Posted Date: April 19, 2021
I read a comment the other day asking a question about taking a gap year that I hear on a daily basis.
“I want to travel but I don’t know where to start.”
This is an especially true pain point for those of us who want to take a gap year, career break, or sabbatical. Planning a weekend trip can often overwhelm me, so how am I supposed to even begin planning an entire year of travel?
The anguish is real. There is a ton to plan for – from where to go and how much money to save to what to do with all the stuff you’ve collected over the years?
All of these things to plan can feel so overwhelming that we may just want to give up before we even really get started!
But fear not! Learning how to plan a gap year is easier than you think. In this blog, we’ll go over everything you need to know to start planning your gap year.
How to Plan a Gap Year
First and foremost, I want to clarify something here. I’ll use the term gap year a lot in this article, but you’ll also hear me say sabbatical or career break. While each term is technically different, I will use them all interchangeably.
Here’s why. While the nuances of each phrase refer to specific life stages or careers, each of them shares a major similarity: you take a break from doing your typical thing, such as studying, teaching, or your day-to-day job, and you leave to go on the trip of a lifetime.
Since this is a blog about long-term travel, all three – gap year, sabbatical, and career break – fit into the same general idea. Take a break from your normal life to travel.
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
Here is how to plan a gap year.
1. How Much Money Do You Need to Save?
Traveling costs a decent amount of money – and depending on where you want to go, it can get quite pricey. I’d start to plan my gap year by figuring out a few places that you want to visit and researching how much those locations cost to travel to.
A website like Numbeo can give you a decent idea of how much hotels (on Numbeo it will say rent – not hotels), food, and transportation cost in any given country.
From there, you can get a general idea of how much money you’ll need to save in order to actually have a gap year.
Saving takes planning. If you want the freedom to travel for an entire year, you are going to have to figure out how to pay for that.
You’ll pay for it by reducing the amount you spend on things leading up to your travels. You’ll want to learn some tips on how to become a better saver.
I’d recommend making it a plan to put a little money aside so that you don’t have to rush into the first job you get offered when you return from your break. I planned ahead and saved up a decent amount extra so I could be more picky and choosy about where I was going to work afterward.
Save up a little extra so that you have some slush money so you can pay to do or see things that you may not have originally planned for.
As a general estimate, I’d plan on spending between $20,000 & $30,000 for an entire year. Your travels can be done for cheaper depending on where you are traveling – but that’s a pretty safe estimate.
2. Create a list of top places and things you want to do
Before you head out – make a list of some of the top places you want to see and experiences you want to have. This will help you get an idea of regions of the world you want to visit.
It’s okay to dream big! I’d highly recommend making a list of 3 countries or cities that you are dying to visit. Use those three locations to help you plan out the rest of your gap year.
For example, let’s say you really want to visit Thailand, Rome, and Machu Picchu. To help keep your costs down, it makes financial sense to visit neighboring countries instead of continent-hopping.
You’ll want to make sure to hit up all the places in one region before going over to another or else you’ll really add to your costs. For the sake of your budget, it wouldn’t make sense to fly from South America to Australia, and back to South America.
Remember, you can only visit so many places in a year. Even if you want to see everywhere and do everything, it is simply impossible over the course of a year, and you’ll regret spending most of your time on airplanes, trains, and busses if you do try to visit as many countries as possible within a year.
The pace of your travels will be different for every person. Some people will want to travel slower and really experience a country, while others want to see as many places as possible. There is no right or wrong way to travel.
As a general rule, I would say that you probably won’t have time to visit more than about 25 countries. That gives you about 2 weeks per each country.
On our career break, my wife and I visited 19 countries. We spent about a month in each country, but did some day trips to smaller countries in Europe.
Again, the 25 countries rule is not set in stone – but as you get started planning your year, know that if you have 50 countries you want to visit, you’ll probably need to scale that back.
This is just to give you an idea of what is realistic for your trip.
3. How to organize your gap year
Some approaches to consider as you plan your gap year include organizing your trip by regions of the world, weather, events, and budget.
Let’s take a look at these four.
While playing an international game of leapfrog sounds exciting, you’ll want to plan your trip by region – and visit all of those areas consecutively. If you are continent-hopping, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of extra money on long-haul flights.
For example, you’ll want to make a plan to visit all Southeast Asian countries at one point in your trip. It makes more sense to travel from Thailand to Laos to Vietnam to Cambodia than to travel from Thailand to Peru to Laos to France to Vietnam to Kenya to Cambodia.
Visit all the countries you want to see in one region before moving on to the next part of your travels.
Do you want an endless summer? For long-term travelers, chasing the sun is not a bad idea. But in order to get the timing right, you’ll have to plan accordingly.
Most places in the northern hemisphere share a warm season from about June – September. If you are chasing the sun, that means you’ll have to pick and choose which countries you really want to see in the sun. The further north a country is located, the more you’ll want to visit during the peak summer season.
Countries in the Southern Hemisphere have peak warm seasons from December – March.
That leaves you with a chunk of the world that lies along to the equator for the months of April and May, and October and November.
Of course, you can find mild and temperate climates all year round, but chasing the sun is your goal, you’ll need to plan that into your gap year.
As you initially think about some of the places you want to see, you’ll probably have a list of cultural events, celebrations, and other activities that you’ll want to participate in.
This can help you know what part of the world to be in and when. For example, if you want to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, you will need to be in Japan around April. Or if you want to celebrate the world’s largest water fight at Songkran, you’ll need to plan on visit Thailand in April.
There are a lot of great events around the world. Knowing when you need to be in specific parts of the world to experience them will help you plan out your trip.
We’ve already discussed the budget a little bit. But your budget will determine where and when you can travel. If your budget is on the smaller end, you will have to choose to stay in less expensive countries for longer.
Many long-term travelers choose places like Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and South and Central America for this specific reason.
You’ll also want to pay attention to peak-season and offseason prices. Peak season is typically the summer months since that is when the weather is nicest and people have the most time to travel.
I’ve met travelers who visit everywhere in the offseason to save money on accommodations, car rentals, and plane tickets.
4. Don’t plan everything before you leave
I know, I know, this advice seems contradictory to the steps I just laid out above.
Bear with me.
From the steps up above, you should have a general idea of what part of the world you will be in and when – but you don’t have to have every city, hotel, and restaurant mapped out for the entire year.
You’ll want to have some freedom to change your plans – to visit a country that only caught your eye recently, or extend your stay in a city that you absolutely fell in love with. One of the best parts about having an entire year to travel is the freedom to do whatever you want without having deadlines.
My recommendation would be to plan out the first month or two of your trip before you leave. I mean buy flights, know which cities you will visit, book accommodation, get train tickets, book your activities. Get all of that done for the first two months of your trip. This will alleviate a lot of stress and reduce anxiety knowing that you have somewhere to sleep at night.
As I traveled, this is exactly what I did. At the beginning of the trip, I knew I wanted to explore Thailand and Vietnam. Vietnam requires a visa with specific dates for when you will be visiting if you are American. You can’t decide on a whim to go and visit Vietnam.
Those dates were set in stone – but the rest of the trip was pretty flexible – and my travel plans did change. Initially, the whole year was going to be spent touring Southeast Asia. But about 3 months into the trip, we wanted to go and visit Australia and New Zealand. So we made those plans.
Leave yourself a little wiggle room to add adventure to your adventure.
5. Plan Your Budget
I tried my very best to stick to my budget as best I could (about $2,000 per month for me) – but I made sure that I had a little bit extra in savings. That way, if an incredible opportunity came up, I could afford to do it without worrying too much about money.
Overall, you’ll want to have enough money in each country that you visit. If you plan on spending time in Thailand, everything from accommodation to food will be cheaper than if you plan to spend a lot of time in London.
You have to budget for that appropriately. While you’re in Thailand you may want to decrease your budget so that you have more to spend in the more expensive countries.
I’d recommend a budget between $2,000 – $3,000 per month in Europe, Africa, Oceania, Eastern Asia and North America.
I’d recommend a budget of about $1,500 – $2,500 per month in Southeast Asia, India, Central and South America.
6. Do and see the things you want to do
You didn’t travel all the way around the world to NOT do things!
It can be really easy to worry about budget and money while you are in the moment of traveling. But you worked hard and are taking this time so you can have the experience of a lifetime. Remember that. You’ll always regret the times you passed on doing something because it was a bit out of budget.
You’ll always make more money. You won’t always have more time to visit some of these places.
There are a couple of experiences from my trip that I passed on because it felt too expensive, and I regret not doing them. One was white water rafting in New Zealand and the other was paragliding in the Dolomites.
Both cost a bit more money, and I was stressed about going over budget. But now that my career break is over and I have an income again, I regret not paying for those experiences.
Now, I don’t mean go crazy and spend your whole budget in one month – but you can be reasonable and logical and what opportunities you know you should pay for and which ones you’ll have to save for later in life.
While you should try to keep to your budget, don’t miss out on an amazing experience because you’re too worried about money.
7. Expect to have the time of your life
I mean it. Traveling is a lot of fun, and traveling for an extended period of time is probably the most freeing feeling you will ever experience. That’s how my sabbatical was for me, anyway. You’ll make new friends, try foods you’ve never heard of, see different ways of life, and have a lot of time to try new things.
If you’re like me, you may catch yourself feeling guilty from time to time because you wish everyone else could experience what you are experiencing. It’s a good reminder of how fortunate you are to have the time, resources, and opportunity to travel long-term.
But you also shouldn’t let that stop you from enjoying your gap year! This will be one of the greatest years of your life, and you’ll learn so much about everything life has to offer along the way.
As you plan your gap year, keep in mind how incredible it is that you get this opportunity to travel long-term.
8. Know your travel resources
Before you go, be aware of the tools that are available for you that will help you travel and have a better experience. These tools can help you cut down on the cost of traveling, find things to do, and help you get all your ducks in a row before you head out on your adventure.
I’d bookmark all of my go-to travel resources on my browser so I can easily find the tools and information that is most useful to me.
Before you go, you’ll need to look into getting vaccines, travel insurance, health insurance, figure out phone plans. .
You can use this resource page to help you prepare for all of those little, but important things.
The link above contains all of the resources that I used on my gap year to find places to stay, transportation options, cell phone plans, etc. I compiled them all in one place, so I hope you find them useful.
9. What to do with your stuff
You are about to travel for a year, so what do you do with all your stuff? There are a couple of options, depending on what phase of life you are in.
I don’t really own that much stuff
If you don’t own very much stuff, you can pack up your belongings and store them in your parents’ house or a friend’s house who would be willing to have your boxes sit in their garage, basement, or spare room.
Or, you can sell your stuff and buy it when you get back. We went this route and it worked for us. We kept about 8 boxes of belongings and sold everything else.
I own a lot of stuff, but a house is not one of them
You have a lot of stuff in your apartment, you have a couple of options. First, you can pay for a storage unit. This is an added cost you’ll have to budget for, but you have the added bonus of not having to buy everything again when you return from your trip.
If you are lucky, you might have a parent, grandparent, or friend who is willing to hold onto some of your more expensive items – such as a bed, couch, kitchen table, jewelry, etc. You can then sell all the other stuff that doesn’t mean as much to you.
I own a lot of stuff and own a house
This may be the best situation to be in. If this is your case, you can rent out your home while you travel and keep everything in it.
You can still put some stuff in storage if you are scared of it being broken or stolen while you travel, or you could put your important belongings in one room and keep that room locked.
No matter what situation you are in, I would highly recommend taking a look at your belongings and selling off a few of the items that you haven’t used in a while. This is a great time to declutter.
After all, when you get back, you won’t even remember the items you got rid of.
10. Plan While Traveling
Be prepared to set aside time to plan your gap year while on your gap year. Booking accommodation, flights, train tickets, and deciding where you are going to eat, can all take a lot of time. You will need to set aside time to plan all of that.
I always found that booking accommodation took me a lot longer than it should have because I can be a bit particular. Originally, I tried to do this at night after a full day worth of travel – but quickly found that I was often too tired to want to plan in the evenings.
I started planning in the morning instead. You’ll have to find what works for you – but you’ll have to plan your daily activities, groceries, and more.
You will have plenty of downtime on your trip, which is actually a blessing in disguise. Going hard every day for 365 days gets downright exhausting. You’ll want to plan in some days to take it easy, relax, read a book, watch a show, and just pause for a minute.
It’s okay to have days where you don’t really leave your hotel. Sometimes we all need some time to recover.
These days also serve as great opportunities to plan activities, accommodation, and transportation for the upcoming part of your trip.
Now that you’ve reached the end of the blog post, knowing how to plan a gap year shouldn’t feel so overwhelming. You have a good starting point and can begin moving forward with your gap year preparation.
If you have any specific questions, ask us in the comments section below!