An easy guide to getting a gap year right
The exams are over and summer holidays are here again. Well, for some of us anyway. If you're a student and you're kicking your heals wondering what on earth you're going to do for the next year because you deferred going to university, you may well consider taking a gap year off and seeing the world. It's a unique opportunity, you're young, healthy (hopefully) and enthusiastic. Here's a few tips and guides to help you make it a success.
Do the research
One of the great things about a gap year is discovering new places and new cultures. It's the ideal springboard for a university education. However, a bit of research before leaving about local conditions and customs will go a long way towards keeping you out of embarrassing situations or worse, trouble. Also, don't forget to take a look at the Foreign Office web site for updates on travel advice. That was quite useful in the recent Bangkok crisis. If there is trouble where you are, you could also subscribe to their RSS feeds to get the updates sent directly to you and register with the FCO LOCATE service so you can be found if need be.
Get proper travel insurance
When you're 19 or 20 and you first fight off the shackles of the parents and you make your bid for independence and freedom, you think you're invincible. The problem is however that you're not. You are just as much accident prone as anyone else (in fact, arguably more so). A sensible move therefore is to get travel insurance that will cover you for delays and cancellations along the way but more importantly for medical bills and repatriation if something nasty happens to you. Also think about any activities you might be doing that may be considered dangerous, specific cover is essential for this. Oh yes, and if you have a pre-existing medical condition like diabetes for example (types I and II), let your insurer know as failure to do so will almost certainly invalidate your policy.
If your policy doesn't include a 24-hour multilingual emergency medical assistance service, don't buy it. If you feel unwell or want advice, you should able to ask for it. Insurance will also pay all your medical bills and if you're really poorly, fly you home in a medicalised aeroplane.
Make sure your passport is valid
If you're going away for a year, your passport needs to be valid for another year. Obviously. And then, most non-European countries require you to have another 6 months because that's the maximum time you can stay without a residents' permit. You may be refused entry to a country if you don't have it. And if your mates do, you'll look an idiot.
Get the right visas
We live in a world where you no longer need a visa for Poland, Hungary or even Albania. It's also much easier to get into Russia these days. However, many countries do still require you to buy pieces of paper for the right to visit. These include India (where your passport must be valid for 190 days and have at least two blank pages in it), Kenya or Australia (but you can apply for that online). This also applies if you're planning to fund the trip by working, check you have the right residents' and work permits. For example, you don't need a work permit in the EU (if you're an EU citizen), but you do need a residents' permit to stay in each of the EU countries for more than 6 months.
Make sure you're healthy
You'd be well advised to make sure you're in good shape before you go. Have your GP give you a proper health check. Make sure you tell him where you're going so he can advise you about any vaccinations you might need. Trust me, malaria may sound a remote possibility, but you really don't want to get it.
Set up a web mail account
You've probably already got one but a webmail account from providers like Hotmail, Google Mail and Yahoo! can be accessed from any computer from anywhere in the world. You can keep in touch with photos and videos with it and just think what you'd save in postcards!
Do a budget
Get a good idea of how much you'll need on a daily basis. The Foreign Office won't bail you out if you run out of money. Also, don't forget to tell your bank; there have been many cases of cards being stopped because they've been used at cashpoints across the world. You must tell your bank your frequent usage in all for corners of the world is not fraudulent.
Keep out of trouble
Know your drink limits. Even more so than a night out on the tiles at home, you're more likely to get into trouble if you've had one over the odds. Your insurance won't cover you if you do. It goes without saying that you should steer well clear of illicit drugs, especially carrying them. the Foreign Office can't get you out of jail if you get caught. Lastly, if you're with a group of mates, blend in with the crowds and try not to stand out. You'll get two things from that, you'll be less likely to get into trouble and you'll have a better "cultural" experience of wherever you go - and that's the reason why you're travelling isn't it?