Tools for Building a Cheap and Meaningful Gap Year

Last month in Thailand I ran into my friend Alex. She’s in her late twenties, recently quit her job, and flew to Chiang Mai to spend 3 months learning new skills (using online courses), exploring new job opportunities, and reflecting on her next big move in life.

Blake and Alex, reunited in Chiang Mai

I asked how much she’s spending in Thailand. She responded:

  • $300/month for her own room (with private bathroom) in a guesthouse, all utilities included
  • $300/month for three healthy meals a day, mostly eating at cafes and restaurants
  • $100/month for membership at a quiet coworking space with fast, reliable internet
  • $200/month for everything else: health insurance, Google Fi cell plan, yoga classes, local transport

That’s $900/month total for all her life expenses. Factor in the $700 roundtrip flight from San Francisco, and the total comes to $1133/month for Alex’s very own 3-month “gap semester.”

Alex is living abroad, building new skills, making new friends, and experiencing a totally different culture. She’s taking the same online courses that she would at home in California, for a fraction of the cost of living.

Hearing Alex’s story immediately made me think: Why don’t more college-aged young people do what Alex does?

For example:

  • If you’re an 18-year-old who suspects that college isn’t the right choice at this moment—why not spend 3 months in Thailand?
  • If you’re a 20-year-old who has done some college, but you’re feeling burnt out and want to take a semester off—why not spend 3 months in Thailand?
  • If you’re a 23-year-old recent graduate who needs some time to weigh options before hitting the job market—why not spend 3 months in Thailand?

Thailand is an easy example; you could do the same in Bali, Bulgaria, or Buenos Aires. If you’re looking for a change of scenery, a chance to travel, and some undisturbed time to work, read, learn, or reflect—and you can afford to spend $1000-$1500/month—why not do it?

I’ve talked with many young people considering a gap year, gap semester, or career pause. The most typical concerns I encounter are:

  • I don’t know what I would do
  • I can’t afford it
  • I don’t know how I’ll make new friends
  • I’m afraid I won’t get anything done

In this post I’ll address each of these concerns, sharing my favorite tools, links, and ideas that I’ve picked up along my own travel-heavy path.

What to Do on a Gap Year

This is a huge question, and of course, a very personal one.

If you’d like someone else to do the planning, it’s easy to google “gap year” and find dozens of organized gap year programs (like these), some of which cost as much as an actual year of college. If you can afford such a program, then the planning is done!

For the rest of us, a D.I.Y. gap year is the only option. We’ve got to figure it out ourselves. That’s the challenge I address in my book Better Than College; grab a copy of the book for the whole story (Amazon / libraryfree PDF). Here’s a brief excerpt that summarizes my advice:

First, BUILD SELF-KNOWLEDGE. Figure out what deeply interests and drives you.

Second, GIVE YOURSELF ASSIGNMENTS. Undertake big projects, read books, do internships, start businesses, practice extensively, and find other ways to increase your knowledge and skills.

Third, CREATE AND SHARE VALUE. Volunteer, get hired, or sell your work. Organize groups, plan events, or start small movements. Write, blog, film, code, or photograph. Dedicate your time to building things that other people find valuable, and then share them with the world.

Fourth, FIND SUPPORT. To intelligently navigate your self- directed life, seek the guidance, mentorship, and friendship of adults and peers. Ask them to keep you accountable to what you say you’ll do.

Finally, MARKET YOURSELF. Build an online portfolio that tells your story, displays your accomplishments, and makes you easy to find. Expand your network by being genuinely helpful to those in need, and learn how to land jobs through referrals and other creative means.

Some people (like Alex) choose to focus on studying and skill-building. Others focus on:

  • travel, exploration, and socializing
  • service work and cultural immersion
  • finding jobs, volunteering, or starting a business
  • creative projects, spiritual exploration, or immersion in nature

Organized gap year programs typically focus on service work, foreign language learning, and a little academics. Those are fine goals—if they are in fact your goals. If not, take the D.I.Y. path!

How to Afford a Gap Year

Because we associate “gap years” with high-priced organized programs (like Malia Obama’s $15,000 South America semester), it’s easy to assume they’re only for the wealthy.

While a limited number of scholarships and grants do exist for gap years, most young people simply cannot afford these programs.

So the clear first step in affording a gap year is: Stop assuming you need an organized program. A gap year is just travel, and travel can be done cheaply or expensively. If Alex can figure out how to travel cheaply in Thailand for three months, so can you.

The second step is: Choose affordable destinations. The free website NomadList is wonderful for this purpose: you can browse world cities based on their average cost of living per month, controlling for factors like climate, air quality, and safety.

The third step is: Put down the Lonely Planet. Bless those guidebooks—we’ve all used them—but too often they give you the impression that quality experiences must be purchased. This is false. A meaningful gap experience doesn’t come from  money, it comes from having the right goals and the right attitude. I’ve met enough wealthy and miserable backpackers—and happy low-budget travelers—to know this is true.

My favorite place to look for fun and meaningful experiences is Help Exchange, which offers travelers the chance to volunteer at farms, hostels, ranches, schools, and boats in exchange for free room and sometimes free board (i.e., food). Similarly popular networks include WorkAway and WWOOF.

The fourth step is: Figure out how to earn as much money as possible before—and during—your travels. Explore my article about travel-friendly jobs and occupations for ideas and inspiration.

Finally: Consider unconventional tactics. In a separate blog post I share some lesser-known approaches for financing your long-term travel: crowdfunding, Couchsurfing, and laundering airline miles through your family. Enjoy!

How to Meet People on a Gap Year

Self-organized gap years can be intimidating because you’re on your own. If you don’t pay for the privilege of traveling with an organized group of peers, then how will you meet people, make friends, and have a social life?

I dedicated an entire article to this: 20 Non-Awkward Ways to Meet People While Traveling Solo. Check it out.

Another popular option is to begin your journey with a friend and then part ways down the road. This eases the transition into a foreign land and helps you build your social confidence before flying solo.

How to Get Stuff Done on a Gap Year

The last big concern I encounter is: even if you devise big plans for an affordable gap year, will you really make it work? Will you actually be able to focus, study, work on creative projects, and develop a new skill set—or will you get distracted?

It’s true: world travel offers many distractions. When parties are everywhere, alcohol is cheap, and the other people you meet are raging hard on their 2-week vacation, it’s hard to stay focused on your 3-month reflection-quest.

When you want to get some focused work done, it’s time to stop moving. Choose a place, stay there for at least a month, and develop a routine. Stop doing touristy stuff. Remove yourself from party-land and find the other long-term travelers or expats in your area. For a little kick in the butt, read my book The Art of Self-Directed Learning (Amazonfree audiobook). For a big kick in the butt, take my email-based workshop about productivity for self-directed learners, Launchpad.

For many college-aged young people, “home” is not actually a great place to get stuff done. It helps to have space from your friends, family, and other childhood influences. What feels like pulling nails at home—like figuring out your career path—can feel painless halfway across the world.

* * *

Whether it’s a gap year, semester, month, or life, you can build a meaningful gap experience with limited funds. These are my favorite ideas; if you have more to share, drop me a line.

Published November 24th, 2017.



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