Planning your solo gap year isn’t so much about ‘planning’ in the traditional sense. Too many hard and fast plans will suck all the spontaneity and adventure out of your first solo adventure. However, there are some things you need to know for before, during and after your trip. Since I just got back from my solo gap year in South America, I thought I’d share some things I wish I’d known beforehand.
Solo Gap Year Advice For Before You Go
- Research the countries you’re going to visit, and come up with a rough route before you go
Booking a few flights and activities here and there is also a good idea, but you’ll miss out on a lot if you arrive with a meticulous plan you’re not prepared to depart from.
- Look for work or volunteering to do while you’re out there
Staying in a place for a long period of time allows you to see a completely different side of it, and also to practise the language and get acquainted with things like transport and customs before you set off fully on your own. Use sites like Workaway to find something that’ll give you structure and a sense of purpose, and maybe even free accommodation.
- Sort out visas and vaccinations
I found out far too late that in order to get a hepatitis B jab in La Paz as a tourist, you have to go and buy it from a pharmacy (at vast expense), and take it to a doctor who will then inject it for you. It took two weeks of traipsing around the city, visiting at least five different hospitals, before this became clear. My friend, having overstayed the 90 day limit in Bolivia, found himself trapped in a desolate Peruvian border town with three days to go before his flight home, and questionable chances of getting back into the country where that flight was from. Enough said.
- Be prepared to get asked in horror why and how you’re travelling alone
From the moment you suggest heading off on your own, you’ll be asked incessantly how exactly you plan to survive. Friends and family back home will start off the interrogation process, and well-meaning strangers will sustain it while you’re abroad. You’ll sit next to old ladies on buses who insist on ushering you to taxi ranks when you arrive, and while they almost always have good intentions, the sum of it all may leave you feeling patronized.
Make sure you stick to your guns: like anywhere, really bad things tend to only happen if you’re very unlucky or very stupid. Travelling ‘alone’ is actually one of the least lonely things you can do. You’re far more approachable when you’re solo, and will end up forming groups of your own along the way. It may seem a bit unconventional when you’re fresh out of school, but you don’t need to worry about being in the minority.
- You’ll probably be the youngest
Depending on where you go, you may well feel very young and only meet a few others the same age as you. ‘What? You’re only 19!?’ they’ll say. It’s nothing to worry about: you’ll make friends with people of all ages.
Solo Gap Year Advice For During Your Trip
- Choose the right hostel.
Where you’re staying matters a great deal more when you’re alone. Everybody has different priorities, but reading reviews that similar travellers have left is vital: factors like location and whether there’s a good bar are all the more important for solo travellers. I’d also suggest booking somewhere before you get to your next destination to take away unnecessary stress.
- Don’t worry about not seeing absolutely everything
One thing I learnt after 5 months of tirelessly visiting geology museums is that their contents don’t vary dramatically between cities, and you can absolutely get away with not paying every single one a visit. While it’s a bit of a waste of time partying every night and staying in your hostel hungover all day, there will be times when you want to do this: don’t feel like you’re seeing sites just to tick them off a list.
- You’ll get stared at and catcalled a lot
Regardless of how hard you try to blend in, you will always look about as incongruous as it’s possible to look. Thus, certain people will find a way of making you feel as uncomfortable as it’s possible to make you feel about walking alone through the streets. This won’t get any better as time goes on, so I’d recommend wearing headphones to block out the shouts of lairy middle-aged men.
- Don’t be scared of spending time alone
There’s no point in spending time with people you don’t see eye to eye with just for the sake of spending time with people. You’ll learn how much time you need by yourself, and may well find that eating in cafes on your own becomes one of your greatest pleasures.
- Don’t hate yourself for missing home
When I got food poisoning and threw up all over a picturesque national park, all I wanted was my mum. Illness, bedbugs, 1am bus journeys; all of these things tend to happen at once, and before you know it you’re crying into your oatmeal thinking about how everyone is moving on and forgetting about you back at home. Plot twist: they’re really not. These things happen, but they pass, and you’ll have some hilarious stories and grow up a lot because of them.
Solo Gap Year Advice For The End Of Your Trip
- Save some money for the taxi to the airport
This one’s obvious but very important!
- Know that getting home will be a shock
While some people feel ready to leave when the time comes around, it’s by no means fun settling back into your old routine. The first week or so will be jam-packed, and everyone will want to hear all your stories, but sooner or later it’s back to the same old same old and you’ll find yourself planning your next trip. Make sure you keep in touch with friends you met while away; you never know when your paths will cross again.
About the author
Florence Wildblood has just finished a year of travelling and started studying at University College London, where she’s juggling reading Chaucer with planning her next big trip. You can keep track of her adventures in London and abroad on Instagram (@flossiewild) and Twitter (@flossiewild).
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Got any pearls of wisdom for travellers embarking on their solo gap year? Spill the beans in the comments below ??