Mind the gap

How to take a gap year without spending a fortune.

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From the June 2014 issue of the magazine.

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REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

After a brain-frying degree program many years ago, I put some serious distance between myself and the books by teaching English in Tokyo. Graduating was great, but in those 12 ramen-slurping months I learned more about the world—and myself—than countless essays could ever cover.

Gap years—“life sabbaticals” to travel, work or volunteer before the shackles of careers and mortgages take hold—can be the ideal introduction to independent adulthood. Traditionally taken by Europeans between high school and university, they’re growing in popularity with North Americans, who tend to take them after completing university. But with more options to consider than a wide-eyed backpacker with a Eurail pass, significant pre-trip homework is required. Your enlightened future self—and the Bank of Mom and Dad—will forever thank you for it.

First up: the grand plan. While some are lured by the idea of extended couch residencies, gap years are only meaningful if there’s a valid reason—typically something that’ll shine on your résumé. Want to save African elephants or work in a Sydney hotel? Sell your parents on why—treat it like a business presentation—and enlist their help.

Begin your research by diving into tip-packed websites like startbackpacking.com, nomadicmatt.com and bemusedbackpacker.com. Draft a rough financial plan long before you even think of packing: transport, accommodation and food and living expenses will be your main line items. And if that pricey Europe dream suddenly seems out of reach, remember your dosh will spread much further in backpacker hot spots like Vietnam and Thailand.

Japan's JET Programme remains the gold standard for English teaching jobs

Japan’s JET Programme remains the gold standard for English teaching jobs

Since your savings—and your parents’ pockets—will likely take a hit, many gappers also add paid employment to their adventure, either for the full year or as a means to further travel. But rather than blindly hoping to stumble on jobs in transit, pre-arranging employment is recommended—especially if you’re craving some sparkling résumé highlights.

Teaching English remains popular. But it’s also more competitive than ever, with pay and conditions varying greatly. Some posts require teaching certifications—see eslcafe.com for an overview. Also, drop into your school or university careers office for more job ideas.

Japan’s JET Programme (www.jetprogramme.ca) remains the gold standard of ESL jobs. Not requiring certifications, the government-funded scheme annually recruits thousands of young foreigners as high school teaching assistants, arranging visas, flights and accommodation as well as providing a decent salary.

But it’s not all ESL. Agencies from InterExchange (interexchange.org) to WYSE Work & Volunteer Abroad (wyseworkabroad.org) charge fees to organize gap year placements, removing the headaches of arranging your own visas, travel and accommodation. Keep in mind that the jobs—from au pair to summer camp counselor—are often poorly paid.

If you’d rather find your own more lucrative posting and sort out the paperwork yourself, start with the federal government. Click the International Experience Canada tab at international.gc.ca/education for details on the 32 countries offering young Canadians one-year working visas.

But if experience is more important than money, consider volunteering for a worthy project. Like many gap year job providers, there are often fees attached to arranging these postings. You also need to ask yourself if the projects are really helping in the areas where they operate. Popular placement providers include Go Overseas (gooverseas.com) and Intrax Global Internships (globalinternships.com). Grassroots Volunteering (grassrootsvolunteering.org) specializes in opportunities that don’t charge user fees—which means logistical details like travel and accommodation are up to you.

Before you go, check on required vaccinations and get travel insurance that covers all the places and activities you’ll be diving into. A handy on-the-road rule to remember: don’t try anything unsafe that you wouldn’t normally do at home.

Stay in touch with friends and family via social media, but don’t spend all your time on the road blinking at screens. A successful gap year changes your entire perspective on life but only if you experience it fully. When you’re at that dreary desk job in years to come, these sun-dappled memories will keep you going—and have you planning a career-breaking second sabbatical as soon as possible.

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