Home / Travel Tips / Backpacker FAQ / The Five Most Awesome Gap Year Destinations

The Five Most Awesome Gap Year Destinations

A Gap Year is not really a “gap” in your life.

It’s not just an empty diversion where you party overseas for a year before you return to real life. It’s actually a really important opportunity to challenge yourself with new experiences, see a different part of the world and have an adventure that will leave you wiser, happier and more confident. If there is any part of you that gets excited at the thought of travelling the world, you owe it to yourself to go on this adventure.

globe-map

Many young people are worried that taking a gap year will have a negative impact on their career. You might be wondering if spending a year out travelling will make you “unemployable” when you come back or somehow set you behind your co-workers. However, I thoroughly believe this fear is unfounded – as you don’t have to choose between career and travel.

Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar

In fact, the experiences you have while travelling can teach you a lot and can look amazing on your CV. Interacting with others abroad shows that you are adaptable and respectful of other cultures. Learning how to travel cheap demonstrates that you can manage finances well. Going out of your comfort zone shows that you can take initiative and you are not afraid of challenges. When you are in an interview, your future employer is likely to be fascinated with the adventure that you had and you can share with them all the ways that it helped you learn and grow.

So, where should you go?

Once that you have decided that you are going to take a gap year and go travelling – the next step is to figure out where. This is a very personal decision that will be different for each traveller. You might already have a destination in mind, somewhere that has called to you and fascinated your imagination for years. Or, you might be weighing up the pros and cons of a few different destinations.

Monte Verde, Costa Rica
Monte Verde, Costa Rica

Let’s take a look at 5 of the most popular destinations for gap year travel. Of course, these are not the only places in the world you can go. However, they are great options because they are safe and friendly and relatively easy for first-time travellers to navigate. Take a look through and think about which destination appeals the most to you.

Southeast Asia

Hell yeah. I love Southeast Asia.

Koh Chang, Thailand
Koh Chang, Thailand

It’s one of the best places in the world for a first time traveller. It’s different enough to delight and bewilder your senses, while being well-traversed enough to easily navigate. The backpacker trail in Southeast Asia has been being explored since the 1970s and although many destinations have really been built up over the years, there are still corners off the beaten track you can explore.

It’s delightfully cheap, quite safe and has some of the freshest and yummiest food in the world. We have spent over a year travelling in Southeast Asia and there is still so much more to see and do. Even though I have travelled this part of the world extensively I never get tired of it.

You can visit a city like Bangkok which has world class shopping, cuisine, entertainment and huge dazzling temple complexes, then you can find yourself alone on a dirt road with a couple of chickens in a peaceful village in rural Laos. You can ride bikes around the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, take a cruise around misty and mysterious Halong Bay in Vietnam and take a trek in the jungles of Borneo.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam

Pros:

  • Very affordable. The cost of food, tours and accommodation is much less than North America, Australia, New Zealand or Europe.  
  • Something for everyone, whether you like visiting temples, trekking through jungles or learning to cook local dishes.
  • The food is so flavourful and exciting and quite healthy.
  • People are mostly friendly and welcoming and most of them speak English.
  • The atmosphere is very laid back and relaxed.
  • The men are not as aggressive with cat calling than they can be in destinations like India and Central America. (However, it is still important to dress appropriately, especially when visiting sacred sites and temples in order to show respect.)
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Cons:

  • Can be expensive to fly to if you are coming from Europe or North America.
  • Lots of newbie travellers means the locals try lots of scams. Educate yourself so that you don’t fall for them.
  • If you can’t handle the odd cockroach or gecko in your hotel room or rat running across the street, you’ll struggle to deal.
  • Things don’t always happen on time and often you are left wondering what the hell is going on. If you like things to be orderly and predictable, you might have a hard time.
  • It can get stupidly hot, so if you can’t take the heat travel in the rainy season.
  • Depending on how off the beaten track you go, infrastructure and hygiene can be poor.
Inside Wat That Luang Thai Vientiane Laos
Inside Wat That Luang Thai, Vientiane, Laos

Best Countries to Visit on a Gap Year:

Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia

Resources for Southeast Asia:

Travelfish.org – a fantastic guide for all things Southeast Asia

Traveling to Southeast Asia: A Beginner’s Guide

A great list of resources for travelling Southeast Asia

cambodian costume
Colourful characters in Cambodia

Best Global Goose Posts about Southeast Asia

5 Reasons Why We Use Bangkok As Our Base for Asia Travel

Southeast Asia Tuk Tuk Tips – How Not to Get Taken for a Ride

20 Tips for Not Getting Ripped off in South East Asia

A Complete Guide to Visas in Southeast Asia

Europe

Ooooh… Europe.

Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava, Slovakia

Before I went to Europe for the first time this continent held such a fascination for me. Everything is just so much more historical and cultured than North America. I fantasised about strolling through historic plazas, picnicking on bread and cheese in the shadow of the Eiffel tower and perusing artworks at some of the best galleries.

I’ve done all of those things in Europe – as well as stumbling onto a zombie walk in Bratislava, wandering through stacks of bones in the underground catacombs of Paris and drinking in pubs made from old abandoned factories in Budapest. Europe always blows my mind because it has so many layers of history, with a vibrant, modern culture on top. Also, having so many different cultures and languages snuggled so close together and being able to take a train through several different countries in one day is pretty amazing.

Paris, France
Paris, France

Although Europe isn’t as cheap as Southeast Asia, it is possible to travel it as a budget backpacker. There are many hostels that offer a much cheaper option than hotels and create a fun, social atmosphere. Plus, there are many countries in Europe that offer Working Holiday Visas so you might be eligible for a visa that will allow you to work as you travel.

Pros:

  • You’ll get to see some of the most famous landmarks and cultural treasures in the world, from the Mona Lisa to Buckingham Palace to the Roman Colosseum.
  • French cheese, German bratwurst, Spanish tapas, Polish pierogis, Greek moussaka, Dutch waffles… I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
  • It’s quite easy to travel Europe and there are many other backpackers from all over the world doing it, so it’s not too intimidating for a first time trip.
  • Aside from the typical tourist scams that happen in many destinations around the world, Europe is quite safe to travel.
  • Depending on where you are from, you might be able to get a working holiday visa so that you can work during your trip to fund your travels.
  • These are developed countries, so it is safe to drink the tap water and you don’t have the headaches and chaos that come with poor infrastructure like in other parts of the world.
  • Many people who you will meet in Europe will speak English, especially those who work in the tourist industry. It’s not necessary to speak Spanish, German, Italian, etc to get around (although the locals will be delighted if you try!)
rome-1520894_1280
Rome, Italy

Cons:

  • Travelling Europe can be expensive. Eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria offer lower costs but popular destinations like France, Spain and Austria can be very pricey.
  • If you are used to stores and restaurants being open 24 hours, you might have culture shock in Europe. Hardly anything is open on a Sunday and most stores close in the evenings.
  • If you are from the USA or Canada and are used to a certain level of service, change your expectations before visiting Europe. The service staff in Europe aren’t working for tips so they won’t ask you 10 times per hour if you need a refill.

Best Countries to Visit on a Gap Year:

United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia… actually I can’t think of a country in Europe that wouldn’t be awesome to visit on a gap year.

Leeds Liverpool Canal, England
Leeds Liverpool Canal, England

Resources for Europe:

Nomadic Matt – Europe Travel Guide

Step by Step Guide to Backpacking Europe

Gap Year Programs in Europe from Go Overseas

The Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking Europe

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Best Global Goose Posts about Europe:

I Made a Lot of Mistakes When I Planned My First Trip to Paris

Ten Brilliant UK Cities to Visit Besides London

How Canadians Can Get a Working Holiday Visa for Ireland

Hitchhiking through Europe -­ The Way To Go

Australia/New Zealand

New Zealand was where I headed for my first long term travel/working abroad experience. I wanted to live in another country and I thought it should be somewhere English was spoken, since the experience of working abroad for the first time would be challenging enough without having to cope with a language barrier. (Also, I must confess that my fondness for the Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords had a lot to do with my choice.)

Matamata, New Zealand
Matamata, New Zealand

New Zealand turned out to be a fantastic choice for a working holiday, for many reasons. Several years later Lee and I are currently on a working holiday visa in Australia, which seems to have many of the same advantages. The perks of these Oceanic countries include an abundance of backpacker jobs, plenty of options for hotels, a great network of other travellers, friendly locals and lots of things to see and do.

I think either Australia or New Zealand would be a fantastic choice for anyone on a Gap Year. Plus, Aussies and Kiwis are so laid back, fun and friendly so you won’t struggle to make friends.

I'm writing this post while in Australia!
I’m writing this post while in Australia!

Pros:

  • Many nationalities will be able to get a working visa here, so that you can stay for a full year and work as you travel to fund your adventures.
  • With many hostels, bus links and flights it is easy and straightforward to travel around both Australia and New Zealand.
  • Since there will be many other backpackers on gap years here, you will be able to team up with them for road trips and other activities and share the cost of gas (plus make friends!)
  • These are developed countries, so it is safe to drink the tap water and you don’t have the headaches and chaos that come with poor infrastructure like in other parts of the world.
  • There is a lot to explore. You’ll have your choice of many different regions to visit, from tropical beaches to snow capped mountains to fertile wine valleys and much more.
  • Both Aussies and Kiwis are used to backpackers working and travelling there, so they will be friendly and will invite you along to lots of things.
  • You can enjoy cheap flights to Southeast Asia if you want to bookend your gap year with an adventure in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia or any other country there.

Cons:

  • Both Australia and New Zealand are quite expensive destinations to travel in, so you’ll burn through your travel savings quickly. (However, if you get a job the local wages are high.)
  • Although some aspects of the culture are different, Brits and North Americans won’t experience a lot of culture shock as everyday life in Australia and New Zealand is quite similar to what you are used to. If you really want to visit a destination that is very different than home, Asia or South America might be more interesting to you.
  • These countries are really far away. It’s going to be a long and expensive plane ride.
  • In Australia you’ll have to watch out for dangerous spiders, snakes and crocodiles – especially if you venture out into the Outback.  
  • The distances between places are vast, more so in Australia than in New Zealand, so it is time consuming and expensive to get to a different part of the country.
  • Australia can get too hot. With heat waves in the 45+ degree range, the temperatures can be unbearable.
  • In some places with a lot of backpackers you might struggle to find a job as there are so many other people to compete with.

Resources for Australia:

Australia Work and Holiday Visa (Official Government Website)

A Backpacker’s Guide to Australia

A Dummies Guide to Working in Australia

Gumtree Australia Classifieds (great for finding ride shares, rooms for rent, used stuff, etc)

Backpacker Job Board

Resources for New Zealand:

Backpacker Board New Zealand (lots of info on jobs, transport, hostels, etc.)

Solo Travel in New Zealand

Recommended Itineraries for Exploring New Zealand

Trade Me (NZ version of Gumtree Classifieds)

Lake Wakatipi, New Zealand
Lake Wakatipi, New Zealand

Best Global Goose Posts About Australia and New Zealand:

How to Get An Australia Working Holiday Visa

Why New Zealand is Brilliant for Working Holidays

5 Reasons New Zealand Is Great For First Time Backpackers

Great Ideas for Melbourne, Australia Day Trips

North America

Ah, my home and native land.

When I tell people from around the world where I am from, they often express their desire to travel to North America. After all, it’s pretty gorgeous.

The Walkways On the Peak of Sulphur Mountain
The Walkways On the Peak of Sulphur Mountain, Banff, Alberta, Canada

The vast wildernesses of Canada and the wide open spaces of the USA are just begging to be explored and this huge continent offers so much to do. Whether you want to plant trees in California, pour beers in an Irish pub in Halifax, stay on a ranch in Texas, drive Route 66, hike the Alberta Rocky Mountains or go skiing in Whistler, a ticket to North America is a ticket to adventure.

When it comes to working holiday visas, it’s a bit harder to work abroad in the USA than it is in Canada. Australia, New Zealand and the UK have a reciprocal Working Holiday Visa scheme with Canada, so you will be able to live there and work for up to a year. Here is a guide that Lee wrote when he applied for his.

San Francisco, California, USA
San Francisco, California, USA

There is so much to see and do in North America that there is a good chance you will find a gap year opportunity that you love.

Pros:

  • You’ll get to see some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the world, from the desert rock formations of the American Southwest to the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains.
  • People speak English, are friendly and most places are pretty safe.
  • Food preparation standards are high and the water is safe to drink.
  • There are a lot of work abroad and volunteer programs available, including the working holiday visa scheme.
Arizona, USA
Arizona, USA

Cons:

  • If you visit Northern USA or Canada during the winter, the temperatures are horribly cold. Here is a guide I wrote for surviving a Canadian winter.
  • North America isn’t set up for travellers in the same way as Europe or Southeast Asia. Unless you are in the big international cities, you won’t find a lot of hostels or other backpackers.
  • There are vast distances between each interesting destination and the bus connections between cities aren’t always great.
  • When you are on the road it can be hard to find something to eat that isn’t from a fast food chain.
  • The costs of travel, such as accommodation and transport, can be very expensive.
  • Outside of the big cities, there isn’t as much of a backpacker culture. This can be a pro and a con. You’ll be a fish out of water and people will find you strange in a lot of places you go, but this also means that you might have more interesting experiences.
  • It is a developed, English speaking region, which might be very similar to what you are used to. If you really want to visit a destination that is very different than home, Asia or South America might be more interesting to you.
Toronto, Canada
Toronto, Canada

Resources for North America:

Gap Year Programs in North America

Couchsurfing– a great way to combat the high costs of accommodation

Via Rail – Canada’s Train Service, usually quite expensive but you can find deals and passes to make it work.

Greyhound Buses – The cheaper option than the train in most cases but sometimes very uncomfortable for long journeys.

Kijiji – A classifieds website widely used in Canada. We mainly used to look for jobs, housing and accommodation.

Best Global Goose Posts About North America:

How to Travel Without a Car in North America

Helpful Websites For Planning a Cross Canada Trip

A Few Things Brits Should Know Before Visiting the USA

How To Get A Canadian Working Holiday Visa

Why Travel Insurance is Important: A Tale of Two Broken Wrists (medical costs are high in North America, so travel insurance is a must)

Vancouver – A Locals City Guide

Montreal City Guide

South America

Taking a tour on the Amazon River, Brazil
Taking a tour on the Amazon River, Brazil

Last but definitely not least, South America is another great choice for where to go on your gap year. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru. Dancing the tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soaking up the sunshine on a beach in Brazil. Taking a slow boat down the Amazon River. Watching the sunrise mirrored on the surreal salt flats of Bolivia. Marvelling at Angel Falls, Venezuela, the tallest waterfall in the world. Checking out the hip cafes, cars, museums and restaurants of Santiago, Chile… there’s so much to explore!

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru

South America is a huge continent, so you will need to spend at least 6 months to a year exploring it or limit your travels to a handful of countries. You could simply travel and explore some of the attractions, or you could work or volunteer abroad as there are a lot of programs available. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have working holiday programs.

Some destinations, such as Ecuador and Bolivia, are quite cheap while other countries such as Argentina, Chile and Brazil have costs that are similar to Europe. You’ll find a fascinating mix of cultures, lots of ancient ruins and historic sites and exciting cuisine. It is best to visit during one of South America’s big and colourful festivals so that you can join in with the celebrations.

Pros:

  • The landscapes are absolutely gorgeous. Stunning mountain regions, sandy beaches, Amazon jungle and much more!
  • The locals are very friendly and you can easily make friends with them.
  • The food is delicious! Argentinian steak, Chilean empanadas, Colombian arepas… yum yum yum!
  • If you live in North America you can find some affordable flights.
  • If you want to learn Spanish or Portuguese, you will have a chance to practice it. The locals are usually pretty patient with people who are learning the language and will help you out.
Women in traditional costume near Colca Canyon, Peru
Women in traditional costume near Colca Canyon, Peru

Cons:

  • The continent is vast and there are very long bus rides required to get from place to place.
  • In some places it is hard to get around without knowing a little bit of Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil). This can be challenging if learning languages isn’t your strong point.
  • There is a danger of scams and pickpockets in many regions, so make sure that you are on your guard and well informed before you go.
  • Depending on how off the beaten track you go, infrastructure and hygiene can be poor.
  • Things don’t always happen on time and often you are left wondering what the hell is going on. If you like things to be orderly and predictable, you might have a hard time.

Best Countries to Visit on a Gap Year:

Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador

Resources for South America:

14 Essential Tips For Backpacking South America

Backpacking In South America: Cost Of Travel Overview (2016)

An Expert’s Complete Guide to South America

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Best Global Goose Posts About South America:

Do You Need To Speak Spanish to Travel South America?

The Ultimate Backpacker Visa Guide to South America

Down Into Colca Canyon, Peru – Our Long Descent From Desert to Oasis

Promiscuous Llamas and Drunken Irishmen – Our Trip to Machu Picchu, Peru

Salt of the Earth – Our Journey Through the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

How to Bicycle Your Way Around Mendoza’s Delightful Wineries

La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz, Bolivia

Which Destination Will You Choose for Your Gap Year?

Your gap year is completely up to you – it is an opportunity to have an exciting experience in a far flung corner of the world where you go outside of your comfort zone and try something new. No matter which one of these destinations you choose, you will come back from your gap year having learned a lot and with many great stories to tell.

83301685

So, where in the world are you headed?

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow us on Facebookschliessen
oeffnen