Compiling a traveller's checklist

Structured gap year preparation at home can prevent a range of problems. Caitlin Davies looks at what proactive parents can do to help
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The Independent Online

Your child wants a gap year. They've persuaded you it's a good idea, it will prepare them for university, increase their independence, and future employers will be mightily impressed by their CV. So what do you do now?

Your child wants a gap year. They've persuaded you it's a good idea, it will prepare them for university, increase their independence, and future employers will be mightily impressed by their CV. So what do you do now?

Start by deciding what your child wants to achieve during the year, and what their motivation is. Nick Vandome, author of Planning Your Gap Year, says most gappers want a constructive break before university; often they want to stretch themselves and see how they react in new and different situations. What's important is that the year is well-planned and structured, and your child gets all the support they need.

Do your homework

Tap "gap year" into an internet search engine and the result is hundreds of sites dedicated to filling the gap. Which one do you choose? First sit down with your son or daughter and talk about what they want to do. Do they want to travel, do they want to work, or is their heart set on becoming a volunteer? A gap year is usually a chance to learn, not just a holiday, and employers and universities want to see how you've used the time. A good source of help is the Year Out Group (, an association of 30 organisations that offer courses and cultural exchanges, expeditions, volunteering and structured work placements. They placed 20,000 young people last year and each organisation abides by the Group's code of practice.

Money matters

Once your child has chosen the sort of gap year they want, money may be the next big issue. Many gappers will have to work first to earn enough cash - whether they want to travel or volunteer overseas. Think about how much money they need to raise by themselves and how. Other important questions are: Is there a deposit? Is it refundable? What are the cancellation terms? Is the organisation financially sound?

Voluntary work overseas

Volunteering abroad offers the chance to observe another culture first hand, and several programmes include living with a host family. Volunteering is not a holiday, and can be tough, but there are plenty of rewards. There are a variety of areas in which to volunteer, from conservation to women's health. In the process your child may learn what sort of career they want to pursue in the future. Voluntary placements abroad often cost about £3,000. Volunteers usually have to pay their fare, but get accommodation and living expenses in return for work. Your child will need to visit a doctor for a medical check up and get insurance that covers medical expenses and repatriation.


Parents of gappers who go abroad are most concerned about safety. Hew Pike, director of GAP Activity Projects, suggests parents attend a briefing day with volunteers before they depart. "When parents know a support system is in place, they endorse the opportunity their child will experience - and many ask if it is too late for them to take a gap year too!" Nick Vandome says gappers need "adventurous cynicism", which means keeping an open mind but also being wary of trusting people too much. He advises setting up a Hotmail account and suggests parents ask their child to keep in regular contact, without being too prescriptive.

Voluntary work in the UK

Some gappers decide to stay closer to home and volunteer in the UK. One way to do this is to find out if a favourite charity or cause has volunteer opportunities. Community Service Volunteers ( matches young people's interests to various groups such as day centres and schools. The volunteer spends 4-12 months on the placement, with free meals and accommodation, as well as a weekly allowance.

Learn a new skill

Gap years can be tailored to one specific skill such as a new language or sport. Some year off schemes work towards a qualification, which means your child could come home a qualified surf instructor as well as having plenty of experience. Overall it's worth knowing what certification, reference or testimonial a gap year organisation will provide at the end of the year.

Get a job

Work experience always looks good on a CV, and a year spent working can mean saving money for university or college. The online recruitment directory has a range of employment opportunities.

Travel abroad

For many gappers this is the year they can expand their horizons. They will have to plan in advance, make sure they have travel and health insurance, visas and vaccinations, and find out whether they can legally work in their country of choice. See the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices travel website: Gappers may travel alone, or more likely with a friend or two. The message board at is full of young people looking for advice and travel companions. Recent postings include "How do I get a year out in Asia or Africa for free?", "I managed it without any debt!!" and "Thailand, anyone?"

'It was a challenge but that's not a bad thing'

Last year Dr Andrew Gray's daughter Susannah spent six months volunteering in Honduras

My daughter Susannah did her gap year after finishing university, rather than before hand. She was 21 and had just finished studying history at Nottingham University. She wanted to go to Central America because she'd never been before, and she wanted proper work not a glorified holiday. She looked at several organisations and decided on AFS's international volunteer programme. To raise the money she worked for a customer services department and we chipped in towards the cost.

Susannah volunteered at a school for orphans and street children in San Pedro Sula, Honduras's second largest city. At the same time, she lived with a host family, sharing a bedroom with a 14-year-old girl. It was a challenge but that's not a bad thing. She learnt to live in the real world. She did feel cut off, and she had to learn Spanish, but by the time she got home to Bedford she had been able to get around Central America on her own.

It was not easy to keep in touch; there was only an hour on a Sunday when we could phone her because of her work and the time difference. It was a fairly violent place but she had fascinating times, she even went, with other volunteers, along the Mosquito Coast.

Susannah came back with a clear idea of her future - she didn't want front-line social work. She wants to organise and manage voluntary work instead. For Susannah, it was a life-changing experience.