Six steps to travelling the world

How not to screw up your gap year

Backpacking through South East Asia, volunteering in Africa, learning Spanish in Latin America: the possibilities for a gap year are endless. But it’s not without its risks. Here’s how to prevent coming home broke, disillusioned or robbed of all your things.
By Paulien Plat / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

1.  Make sure you have enough money

You absolutely need money if you want to spend a gap year abroad. So make sure you have some saved up when you board a plane to the place at the top of your bucket list. But where to get the funds you need?

Working is the most logical solution. ‘I worked five jobs at a time’, says medical student Alie Hofman (23). ‘I worked at FC Groningen, was part of the UMCG student poule, and I even delivered mail for two days. I also participated in medical research. I did everything.’

Jannick Scheepstra (24), international relations and international organisation student, took a rather larger risk. He saved up for his trip by investing his money. ‘It’s kind of embarrassing’, he says, laughing. But in the end, he had a rather nice nest egg. ‘It paid for most of my trip.’ Jannick worked online customer service for a little extra cash. ‘Not the best job, but they paid me. Needs must, right?’

2.  Figure out the where and why

So you’ve started saving up. Now you have to decide where to go. Asia, Africa, or Latin America? 

‘Take your time figuring out which countries you want to visit and how long your trip will be, but don’t overplan’, Nathalie Stokreef (23) recommends. She finished her master in change management in February and left for Mexico in May. She currently works full time in Groningen to save money for a trip to South East Asia. ‘You want to do as much as possible in as short a time period as possible’, she says. But if you keep an open mind and an open agenda, you can decide what to do every day. ‘You’ll enjoy them more and you’ll probably end up doing other, more fun things.’ 

If you keep your agenda open, you can decide what to do every day and you’ll enjoy it more

Also consider the purpose of your trip: why do you want to leave the Netherlands? Do you want to connect to other cultures, learn new skills, or do you hope to improve the world? 

Roos van der Reijden (23), who finished her bachelor in liberal arts and science at the University College Groningen last year, spent four months in Zambia doing volunteer work. She worked on a farm with people with physical handicaps. ‘I wanted to help out and experience a completely different way of life’, she says. 

Medical student Renee Ikink (24) decided to travel to leave the Groningen bubble and to learn about new cultures. ‘I travelled through South East Asia by myself and was like: what am I so worried about? In the Netherlands we’re so focused on the future, always being on time and making appointments. Over there, people just live day by day. It’s truly a world of difference.’ 

3.  Find company (or not)

Are you someone who likes to travel solo, or do you like to be surrounded by friends? Make sure you know beforehand, because it can make or break your trip.

‘I went by myself, and I loved it’, says Jannick. He spent some time doing volunteer work at a monkey rescue centre in Vietnam and then travelled. ‘The usual fare: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan. I loved making my own plans and not having to take anyone else into account.’ 

But going on an adventure with another person can also be really nice. When Alie and her travel companion arrived in the Sri Lankan city of Colombo, they were unable to get any cash from the machine. ‘If I’d been alone and cashless, I probably would’ve felt a lot worse, but now we had each other.’    

4.  Don’t be naive

Anyone who doesn’t prepare for their trip to a foreign country is asking for trouble. Make sure to read up on your country of choice to know what to look out for. 

During her trip through Mexico, Nathalie found out how much thieves prey on tourists. She was robbed when she was riding the night bus. ‘You should always keep your valuables under your clothes on those buses, but this one time I forgot. We were really tired and facing an eleven-hour trip.’ The next morning, she woke up without her money, credit card, bank card, or driver’s license. ‘I felt so stupid.’ 

So many young people want to save the world, so it’s a booming business 

Fortunately, one of her travel companions still had their bank card so she still had access to money. Nathalie will be taking precautions on her next trip. ‘I’m thinking about getting an extra bank and credit card, just to make sure.’ 

Jannick warns people doing volunteer work to look out for scammers. ‘So many young people want to help save the world, so it’s a booming business. A lot of organisations make you pay through the nose for meaningless volunteer work. I’ve heard about people who paid four thousand euros for just a few weeks.’

5.  Keep people back home up to date

Whether you want to call your parents every day or completely detox from your phone, it’s all good. It’s your trip, so you do you. But if you do want to stay in touch with people back home – and your parents would probably appreciate a sign of life now and again – please realise that this is easier said than done. 

While in Zambia, Roos didn’t always have access to Wi-Fi, but she’d come prepared. ‘I brought an old-fashioned cell phone and used it to text my friends and family. And I made sure to call my parents once a week.’  

Renee used Polarsteps, a website where you can blog about your trip. ‘But sometimes I’d get in a bubble and forget, or I didn’t have internet access. I wasn’t always focused on back home.’ 

6.  Take time to readjust

And then it’s time to go back home. It can be a bit of a culture shock. ‘Being back home was really weird. There I was at Schiphol, with everyone rushing around trying to catch a plane or a train’, Renee says. 

She took a month to acclimate. ‘It was great; it gave me time to get used to the hectic Dutch life. Everyone’s always on their phone, getting upset over the smallest things. I was like, come on. Although to be honest I’ve found myself doing it as well. You can’t escape it.’

Alie also suffered from the home-coming blues. Her tip is to plan your return for the summer, not the winter. ‘It’s much easier to make the switch from tropical weather to normal warm weather than to go from tropical weather to the winter cold. I was pretty sad to be back, though. But you can’t spend your entire life travelling. So you just have to get over it.’ 


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