Expat Life

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

‘Gap year’, a concept that has been around for decades now wherein young and not-so-young people around the world choose to take a year off their lives to travel, make new friends and acquire new experiences before they get back to their ‘real lives’. For aspiring expats, taking a gap year is excellent preparation before they actually move to a foreign country.

So, what is a gap year? What can you do on a gap year? What are its advantages? Are there any disadvantages? How does taking a gap year prepare you for a future expat life? In other words, what’s in it for wannabe expats?

This article aims to answer these and many more questions about taking a gap year and extracting the most value out of the experience.

Putting The Gap In Gap Year

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

Traditionally, taking a gap year meant spending a year between high school and university travelling and exploring the world. Those who took gap years were usually young students who wanted to take some time off to visit other countries before immersing themselves back into the world of academia. The aim of the ‘holiday’, which often involved backpacking across countries, staying in economical hostels and eating cheap ready-to-eat meals, was to help students gather new experiences and learn new life skills so they were better prepared for life in general and the world of work in particular.

Nowadays, a gap year involves travelling not only for fun, but also for volunteering, studying or working abroad. On your gap year, you could backpack across every country in Europe and do touristy things like shopping or sightseeing, or teach English as a foreign language to children in Vietnam. You could volunteer with the International Red Cross in Congo or visit every Buddhist monastery in India and Sri Lanka. In short, a gap year can be anything you make of it.

Future expats who aspire to move to a certain country may find it useful to utilise their gap year to travel to that country before they make the move permanently. However, this is not mandatory. In general, travelling to any country with a culture different from your own tends to expand a person’s horizons and helps them develop skills that will likely hold them in good stead in their future life as expats.

What Can You Do In A Gap Year?

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

For years, taking a gap year to backpack and travel was particularly popular among young students in their late teens or early 20s. Now with changing attitudes to life and work, as well as the evolving meanings attributed to hitherto ‘woo-woo’ concepts like spirituality, happiness, life-purpose and fulfilment; taking a gap year is no longer considered eccentric or even unusual. Thousands of people are now taking gap years all over the world, from young pre-university students and career starters to older career changers and sabbatical-takers. In fact, career gappers and pre-retirement gappers are two of the fastest growing cohorts in the gap year ‘market’!

A gap year can be a time to travel, work or volunteer in a different part (or parts!) of the world. Depending upon your interests and personality, you can also take a gap year to:

  • Learn a new language
  • Teach a language such as English to natives: many gappers get involved with TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) during their trip.
  • Discover new cultures and meet new people to expand your personal or professional network.
  • Try things you’ve never tried before: go river rafting and parasailing in Switzerland, eat escargots in France, drink pivo in Prague or climb an active volcano in Peru.
  • Get international work experience to strengthen your CV: this could be part-time work in any field, or experience that prepares you for a particular career or academic subject.
  • Take up a part-time course: when it comes to studying something new, the sky’s the limit! 

Why Should You Take A Gap Year?

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

Taking a gap year can be fun and games or it can be a more serious learning experience. Irrespective of what your goals are or what experiences actually come your way, taking a gap year is likely to yield one or more of the following benefits:- 

1. You May Gain International Work Experience & Improve Your Employability

More and more employers consider international work experience an essential part of a person’s professional repertoire. Whether you gained the experience as a bartender in New Zealand or as a dishwasher in Romania, as a TESOL teacher in Cambodia or as a resort administrator in Switzerland – it’s all relevant. The skills and knowledge you gain at each job are likely to be ‘transferable’, and if you can communicate this favourably to future employers, you will set yourself apart from your non-gapper peers. 

2. You Will Meet New People & Diversify Your Contacts List

Taking a gap year is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and ethos of other countries. Travelling forces you out of your comfort zone, makes you more aware of global issues and helps you become more empathetic, appreciative and open-minded. 

3. You, Will, Develop New Life & Personal Skills

Many gappers will tell you that taking a gap year helped them become more organised, independent, self-sufficient, confident, open to change and better money managers. Spending time in a different country can also help you learn a new language, a very big advantage in today’s increasingly ‘flat’ society.

Some gappers also utilise their gap year experiences and learnings to start new business ventures. Many discover new passions that they convert into fulfilling careers (photography, for example). 

4. You May End Up Doing Something Worthwhile For Others

Volunteering is an excellent way to spend part of your gap year. Doing something with no strings attached and knowing that you made a difference can help you become a more grateful and positive person. It can also make you more productive and improve your people skills. The cynical-minded may note that (international) volunteering experience also looks great on your CV and makes you more employable.

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Is It All Hunky-Dory Though?

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

While taking a gap year yields many benefits, it’s worth considering that there are also some risks to taking a year off:

  • It can put you behind your contemporaries in school or at work.
  • Organising a gap year can cost a lot of money depending on where you plan to go (Europe is more expensive than Asia, for example). You might even run out of money at some point.
  • The weather or food may not suit your health or temperament. At worst, these problems may force you to abandon your trip and return home.
  • Technological problems like a patchy Internet service or unreliable phone connectivity can sour your gap year experience, especially if you need these services for working or studying remotely.
  • Adjusting to a new environment may cause physiological or emotional problems.
  • The experience may not be what you were hoping for.

Despite these potential disadvantages, planning and research may help you avoid – or at least mitigate – their effects. Therefore aspiring gappers and future expats might find the next section especially useful to help them circumvent these issues and make the most of their gap year. 

How To Make The Most Of Your Gap Year: Some Useful Tips

What Is A Gap Year & How To Make The Most Of It

1. Do Your Research

A gap year is about experiencing life in all its varied forms – colourful and vibrant, joyful and unexpected, idiosyncratic and challenging. Irrespective of which countries you plan to travel to, proper preparation through solid research is the key to a good trip. Travelling without good information can turn a promising gap year into a traumatic nightmare.

Read up on each country’s geography, people, food and customs. Investigate if staying in hostels is safe for solo travellers (especially if you’re a woman gapper). Find out if your country has an embassy in those countries, and note down its details such as website address, phone number, staff names and business hours.

One rich avenue of information that many new gappers often ignore is talking to gappers who have already been there and done that. In today’s hyper-connected world, ‘6 degrees of separation’ is more like ‘3 degrees of separation’ so it’s not that hard to find other gappers and ask questions about their experiences. Gap year forums, message boards, meetup groups and LinkedIn are all available so gappers must use them before they embark on their trip.

2. Prepare A Plan (and A Plan B!)

First, ask yourself what the purpose of your gap year is. Will you be a tourist for the entire year or do you plan to work part-time? Will you volunteer your time or study a short course? Answers to these questions will help you with planning and funding.

It can take several weeks or months to plan a gap year, so give yourself enough time to draw up an itinerary, prepare a checklist of items you may need and gather the necessary funds. Decide if you want to sign up with a backpacker tour group, buy a comprehensive holiday package from a travel/tourism company or leg it on your own.

Travel Checklist For A Gap Year:

  • Is your passport valid for the duration of your tour?
  • Do you need visas to all countries on your itinerary?
  • Have you applied for a global debit or credit card?
  • Do you need to take vaccinations? What types, how many and how often?
  • Have you arranged for local currency? In many countries, cash is still king, so your global plastic card may not help in such places.
  • Have you purchased/borrowed/hired appropriate clothing and footwear?
  • Do you have reliable guidebooks? Lonely Planet’s books are among the most useful, informative and updated, so consider buying them or borrowing them from a library.
  • Do you have a mobile phone with Internet data? Is it reliable and cost-effective?
  • Did you stock up on all medicines, doctors’ prescriptions and other medical paraphernalia relevant to you (insulin pump, EpiPen, etc)?
  • Have you purchased travel tickets? Are the tickets confirmed?
  • Did you buy travel insurance? Is it valid for the period of your travel? Which countries does it cover and what type of problems (loss of passport, accident, cancelled flights, etc)?
  • Have you booked your accommodation? Do you have the booking details?
  • Did you make copies of all essential documents and store them in a safe place?

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3. Prepare A Budget

A financial budget should be part of your plan. A gap year is often flexible and played by ear, therefore it is very difficult to prepare a foolproof plan or budget to cover every contingency and potential need. Still, a rough plan and budget are better than no plan and no budget. Prepare a budget and have a reserve fund to fall back on, but at the same time, don’t obsess about saving money at all costs. Have fun, learn new things, gather rich experiences and don’t let money worries get in the way of enjoying your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

4. Be Open To New Experiences

Planning and budgeting are all well and good, but more often than not, a gap year will yield experiences that even the most organised person cannot imagine, much less plan for.

  • Did you lose your passport?
  • Was your money stolen from your hostel room?
  • Did you land in a small town where no one can understand you (and vice versa!)?
  • Are you a strict vegetarian and all you can find in the way of ‘food’ are mussels, snails and eels?
  • Are you jet-lagged but unable to sleep due to the noise of the souk right outside your hostel’s front doors?

If you happen to experience any of the above unusual or unplanned events on your gap year, rest assured, someone somewhere has probably already experienced it before you! Be prepared for such surprising experiences and learn from them. In time, you will look back on your gap year not only with pleasure and mirth, but also with pride in your own resourcefulness and ability to adjust to every eventuality without flinching.

5. Widen Your Network

A gap year offers excellent opportunities for meeting new people and expanding your network. These contacts could help you in your future career. Who knows, they could also turn out to be your friends for life! 

Before You Go

Whether you see a gap year as a backpacking trip or as an opportunity to take some time out from your real life, the truth is that a gap year is all about living life to the fullest. When you realise that there is a world of opportunity out there just waiting to be explored, you will find that your gap year is one of the best ways to prepare for the challenge called life.

A Quick Recap

What Can You Do In A Gap Year?

  • Learn a new language
  • Teach a language to natives
  • Discover new cultures and meet new people
  • Try things you’ve never tried before
  • Get international work experience
  • Take up a part-time course
  • Volunteer