MY PARENTS WERE LESS than thrilled when I announced my intention to take a gap year after high school. Despite the fact that I had simply deferred my college entrance, both my parents and guidance counselor worried that a year spent “gallivanting around the world” would leave me too aimless and unmotivated to start freshman year.
Almost ten years and many travel adventures later, I’ve had some time to reflect on my first leap into the world of traveling—both what made it great and what could have been better. Spoiler alert: I made it to college.
1. Plan ahead — but only so far.
I arrived in Australia with a work visa, a hostel booking for one week, and three months to kill. By not trying to arrange housing and work from outside of the country (which would have been a waste of time), I gave myself the freedom to try out different jobs, to move in with new-found friends, or to jump in a ride-share to Melbourne with only an hour’s notice.
I took a different planning style for my time in Asia, booking back-to-back Intrepid Travel tour groups from Beijing to Bangkok. While having a Mandarin-speaking guide in China gave me opportunities that felt authentic and unique, having a set itinerary in the touristy backpacker haven of Southeast Asia was a hindrance rather than an advantage.
2. Don’t fall into the checklist pothole.
For the tail end of my trip, I visited fourteen European countries in three months, averaging two nights a city. I arrived home exhausted, with only the most superficial of memories from each location.
Rather than seeing your trip as a checklist of must-see sites, choose a handful of locations and take your time. Chances are there will be a lot more travel in your future, so don’t stress over seeing everything now.
3. Force yourself to disconnect.
When I left for my gap year, my father panicked and bought me an iPhone so I could keep in constant contact. When he found out how much roaming would cost, he forbade me from using it unless I was in limb-dangling danger. I kept a long-winded blog that few people read, updated when internet and time allowed. Otherwise, I was off the grid, unreachable for days or weeks at a time.
This distance from my friends and family at home gave me space to experience my trip without the pressure of having to condense my adventures into shareable bites. The time that I would have spent talking to people back home was put towards going on even more adventures, or simply experiencing my incredible journey fully.
Ten years ago, strong Wi-Fi signals were few and far between. Today, a juice stand in rural Ghana can have an Instagram (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). When I travel these days, I’m often not allowed the luxury of disconnecting, whether because of work or commitments back home. But I see in hindsight that — for some of us — one of the many gifts of youth is untethered responsibility. Take this time to turn off your phone and step away from the pressures of social media. And if the idea of not sharing your adventures stresses you out, just think of all the incredible #TBTs you’ll have for the future.
4. Face your fear of being alone.
When I first landed in Sydney, I was terrified. Staring at the eight months of solo travel ahead of me, I was convinced I would be lonely and alone forever. My hands were shaking as I checked into my hostel. Five minutes later, as I sat eating cereal at a communal table, a Dutch girl introduced herself to me and asked if we could make dinner together that night. From that point on, I found that it was harder to carve out alone time than it was to find time to be lonely. I had great moments with other travelers, but my best memories come from the experiences I had alone—and usually involved me relying on the kindness of strangers while lost in a new city.
5. The greatest lesson you’ll learn has nothing to do with passport stamps.
I left on my gap year thinking I was going to see the world. And I did. But almost a decade later, they are the lessons of spontaneity and flexibility that I am still benefiting from today. Missed planes, lost reservations, stolen wallets—sometimes it felt as if the only thing I could count on was everything going wrong. Taking a trip like this on the brink of adulthood pushed me out of my suburban comfort and expectations, and gave me the tools to deal with the unexpected and unplanned for—tools that can translate from travel, into any and every aspect of life. So, though I know some people thought I had simply lost a year before college; I know that I had gained something much more significant: the ability to deal just a little bit better with life in all of its unknowable glory.