An unplanned gap year can be an unexpected bonus

If you have missed out on a university place, there are ways to make the most of this year off. It's not too late to spend the time profitably, says Chiara Cavaglieri

Too many A-level students are chasing too few university places.

Many would-be students may find that they don't have a place to study in 2010-11. An unexpected gap year is the result. If you're in this position and you want to do something with your time out, it's crucial to sort out the finances across the board – from finding the cheapest way to travel to the nitty gritty of daily budgeting.

"A last-minute gap year must come as a big shock to students, not only because of the lifestyle change, but the idea of how much money is needed may be overwhelming," says Kevin Mountford, the head of banking at comparison site Moneysupermarket.com.

One of the most popular gap year pastimes is volunteer work, which can also boost your university chances next time around. But with some projects costing thousands of pounds, researching your options is a must. Resource websites such as Volunteer4 africa.org and Ecoteer.com, which list volunteer job opportunities abroad, can cut out the middle man. Costs of projects will vary widely so take the time to find something that you will enjoy and can afford. For example, registered charity UNA Exchange offers more affordable "voluntourism" options than most, charging £12 for a year-long membership and offering long term placements starting at £200.

With many projects, food and accommodation are provided free but you'll still to need to fork out for flights, insurance and visa costs. Local organisations such as the Rotary Club may be willing to sponsor you or you can try holding events to raise the cash. If you've spent the summer working to fund a trip and you haven't worked for a full financial year, make sure you claim any tax back before you leave.

If volunteering is beyond your pocket and you're planning to find paid work abroad instead, you will need to check for any restrictions first.

"Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, South Africa and Japan have working holiday visas or J1 visas you may be eligible for. Of these, Australia is currently short of workers, with tens of thousands of jobs available in Sydney this month alone," says Tom Griffiths, the founder of Gapyear.com.

No matter where you plan to go, don't leave the country without travel insurance. Travelling for an extended period means the chances of falling ill or having something stolen are high, so getting appropriate cover is essential. You need to have a specific gap year policy in place because standard annual policies cover you for only a limited period (usually 28 days).

Always check the baggage cover. The contents of your backpack may add up to more than some of the cheaper policies will cater for. Make sure you're not left stranded halfway through your travels without enough money to replace your belongings should the worst happen.

If you're planning some adventurous activities get specific cover for these. This needn't break the bank; according to Moneysupermarket.com you can get cover for sports such as parachuting, scuba diving and mountaineering from just £110 with the Alpha 100 backpacker policy from insurer Infinity.

Another thing to sort out is your travel money. First, let your bank know of your travel plans so that it doesn't cancel your cards when it sees you spending overseas.

"Taking time to sort your travel money out as early as possible could make all the difference. No one wants to have to cut their trips short, or worse, get stranded with no money, just because they didn't plan properly," says Mr Mountford.

Ideally, you should take a combination of cash, debit and credit cards, and watch out for excessive fees and charges for overseas usage. Both Nationwide and the Post Office have low charges and you can set up a direct debit before you leave to clear your debt each month. The Santander Zero card has no loading charge on overseas purchases but cash withdrawals are charged at 27.9 per cent which will quickly add up.

The Nationwide FlexAccount current account is the only provider that doesn't make foreign currency charges on purchases and cash transactions anywhere in the Visa Europe region. Unfortunately, this is set to change in November when using the debit card abroad will incur a 2 per cent charge and an extra fee of £1 for cash withdrawals.

Good options for credit cards are the Nationwide Gold (Visa Europe region) and Abbey Zero cards as they don't levy foreign exchange fees. In comparison, Thomas Cook's credit card charges a 2.5 per cent transactional fee which would set you back an extra £12.50 on purchases adding up to €500.

A big problem, however, is that many school leavers will struggle to get accepted for the best credit cards because they haven't had time to build up a credit history. If you're unable to get a competitive credit card to use abroad, you can ask your parents to have you as an additional user on their cards. Alternatively, you can apply for a prepaid card which doesn't depend on your credit record.

Prepaid cards from the likes of Caxton FX, FairFX and Travelex let you load cash before you travel and use it as you would a credit card. You can spend only what you've loaded on to the card. As most of the big providers allow you to top up online, this is a safe and convenient way to carry money. Another big advantage is that if you run into any problems while you're away, your parents can also top up the card at home. Expect loading fees of 3 per cent and ATM cash withdrawal fees of about £2 but watch out for other charges such as application fees. The Tuxedo prepaid travel card, for example, costs £19.95 to purchase.

As well as organising your core finance, keeping everyday costs as low as possible will make a big difference. For example, if you're calling home consider VoIP options such as Skype for free calls, and see if you can cut the cost of travel.

"If you're travelling around Europe, an InterRail pass is essential. Otherwise budget airlines or even asking for parents' air miles are a good idea. Hostelworld.com is full of hostel user ratings, photos and accommodation bargains," says Richard Melville, editor of Studentbeans.com.

If money is tight, research the living costs in your chosen destination, set yourself a realistic weekly budget and stick to it. You'll usually find cheaper deals by booking accommodation and flights online in advance. Discount cards such as the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) card are also popular with gappers. This costs £10 and can save you money on hostels in more than 60 countries.

Expert View

Tom Griffiths, gapyear.com

If you're now facing an unplanned gap year, or even a planned gap year but you haven't got yourself in gear yet, you need to start now. Don't waste your year. Keep on top of the finances. Plan to get something out of the year which can aid your personal and perhaps chosen career development and make sure you see it through."

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