefully. Choose an ethically responsible company to go with. Ask if they are truly ethically responsible or are they just there for profit? Do they work directly with local organisations? Does the money go specifically to local needs? Do they respond to local needs or are they creating or facilitating them in order to foster a voluntour experience? (This is extremely common). Also ask what training or support you will recieve from the organisation you are going with, and how they will use your specific skills. If you are unsure about any of the answers you get or they cannot provide any, go elsewhere.
Pre Trip Necessities.
This is the boring but kind of necessary bit, and it is important to start this phase a good few months before you plan to leave, because it does take time to get sorted, especially if this is your first trip.
First of all you need to research what travel vaccinations you will need and get them sorted now (the earlier the better). Research the areas you are going, look at what vaccinations you will need and whether you will need anti malarial medication. Go and visit your GP or specialist nurse at a travel clinic to get specific advice for you, or alternatively you can book and use my online travel clinic service for advice from a qualified nurse and an experienced backpacker.
Make sure you have got comprehensive insurance cover. It is usually a good idea to buy this at the same time as your plane tickets.
Research what visas you will need and when you will need them. Information about visa requirements can be found on any embassy website or alternatively you can study destination guides for an overview of individual country requirements. Remember it can take a while to apply for a visa, especially if you have to apply for more than one and need to send your passport, so do this a couple of months early. Remember that some visas are timed from the moment they are issued, not the moment they are stamped, so it is important to get the timing right.
Once you have all of that, the only thing left to do is get your kit and pack your bags!
Now take the first step to the rest of your life!
After you have done all this you should have a pretty good stash of money saved up and most of the planning and practicalities sorted. Now it’s time to go and buy your ticket and go! Don’t worry, believe it or not this is often the hardest step for people, because they see that plane ticket as the point of no return. Up until now it has all still been just a plan, a dream. Actually handing over the money makes it real. Once you have it, your course is locked in! There is no turning back now!
So grab your backpack, get out there and enjoy your trip! You will have the absolute time of your life!