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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Pricing Manager, Finance, Edinburgh, £250-350p/d

£250 - £350 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is cur...

SEN Tutor- Speech and Language Specialist part time

£80 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?