Ok, so in my case, it was a gap 7 months and I chose to do it at the age of 29, but the principle’s the same for planning an extended trip no matter when you do it.
In the run up to my South America trip, I remember being berated by fellow travellers when I asked specific questions about destinations I had on my itinerary.
‘Why do you have an itinerary?’, they’d ask. ‘Travel is so much more exciting if you just go with the flow.’
While I agree that a more relaxed approach to travel has its benefits in terms of allowing you the flexibility to change plans at the very last minute based on glowing reviews from some guy in your dorm room or a preference to travel with a new group of friends you could never have anticipated meeting, I would argue that putting together a non-concrete plan before you leave home is the best way to get the most out of your trip.
1) You can figure out roughly how long it will take you to do the things that appeal to you, and you can make a mental list of which are unmissable and which you would only do if you happened to be in the area. Then, if your plans change it’s easier to figure out what kind of sacrifices you might be making and whether or not the new option is actually worthwhile.
2) It’s way easier to budget if you have a fairly good idea of how many bus and plane journeys you will need to take and how much all those trips you’re most likely to do will add up to. If you don’t know this, you will either end up spending too much of your budget to begin with and having to sit out on some of the best activities on offer in the places you visit later, or you might be overly cautious, only realising later that you have already missed the best chance to do a particular activity. You may also need to work out bills for your home. You could rent your property out to a friend or family member to make sure your house is looked after. Another option is to get in touch with Global Guardians who will look after your property while you’re away.
3) With research you can find out which areas have the most scenic hiking routes, the most challenging volcano climbs, or the best chance to spot that elusive jaguar. However interesting, you are unlikely to visit more than one museum on the same artefacts from the same period. You might as well make sure that when you do something, you’re doing it the best way.
4) Anti-planning activists often claim that the best way to decide where to go while travelling is to listen to recommendations from fellow travellers and locals you meet along the way, and I couldn’t agree more. But what I’ve found is that you retain valuable information so much better when you already have some knowledge of the place names and geography.
5) A bit of local knowledge makes a good impression on the communities you visit. They like to hear that you’ve taken the time to read up on their culture and history and will make more of an effort to interact with you further.
6) For some activities, you may need to plan ahead in terms of what clothes or gear you bring with you. Similarly, your insurance policy might be invalid if you embark on more risky activities. These can include hiking above a certain altitude, so don’t assume you’re covered for anything other than throwing yourself out of a plane. There are also excursions that need to be booked very far in advance; for example, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. You will then need to stick to a specific arrival date.
7) It’s exciting planning a trip. In the run up to your travels, it’s great to daydream about all the adventures you’re about to have. It’s part of the fun. You’ll want to make your friends jealous with tales of what you’re about to do. It also helps motivate you to save up and increase your budget if you know what those extra pennies might be spent on.
8) It’s safer to know where you’re going and when. You can tell your bank so they won’t cancel your cards and you can pass your itinerary on to family and friends in case they don’t hear from you for a while.
Are there any downsides to planning?
Aside from the time commitment, the only negative I can think of to planning a trip in detail before setting off is that you lose that sense of wonder when you arrive somewhere and already know everything about it. This is especially true if you’ve seen an array of photoshopped images.
How to plan a gap year: step by step
√ Buy a guidebook. I find that Rough Guides are the best for learning about a place before you leave, while Lonely Planets have more detailed maps and practical information.
√ Read through all sections, making basic notes whenever anything looks of particular interest to you. Remember to note page numbers.
√ Check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for advice on health and safety. Make sure your itinerary doesn’t include risky areas and book any immunisations you might need.
√ Make a word file with a rough diary of where you might go and when.
√ Read blog posts and ask friends and family for recommendations on specific places you’re most interested in, or are unsure about.
√ As you read more about journey times, excursion prices, specific accommodation recommendations or random tips, beef up your potential itinerary. Add links to useful websites such as public transport timetables, so you don’t waste time on your trip trying to find this information.
√ If you travel with your netbook, you can alter this itinerary any time you like, moving huge sections around to new dates and being able to check quickly if your new plans are feasible. If you don’t travel with a computer, email yourself your plans and you can do the same when you have internet access.
√ Before you leave, print out copies of your flight details, insurance policy, passport scan, proof of funds, visas and card cancellation phone numbers, and send an electronic copy to a friend or family member in case of emergency.
I was very open to changing my plans in South America, but, as it happens, aside from some time on the coast of Ecuador and the Galapagos and a few changes in Brazil, I pretty much stuck to my original itinerary. I wouldn’t put this down to a lack of flexibility or adventurous spirit. It just happened that my research was accurate when it came to highlighting the activities that suited my tastes. I generally found that those I met who hadn’t done any planning were doing exactly the same activities as me, but missing out on some of the more obscure experiences because they had no idea they existed.
What’s your travel style? Are you a planning super-geek like me, or do you prefer to leave it all to fate?