Your ticket to a productive year out

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The Independent Online

When the textbooks close, the world opens up and an increasing number of students are using their gap year to travel. Around 200,000 now head abroad each year to experience different cultures. Most agree that travel broadens the mind as well as increasing confidence, interpersonal skills, independence and maturity.

When the textbooks close, the world opens up and an increasing number of students are using their gap year to travel. Around 200,000 now head abroad each year to experience different cultures. Most agree that travel broadens the mind as well as increasing confidence, interpersonal skills, independence and maturity.

A perennially popular option is independent travel, particularly to Europe and Australasia on a round-the-world ticket from specialist organisations such as STA Travel. Wise travellers do well-trodden global routes anti-clockwise to avoid "backpacker congestion", perhaps combining travel with work such as fruit-picking or teaching. Traveller's bible Work Your Way Around the World (Vacation Work) lists opportunities for the spontaneous jobseeker or those beating the backpacker stampede by securing employment beforehand. In some countries, casual work is a recognised part of a "backpacker economy". Australia, for example, offers a one-year working visa for those under 26. By contrast, visa restrictions in America mean work under organised schemes such as BUNAC or the Council on International Educational Exchange is a better option.

Once a gap year route is decided, the next challenge is finding the money. The average amount spent by independent travellers pre-departure is £1,899, with daily living expense estimates of £20. Most structured placements require a contribution, ranging from a few hundred pounds to £3,000. Sponsorship or fund-raising events can help towards organised projects.

Another practical consideration - and top priority - is safety. It's important to be informed and thorough before and during your trip.

Basic health precautions like vaccinations and insurance covering medical costs and repatriation are vital. Theft is a common danger, so be vigilant and take precautions: invest in a safety alarm with a cord that can be tied to bags or doors to sound at intrusion.

Avoid dangerous areas and hitch-hiking and don't trust anyone until you know them well. Reading up on etiquette and dress restrictions (especially for women) will avoid unintentional offence.

It's important to assess the situations you're putting yourself in and exercise caution and common sense. "Travel is safe and easy, but you have to be aware of what you're doing, and not fall into the common trap of thinking you're invincible," says Tom Griffiths, director of gapyear.com. "Plan ahead and be aware if you are at risk. Safety is partly about what happens in your head at the time. If you find yourself out of control, keep calm and work out what the solution is."

Safety tops the list of parental concerns and keeping parents informed helps alleviate worry, as will regular contact. Many organisations encourage parental interest and involvement as part of the gap year experience.

"Our relationship with parents is vital," says Lavinia Bristol from Project Trust. "We meet them during recruiting and discuss their concerns, as well as ways they can help make the year a good one - for example dissuading boyfriends and girlfriends from going out to visit."

Look at the safety and emergency procedures and in-placement support - and don't be afraid to ask questions.

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