If your teenagers are approaching the end of high school, they probably have many ideas about what they want to do after graduation. They might want to take a gap year and travel, volunteer, or work abroad. Or maybe you have a child in university who is planning on going on academic exchange.
I have done all of the above. I took a gap year between the end of high school and starting university and worked in London, England for six months. During university, I went on academic exchange for one semester to the National University of Singapore. And I’ve recently just moved to Ireland where I’m completing an internship for my degree. I will be the first one to tell you that preparing for a trip is a lot of work, especially if you’re planning on staying in the country for an extended period of time. There’s lots to plan, such as picking the country you want to go to and getting the required visas and documentation. But have no fear! It will all get done if you start preparing early and set aside time to plan for your trip. Here are some tips, advice, and considerations to help your travel planning go smoothly.
Pick the country you want to travel to.
Some kids might already know exactly where they want to travel to. I sure didn’t! For those who don’t have a clear idea where they want to go, especially if this is your first adventure, it’s important to think about where in the world you want to travel to and where you would feel comfortable travelling by yourself. Sit down and brainstorm countries that appeal to you. For my gap year, I knew that I didn’t want to go anywhere exotic. I picked London, England, because it was familiar (and there isn’t anything wrong with picking the familiar!). I had travelled to England before with my family, and I have relatives who live there. I also wanted to move to a country where I could speak the local language, and clearly England was a very safe bet!
In figuring out where you want to go, think about what you want out of your experience. Do you want to go somewhere comfortable (like I did), or do you want a totally new experience? Maybe you know a second language, and you want an opportunity to practice your language skills. Take 30 minutes to sit down and brainstorm what your travels goals are. This will help you narrow down countries that might be of interest to you.
What do you want to do there?
Once you’ve picked your destination, you have to decide what you want to do there. Over the last 10 years or so, gap years have become really popular in North America, and there are many organizations that organize gap-year programs. Lattitude Global Voluneering is a volunteer abroad company that sets up youth ages 17 to 25 with volunteering opportunities all over the world, such as teaching English in South America or assisting in a boarding school in New Zealand. Parents really like Lattitude because its staff assist with pretty much every aspect of the travel process, and there’s a 24-hour emergency hot line, so volunteers can get quick assistance wherever they are.
I know many people who volunteered with Lattitude and had a great experience. But programs like this aren’t for everyone, the number one reason being that there’s a cost associated with it. It costs a few thousand dollars to register in the program in addition to travel costs. Plus, you’ll want to have some extra spending money saved to make the most of your time sightseeing in the country.
Another option is going on a working holiday. There’s many job posting websites designed for international workers. A popular one is Global Work & Travel. Working abroad is a great option if you want to get to know a place like a local and earn some extra cash. Just beware that it might be difficult to find a job before you get to your chosen country. You might have to put in the grunt work—handing out resumes and scheduling interviews—when you get there, and that is totally fine if you’re OK with not having a steady income right away.
One more great option for university and college students is going on academic exchange. If you’re eager to jump into your university education but also want the opportunity to travel, going on academic exchange is a great idea. Most academic institutions will have partner universities in countries all over the world, enabling students to earn academic credits abroad without having to pay international student fees (which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars!). Plus, when you arrive at your new university, you’ll meet lots of other likeminded exchange students who you can explore your new city with. Do note that normally students must have at least second-year standing to be eligible to go on exchange.
Apply for a visa as early as possible.
Once you’ve picked your destination and have decided what type of experience you want, it’s time to start sorting out the nitty-gritty bureaucratic details. The first thing you’ll need to do is apply for a visa. Visit the government website of the country you’re travelling to. Here, you’ll find detailed information on what type of visa you’ll need to get. For some countries, you’ll need your visa in advance, and for others you might be issued a visa upon arrival.
If you’re required to get your visa in advance, note that you might have to schedule a meeting at the country’s nearest consulate office. For example, when I was applying for my UK visa, I had to travel to the British Consulate Office in Vancouver to verify my identity.
Before you go on your trip, make sure your passport is valid for at least six months. This is especially important if you’re planning to travel from one country to the next. Most countries won’t permit entry if your passport expires in six months or less. If you don’t have time to renew your passport, do some research and see if you can apply for a new passport while you’re abroad. While I was studying in Singapore, my passport was about to expire and I still wanted to travel throughout Southeast Asia before coming home. I applied for a new passport while I was in Singapore, but it took almost a month for it to arrive. Obviously, I couldn’t leave the country during this time. Keep this in mind as you’re planning for your trip.
Visas can take a few weeks or longer to process, so this is something you definitely don’t want to leave until the last minute!
Be smart with travel insurance and other medical precautions.
This is something that you don’t want to forget! Make sure you get travel insurance for your trip. Parents, this is where your kids might need some help. Check to see if your children are dependents on your health-insurance plan and if your plan will cover them while they’re out of the country. Students who are going on academic exchange might be covered by their university’s health insurance coverage. If you’re part of a provincial medical plan, then you may be required to notify them that you’re leaving the country for more than six months. Yes, this just seems like “one more annoying thing to do”, but you have to do it!
Also, make sure you have your medical insurance plan number handy at all times while you’re abroad, just in case you have to make an unplanned trip to a doctor’s office or the hospital.
Before you go on your trip, book an appointment with a travel clinic to see if you need any vaccinations. A good travel doctor will also sit down with you and go through the possible medical risks in each country you’re visiting. For example, you will most likely need malaria pills if you’re travelling around Southeast Asia.
Book your flights.
Booking your travel is fairly straight forward, but it’s not always easy to find the best deals. The further in advance you book your flight, the cheaper it will be. Make sure that your ticket comes with at least one free piece of checked baggage, or you might be dropping $100 or more at the check-in counter to check in your luggage.
Here are some travel-booking websites that search for cheap flights. Just be sure you’re searching for flights in your local currency.
One important thing to beware of is that your airline might require you to show proof that you’re leaving the country you’re flying to, and they have the right to refuse travel if you don’t. I didn’t know this when I went to check into my flight for Singapore. The agent wouldn’t print my ticket because I didn’t have proof that I was leaving Singapore. After bursting into tears and having a mini panic attack, I called my dad who quickly booked a cheap flight for me from Singapore to Bangkok. This was clearly not a great start to my trip! Save yourself the anxiety attack and look into this before you arrive at the airport. Call your airline’s help number, and they should be able to tell you whether or not you need to show proof upon check in that you’re leaving the country.
Other things to think about before you leave
Visas and flights are the two main things to worry about, but you should also think about how you’re going to access money in your new country. If you’re working abroad, you’ll definitely need a local bank account so your employer can pay you. But if you’re travelling or volunteering, you may not want to go through the hassle of opening a new bank account.
One way to access your money is to keep withdrawing money at an ATM. Another is to use a mobile banking application like Revolut. Revolut is new to North America, but it is very popular in Europe. The app is essentially a prepaid debit card that lets you transfer money into different currencies at the lowest exchange rates you’ll find. It will also let you withdraw local currency at ATMs. Revolut will issue you a physical debit card, and you can add money into different currency accounts through the app. You can also add your Revolut card to your wallet app on your smartphone.
One last thing you’ll need to take care of this cancelling your cellphone plan. If you’re gone for a short amount of time, you can suspend your phone plan and pay a monthly fee of around $10 to keep your number active. Personally, I hate the idea of giving telecom companies $10 a month for doing essentially nothing, but it does save the hassle of getting a new cell phone number when you come home and having to tell everyone you know that your number has changed.
It’s super easy to get a new SIM card abroad. Right when you walk out of customs in the airport, there will be booths selling SIM cards. If you’re not sure what company to register with, ask a local which telecom companies offer the best prepaid plans.
Have a great time!
Preparing for a trip is a lot of work! But once you’re there, eating foreign food and having unforgettable experiences, all the planning will be worth it. Before I leave you, here are a few last small pieces of advice:
- Remember to keep an emergency contact list handy at all times.
- Being home sick is normal! Schedule regular Skype dates with your friends and family back home.
- If you’re in a situation that feels weird, trust your gut and get out of there. Better safe than sorry.
- Pick up a Lonely Planet guide on the country you’re travelling to, especially if you haven’t done much research. Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was very useful as I was trying to find hostels and cheap places to eat in Southeast Asia. (Parents, a Lonely Planet guide would be a great going away gift for your young globetrotter!)
- Download the Hostel World app. This is one of the most popular apps for booking accommodation among young people.
I wish you the best of luck with your big adventure!
Do you have
a child who has participated in a gap-year program? Or are you an expert
traveler yourself? Share your travel advice by commenting below! We’d love to
hear from you.
Read more about the author