A lot of people fantasise about long-term travel and just giving it all up and going away. Most of them never manage it, something or someone always seems to conspire to prevent it happening. But for the lucky few, gap years can be an incredibly enriching and even life-changing experience.
However much we'd like to just throw everything up in the air on a whim it wouldn't be a good idea. A minimum amount of planning is required to prevent a dream experience turning into a nightmare.
Have a purpose
Why do you want to take a year out of your life and do something completely different? That's perhaps a philosophical question but it's one that needs answering. It will help you determine your goals and ultimately may greatly affect whether or not your gap year is successful or not.
A year will seem like a long time. But it goes past very quickly. Just think back to what you were doing a year ago. Seems like yesterday doesn't it? Now project yourself forward one year. What do you want to do in that time, what do you want to have achieved? There's plenty of advice out there to help you plan a holiday, work experience or a volunteer project. Use it.
Take into account factors like how it will affect what you do later in life. But don't try to plan everything either, because you know that doesn't work, stuff happens. And also, there really is nothing wrong with sitting on the beach for a while!
If you really want to plan ahead, apply for a job or a University place now. This will give you something to come back to and look forward to.
In order to enjoy yourself, make sure you have enough money. The dream won't be much of a dream if you run out of cash. Don't forget to leave some in the bank either, it'll be useful for tiding you over when you do get back.
Think about what you leave behind
If you're going to stay in one place, you can get your mail forwarded to almost anywhere in the world these days. If not, redirect it to friends or family and hope you don't get any letters from long-lost girlfriends.
It's hard to imagine anyone travelling across the world and not keeping an eye on their finances. The simplest and most efficient way of doing this is with online banking. All banks provide the service now making it easy to control money from afar. It also makes it easier to control your bills and keep on top of things. If things do go pair-shaped and your credit card gets scammed for example, you'll probably find out before you meet that embarrassing situation in the shopping queue.
Travel insurance, travel insurance, travel insurance!
Take care of yourself a little bit. Have a health check up before you go, just for some peace of mind.
And get some travel insurance. Its available for any period between a day and a year or more. It should cost you around £250 for a year if you want worldwide cover. That's about 70p a day. Compare that to £25,000 if you need to be repatriated from the US or even worse £100,000 for a mountain rescue.
Don't forget to tell the truth on the form as well, even if you have a minor condition. Yes, your premium will be higher, but it'll still be a bargain compared to the bills you could face. Remember, insurance is always too expensive until you need it.
Whilst you're away
You should also be prepared for hostile police, customs or border guards. You may think they're jobsworths (and they probably are), but they can seriously mess you around. Just smile and be polite, nod in the right places and you be on your way and not sitting in a cramped office waiting for a fax to arrive to confirm that you are who you say you are.
Lastly, don't forget to respect other cultures. Remember, one of the aims of a gap year is to do new things and meet new people. You may think they do some strange things sometimes, but they probably think you're a bit wierd too. Get things wrong and you could get yourself in trouble.