Gap years for all

Gap years are too important to be the sole preserve of the young. Whatever your age, a year off provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate your life and, if necessary, alter course for the future.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY GAP YEARS FOR ALL?

What do you mean by gap years for all?

Why should young people have all the fun? Gap years don't just work between school and university, or between graduation and real life. Everyone needs an opportunity to broaden their horizons. It may be labelled a "career break" or "sabbatical", and the time span need be a year in name only – in reality it could be anything from a month to a few years. Work can dominate our lives to an unhealthy degree. A gap year will redress the balance.

So is a gap year just an extended holiday?

If it is, you're doing something wrong. It should be a total break from routine, a chance to recharge the batteries, to fulfil your dreams, to see the world (or at least some other countries), learn new skills or perhaps help the less fortunate. You could go and spend the entire time living in a hut on a tropical beach, but experience shows that the most rewarding gap years are those that are challenging and inspirational – these will be far more worthwhile and fulfilling but every bit as recuperative.

How do I get started?

The toughest obstacle is actually deciding to do it: any voluntary dramatic lifestyle change requires courage and determination. This will be a far easier decision for someone who has already been travelling earlier in their lives: they will know that the hardest bit was going from "I wish I could do that" to "I'm going to do it". Do you want to look back on your life in years to come and regret never making that decision? The actual planning of a gap year includes most of the elements of organising a normal holiday, but other factors to consider will depend on your life situation. The school-leaver is likely to be concentrating on raising funds, whereas a 40-year-old may need to consider mortgage payments.

What am I going to do?

There's no reason why a gap year can't be spent in the UK, but let's assume that you are going overseas. Have some objectives – don't just drift. That's not to say that every moment has to be planned and have a point to it, in fact it makes good sense to build in some leisure time. Maybe you'd like to cycle round New Zealand or take a boat down the Amazon. Many people study a language overseas. You may wish to volunteer to work on a conservation project, participate in a charity challenge or develop an existing interest such as writing, photography or painting. Enrolling on courses to learn cookery or massage is very popular.

How will that benefit me in the future?

Employers and colleges are likely to be impressed by the applicant who has used a gap year wisely and constructively, particularly if what has been done is relevant to the subjects or type of work for which he or she is applying. Without realising it you will be developing (or enhancing) skills and acquiring confidence. You will gain valuable experience in planning, social skills and money management. You will strengthen your independence and sense of responsibility. You may also make contacts that could prove useful in the future.

How do I decide where I should go and why?

Your personal interests will help you decide what you want to do, or at least point you in certain directions. I'd suggest contacting a specialist travel agent such as Bridge The World, Quest Travel or Trailfinders. Almost all only employ staff who have taken gap years and used them to travel extensively. Apart from quoting you competitive prices for air tickets, they are good sources of information and should offer you help with suggestions of their own.

Make a list of your "must-go-to" destinations, and a second list of "would-quite-like-to-go-to" places. Decide if the order of your itinerary is important, and work out your time restraints.

What are the differences between "travelling" and going on holiday?

You have more of an opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture, customs, people and history of the places you visit and get to know them: you are likely to have the flexibility to extend your stay in places that you particularly like or move on after a few days when you've had enough. Most of those travelling abroad for months (rather than days or weeks) travel on comparatively low budgets. Many keep costs down by using the absolute cheapest forms of local public transport and stay in the least expensive accommodation they can find. They are proud of the hardships they endure and some look down on bigger-spending travellers and tourists (oddly, many of these people think nothing of regularly downing countless beers in expensive bars).

As a school-leaver, my gap year was on the proverbial shoestring. In my career break I still prefer to avoid tourist buses and international hotel chains because I feel that gives me a richer travel experience. But what a pleasure it is to be in a position to spend a small amount extra for a more comfortable seat on a bus, train or boat, a slightly better standard of accommodation and occasionally ("Judas!" I would once have shouted) take a taxi rather than an interminably slow, crowded local bus between the station and my chosen guest house.

So what are the practicalities of arranging a gap year?

Losing a job or being offered voluntary redundancy provides an obvious opportunity to take a gap year. For those who wish to remain in work, many employers are receptive to a request for a sabbatical or period of unpaid leave. School-leavers and students will have to raise funds for their trip. Options include working for a few months in the UK beforehand, working abroad during the gap year, or finding sponsors.

Planning can be divided into two sections: what you will be doing overseas and what needs to be done about your life here in the UK. There is, of course, much more to think about than just cancelling the milk, and the earlier you start to plan and research the better. Decent travel insurance is the first essential; an up-to-date passport and the necessary visas will help avoid hassles on the road.

How much capital will I need?

You know the old adage: double the cash and halve the luggage. In parts of Asia you can happily live on £5 a day; in the US you'd be looking at £30 as a bare minimum – this works out at between £2,000 and £11,000 for a full year, including a cheap flight from Britain. Clearly you don't want to carry this much cash around with you, though travellers' cheques are still one of the safest and most reliable methods of carrying money. But back them up with credit cards and debit cards – check that your cards won't expire while you're away and that your debit card can be used to withdraw money from ATMs overseas. Happily, the internet has dramatically improved travellers' ability to stay in contact and to monitor their finances. In theory, someone with a regular income coming in, eg from investments or a pension, need never come home.

How do I put my life at home on hold?

Those taking a career break are likely to have more complex arrangements to consider than students. There are various options for those with mortgages – possibilities include letting out the property or changing to a flexible mortgage which allows suspension of payments for several months. Having children at school can be something of a stumbling block. Some families (typically but not exclusively when one or both parents is a teacher) take their children away with them. But it is more common for the gap year to be restricted to a couple of months, overlapping school summer holidays.

Those considering taking their children out of school for an extended period will find the Home Education Advisory Service ( www.heas.org.uk) and Education Otherwise ( www.education-otherwise.org) useful.

Being in a relationship with a partner who can't or doesn't want to go on a gap year with you shouldn't necessarily be a reason not to go: many people go away without their partners, confident in the strength of their relationship or realising that if they don't go they may begin to resent their partner's influence. There is a lot of truth in the thought that "a worthwhile relationship will be strong enough to last", and some hearts do grow fonder through absence. If you go away together the relationship will be tested in a different way.

Recent changes in quarantine laws mean that you are now able to take pets to many countries under certain conditions ( www.freespace.virgin.net/passports.forpets is helpful).

It all sounds a bit scary!

Stepping off into the unknown can sound daunting. No matter how often you read about how many millions of others have experienced and conquered the same fears you are experiencing, those feelings probably won't disappear (though thorough planning can help). If you have limited travel experience you might want to start off on an overland tour (contact Dragoman www.dragoman.co.uk) or small group local tour (try Adventure Bound www.imaginative-traveller.com) before striking out on your own.

Your mental attitude is very important and you should make every effort to be positive. Though you should try to keep things flexible (eg get air tickets that are date-changeable), try to resist the temptation to rush back when problems arise – if you curtail your trip and return home after a few days I can guarantee you'll regret it later.

Though I've visited dozens of countries and have been travelling on and off for more than 25 years, now and again I still get a dose of what I call "first-night blues": a completely new country, seemingly unwelcoming, perhaps very humid, a long journey to get there, a taxi/bus/rickshaw driver who's heavily overcharged me, a hotel room in which I want to spend the minimum time possible. You're at your most vulnerable when you're tired, getting ill, or something has gone wrong – but the smallest thing can trigger off those familiar feelings of "what am I doing here?" and "I want to go home". Almost everyone experiences some degree of homesickness. Some remedies: have a shower, get some sleep, next morning the sun'll probably be shining, have breakfast and you'll feel far more positive and confident. Or treat yourself every so often: a night in a nice hotel or a meal at a good restaurant can be an excellent pick-me-up.

You'll learn to look on such things as seemingly endless uncomfortable bus journeys as material for your travel tales or e-mails home: travellers frequently try to outdo each other with stories of calamities that have befallen them, knowing that "you'll never guess what happened to me" is far more interesting than "everything ran like clockwork".

Will it be hard to readjust after my gap year?

It's a good idea to begin to prepare for your return to the "real world" during the gap year: don't dread the idea of returning, but try to think constructively about how you'll re-organise your lifestyle to give room and time for your newly recognised interests.

Many people come back from gap years and begin radically different jobs. Be prepared for a change in the relationship with some of your friends. Many will be supportive and enthusiastic of your gap year, but you may be upset to find others aren't so positive. They may see what you're doing as running away from life, accuse you of being lazy and self-indulgent and they may only see your gap year as an extremely long holiday. By choice or by circumstance they will continue with their conventional lives (which may not be as fulfilling as they'd really like) while you're off doing things that sound (and hopefully are) exotic and exciting. You are likely to return a changed person so don't be surprised if once you get back you find yourself drifting apart from people who had been close friends. You may miss the full days, constant new experiences, steady flow of new and interesting people to meet and lack of commitments of the travelling life (not to mention the weather). Some find it hard to enjoy one- or two-week holidays, wishing that they had longer: I learned to say to myself "I'm really going to enjoy these two weeks". When you're in the UK and feel consistently down, remember that there's nothing to stop you doing it again in a few years.

How do I get more information?

There are plenty of websites (such as www.gapyear.com, www.gap-year.com and www.gapwork.com) and guide books (e.g. The Gap-Year Guidebook published by John Catt Educational Ltd and Taking A Gap Year published by Vacation Work, www.vacationwork.co.uk). Most of these, though, are geared to students. I recommend Taking A Career Break (also published by Vacation Work) for those who are working. The "Know Before You Go" section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website www.fco.gov.uk/travel has useful practical advice. Seek out those who have completed gap years – most will be happy to advise you based on their own experiences.

'Make friends with the locals'

I met Emily Edmondstone on the bus from Kuala Terengganu to Marang, on the east coast of mainland Malaysia. She was 18 years old and in the middle of a seven-month trip around the world, on a fairly standard itinerary: India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and America ­ but, unlike most people, spent three months of her time in Indonesia.

"I totally fell in love with virtually everything about the country. I spent most of my time with the locals, I did as they did, ate where they ate, and I picked up extensive Indonesian on the street, so I was able to converse with locals who couldn't speak English.

"Although I did stick a lot to the beaten track, I also left it as much as possible. I became friends with many locals, and through them had far more interesting experiences than simply visiting tourist sites."

'More to life than work'

Paula was 38 and had been running a busy sales department for eight years. She'd already taken a career break in 1993, travelling in South East Asia and Australasia for eight months. Recently she'd become interested in spirituality, and had attended evening classes in yoga and meditation. She wanted to explore this deeper but realised it wasn't going to happen with the little free time she had from work.

Even though she made it clear that she might not return to the company, her employer agreed to keep her job open for six months. She rented out her flat and booked a place on a spiritual retreat on an ashram in India. She is delighted with her decision and won't be returning to her old job, saying "there's more to life than that". do

'Fulfilling a dream'

Jim, 61, had been married for 22 years when his wife died suddenly. Within weeks, he was offered voluntary redundancy and accepted it. He worked out an itinerary, bought a round-the-world ticket for less than £900 and set off. His first stop was Bangkok, and he went from there to Cambodia ­ he'd dreamt of visiting the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat since seeing adocumentary on it. Days later he found himself working as a volunteer for a charity in Cambodia. He went on to visit friends in Singapore, New Zealand and California, and ticked off another dream ­ the Great Barrier Reef. do

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