Where to start when planning a gap year

With my track record in organising I’m not sure I am exactly the best person to tell someone how to plan a trip. My advice would probably include things like: make sure you don’t turn up in a country without any kind of guidebook/idea where you’re going to stay on your first night (me in Japan);  make sure your train isn’t 12 hours longer than you thought (in China) and don’t take 42 hour bus journeys (in Chile).

Discovering our “24 hour” train journey was actually 36 hours.

When I first started trying to plan my 30b430 trip, I remember pinning a huge map to the living room wall and then just staring at it and thinking “Where on earth do I start?”

However, if you’ve decided to take a career break or a sabbatical and are feeling the same, I do think there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to narrow down where you want to go.

Is there a particular continent or country you’ve always wanted to visit?

I love the reasons that people give you for visiting a particular place. I sometimes think it’s the stories behind the trips that make them so special. In Argentina I met a lady who had waited more than 30 years to visit Iguazu Falls after an Argentinian penpal had sent her a postcard of it as a little girl and in Tokyo I met a guy who had loved Manga comics all of his life and had always dreamed of visiting the country they were made in.

For me, it’s always been South America. I fell in love with it the moment I arrived in Brazil with three friends from university. I love the passion of the people there. I love that they are always laughing and shouting and that if you can speak two words of Spanish, they take that as a sign that you’re fluent and spend the next ten minutes gabbing away to you even if you have no clue what’s going on. I love that it’s crazy and there are times when you have no idea what is going on, but you can always guarantee that whatever happens it’s going to be fun. So a couple of years ago, when I managed to persuade my boss to give me three weeks off work it was easy to narrow down my search and book a ticket to Colombia.

However, when I began planning my grown up gap year – aka my 30b430 trip – I organised it in a slightly different way, plotting the route around things I had always wanted to see or do. So I began in Peru where I’d dreamed of doing the Inca Trail and ended up in China where I stood on the Great Wall.

The 30b430 adventure begins in Peru.

If you have absolutely no idea where you want to go on your career break or sabbatical, then check out travel blogs and guidebooks. I’ve added so many places to my travel wish-list from posts I’ve seen mentioned on Twitter. If you at least give yourself somewhere to start then the rest kind of works itself out and it feels a bit more organised than just closing your eyes and sticking a pin in a globe – although that could be just as fun…

How much time do you have and how do you like to travel?

At home it’s a bit of a joke among my friends about how much I try to pack into a day. I’m always running around and am one of those people who, if I have a morning off work, believes I’ll have time to clean the house, go swimming, meet a friend for coffee and bake some cakes for my colleagues. Inevitably it never happens and yet it surprises me every time.

I think that’s why when I travel I prefer to do the opposite and go slowly. I’m not a fan of rushing around from sight to sight and, as most of what I love about going away is people watching and seeing day to day life, travelling slowly suits me. So for me if I only have a few weeks, I’d prefer to stay in one country so I have time to explore it.

Always time for a tea break…

That’s not to say that’s the right way for everyone. I met plenty of people on my trip who felt like they wanted to make the most of every single moment and thought that me sitting in a cafe all day was a waste of time. They preferred to travel quickly, taking in the main sights, before heading on to the next country. I even met one guy who came to Burma for a day, just to “get a feel for it”. While I’m not quite sure you can ever sum up a country in a day’s visit, I had to admire his tenacity.

But thinking about how you want to travel can help you to decide which countries to visit. For example, if you’ve got a month but you want to take it slowly it might be worth considering going a bit further afield to a single country in South America or Asia and working your way around it. But if you’d rather go flat out and sleep when you get home, then something like Interrailing around Europe, which gives you the scope to take in a number of countries, might be more your style.

Do you want somewhere which is easy to travel around or a place which is a bit more of a challenge?

Before I arrived in China I heard a lot of negative things about the country from other travellers I’d met along the way. So I was quite nervous and then very pleasantly surprised when I arrived there and found that it was completely different to what I’d been expecting. (I wrote about it here.)

Be prepared to be the centre of attention in some countries.

But it got me thinking about different people’s comfort zones. I don’t think China is a difficult place to travel in if you don’t mind asking people for help and you don’t get embarrassed with people staring at you/taking photos/laughing in your face when they’re nervous. Having previously spent a month in Burma I think I was prepared for the difficulties and didn’t mind them but I imagine if China was the first country in Asia you ever visited it might be a bit too full on.

So it’s worth thinking about the kind of experience you want to have. If it’s your first trip, you might prefer to choose somewhere fairly established on the traveller route. Or if you’re looking for a bit more adventure, you might try going off the beaten track. Either way is fine, it’s about choosing what suits you.

What comfort levels are you expecting?

Having spent the last nine months living in hostels, having my own room back at home still feels like a luxury. So I was surprised the other day when I was talking to a friend and she told me she couldn’t ever imagine staying in a hostel again.

That reminded me that as we get older and get used to a certain lifestyle at home, some people don’t like the idea of roughing it too much while they’re away. Even I got a shock at a hostel in Australia, when I realised I no longer thought it was acceptable to share a frying pan with 20 other people.

That’s why it’s worth thinking about which of your creature comforts you’ll be able to do without while you’re away on a career break or sabbatical.  For example, I absolutely loved Burma. But for all of its charm and the kindness of its people, there is no denying that years of military leadership has slowed down its development massively compared to its neighbours. The hotels were the most basic I stayed in for my entire trip and getting around still usually involves piling into some kind of pick-up truck, which isn’t for everyone.

What do you mean full? There’s still plenty of room!

Deciding on the kind of trip you want, along with the budget can often help to structure your trip.

Most importantly remember, nothing is set in stone. My favourite thing of all about travelling is that plans can be flexible. A night in a hostel can be extended to a week; plane tickets can be changed and people met on a random day trip can become travel buddies for weeks. Also, don’t forget, you’ll never be able to do everything on one trip, even if it is a gap year. So what you can’t do this time you can always save for your next adventure!

If you need more advice about saving money for a gap year, this may help and if you’re wondering how to go about setting a budget for career break or a sabbatical, check out this post.

3 responses to “Where to start when planning a gap year

  1. I’ve been so stuck on what to do once I finish my au pair contract in Germany, I think I might spend a month travelling through Europe now – thanks for the great post!

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