Welcome back to the Journey Count gap year Series! So far we’ve told you why you should take a gap year and told you the things we wish we’d known before going on our gap years back in 2010. Today we’re going to let you know the ways you can make your gap year incredible!
Between the two of us, Oli and I have hundreds of tips and tricks that made our gap years amazingly incredible and we have tried to put together this list of the biggest and best of that advice. These are, hopefully, things that anyone can implement to make sure that their gap year is the time of their life.
1. You don’t need to do it alone!
Whether this is your first time away from home and you are terrified, or you think you’re a travel guru, STA is a great resource. Booking an appointment with them is free and they have an amazing amount of travel knowledge and advice to share with you. Becky and I (Becky is the girl I went travelling with) visited them with a vague itinerary of what we were interested in seeing, and we left with almost a whole trip planned, including an incredible deal on a Machu Picchu trek and RTW flights leading us to 11 countries.
And don’t worry, they are usually great at not pushing expensive organised tours on you. My one and only complaint is that it was through them that we booked our volunteer experience in Uganda which cost us more than it should have. It was way cheaper than many such opportunities but I wish our travel expert had talked to us about the option of finding free volunteer work while we were out there.
But, even if you go in knowing that you don’t want to book anything with them, it is a really fun way of getting new ideas and getting excited. With all the staff’s combined knowledge of the places they have been you are sure to find out about a new country or activity you hadn’t considered before.
Oli – The other side of this, is that it can actually be really fun to do it alone, particularly if you’re travelling with a good friend. So when you get there don’t be afraid to get on a random bus, or head somewhere just because someone told you it was great. The world can be an incredibly kind place, and providing you’re not stupid, I can assure you that you’ll be fine.
2. Get festive
One of the greatest pieces of advice our STA travel expert gave us was incorporating Rio Carnival into our South America itinerary. As she knew we were travelling between January and March, she persuaded us to head to Brazil in February so that we would experience this incredible festival.
It was one of the best decisions we made!
So, now I am sharing that same great advice with you- research big festivals and events for the countries you are visiting and try and work out your schedule to be able to get yourself to them. Taking part in festivals and events is such an amazing way to experience a country and understand more about the culture.
Oli – I too was lucky enough to be in Bolivia for carnival, and had one of the most epic water fights of my life as a result. You see there it’s a combination of procession, dance and tradition, combined with an insanely large street fight of foam and water, which makes it such a memorable experience.
So if you can’t get to Rio research which other countries or towns celebrate the big events like carnaval! A little bit of research goes a long way.
3. Timing is key
As well as organising the time to visit a country based on festivals and events, it is really worthwhile researching the different seasons for the countries you plan to visit. There are two different reasons for this, depending on your personal preferences.
If you are looking to chase the sun on your travels and have similar feelings to thunder as Ted and John do, then travelling to the backpacking mecca of South East Asia in rainy season might not be such a good idea. On the other hand travelling in the not-so-perfect weather season may be a blessing, if you don’t mind a bit of rain with your Pad Thai.
The colder months and monsoon seasons are more often than not a country’s low season for tourists and you’ll find that prices for things like tours and hotels will be cheaper – with less tourists, there’s less demand. In December, Oli and I visited one of Korea’s southern islands, something not many others were doing because of the cold, but it turned out to be the perfect time to visit.
Oli – Jade and I also travelled through Ethiopia in rainy season, and enjoyed a road less travelled. We sipped mango smoothies, hung out with baboons, and saw the beautiful churches or Lalibella in relative privacy. On the other hand, we missed out on trekking the Simien mountains, because it was just too damn wet. So, as Jade said, there are pros and cons to either side of the story.
4. Don’t be a frequent flyer
Becky and I travelled to 11 countries through 4 continents, yet we only booked 5 flights! Pretty much a flight for each continent hop. Yes, this did mean we took a lot of buses (read: A LOT) but it also meant that we had complete flexibility with which countries we could visit, and for how long, once we landed in each new continent. This gave us the opportunity to head to Bolivia on a whim when we were in Argentina and experiencing 4 days in photography heaven.
Having too many deadlines such as booked flights and hotel rooms in the next town means you won’t be as open to spontaneity and the inevitable advice you will get from other travellers about places you hadn’t planned on seeing.
Also, buses are awesome, so don’t be afraid of them! Even the long ones (cough 55 hours) can be a relaxing and wonderful way to see a country, as well as being cheaper! Check out my advice on figuring out when to save and when to splurge.
Oli – Regarding flights, have a think about booking your flights in and out of totally different destinations. This will make your journey an epic quest to get to that long lost airport, and mean you don’t have to make a huge circle (or buy an extortionate internal flight). My friend Ben and I mad ethis mistake whilst travelling South America. Doing this might be more expensive in the short run, but will certainly pay off long term.
And like Jade said, busses can be awesome! Check out this bus we took to get the the jungle in Bolivia. It follows whats known locally as death road because of the sheer drops to the side as you go through the mountains…
5. Put down the guidebook and utilise travel blogs and local knowledge.
The amount of incredible places and awesome activities I’ve read about on travel blogs is uncountable and I wish I had found out about these wonderful resources before I went on my gap year. As bloggers tend to write about each activity in one post and each country in a number of different ways, you will get so much more detailed and personal information than can be fit into a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.
Guidebooks are great for a quick reference on the road, but travel blogs are perfect for post-gap year planning and excitement building.
Oli – Asking locals about what’s what, and getting their advice on the best things to see, and how to see them, is also a fantastic resource. I managed to ride motorbikes up and down the Peruvian section of the Pan American highway this way, and managed to go swimming in naturally occurring lakes in the middle of the Bolivia’s Eastern sand dunes too. These are both things that I would have had no idea about if I wasn’t hanging out with locals.
6. Avoid always flocking to the backpacker districts/hostels of any city
Oli – You miss out on a lot by always heading to the urban sprawl of backpacker bars and hostels. Everyone there is following a similar guidebook, and will have roughly the same itinerary as you. So don’t be afraid to get lost, jump on that random bus to an unknown destination, or even forget what your plans were in the morning. I did the equivalent of couch surfing for a short while whilst travelling, and met some awesome people as a result.
That said, I met some of the coolest people I know by hanging out in the backpacker hostels, so striking a good balance between both sides of travel is key.
6. Say yes!
With your nice open schedule from following point number 4, you will be ripe and ready to say yes to everything and anything! There will be countless opportunities to do this, or try this, or go there, and you should make sure that you are open to taking on these new experiences.
Your gap year is your time to get out of your comfort zone, take a risk and make incredible new memories. Don’t let the opportunity go to waste, and say yes!
Oli – I found myself alone in Vientianne one day, waiting for a bus to take me to the south of Laos, and everything changed because I said yes. I met a girl who was going to hitch hike to the same place I was going and said I’d join her if she could sell my ticket onwards. The result was a three day hitch hiking adventure – only possible because I said yes!
7. Be flexible
This point is so important. Like I’ve already said, having strict schedules will limit the potential for spontaneity and can even end up costing you valuable time and money. Being hell bent on getting to a certain place at a certain time may force you to book the only expensive transport option or miss out on another place altogether. It will also stress you out, and stress is an emotion ill-suited to the perfect gap year!
Stress will happen when you are travelling, it’s inevitable, but being flexible and having a little more of a ‘go with the flow’ attitude than you have at home, will really help keep it to a minimum. Especially when you are in countries where things are never done the way you want them, or in any kind of hurry!
8. Variety is the spice of life – go on a constant adventure
What made my gap year so special to me was experiencing so many incredible and varied countries, cities, geographies, activities, foods and languages. The list could go on. We never got bored because there was always something new that we could say yes to! I also think it helped with home-sickness in a way as we were constantly busy experiencing new things and had no time to dwell on being so far from home.
So, my advice is to make sure you are getting a taste of everything this amazing world has to offer whether this be in terms of cultures, climates or countries.
Oli – My friends and I got of the more trodden path whilst in Vietnam, and head to the mountain town of Sapa. We rented motorbikes whilst there, and rode the road to Cat Ba market. It was incredible, and maybe even on of my favourite days in Vietnam. Like jade says, travel is best when you mix it up, and this little adventure only happened because we decided to make the trip that little bit more varied than it already was.
9. Stay connected
Despite my above point, you are bound to miss home. Make sure you have a Skype account set up (with some backpack credit on it) and don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time on Facebook! It really is an amazing way to stay in touch with people all over the world.
10. Slow it down
Try your hardest not to speed through each place so that you can fit more in. Trust me in that you will feel so much more relaxed, content and fulfilled if you slow your pace and make sure you spend as much time in each place as you want. It’s so much better to really get a feel for each town you visit by staying a few more days, than to barely remember what you did because of having seen 3 cities in a week.
So, there you have it. 10 ways to make your gap year incredible, in 2000 not-so-succinct words.
Tune in later this week for our top tips on saving and spending.
Thanks for reading and happy gapping!