When planning a gap year, the whole world can seem a pretty daunting oyster. Here are some of Serena Kutchinsky's pearls of wisdom
NOT YET decided what to do in your gap year? As the A-level grind draws to a close, many students will be wondering whether to take a year off before going to university or starting to work. This option has grown increasingly popular over the last two decades, with nearly 21,000 students opting to take a year out before university in 1998. Although still vilified by some as an excuse to spend 12 months in bed watching the Teletubbies, the gap year is being increasingly recognised as an informative, educational and, perhaps, career-enhancing experience. The possibilities seem endless, there are gap schemes covering everything from teaching English in Nepal to yoghurt- making in Ireland. But if you don't start planning now, you might just find yourself doing a year of shelf-stocking at Sainsbury's.

Voluntary Work

This popular gap year option is ideal if you want to combine inexpensive travel with a deeper understanding of a foreign culture and society - and the chance to salve your middle-class angst at the same time. The range of opportunities is pretty vast, however, and it is important to find the scheme which best suits your interests. Obviously, there is no point wasting your year clearing rain forests in Brazil if you would rather be turtle-farming in Spain.

Gap Activity Projects (0118 9576634) is one of the most established companies in this field. They offer six-month placements in 33 countries worldwide. Projects on offer include teaching English in 23 countries, everywhere from Romania to Tibet, caring for sick children in India, assisting park-wardens in Ecuador, and doing archaeological work in the South Pacific. Candidates are selected on the grounds of their resilience, initiative and "stickability". Costs range from pounds 1,000-pounds 2,000, inclusive of airfare, insurance, board and lodging. Gap also has close links with several important companies, such as Unilever and Cable & Wireless, and often places volunteers on their recruitment lists.

The Project Trust (01879 230444) is a small, intimate organisation which sends 200 volunteers on year-long placements in 24 countries. Focusing on the need for total immersion, its directors weed out those they believe can face the challenge ahead via a gruelling training week in the west of Scotland. Education is their priority, and the majority of their schemes involve teaching English and other subjects up to GCSE level. The cost is pounds 3,175 for the full year inclusive of airfare, food and lodging.

Project 67 (0171-581 7373) deals exclusively with voluntary work placements, for a minimum of two months, on kibbutzim in Israel. The scheme operates all year round, starting every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. It embraces people from a vast range of social and religious backgrounds, and provides an opportunity to experience the unique community ethos of a kibbutz. Tasks range from responsibilities in the kitchens and refectories to outdoors jobs such as caring for the animals. Organisers stress the projects' maturing aspects, and the possibility of further travel once a placement is finished. The cost is minimal, at pounds 250 for two months.

Other interesting organisations include Africa Venture (01380 729009) which co-ordinates four-month courses in Africa working with children, and offers the chance to go on safari. And Raleigh International (0171-371-8585) which focuses on development and conservation projects overseas.

Language Courses

Another alternative is to spend time abroad improving your language skills. Don't feel discouraged if you decided not to do a language at university - a lot of students decide to learn something completely new in their gap year.

So, whether your secret passion is German or Japanese, now is the time to pack your bags and head off for a period of total immersion. But be warned: these courses are expensive, and unless your parents are willing to make a donation, you will have to spend a good part of your year working to raise funds. The majority of the companies operate within European countries, one of the most renown being EF International Language Schools (0171-795 6675). They operate their own schools in 10 different locations, including Moscow, Nice and Ecuador.

Courses on offer to gap- year students range from Intensive courses of 12 weeks, to a full nine months abroad, with the possibility of spending that time in up to three different countries. The focus of the teaching is on grammar, but opportunities do exist to study history, literature and culture. Accommodation is generally with local families, allowing students to integrate with a foreign culture. Costs go from pounds 3,000 for 12 weeks to pounds 5,000-pounds 7,900 for nine months.

Euro Academy (0181-686 2363) runs a similar set of programmes, with a maximum duration of three months, including options to study art history, Tuscan cooking and wines, and Italian cinema in the glorious setting of Florence. Costs for 12 weeks range from pounds 2,000-pounds 4,000, depending on location.If you want to venture further afield, to Japan, for example, get in touch with the embassy and see what they recommend. The Japanese Embassy (0171- 465-6500) has a list of 400 schools on its books!

Paid Work

Funding is always a problem for students, particularly those in gap years who are unable to qualify for student loans. One way of overcoming this hurdle is to combine wanderlust with work abroad. There are hundreds of weird and wacky jobs on offer all over the globe, ranging from feeding baby lemurs in Madagascar to the more conventional options of au-pairing and chalet-girling. For the full range of options, consult books such as Summer Jobs Abroad (pounds 8.99), Work Your Way Around the World (pounds 12.95) or International Directory of Voluntary Work (pounds 9.99), all published by Vacation Work (01865 241978).

Among the commonest options - and despite the Louise Woodward brouhaha - au-pairing can be an easy way to learn about foreign lifestyles and cultures. It gives people the stability of a family structure in the midst of an alien society, and provides them with valuable child-care experience.

Agencies such as Avalon (01344 778246), BUNAC (0171-251 3472) and Aupair America (0171-581 7332) run schemes in Europe, America, Canada and Australia. America still welcomes British au pairs, paying them pounds 87 a week for 40-45 hours of work, which is at least better than the pounds 40 for 30 hours in Europe. Agencies stress that they take pains to match candidates with a suitable family, and arrange interviews before their departure. Although the work is often mundane, many former au pairs wax lyrical about their experience. Another attraction is the opportunity to learn a foreign language, with some European agencies making lessons obligatory.

Spending a season (November to end of April) as a chalet-girl or -boy allows skiing or snow-boarding fanatics to finance six months of fun on the slopes. The social scene in places such as Val-d'Isere is hectic, but the work is hard, and operators such as Mark Warner (0171-761 7300) and Cristal (0181-241 5121) stress that participants cannot expect to party wildly every night and still do their jobs properly. Everyone works a six-day week, with four to five hours free for skiing each day. The pay, at pounds 56 a week, is little more than pocket-money, and although this may sound like slave-labour, participants do also get free food, board, lift -passes, and ski rental. You do not have to possess any skills or previous experience beyond being sociable, helpful, and able to cook beans-on-toast.

Organised Travel

This option suits people who enjoy a physical challenge and simply want to travel, but are not yet ready to travel independently in, for example, Latin America, Asia or Africa. Companies such as Exodus (0181-673 0859), Dragoman (01728 861133), Encounter Overland (0171- 373 1433) and Kumuka (0171-937 8855), among others, run package adventures in these areas, allowing you to select your own personal itinerary of between four to 31 weeks. Although hardened travellers might regard this as spoon-feeding, there are numerous benefits, including security (a much-needed reassurance for anxious parents). The guides that lead the tours are well acquainted with the terrain, and can ensure you get the most out of your trip. There is also the social aspect of travelling in groups of up to 18 people. Considering the length of the trips, they are inexpensive; reckon on between pounds 15 and pounds 20 per day. Six months of solid travel can cost as little as pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000.

If you favour a slightly more independent trip, South America Experience (0171- 976 5551), in conjunction with youth specialists Campus and STA Travel, can help you organise an itinerary of three to 12 months travelling, finding you the cheapest flights, and providing advice on where to stay and what to see. If you are determined to battle it out alone on the overland trails, parents can take heart - you will certainly not be the only ones.