It can be a struggle to convince your parents that a gap year can be more than a fugue of full moon parties and nights spent discussing the remedial powers of local drugs or who was officially the best Batman. Look no further: we’ve got you covered.
You can silence even the loudest of naysayers with this list of ways to get the most out of your travels, and prove that a trip around the world really is the most valuable way to spend a year out.
1. Volunteer and gain those all-important ‘soft skills’
Whether it involves cleaning up horse poo on a farm in Australia or teaching English to kids in Peru, volunteering on an ethical project is an undeniably valuable way of travelling. You get the fuzzy feeling of making a difference, but also acquire important life lessons, or ‘soft skills’ as they’re known in the business world. Learn to work with people from all walks of life (aka ‘people skills’) and cut those apron strings as you realise you can’t call mummy every time something goes tits up (aka ‘independence’).
2. Learn a language and bask in your new opportunities, mon chéri!
Firstly, speaking another language is an excellent strategy for picking up prospective beaus; believe me, nothing is hotter than being multi-lingual (scientifically proven!). Beyond an increase in your sex appeal, learning a language on your gap year can increase your job prospects and make it a damn sight easier to successfully order a beer.
Most countries have their hubs for learning the local language, but to pick up some of the globe’s most useful, head to China’s Shanghai for Mandarin classes or study Spanish in – my personal favourite – (and one of South America’s cheapest places) Sucre in Bolivia.
3. Keep a note of your travels and inspire others
Recording your adventures, whether in diary, blog or video form is a must. I’ve realised how quickly you forget the places you’ve seen and the people you meet; before long, these memories are languishing in the parts of your brain normally inhabited by dead flies and fluff.
What’s more, at some point in the future you will want to regale somebody with the story of that time you were so ill on dodgy street food you thought you’d ruptured your bowel. Believe me: this is classic dinner party conversation material.
Finally, there are people at home who want to hear your tales and might even be encouraged to follow in your footsteps. I can’t count how many old friends have contacted me to say they’re going travelling because of reading about my adventures; people love to be inspired and live vicariously through your experiences, so give them what they’re after.
4. Use all your free time to take a course
One of the best parts of travelling is suddenly realising how much time there is in the day. Rather than waking at 8am, you can stay in bed until 2pm or replace sensible things like showering and eating with welding yourself to a hammock for the afternoon and snoozing your way into eternity.
I hate to be the party pooper, but this lifestyle can get really, really boring after a while. It is possible to have too much free time and there is an alternative to spending all of your evenings having an embarrassingly clichéd singsong around the camp fire in your hostel.
When I travelled for two years, I turned into that awful person who did things: online photography classes; MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses); even starting my own blog.
I still had plenty of time to see places and meet hundreds of interesting people along the way, but coming home I felt better in the knowledge that I’d used the time to pick up useful skills, rather than just learning how much Bolivian red wine I could consume before puking (I also did this; it was about two and a half bottles).
5. Travel alone. You won’t regret it
For gap year travellers and beyond, exploring the world with a friend or partner is a way of diminishing any fears you might have and means that there’s always someone there to share the experience. But solo travel is a whole different ballgame and one that for many is far more rewarding.
Not only do you end up chatting to more people because you’ve no longer got the safety net of your mates, but you realise just how brave and independent you can be. Solo travel leaves you ready to face anything that the world might throw your way.
6. Follow up on your travel friendships
It’s far too easy to return from your gap year and settle back into a post-travel routine, as your days globetrotting disappear into the ether. And soon enough, the friendships you made along the way can follow suit – unless you actively make the effort to stay in touch.
On a purely practical note, international friends are an excellent source of cheap holiday accommodation and I recently enjoyed abusing an Italian friend’s hospitality on a trip to Venice. Of course, I’ll be returning the favour when she’s in my home town. For now, I’m happy just to enjoy the fact that the travel friendships I’ve made and worked hard to maintain are my most valuable takeaways from travel.
Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she’s made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur