A Gap Year in North America

Advice for travelling in North America

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Why go backpacking in North America?

You might not always realise it, but North America exists outside of the cinema screen. Dominated by the United States of America and Canada, two of the world’s most popular backpacking destinations, North America is the third largest continent by area and home to some of the travel world’s wildest experiences.

There are countless ways to take your gap year in the USA, whether you only enjoy a city or two (New York, Los Angeles, Seattle… don’t worry, there’s not many to choose from), take an epic road trip on Route 66, use the legendary Greyhound buses, or a combination of everything to make your trip truly unique. Whether you prefer sprawling metropolises, barren deserts, or lush national parks the land of the free has plenty to suit you.

You’ll find a similar variety in Canada, its cities stylish and liberal and its scenery so lush and green (or frozen, depending how far north you go) you might forget that civilisation exists. And there’s poutine. Delicious/sickening poutine.

There’s also Mexico and, depending on your definitions, Greenland, Cuba, Jamaica, and a host of paradisiacal Caribbean islands. A gap year in North America is serious business.

Tours in North America

North America tours

North America is an iconic destination, loaded with famous sights and amazing places to see and do. It’s also massive. Planning a trip to include everything you want to see can prove trying. That’s where guided tours can come to the rescue.

Whether you want to road trip across the USA, hike across incredible landscapes in Canada, lie on the beach in Mexico, or a little bit of everything, you’ll find a tour that’ll suit you, with everything you need included. No fuss, no stress. Plus you’ll get to experience it all alongside like-minded travellers. Winner.

Working in North America

Jobs in North America

North America is a great destination for working during your gap year. Opportunities usually involve some planning ahead, as you’re unlikely to simply turn up somewhere and find a job, and you may well need to arrange the appropriate visa.

The job you’re most likely to get in the USA is working as a summer camp counsellor. Lots of travellers do this every year, giving them the opportunity to sleep in the great American outdoors, meet the locals, and gain valuable experience. The visas for camp workers will usually allow you to remain in the US for 30 days after the job has finished to travel.

Most of the jobs available in Canada are based around the tourist industry, such as working at ski resorts during the season. Many of these will take on temporary workers, but again, it’s usually necessary to arrange this before travelling.

There’s a higher chance of finding paid work in Mexico, as some farmers may take on extra hands at certain times of year. The work will be hard and the pay won’t be good, but it’s better than nothing! Ask around the locals to see if any opportunities are going.

Volunteering in North America

North America volunteering

Volunteering opportunities are plentiful too, and they’re not difficult to find if you know where to look, especially in the Caribbean.

As in most places of the world, the bulk of volunteer work in North America is wildlife care and conservation and working with children. The USA and Canada have numerous wildlife sanctuaries and national parks that will often take on temporary volunteers, giving you the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing animals on the planet. Volunteering on an American ranch is guaranteed to make you feel like a real cowboy!

There’s also plenty of conservation work in the Caribbean, the exotic marine life there in need of constant care and protection. The Caribbean is also where you’ll find the childcare volunteer positions, as the less-wealthy islands often have a need for people to work in schools, orphanages, and other such places.

As with any volunteering project anywhere in the world you should think carefully about your natural interests, strengths, and weaknesses before committing to anything. These placements are usually a lot of hard work – part of what can make them such a great experience.

Budget accommodation in North America

Accommodation

Accommodation in North America should rarely be a problem. The whole continent is well-equipped for backpackers on a budget and luxury travellers alike, sporting hostels, motels, hotels, camping grounds, and a whole load more. America and Canada know how to look after visitors, so even in remote areas if there’s anything worth seeing, there’ll be some kind of accommodation to allow you to see it.

Mexico isn’t quite as well-equipped, but you’re still likely to find hostels and guesthouses even in fairly out of the way places.

Hotels

Every city of any reasonable size (and most smaller ones) will have plenty of hotels to choose from, whether you prefer luxury or something a little more homely. Obviously cost will vary based on the quality, and hotels in North America are usually significantly more expensive than elsewhere in the world.

Still, if you’re heading to Las Vegas, staying in one its monstrous hotels really is a necessity.

Hostels

Again, most cities will have plenty of hostels to choose from, of varying quality. You’ll also find them supporting more remote tourist attractions, like national parks, so it should be possible just to wing it as you go, though of course it doesn’t hurt to book ahead. Hostels, of course, will be cheaper than hotels, but still more expensive than you’d expect to pay in Asia, for example.

Guest houses and B&Bs

The USA and Canada have plenty of guesthouses and B&Bs, often run by families. These usually have a lot more personality than hotels, but offer the privacy you don’t usually get from a hostel. The prices tend to fall somewhere between the two.

This sort of accommodation usually requires you to book ahead, so doing a bit of research ahead of time is well worth it.

Motels

You probably recognise these from movies (which often don’t end well for the characters that use them). Motels really are ubiquitous in the USA and common in Canada (and to a lesser extent in Mexico), offering affordable accommodation that can almost always be arranged upon arrival.

One of the best ways to experience North America is by roadtrip, and motels are the perfect companion to make doing so as easy as possible.

Getting to North America

Getting to North America

There is altogether little to say about how to get to North America, as air travel is almost the exclusive means of arrival. Every major city has an international airport, so you can comfortably fly into wherever your itinerary dictates.

If you want to see the whole continent, most people start in Canada to the north and work down, or Mexico in the south and work up. This can take a tremendous amount of time, which means more commonly backpackers will stick to the USA or Canada for their trip – there’s more than enough to see in each.

You can expect the most stringent airport security when you fly into North America, particularly the USA, so be prepared to remove your shoes and belt, get confused over what liquids you can carry on, and maybe even have your whole body scanned. Alas, it’s a small price to pay.

It’s possible to enter North America overland through Panama, and there are a handful of ships that still make the epic voyage, but transoceanic liners are increasingly rare. So it’s time get booking those flights.

Getting around North America

Getting around North America

Its size has necessitated that transport in North America is amongst the very best in the world. It’s a massive continent, but its tremendously easy to get around, even if cheaper options will take a fair chunk of time. When planning your itinerary for North America you need to take the continent’s size into account, and be realistic about what you’ll be able to see in the time you have.

Domestic flights in the USA and Canada

This is by far the quickest means of getting around North America. Every major hub has an airport, and from these it’s usually possible to reach a smaller regional airport if you’re staying somewhere more remote.

It’s also the most expensive way to travel, and for most internal flights you’ll pay at least $200 for the pleasure.

Using trains to travel through North America

Trains aren’t quite as prolific in North America as they used to be, having been overtaken by air travel and a penchant for cars. It’s still a good option for travelling between cities in the Northeast Corridor, railway linking Washington, D.C. to Boston, stopping at Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven, and Providence in between. It’s also a decent option in California and parts of southeastern Canada.

Elsewhere on the continent trains are sporadic, and usually won’t prove cheaper or more convenient than travelling by car or bus, particularly in Mexico.

Exploring the USA and Canada by bus

If you don’t have your own car, buses are usually the cheapest way to travel long distances in the USA and Canada. You can get to most places by bus, but it really will take a hugely long time and can be incredibly trying on your patience/buttocks.

Driving in North America

North America was built for cars. Canada and the USA are riddled with well-maintained highways that in turn are dotted with food stops, gas stations, and motels. This is why these countries are the ultimate road trip destinations. Be aware that driving anywhere in North America can take a long time. To make it across the continent in a week you’d have to drive hard without stopping to see much along the way.

It’s relatively easy to hire a car in North America, and insurance purchased in either the USA or Canada is usually valid in the other, but this is worth double-checking. If you’re travelling to Mexico, make sure your insurance covers it.

Roads in Mexico aren’t as well-maintained across the board, and in more remote areas you may encounter battered tarmac or dirt tracks. Still, you’re unlikely to be aiming for somewhere that can’t be reached on four wheels.

What visas do I need for North America?

Visa requirements

The following information refers to UK passport holders.

It’s pleasingly easy, in most cases, to arrange a visa for North America, especially if you’re only going as a visitor. If you’re travelling to the USA you’ll need to register online at least 3 days before departure, and a tourist visa is valid for up to 90 days. For Canada your visa is simply stamped upon arrival and lasts up to 6 months.

If you’re travelling to Mexico you need a tourist card, which you can get on arrival by completing an immigration form. You must hold onto this as it’s required when you leave the country.

The majority of Caribbean countries do not require you to get a visa, but this is definitely something to check ahead of time, as requirements do vary from island to island.

Working Holiday Visas for North America

Things get a little trickier if you’re looking to take a working holiday in the USA. You must be a full-time student or have graduated within the last 12 months to be eligible for a working visa, and this can take up to 2 months to process. If you’re going to be working at a camp you will only be allowed to work at your stated camp, though these visas also allow for up to 30 days of travel around the country.

Canada, perhaps not surprisingly, is a little more relaxed. You can get a working visa (IEC – International Experience Canada) that entitles you to stay for up to 12 months, as long as you have a written job offer or contract of employment from a Canadian employer.

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