When you take a gap year, you are not only giving yourself an opportunity to see the world, you are also giving yourself a gift of a lifetime. Through planning, learning, and experimenting along the way, you’ll develop and harness life skills hard to learn otherwise. The experience opens the mind to different cultural perspectives where you’ll learn to thrive with significant autonomy.
The initial idea of a gap year, where students take a year of academic sabbatical to travel, has evolved. Gap years are no longer limited to students and have grown to include those who have found a way to work remotely. The line between work and travel has since been blurred, and has ultimately spawned the creation of combining the two into a whole different work and travel experience, appealing to freelancers, entrepreneurs, and digital nomads alike. However, many companies nowadays are trying to get you to pay them to handle the back-end work, such as travel and lodging logistics, for you. But they are expensive, and outsourcing that work ultimately robs you of part of the travel experience. Planning this gap year on your own will provide you the flexibility of choosing where you want to go. Take off as fast as you want, or stay for much longer, visas permitting.
Whether you have been itching for your chance to create your own gap year before you buckle down and shackle yourself to a desk job, or have finally found a way to work remotely as a digital nomad, here are the things you need to consider in order to create a successful gap year.
Figure out your intent
This might be a never-ending question, but having a basic idea of the big WHY will help you construct a plan to create your own gap year. Sometimes it’s to explore the rich cultures of a foreign country and try unfamiliar things. Other times the goal is to explore possible careers, gain international experience, and build connections with the locals. Maybe it’s a chance to fully embrace the “work hard, play hard” motto and find a community with that same commitment, or to challenge your comfort zone and find yourself. Often it’s simply a desire to escape from the realities of life back home, even for a while.
Whatever your reason, once you have an idea of your WHY, you can move on to deciding how often you want to be on the move. Some people are more comfortable with the idea of staying in a country for at least a month, getting to truly understand the ins-and-outs of one’s surroundings before having to resettle in another city. Others prefer more spontaneity and being on the move, always seeing new things and fresh faces. The beauty of not going through a third-party service is that you are in control of everything. You decide when and where you want to be every day.
Get cost-effective plane tickets
Researching and booking plane tickets when you create your own gap year does not have to be painful. Once you have your intent figured out, you will at least have an idea on whether you want to buy a roundtrip ticket, a one-way ticket, or a round-the-world ticket. Using tools like the Matrix Airfare Search will give you a rough guide of what your options are in deciding what cities are best for you to travel to. This service allows you to explore the lowest fares around different date ranges and airports, so you can better organize the viability of the cities you are considering. Research and persistence are needed to obtain the best possible deal, which can take weeks, but you will soon see patterns in your research, like flying out midweek being more cost-effective than on a Friday.
When I first started planning my round-the-world trip, I printed a world map and highlighted all the cities I wanted to see in a set amount of time. Flying with the jet stream helps ensure less time in the air — so travel eastbound instead of westbound whenever possible. After determining the cities that you wanted to visit, make a separate list of things that you absolutely wanted to accomplish in each city and how long to stay.
The next step is to research the flight fares for each possible route and city to best determine what routes to take, and what is most plausible, based on the efficiency of cost and time. It is essential to book at least a couple months ahead to score the best flight fare, so once you have a rough outline drawn out, start filling in the blanks as you start figuring out what your best options are.
Find suitable accommodations
Once you have figured out a suitable travel route, booking housing for at least the first couple cities you’ll visit will give you a huge peace of mind. Depending on your personality, how you want to live, and how long you plan to stay in each city, there are various options in choosing the best place to stay on your travels. If you plan on staying long term, options like guesthouses, co-living arrangements, and sublets can be considered. For short-term, depending on your budget, CouchSurfing, hostels, motels, guesthouses and hotels can be ideal. In many countries, Airbnbs offer an exceptional value that beats a hotel any day, because of that interaction or point of contact you will have with a local. They also tend to have strong WiFi along with peace and quiet.
How to meet people on the road
Meeting locals and like-minded adventurers on the road is all a part of how you optimize your gap year experience. It is important to have a sense of community and support to keep that drive in you while you are on the road. As a solo traveler, you must be completely comfortable with being alone and doing your own thing, but making a point to reach out to locals for a simple culture exchange, or to get a local insight on their own city, is a great way to better your experience. There is an incredible value in sharing a conversation or even a meal with a local, which can make a trip more meaningful, and sometimes result in lifelong friends all across the globe. Their experiences and thoughts on everything can vary so much that it is often worth the time spent to connect with them.
CouchSurfing is a great resource for this; the people in the CouchSurfing community are so willing to help. Their knowledge of their own city or country is invaluable and often times, not information you can easily obtain. Once you have formed a direct point of contact with a local, you will have access to their resources and knowledge of the city. They might be able to point you to the cheapest laundromat or the best cafe in town, or even the recommended bus route to the next city over.
If you don’t want to use CouchSurfing, you can still use the internet as a tool for connecting with travelers near you, or on the same path as you. Try using MeetUp, Reddit and Matador’s own travel app Travelstoke. Whether you decide to meet someone at a cafe or go to a group meet-up, there is no shortage of people to socialize with, even if you are taking a gap year alone. There will always be something going on in the area around you.
Find the ideal workspace
If you plan to work during your gap year, finding a strong wifi signal everywhere you go is critical. Depending on how you like to work, your Airbnb, ideally equipped with solid internet access, might already be a great place to work. Look for places that have a desk, and any other necessities that you prefer to surround yourself with as you work.
If you are the type of person that likes to work outside the comfort of your own bed, search for a local library or internet cafe to work out of. If you’re looking for a like-minded community, a Google search will also bring you to coworking spaces nearby. Some places do require you to reserve a place in advance since their spaces fill up quickly. You can choose to be more involved with the community with shared tables, or work in a quiet place to focus.
With co-working spaces, you have the opportunity to surround yourself with people as goal-oriented as you, and develop relationships that would otherwise have never formed. These people may very well become an integral part of your social life in that particular city, since most of the people there have more autonomy with their work schedule. Being active in a coworking community cultivates a form of structure and discipline that becomes vital in sustaining motivation. Your level of socialization is entirely up to you, but having the option to interact and network with other travelers is priceless.
Remember that safety is first
When you create your own gap year, it is crucial to be aware of the surroundings of where you will be traveling to. Consider any political unrest or recent natural disasters in your destinations, and remember that staying aware is vital to your safety. Joining the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program ensures you will receive travel advisories relevant to your destination so that you can better plan your stay in each city. Letting family members or people know where you are, and checking in when possible, are also good practices. Keeping people in the know will also help you feel more connected to the people back home.
Once you get to a new city, set up numbers to call in case of an emergency, so you aren’t scrambling to find them in the event one happens. If the local language is different than your own, make an effort to learn a few phrases that will be useful to get you out of a bind. Also, be sure to identify where your local embassy is, along with local pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals. Getting any travel shots from your local clinic prior to departure is also highly recommended. Also be sure you check visa requirements for the countries you plan to visit and make any necessary arrangements in advance.