Gap years should be an unforgettable experience

Take time out after your exams to see more of the world and learn valuable new skills

At the end of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Sal Paradise imagines America stretching away from him: "All that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it." His freewheeling vision of independent travel is part of a dream shared by explorers, grand tourists and backpackers throughout the ages and it's one that remains undiminished, with gap years remaining a hugely popular option for school leavers.

The transport options available to adventurous types have evolved since Kerouac hopped on boxcars, and so has the gap year itself. Those wanting to strap on a backpack and cling to flatbed lorries on perilous South American highways can do so, but equally there's the chance of volunteering all over the world, working or teaching in international cities, or perhaps going for a little bit of everything.

Even the term "gap year" has altered to become a catch-all term for any period of time out from work and education. "It doesn't have to be a year," says Marcus Sherifi of gapyear.com. "A gap year could just be four months or so before university or starting a job; or as a career break between roles." Regardless of how much time they have at their disposal, anyone thinking about taking a gap year faces choices falling into three very broad areas: working, volunteering and independent travel.

Work-wise, UK citizens can find jobs in the EU without wading through too much paperwork and, although they all will require working visas, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada are popular options. According to Sherifi, many gappers are using working abroad to escape the recession's bite, doing jobs as varied as ski instructing in the Alps to fruit picking down under. "Australia is still the number one destination," he says, "their economy is booming and the minimum wage is comparatively high so you can save a lot in a short space of time."

Saving can be helpful for those heading to university on their return, and for those going into employment a working gap can add muscle to a CV. To investigate work options a useful all-purpose resource is gapyear.com; other helpful organisations include BUNAC and Camp America for working holidays in the US and beyond, and i-to-i or Cactus for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) courses, which allow students to pick up language skills and overseas experience while helping others pick up their mother tongue.

Those who choose to volunteer will also have a range of options. At home, organisations such as CSV and Volunteering England have a range of programmes, while international projects are organised by the likes of Raleigh International and Frontier. Gappers who join up could be helping UK communities, teaching in remote Nepalese villages, engaging in hand-made civil engineering by digging wells in Africa, or keeping a little cooler surveying coral reefs in Madagascar.

Volunteering anywhere can bring great personal satisfaction, but for many the benefit of joining an overseas project is the access it grants to parts of the world they might not be able to visit otherwise, and the chance to make a difference to remote communities. It could also help with future career plans, suggests Sherifi. "It gives you an insight into an area you're interested in, and within that you find what interests you in terms of job routes later on."

The experience is often life-changing, but a little care is required. International volunteering projects have been dogged by controversy in the past over the fees they charge – sometimes many thousands of pounds – and whether or not the money goes to the right place. When checking out potential projects, Sherifi recommends speaking to people from the organisation and finding out how they distribute their fees. "You want at least half of it to go back into the community you're working in, to make sure you're doing something good." It's also sensible to visit travel forums to see what's being said about an organisation; naturally, well-established companies tend to be the safest options.

But of all the gap year options available, independent travel is probably still the most popular. It comes with attendant stereotypes of bandana-sporting oafs slackpacking their way from hostel to hostel without seeing anything except the inside of the nearest bar, but this is an image Lonely Planet's Tom Hall is quick to dismiss. "I think that's a stereotype that's completely inaccurate. The cost and difficulties involved in going mean people focus on getting the most out of it."

According to Hall, independent travel offers a range of benefits, including an insight into the complexities of the world and the chance to gain skills that you can't learn in the classroom. "You'll pick up languages, but also self-reliance, budgeting, group dynamics and leadership; and you'll do that a long way from home."

Naturally all of those qualities – which can also be gained through volunteering and working – are of interest to universities and employers. "A gap year can absolutely help a candidate stand out from the crowd," says Carole Donaldson, manager in graduate employer John Lewis' resourcing department. "We are looking for people who can show how they have embraced the experience and used it to truly develop skills which can be transferred back into a day-to-day role – whether it's learning a new language or volunteering in a different country."

The choices open to independent travellers are dizzying, with backpacking being just one of them. Inter-railing through Europe, trekking, surfing holidays, cycling tours, sailing odysseys... all are popular, and of course independent travel could form one part of a larger adventure that also takes in a group trip, volunteering project or time spent working.

In fact with an entire planet to choose from, planning a gap year of any kind is both a thrilling and slightly intimidating prospect. Both Sherifi and Hall advocate a simple approach: a map, and a good old-fashioned list of places you'd like to go. Once you've worked out your must-see countries, types of travel (working, volunteering, backpacking etc) and any skills you'd like to learn, such as languages, you can take it to the map and begin plotting your route and coming up with a schedule.

There are numerous print guides to gap years available (Rough Guide's First time around the world is a reliable favourite) as well as online advice to help with research. But in all the frenzied excitement of planning that trip of a lifetime, don't overlook how to pay for it. Time dedicated to saving and working beforehand is time well spent, counsels Hall: "The more money you can earn before you go, the better time you're going to have."

One other factor to consider is what the UK might have to offer. "There are some wonderful places to visit in the UK," says Hall, and for those on a tight budget this green and pleasant land boasts a great range of travelling options, from volunteering on organic farms (wwoof.org.uk) to coast to coast cycling (c2c-guide.co.uk); or simply the chance to learn more about our heritage. "A gap year is going out and discovering things for yourself," says Sherifi, "and if it's in the UK, that's still a gap year!"

Finally, in the scramble to grab skills or experiences to make us more employable, it's easy to overlook the simple truth of travel: it's fun. "A lot of people feel the need to justify the benefits of it," says Sherifi, "but at the end of the day it's still the most fun you can possibly have. I've rarely come across anyone who didn't think it was the best year of their lives."

Perhaps it's this sense of fun and adventure that has allowed the gap year to endure, even in tough economic times, and why countless travellers since Kerouac have been drawn to the road. "I think the allure of the open road is undiminished," says Hall. "Travel is one of the few experiences that delivers exactly what it promises: freedom from what you've been doing, adventure, the unexpected, and the radically different." All that road is available. It's up to you what you do with it.

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