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Gap Years For Ages 16, 17 and 18

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Helen Winter

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Written by: Helen Winter

So many people think that you have to be 18 or over to travel but this just isn’t true. Once you’ve turned 16 you can start thinking seriously about getting out there into the world. This article will give travel advice specifically to 16, 17 and 18 year olds, showing the various opportunities and restrictions for each age group.

A Gap Year for 16 Year Olds

You start getting some real freedoms when you turn 16 and among these is the opportunity to travel. Unfortunately, many 16 year olds researching gap years are often faced with 18-25-only options, or denied a night at a hotel on the grounds that a ‘responsible adult’ is not there to supervise. In some situations it would indeed make life easier to have an older companion join you, but if that isn’t an option then don’t fear: a gap year at 16 or 17 is still possible – you’ve just got to look in the right places…

Travelling overseas at 16

Once you turn 16 in the UK you can apply for an adult passport, though keep in mind it takes at least six weeks to arrive so don’t book any international travel for immediately after your birthday! The vast majority of airlines, both long haul and short haul, allow 16 year olds to travel alone (providing you have an adult passport) which means you can fly pretty much anywhere in the world.
If you’re not quite ready to board a plane by yourself, how about a train? A really popular way to travel in Europe is to do something called InterRailing, which basically means you can travel throughout practically every European country by train, which is a really easy and fun first backpacking adventure. InterRailing Passes can be booked at any age, with special discounts if you’re aged 16-25 – score!

Drinking limits for 16 year olds abroad

Now, when most 16 year olds go travelling they want to have a good time, and more often than not this involves drinking and clubbing. As you’ve probably figured out by now, the legal drinking age in the UK is 18. However, this law differs depending on what country you are in…
In some countries there is no drinking age at all. These include Cambodia, Vietnam and Romania. In other countries – particularly in Europe – the drinking age is 16. These include Austria, Germany (famous for the beer festival Oktoberfest) and Belgium.
If you’d like a legal tipple or two on your gap year the best thing to do is look up the rules for each country individually and plan around those – a quick Google search will reveal all. And remember: gap years aren’t all about getting wasted – the smart people who know how to control their booze have the pleasure of actually remembering all those great nights out!
Oktoberfest, Germany

Finding accommodation for 16 year olds

While you can travel to pretty much any country in the world once you’ve turned 16, there is a catch: in some countries most hotels and hostels will only allow you to book a room if you’re 18 or over – or at least accompanied by someone who is!
Again, as with finding which countries you can have a drink in, the best thing is to pre-plan as much as possible. Make sure you have the majority of your accommodation booked – under your name and details – before you arrive. This way you won’t have any nasty surprises with getting turned away. Some hotels and hostels will require a letter of consent from a parent before they’ll let you stay, so again, research the rules and be prepared!
The other alternative is to hunt down some distant relatives living abroad and ask if you can stay with them. You never know, you might have an Aunty Margaret in New Zealand!

A Gap Year for 17 Year Olds

The facts above still apply if you’re 17, but the doors of travel freedom nudge open slightly at this age.

Volunteering placements and adventure tours

A wide range of touring companies and volunteering programs will allow 17 (and occasionally 16) year olds to sign up and explore or make a difference to the world. Projects Abroad offer volunteering options for 16 – 19 year olds in countries including India, Jamaica and Peru, and Real Gap offer tours for 17 year olds. There really are more options than you think! Not every company will advertise their age restrictions, or may state that they only allow 18+ to join, but if you give them a call you can let them know about your situation, and show them that you are mature enough to contribute to a project or join a project. If you are currently 16 and want to travel when you’re 17, try and do some volunteering in the UK: this will definitely help when enquiring about volunteering abroad.

Bungee jumping, skydiving and other extreme sports

To cross off a few bucket list items, such as white water rafting, bungee jumping or skydiving, as with accommodation, you may need a written letter from your parents giving their consent. This can be written before you leave or you can ask them to fax one over… they may need to dust off the fax machine but at least it’s an option. Of course, you could always fake it, but that would be wildly reckless and not something we would ever encourage…

A Gap Year for 18 Year Olds

Congratulations! You’ve achieved complete travel independence! 18 is one of the most common ages to go travelling, with many backpackers choosing to go on round the world trips before heading off to university.

Working abroad on your gap year

One of the best things about travelling at 18 is that you can work abroad!
A popular option is to apply for an 18-30 Australian Working Holiday Visa, which means that you can work whilst travelling around Oz. You can also take up the odd job like bar work, or ‘working for board’ by helping out at a hostel for accommodation, which ultimately means that you can travel for less, for longer.
It’s not just in Australia where you can get paid to travel: cruise ships are a great way to see the world, too. Although the pay isn’t always great, you get bed, board and food whilst travelling to exotic locations, which seems like a fair exchange. Many people believe that you have to be over 21 to work on a cruise ship but this really depends on the job and the company. Jobs which are usually available for 18 year olds are photography, waiter/waitress, accommodation services, and entertainers, so if you have experience in any of these professions then a job on a cruise ship might just be your round the world ticket.

Alternatively, if you’d rather stay on land, completing a TEFL course before leaving for the big trips will allow you to earn money whilst living in a different country, like Thailand, by teaching English to foreign students.

Remember there are still restrictions

Although travelling at 18 opens a lot more doors and makes life a lot easier, it’s important to remember that there are still restrictions. If you want a gap year filled with lots of drinking then it’s important to remember that some countries have a higher age restriction than 18 – the USA, for example, has a legal drinking age of 21.
It’s also important to remember that even though you may have a driving license, most car rental companies  will require you to have driven for a minimum of three years in your home country and you may have to be over 21.

Check out more articles about great adventures!

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