Find a policy without gaps when you take a year out to join the backpack battalions

Whether you're taking a sabbatical from work or seeing the world before you start university, the travel insurance must match your lust for life, writes Sam Dunn

Gap year adventurers embarking on a year of hedonism or voluntary work in far-flung parts of the globe are increasingly facing the kind of pressure many of them are trying to escape in the first place.

Gap year adventurers embarking on a year of hedonism or voluntary work in far-flung parts of the globe are increasingly facing the kind of pressure many of them are trying to escape in the first place.

With the threat of terrorist attacks, the Sars virus, a global economic downturn and (in the case of recent graduates) thousands of pounds worth of debt weighing them down, the prospects can appear gloomy for a year out after exams or for a career break overseas.

Factors such as those listed above are having a negative effect on the gap year market, says Kevin Bonner-Williams, company secretary for Leading Edge, a specialist insurer for backpackers.

"People are still wary of travelling after 11 September, and Sars has made a difference too," he says. "The concerns of parents also have a massive influence. People are now going away for less time."

Raleigh International, a youth development charity offering "gap" periods abroad for graduates or employees on sabbatical, also reports that it is receiving fewer volunteers, although a spokes-woman says that interest remains high.

Despite the downside, a gap year remains an attractive prospect for many young adults. They may want to travel the world before starting university or beginning full-time employment, or to learn new skills by taking part in community or environmental projects in developing countries.

Martyn Drain, head of human resources for financial services company Deutsche Asset Management (Europe), says his company looks favourably on graduates with a gap year under their belt. "Rewards gained during a gap year are rarely financial, so the motivation and drive of a student who completes this programme is clear to any potential employer," he says.

Accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers currently has 228 staff on its career break programme - about 1.5 per cent of its UK workforce - and encourages employees who have at least two years' service to consider taking part.

Travel insurance may seem an unglamorous chore when you're planning a gap year, but it is anessential item on your checklist.

If you already have an annual travel insurance policy, don't expect it to cover you while you're away, because you will be spending too many days overseas. And since you are likely to be doing more than just lying on a beach, spend some time deciding exactly what activities you want to be insured for.

General gap year insurance - sold as an individual policy by brokers - doesn't cost the earth, but if you are likely to try extreme sports or expeditions, expect to be charged an extra premium.

"Check which pursuits are covered on the policy," says Clare Stafford, manager for Boots Travel Insurance. "While bungee jumping may be covered, jet skiing isn't [on a Boots travel policy] and scuba diving can have depth limits for cover."

Boots' standard long-term policy costs £299. It pays out for medical expenses of up to £10m and covers travellers worldwide.

All policies should provide basic cover for medical expenses, personal injury and theft. Look at the small print, too - for example, whether the policy covers manual work such as fruit picking or bar work - and check whether the insurer has a 24-hour emergency helpline. If you are older than the average gap year traveller, particularly if you are in your forties and above, expect to pay higher premiums for what insurers say is a greater risk of injury.

If you know you are going to take part in a particular extreme sport, it is worth buying cover from a specialist insurer or paying a higher premium to a mainstream insurer to ensure you're covered.

"It's best to be upfront with your insurer to avoid any complications [over claims]," adds Ms Stafford.

Leading Edge's Mr Bonner- Williams suggests travellers look for an insurer that lets them buy a simple policy that can be topped up by phone, fax or email while they are overseas. So if you decide to try skydiving, for example, you can request an extension to your cover from your insurer back home.

But not everyone remembers to do this, or can be bothered to, particularly if the decision is a last-minute one. For peace of mind it could be worth arranging cover for a range of sports you might be tempted to try before you go.

Leading Edge's Backpacker worldwide policy costs £276 for one year. It will cover you for up to £5m of medical expenses, including repatriation to the UK, and up to £200 for loss or theft of cash. It will also cover a camera to the tune of £200.

If you have to make a claim for an incident that has occurred during your trip, this can be done over the internet or via a 24-hour helpline, but many travellers wait until they get home.

Given that the threat of terrorism has cast a shadow over many countries, it's essential to check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's website (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) for up-to-date information on the countries you intend to visit before you go.

Most insurers have a clause that means you aren't covered if you fall ill or get caught up in terrorism or military and civil strife in a country that is on the Foreign Office's proscribed list. "If you had gone to Hong Kong during the Sars outbreak and contracted the virus, you would have had your claim for medical expenses invalidated," warns Emma Grainge at the Association of British Insurers.

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