If you are anything like me when I decided to take a gap year, all of a sudden thousands of opportunities presented themselves to me and I was a whirlwind of ideas and possibilities. A year to travel seemed like a dream and I couldn’t wait to do, well, everything! Reality eventually set in, and I had to go from dreaming to planning, but I had no idea how to plan a gap year itinerary. In this post I will walk you through the steps I went through to come up with our route before I left home, and at the end I will talk about how that actually worked out.
How to Plan a Gap Year Itinerary
The very first part of the process is deciding if you even want an itinerary and how set you want it to be. Some people might prefer to have their whole trips mapped out, choosing, for example, one country per month. This is particularly good if you want to take advantage of around-the-world style airfares that you purchase up front. Sometimes it’s possible to get great deals this way.
Other people may not want to do anything more than decide on the first country (or even city) to fly to and then decide from there the next destination based on their whims, people they meet or opportunities that present themselves.
The planning for my gap year was somewhere in the middle of these. I am a planner at heart, but I wanted to be able to change my mind or take up opportunities as we came across them. It was also a bit of a personal challenge to relax a bit and not be so much in control and ruled by a schedule. I did end up planning the first month quite extensively, but I also wanted a lot of flexibility after that, so I had not booked or planned any further. Here’s how I went through the process before we left home.
Decide on your Regions (or Countries)
A gap year can be anything you want it to be, and one of the hardest parts is realising even though it’s a whole year of travel, you will not be able to do everything. You will need to make some big, sweeping decisions on where you want to go.
If budget is a consideration – and for almost everyone it is – you will not be able to zig zag all over the world on a whim. You will need to think about the regions or countries you want to travel in.
If you know exactly which countries you want to see, this becomes an easy task. Even if you chose fifteen countries, over all the continents and these are definitely the only places you want to go, you can put together an itinerary to suit.
For most people though, the list is not just fifteen countries, it’s 115! Now you have to decide on which regions to visit. You could easily spend your whole gap year on one continent and still not see all you would like to, so the question is – do you want to skip to different parts of the world or will you be content staying in one area, such as the Americas, or Asia, or Africa. Perhaps you choose a cluster of countries in Central America, then head to South East Asia, then to Western Europe.
After thinking about this, my basic plan for our gap year became “fly to Europe, then backpack through Europe, the Middle East and Asia back to Australia.”
List All Potential Countries
Here I got out my world map and had a look at all the countries in our path. I made a big long list of all of the ones I wanted to visit. Some I immediately new I didn’t want to include in this trip. Perhaps I had been to them before, or I had a future trip in mind. For example, I had no interest in visiting Spain on this trip as I hope to walk the Camino de Santiago in the not too distant future so would be spending a few weeks there for that.
Now you need to find more ways to refine the list.
Check Visa Requirements
My next step was to work my way through all of the countries and check visa requirements. This was when. learned about things such as the Schengen Zone in Europe and the requirement that as an Australian I could only spend 90 out of 180 days in the region before needing to leave. It also meant realising the Schengen area and the European Union countries are not the same thing. For example, the UK was (at the time) part of the EU, but not part of the Schengen Zone, and conversely, Switzerland is not in the EU, but is part of the Schengen Zone.
I also learned that at the time, to get a visa to China, I needed to do so from Australia, and that visa only lasted for three months from the time it was approved. This meant if I wanted to go to China, it needed to be in that first part of the trip – but we were going to be in Europe. China was crossed off the list, and along with it went Japan and Korea as I decided to leave that area for another time.
Russia and Belarus were two other countries that got the cut do to expensive or onerous visa requirements. I know it has since changed for Belarus, but I think Russia can still be a difficult process.
Check Government Safety Warnings
After travelling to some countries that our government warns us not to and then finding them perfectly safe, I mostly take these warnings with a grain of salt, but they can become useful if looking for another way to cull countries. Not that I necessarily needed to read these warnings to remove Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq from my list, but what about some of the neighbouring countries? Or ones I didn’t know a whole lot about?
Part of this is also about your personal safety threshold. Australia has four levels of safety warnings that are colour coded – green, yellow, orange, red. Personally only those that are red are definitely off my list, and that is predominantly because my travel insurance would not cover travel to those regions. But the orange level, which is described as “reconsider your need to travel” may be enough to stop some people travelling in that region.
It’s important to note that often there may be red area in a country, but the majority might be yellow. A good example of this is Turkey, where the area around the eastern border is red and classified as “do not travel”, whereas most of the country is yellow. Turkey stayed on my list, but I avoided the east of the country.
Check Travel Insurance Requirements
As mentioned above, there are some circumstances where travel insurance will not cover you. It’s good to understand this in advance so you can make decisions. If, for example, I decided I absolutely had to go to Syria, I would have been well aware I was not covered there and could weight that up as part of my decision.
Travel insurance requirements also meant I decided to remove Morocco and Egypt from my list. Since they are technically in Africa, to be covered there I needed to add the whole area of Africa to my insurance. This increased the policy substantially (in fact almost doubled it) and since it was already for a full year, this was a huge expense for what would have been only a couple of weeks.
While I had already decided not to go to the Americas, travel insurance cost would have also increased significantly if I had added North America to my list of destinations too.
Consider Local Events and Weather
At this point the list of countries should be narrowed down to at least those that you would like to visit, are on the right path, visas are easy (or at least possible), and they’re relatively safe. Now you need to look at when you would like to go to certain countries.
Have a look at events in certain places that you may like to attend. Are you going to Brazil just for Carnivale? Or Mardi Graz in New Orleans? Do you have a music festival you would like to attend, like Burning Man for example. Perhaps you have family and friends events such Christmas or a wedding or someone planning to meet you at a certain time and place.
I had an event right at the beginning of our trip in Europe, and this dictated the direction we would take.
Also consider the weather. I’m sure we all prefer to travel in the warm summer months, but do you realise that means insanely hot temperatures in, for example, the Middle East and you simply won’t be able to be outside? Perhaps the Northern Lights are on your list, but to have the best chance to see them you need to visit the north in the middle of winter. Other considerations could be the monsoon seasons in the tropics, although to me personally, I quite like the rains coming to cool down the day so I don’t bother trying to avoid these.
Consider Your Bucket List
Are there things on your bucket list that you can work into your gap year? Strangely enough, many of my bucket list items (see my list here) were in places we were not visiting so I didn’t get to tick too many of them off even though we were away for a long time.
There are some things that can be done in multiple countries around the world so you might just be able to find a way to incorporate them. Want to see the northern lights? Go to Alaska or Iceland of Norway. Swim with great white sharks? Visit South Africa or Australia. Walk on a glacier? New Zealand or Chile or Alaska. Hot air ballooning? Turkey or Myanmar. Sleep in a galss igloo under the stars? Jordan or Finland. So many different options.
Decide on Your Route
Hopefully once all of the above have been considered, a route will now be almost obvious, or at least you should be able to see the general direction of travel, and have a rough idea of which order you will visit each reagion or country you want to go to. You may like to just leave it at that and get more specific as you travel, but you may also want to narrow it down a little further.
To narrow it down further, now it’s time to start looking at the costs. At this stage I would consider the main leaps you will be taking. Say, for example, you are starting in the USA and want to go to Australia/New Zealand, and also South East Asia. It’s worth looking into how much flights are from the USA to AU/NZ then on to SEA, and also looking at USA to SEA then on the AU/NZ. It could be possible to get a bargain in one direction which makes that a better route.
Now You Have Your Itinerary
Depending on how structured you want your trip, now you can start booking – either just the first few legs, or the whole lot if buying an around the world flight! Whether to do that or to just buy one way legs for each flight as you go depends on many factors, which is a whole other topic!
How did this Work for Me in Practice
Before I left on our gap year, I had planned to spent around 2.5 months in Europe, another 2.5 months in the Middle East, and most of our time in Asia.
The first month I had all transport and accommodation planned out, but that was because my children were with me and they had not been to Europe before so we spend the first month doing a whistle stop tour of the main western Europe capital cities. After they flew home from Rome, I had nothing planned. I wanted to stay for an extended time in Italy, and had also planned to meet a family member in Austria in six weeks, and in the end spent all that time in Italy.
From now on we were making it up as we went, and mostly were booking no more than a week in advance, although occasionally we made significant dates for longer flights or meeting someone.
A few weeks later we were meeting friends in Prague, just as we hit day 90 on our Schengen visa – and we were already over the 2.5 months I had thought we would spend in Europe. We travelled on to the Balkan countries and received a message that more friends from home were going to be in Croatia so now we had a hard choice. Stay in the area until they arrived (there was no shortage of things to do and places we wanted to go!) or move on to Asia as was our original plan. We decided to stay, and saw lots of countries in the Balkans I knew very little about. This also gave us a benchmark, and after months without flying, we booked a flight out of Dubrovnik to Istanbul. After 5.5 months in Europe we were finally moving on.
I ended up with only a few weeks in the Middle East, some of this one of our daughters joined us for again, and we had some down time with a cousin in Dubai. Here we had to sit down and spend some serious time reassessing the itinerary. We clearly were not going to be able to fit in much of what we hoped to do in Asian. I took the “Stans off the list, and spent a lot of time thinking about India. I had wanted to spend a decent amount of time there. I almost culled it entirely, but since Sri Lanka was a must, decided to visit Goa and Kerala in the south for some downtime as we passed through.
It was also around here when we became aware of an event back in Europe that we could squeeze in right at the end of our trip. This now gave us a definite date we were going home. The plan was to fly back to Europe for a week, then home. A huge detour, but we really wanted to go to this event.
As we travelled for the next couple of months through South East Asia, more and more things and places in Europe called to us. Friends invited us to visit them in the UK, more friends who were attending the event thought it might be nice to meet up a beforehand and road trip through France, and then, well, maybe we could go back a bit earlier and see the Northern Lights too! In the end we spent two months in Europe at the end of our trip on top of the 5.5 at the beginning, well and truely eclipsing the original 2.5 months planned.
Overall we stuck with the basic plan of travelling through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We went to way more countries than I thought we would – forty in total! Many of those though were part of that first month in Western Europe, then one month when we were back in Europe (ten more!). Both these parts of our trip were hectic and I do not recommend trying to travel long term like this – I really was exhausted and they were easily the most expensive parts of the trip. While we got a taste of many places, unfortunately I liked nearly all of them. Initially I thought this might tick a few off the list for future travels, it has instead just meant I want to go back again and explore more.
I loved that we had the flexibility to change our plans, and I highly recommend this for anyone travelling for more than a few weeks. It was hard skipping some countries I really wanted to go to, but the realisation that I couldn’t do them justice in the short time frame helped soothe the disappointment. I do not at all regret not going to the Americas or Africa – I can’t even imagine trying to fit those in. Each area needs another whole year on it’s own.
So hopefully the above tips will help you with how to plan a gap year itinerary, and you end up having a year as good as the one we enjoyed.
These posts can also help you with your planning
A Step by Step Guide to Planning Your Trip
Group Tour vs Independent Travel: Which is Better?
Think You Are Too Old for Hostels? A Gen Xer’s Guide to Budget Travel
Essential Items for Long Term Travel
Read more about my gap year here
My Adult Gap Year in Review
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.