When I left high school, I wasn’t interested in having a gap year, at all. I was young and naive and was keen fast track my journey to adulthood as soon as possible. I never really considered how life changing a gap year could be, and it took having one literally fall in my lap to change my mind on the subject.
To elaborate, I’d decided to pursue post graduate studies, and found myself suddenly having a year to kill before they started! Suddenly, I had a gap year on my hands and didn’t have the faintest idea how to spend it!
I resolved to spend it seeing as much of the world as possible, but at the same time I wanted to make the most of the experience; I wanted to pick up skills; give back; immerse myself in cultures etc.
Sure, I wanted to go out and party, but I didn’t want those memories to be the only thing I came away with.
So I looked around and asked myself, “what are some gap year ideas?”, and “how do I make the most out of my gap year?”, but, honestly, there wasn’t much out there at the time.
I needed a decent article to give me some gap year ideas, but nobody had written one. I’m sure there are plenty out there now, but as each person’s experience is unique, I thought I’d throw mine into the mix to see if it could help.
With that in mind, here are ten ideas for a gap year! I hope it helps!
(P.S. Sorry about the bad photos, they’re all from my gap year when I didn’t have a clue about photography 😀 Also, unless otherwise mentioned, all of the companies recommended are from personal experience and not sponsored)
1. Intern Abroad
As soon as I left university, I had this urge to travel as far from home as humanly possible. I was still young and not very well travelled, so I wanted to try something that was relatively well organised. I also needed something I could get past my parents, so having a constructive element was kind of important too.
A quick bit of research helped me find an awesome company called CRCC Asia that offered students and graduates an opportunity to intern in Asia. I was desperate to check out China, so immediately signed on to the Beijing experience.
It was honestly one of the best 4 weeks of my life and I couldn’t recommend it more. I made a ton of great friends, had an amazing job interning in a Chinese Private Equity firm, was fully immersed in Chinese business culture, and had time to fully experience the incredible city of Beijing. I mean, how many people can say they had a chance to camp on the great wall of china during their internship!
Disclaimer: it wasn’t cheap, but the things I learnt have proved invaluable to me in the years since. Highly recommend giving it a try!
2. Take a Language Course Abroad
I never thought I’d be going back to school during my gap year, but when a friend suggested we both go to Berlin to brush up on our German, it was impossible for me to say no.
The two of us booked in to a course at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, and took a month of intensive classes (you can stay longer if you want). To be honest, I was far more interested in experiencing the German culture and nightlife, but the course was a fantastic way to ground myself, keep my family off my back, and have a reason to get out of bed each day (not always easy when you’re hitting clubs that open on a Thursday and close the following Tuesday).
Berlin is culturally about as far from Beijing as possible, but the community I found was in many ways the same. One of the amazing things about travelling is finding other people that are in the same boat as you. Everyone is alone, everyone is looking to have a good time, and everyone wants to get as much from their experience as possible. Every day is a chance to take a field trip and learn something new about the culture you’ve immersed yourself in.
If you don’t fancy Berlin and Germany (I’d still recommend visiting to learn about the absolutely unique and tragic history of Berlin), then consider taking a course in a different country. There are plenty of courses around the world, depending on your preferences!
3. Pick up a Skill
This one was totally unexpected but ended up completely and utterly changing the course of my life. Learning a skill is always time well spent, and picking one up during a gap year is the perfect time to do it!
So what did I learn? I learnt to be ski instructor in Banff, Canada… and now I still live here 6 years later!
Why a ski instructor course? Well, for one thing, I’d always wanted to be a decent skier! And honestly, it just sounded like a lot of fun! I’d heard about ski seasons where you could be a liftie or a chalet boy/girl, but they were all focused on survival and making money. I wanted to pick up a skill that I could use afterwards!
So, I decided to do the course. It was an intensive course, designed to take you from beginner to level 2 ski instructor by the end. While some of my friends were just doing it to learn a valuable skill, many of my friends have gone on to exciting careers all over the world; teaching skiing/snowboarding in Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Europe.
My course took place in Banff, Canada, where we spent 13 weeks living in Banff’s HI hostel, skiing all day and partying all night. The food was basic, the beds were lumpy, but it was one of the happiest times of my life. I also learnt a valuable skill that I now use every single year in the Canadian Rockies.
Again, the course ain’t cheap, and whatever the course costs, you can guarantee you’ll end up spending double on drinking, partying and other ridiculous activities (like heli-skiing). Still.. no regrets!
In case you’re interested, the company I went with was called Snowskool, and I had an absolute blast.
4. Volunteer Abroad
In my case, the volunteering was marine conservation. This was another completely random idea I stumbled across that turned out to be a totally life changing and eye-opening experience during my gap year. It was also another organized trip that meant, as far as my parents were concerned, I was being looked after!
My trip took me to the Philippines, to the beautiful island of Southern Leyte. There I was to spend 4 weeks exploring undiscovered reefs, documenting the biodiversity and educating the locals about good fishing practice. Preserving the world’s reefs is enormously important, and it was great to teach the locals about its importance, and impart skills that would benefit an entire community.
It also gave me the chance to rack up over a hundred dives on some of the world’s most untouched and bountiful reefs. I’ve dived the Great Barrier Reef and Thailand (two places with amazing reputations), and neither could hold a candle to the Philippines. Seriously, even if you don’t want to spend a month there, you have to dive in the Philippines.
Again, this was another paid experience but it was by no means luxury. It was a humbling experience that taught me a lot about how to survive without many of life’s luxuries (running water, internet, tv, toilet paper etc). If you’re interested, the company is an NGO called Coral Cay Conservation.
Note about volunteering and “ego-tourism”
By the way, (and I hope I don’t sound too hypocritical here), if you’re going to volunteer, please do your research and make sure that the money you’re spending is actually going to the community you’re trying to help and not taking potential jobs away from them.
Volunteering to build houses for free (for example) can actually take paid jobs away from local people, and in some cases can do more harm than good. I didn’t think about that back in 2010 when I did this trip, but I’m confident that we used our skills to teach locals about conservation. I think it’s fair to say that we could have done more to impart our skills though.
In all honesty, the best thing you can do for a community is to take some of the money you would have spent on the volunteer experience and donate it directly to the cause. Then go to the area and spend your money on tourism and local businesses! (Perhaps a little unrealistic but worth a try!)
Volunteering can still be a good thing though, and I would definitely do it again provided I’d done my research and could guarantee that my money was going to the right place/not taking away anyone’s jobs.
5. Do something crazy
Ok so I’m not recommending putting your life at risk or committing crimes or anything like that, but putting yourself out there and doing something uncharacteristic of yourself is what a gap year is all about. Go swim with sharks, go skydiving, eat bugs, get lost in the jungle; come home with stories that raise eyebrows. After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?
But again, let me just reiterate, don’t do silly things and put your life at risk, but do find a few ways to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something that makes your friends say, “wow, I would have never expected you to have done that!” It could be cage diving with a shark, or it could just be trying exotic food. Whatever it is, use it as a chance to learn a bit more about yourself and your personal limits. Write a bucket list and make sure you check some of them off during your gap year.
To give you a some ideas, here are some of my favourite experiences:
- Fire skipping at the Full Moon Party in Thailand (recommend the party not the skipping rope!)
- Tubing in Laos
- Skydiving onto Mission Beach in Australia
- Drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail in the Yukon
- Camping in a tropical storm in Hawaii
- Camping in an open hammock in the rain up an unknown mountain in the Philippines
- …and many more!
My stories might be reckless to some and tame to others, but each time I pushed myself out of my comfort zone or said yes to an opportunity, I grew a little (and sometimes gained a new scar too).
A Gap year is your chance to find adventure and a time you may never have again in your life. Go do something memorable!
6. Live in a foreign city
The next thing you should try is living in a foreign city. Immersing yourself in a foreign culture is one of the most unique and gratifying experiences, and will truly open your eyes to different customs.
For me, it was spending 3 months living in Hong Kong that really made me appreciate the value of living abroad. True, HK has a lot of western influence so it wasn’t a true culture shock, but there are still differences in the way things are done that require an open mind and a willingness to try different things.
If you’re from somewhere cold, go and live somewhere hot! If you’re from somewhere hot, go and play in the snow somewhere. Figure out currency exchange, how to take the subway; how to rent an apartment in another language; figure out how to get home when you don’t speak the language (ok HK is fine, but have you ever been to Macau where they only speak Cantonese and Portuguese??! WAAAH!!), or even how to even stop a cab!
It’s all the little daily challenges that make you appreciate a culture fully, and it’s something you absolutely can’t appreciate on a short visit.
When I first visited HK, I went for 3 days and absolutely hated it. It was hot, humid, busy and chaotic, and I was completely out of my comfort zone. Fast forward to the end of my 3 months, and it’s one of my favourite places on Earth. It took time to come to grips with another culture, and I honestly credit that time for my ability to handle the chaos of new cities and cultures with a cool head.
Personally, if you’re new to travelling and hesitant to fully dive in at first, I would recommend travelling somewhere with some cultural similarities, and then move as you become more accustomed.
7. Teach abroad
This wasn’t something I did during my gap year, but now having taught our social media course in Bali a couple of times, I can see what a valuable experience it is. Again, you’ll have a chance to live in another country, live life as a local, interact with locals and, as a bonus, get paid!
Teaching is also in huge demand around the world, and an enormously gratifying job. There are dozens of places to set up as a TEFL teacher (particularly in Asia), and many of my friends have spent time in China, Nepal and Korea teaching English.
As an added bonus, being a teacher will help you develop your own language skills, will introduce you to locals, and will give you a home base for exploration around the area you’re living in. Our time in Bali allowed us to explore some of the neighbouring islands without having to drag our huge bags every time, for example.
8. Go somewhere remote
This isn’t for everyone, but the potential rewards are much higher. I’m not suggesting walking off into the Amazon without a guide, but just venturing away from the traditional tourist routes can be enormously rewarding.
In many tourist spots, the constant visitors from abroad have robbed areas of their personality and have turned towns into tourist towns. Locals are sick of obnoxious tourists and you often don’t get the authentic experience.
Better yet, try to take a tour designed for local tourists! Louise and I took a Chinese bus tour from Hong Kong to Guilin while we were living in Hong Kong, and I can honestly tell you that it is one of my favourite memories.
I didn’t understand a single word for 4 days, but we went places that you wouldn’t normally go as an English speaker, and you were treated to experiences normally reserved for locals.
During our time in Beijing, a friend and I decided to head north into Mongolia; a place that rarely saw western tourists. Our interactions with confused locals, spending the evening picking up horse poop for our campfire and taking obscure chairlift rides through the desert are some of my fondest memories that we just wouldn’t have ever had if we’d taken the polished tours designed for westerners.
The world is getting smaller and smaller, so finding somewhere undiscovered is getting harder and harder every year. Do a little extra research and I promise you it’ll be worth it!
Alternatively, get out into the wilderness and find yourself an adventure!
9. Go somewhere that won’t be here forever
With the passing of time and an uncertain world, there are places that are here today that might be gone tomorrow. Use your gap year to cross somewhere off your bucketlist that our children might never have a chance to see.
Just a few years ago, you could comfortably visit treasures such as the museums of Iraq, the ancient relics in Afghanistan and the Azure Window in Malta. Many of these places have now been closed or reduced to rubble by the ravages of time and conflicts that have seemingly popped up out of nowhere.Even Machu Picchu is discussing limiting tourism, and places like the Great Barrier Reef are gradually becoming a distant memory.
I’m thankful for the things I’ve seen and try each year to see a little more that might not be here for future generations. Say yes to opportunity because you never know when a door might close on a place you thought would be there forever.
10. Work Abroad
Ok so most of these bullets have been about spending money for experiences, but the great thing about gap years is that you can still get an incredible experience working abroad and earning money.
Many countries have visa exchanges in place, where young people can travel and get work visas without having jobs lined up. In fact, my first working visa to Canada was with the “International Experience Canada” visa; an amazing 2 year visa that lets you work anywhere across Canada for 2 years in any job. Many countries have treaties like this, so pick a country and pack your bags!
Once you’re older, many of these visa systems won’t be available to you, so it’s in your interest to try them while you’re young!
Another great opportunity is fruit picking in Australia. If you really love the place and a year visa isn’t enough for you, 3 months of fruit picking will buy you another year there!
A gap year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the world without the responsibilities of adulthood and it’s something I seriously can’t recommend enough. If you’re worried about taking time off from life, there are dozens of ways you can either make a gap year economical or take something positive away from it (as the points above should have shown).
While many use it as an opportunity to party, it’s also an opportunity to broaden your horizons, gain valuable skills and experience, and even earn money!
With that being said, your trip won’t happen without proper planning. Putting in decent research is the only way you’ll reach the end of the year with left over cash and a feeling that you’ve spent the time as best you could. Hopefully this post has given you some great ideas, but feel free to get in touch with any questions!