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Plan My Gap Year: How to Prepare in Five Simple Steps

Written by The Leap on 15 / 09 / 2014

Gap Year Advice

You’ve finished school, your exam results are in and you’re thinking to yourself: 'What now? Where can I go? How do I plan my gap year?'

Well that’s where this step-by-step guide comes in handy. How well you plan your gap year before leaving home makes a big difference to how enjoyable it will be. So before you rush into anything, make sure you follow these five steps to ensure that you’re fully prepared for the year ahead - which I can guarantee will fast become the greatest year of your life!

Step 1: Book the Perfect Placement

Whether it’s the beaches of Southeast Asia that appeal to you, the wildlife in Africa or the diverse scenery in South America - there’s something for everyone out there in the big wide world.

Firstly, you need to think about where it is that you’d most like to travel to and what you’re hoping to achieve there. Is it simply seeing the sights, or do you want to venture off the standard backpacker trail and into a unique corner of the country? One thing many people choose to do on their gap year is volunteering, as this is an incredibly rewarding experience that really makes a difference to those less fortunate than ourselves - check out 8 Reasons Why You Need to Volunteer Now for more on this.

Of course, it's not for everyone, and if volunteering doesn’t float your boat here are a handful of other ideas:

- Get your hiking boots on

For the more active among you, hiking is a great way to see the world’s most spectacular landscapes, as you come into much closer contact with nature than you ever would in a car, bus or train. Besides which, it’s one hell of a satisfying workout.

There are three locations in particular that I'd recommend. The first being the Inca Trail, situated in South American mountain range of the Andes, where the ancient city of Machu Picchu can be reached. The route was originally laid by the Incas and leads from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu - one of South America’s most famous archaeological sites.

Another extremely popular hike is the one to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, which is tough but passes truly remarkable scenery and gives you the chance to brag about being at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. Just be sure to go slow on the way up, as you’re at a very high altitude and it can take some time to acclimatise.

For those who don’t want to stray quite as far, The Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps is one of the most spectacular trekking trips in the world. The classic circuit passes through three different countries - Switzerland, Italy and France - in just a few days.

- See the Big Five on safari

If there’s one thing Africa is renowned for, it’s wildlife. And going on safari to see the Big Five is on every wildlife enthusiast's bucket list. The term, coined by game hunters some years ago, refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot: the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo.

As well as witnessing these majestic animals as nature intended, travelling to this part of the world enables you to see the mighty Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, travel around Swaziland and explore the depths of Dragon's Breath - one of the world’s largest underground lakes - in Namibia.

- Intern for an international company

Doing an internship abroad is a unique way to explore an industry that interests you and experience a foreign culture at the same time. It’ll also look great on your CV.

Do it right, and the little black book of international contacts that you'll build will be hugely useful later on in life... whether it be for a glowing reference, future job offer or as an excuse to revisit friends you've made in another country!

Step 2: Raise Funds for Your Trip

Now here comes the tedious part: finding a job to fund your travels. Running out of money whilst travelling sucks, so set a funding target and get a summer job before you go. I can guarantee it’ll be worth it when you eventually succeed in reaching your target and have saved enough money to hit the road.

There are literally dozens of ways to find paid temporary work. Start by browsing your local paper, visiting a job centre or temping agency and looking out for ads in your local shop from people who need occasional babysitters, cleaners, and so on. The Essential Guide to Summer Jobs for Students will give you plenty more ideas if you need them.

In addition to working, you can earn extra cash by attending car boot sales, selling things you no longer want or organising a fundraising event. It’s not easy, but try not to say to yes to every meal, night out or weekend away in the summer - it'll make a serious dent in your savings. And remember: it WILL be worth it in the end.

Step 3: Sort Out All The Essentials

Once you know what you’re doing, you’ve booked your flights and have started saving the pennies, you’ll need to think about the requirements for each country you’re planning to visit.

Do you need a visa to enter? What jabs must you get beforehand? Are there any tours or excursions that should be planned well in advance (like that Inca Trail trip I mentioned earlier)? Vaccinations, visas and itineraries are covered in detail in Backpacking Essentials: The No B.S. Guide to Plan the Perfect Trip, so start there.

Step 4: Pack Your Bags

I know you’ll want to take all your home comforts along with you on your trip. Fight the urge to do so.

Don't pack anything you can't afford to lose: things will get lost (and they could get stolen). This is particularly the case with expensive jewellery and accessories - they'll only make you a potential target for theft.

Chances are you won’t have enough room in your backpack, anyway. And even if you do, that’ll soon change when you discover the array of markets and quirky traveller shops abroad (and how cheap they all are).

With that in mind, our golden rule is: pack everything you think you need... then take half. If you're still unsure, check out How to Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack for in-depth, expert opinion.

Step 5: Make Any Final Preparations

You’re so close! Now all you need to do is make those final preparations. Arrange your hand luggage, charge up your electronics and double check you're not forgetting anything (passport? plane ticket?).

The gap year insurance policy you took out will have a policy number or a print-out card to take with you - put it somewhere safe. What do you mean you 'didn't know you needed any'? Fear not! If you're reading this, it's probably not too late, but check out 5 Things You Need to Know About Gap Year Insurance right now.

Finally, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, as the last thing you want is a panicked rush to kick off your travels.

Oh yeah, and enjoy yourself. I'm not jealous in the slightest...

Photo: Flickr

Check out our gap year programs

We have award winning 'planet saving' programs across Africa, Asia, South and Central America.

Reducing plastic in our oceans, protecting turtles and saving the rhino is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

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