I’ve just arrived home from Australia after completing a year abroad there (well, almost #thankscorona). Australian universities start their second semester in July and finish in November, then start again in January. This means that I had a good three/four months off for “summer”, and I, like the vast majority of others, took this time to travel.
I’d heard a lot about travelling before I went myself. I was lucky enough to go on plenty of family holidays when I was younger, but these were all usually to a villa in a warmer European country. The furthest I’ve ventured with my family is America, which, while wonderful, was hardly a challenge or stretch or opportunity to grow as a person, seeing as the culture shock was obviously pretty minimal at most.
I then went on a university Raising & Giving society trip to Uganda for three weeks. Though this absolutely included several elements that most would consider to be “travelling” (drastic change in culture, change in basic facilities, many uncomfortable long journeys, and so on), I only visited one country for less than a month. But when I travelled during my summer in Australia, I went for just under four months, and visited five countries, travelling around each with my trusty rucksack. My life was on my back, and it was all I had for all this time in all these different places.
And it was this sort of travelling - backpacking - I had heard a lot about prior to experiencing it for myself. I, like many others I am sure, heard plenty from others who’d been travelling, internet memes, general stereotypes, and so on. The most notorious of these stereotypes is that of the “Gap Yah” student, who, since they received a deferred offer, uses “mummy and daddy’s” money to travel for a year before they start their first year at Oxbridge (or any other Russell Group uni, really).
I personally haven’t found this to be true. I’ve met a whole wealth of people, all from varying backgrounds and walks of life. In fact, I only met three people who were on their gap year, one boy in Fiji and two girls in Thailand. All of them were lovely, not at all like the privileged, distant people they’re made out to be. These three have made one of the best decisions of their life. One of my closest friends from home took a gap year before uni, and she often says with confidence that it was the best year of her life, and probably always will be.
I know I will say exactly the same about the time I took to travel during my year abroad. And everyone who I met who had been says the same about their time travelling. But why? Are we just saying it to be annoying, or rub your face in the fact that you haven’t been? Do we think we’re elite because we’ve had this experience?
No, no, and, actually, possibly (although I’m not sure everyone who has been travelling would ever consciously think this). Hear me out. I’m not suggesting that if you go travelling, you instantly becoming a kinder person, who is intrinsically better than all those who haven’t been. However, there are seriously many advantages of going travelling that are pretty unique to travelling that usually make one a genuinely better, more well-rounded person.
Thus, as a parent, if you want your kid to be the best they can possibly be, and have the best possible advantage they can in life, I would highly recommend encouraging a gap year (or travel in general). I have tried to compile a list of pros and cons. Of course, given the title of this blog post, I am biased. However, I have genuinely tried to think of both the positives and negatives involved with travelling.
Even though everyone who’s travelled says it was the best time ever, there has to be some negatives, right? So I thought I’d get these, the immediate worries and concerns, out the way first, before I get to the actually good stuff that travel can do for your child.
Travelling, like most things, costs money. This being said, compared to a usual holiday, it is, in general, much cheaper. This obviously depends on where you travel to and where you stay, but the countries I visited (excluding Australia and New Zealand) were far cheaper to live in than it would be at home, especially since I was travelling on a budget and stayed in hostels. Food is far cheaper, both in supermarkets and in restaurants, and the street food is the cheapest of all. However, travelling involves more than just living; excursions, socialising, and other experiences. These are all again far cheaper than they would be at home, but it’s still money that’s got to come from somewhere.
Funnily enough, this seeming con actually leads me to two pros: 1) before taking a gap year or travelling in general it is highly likely that one will need to work in order to produce the money required for the desired travel and 2) travelling teaches not only how to actually budget but the necessity of budgets in the first place. More on these later (see pro number 3).
- Keeping fit
Sometimes it is difficult to “properly” exercise while travelling. Again, this depends on where you go, but the majority of countries I visited did not have public, open gyms, or an astroturf for me to keep up with my hockey, or a dance studio, and so on.
That being said, if you were determined enough, it would be entirely possible to create your own gym of some sorts. As long as you can find an area large enough, you could simply use your own body and do all no-equipment workouts for the time you’re travelling rather. Saying that, in Thailand at one particular hospital some of the guys who had been staying for a month or so had found some heavy bricks and a large tyre to use as weights. There was also a huge set of stairs you had to climb each day to get in and out of the hostel, which they would run up and down for cardio.
This brings me to my next point: though a serious gym regime may not always be possible, the general exercise you do is exponentially more than you would usually. You walk around so much that your step count goes through the roof, especially when this involves climbing a ton of stairs in and around a temple, for example, and travelling with a heavy rucksack certainly strengthens those back muscles! Any other traveling activities you might undergo (snorkelling, diving, general swimming, cycling, hiking, and so on) will, of course, also contribute to this.
- Potential lack of communication
This is both a pro and con. I will touch on why limited wifi and data is a pro later. But for you as a parent, this is probably seen as more of a con, since it means that, potentially, there might be limited contact with home. This being said, there was only one week in Fiji when I had literally no data and there was no wifi on any of the islands. The rest of the time, there was decent wifi in every hostel so I could contact my family (a daily text to say “I’m alive”, as well as a photo or two if they were lucky), as well as most restaurants or other facilities for travelling guests.
So, really, this con is more about the fact that YOU might worry about them. Even if you bought a phone SIM in all the countries you visited (which, apart from Australia where I was actually living for months, I never did) and so were always able to keep in contact, there’s no way you’d always hear from them! Which is probably just like now, right? So won’t you always worry about them a little, no matter where they are? I’m sure having them at home just feels safer, but unless you have them cooped up at home forever, which I’m sure nobody would want, you’re going to have to let them spread their wings properly at some point. Isn’t it better that, if you are going to always worry, they’re at least having the time of their life?
And this, really, is the biggest pro of all. The experiences one gains travelling, even if none of the other pros existed, would seriously be worth it. Even if the cons were far more plentiful, there is just no scenario in which they’d ever outweigh the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you only get from visiting certain places.
Based on this, it might seem like there’s almost no point in listing the rest of the pros, but I think it’s still very worthwhile as some of them are also seriously valuable.
This is absolutely the best, and possibly most important, of this list of pros. There are things you have to do while you’re travelling that you never thought you would like to do, or even be able to do, before you’re put in certain situations where you just have to. This might involve crazy experiences, like skydiving or snorkelling with sharks, or even more menial things, like organising a 10 day trip which involves working out where you actually want to go, coordinating all timings, making a schedule, making sure you’re at the correct place at the right time, sorting out activities you want to do beforehand or when you get there, and so on.
I know this might not sound like much but before travelling, I know I personally had never had to do this. Family holidays I did zero planning, and even the few trips I’ve been on with friends I had serious input from parents, and going to one place for a week or so is hardly that difficult to organise. I’ve organised trips to visit different friends at different unis, and of course this involved both parties checking the calendar and working out the best time to visit, getting myself to a train station, etc. But not a 10 day trip involving flying there and back, four boat trips around different islands, completing at least one activity on each island, keeping my tickets for all these boats safe, all the while packing my entire life up each time I moved and fitting it all in one big rucksack on my back. But after travelling for a while you really get the hang of it, and the ludicrous amounts of fun takes the stress out of it.
This means that now, I feel pretty confident that my toolbox would be equipped to do most things. Those who have travelled therefore may be better in certain situations, particularly if they are urgent or even an emergency (though, of course, hopefully this will never be needed!) since they are used to rapid change and having to adapt and so on. The fact that it may help your demeanour to be slightly better at coping in tricky situations might seem like a pretty niche point; however, this confidence can be applied to all areas of life, which leads me to my next pro.
- Social skills
When you’re travelling, you have to go up and speak to random people constantly for a whole load of reasons: strangers for help with directions, waiters and waitresses or anyone serving you food, anyone who is helping you with any travel activities, reps at the hostel you’re staying at, and most importantly friends for activities or going out in the evening. Although those in foreign countries mostly speak pretty good English, you’ll often want to attempt speaking in a different language, or sometimes at least try to communicate carefully or in a different manner to usual.
When I was younger – and I don’t mean little, I mean 16 – I struggled to order my own food at a restaurant. This may surprise you given the tone of this blog post, but I genuinely used to be incredibly shy (and unluckily for me this, combined with a moody resting face, simply led people to believe I was rude and grumpy). I now look back and laugh, or wish I could shake myself! But that’s all too easy to say now – once you’ve had to order food in Balinese, or talk to boat men in Fijian, ordering an American at Pizza Express doesn’t appear to quite be in the same league.
This is probably why a lot of people often say that you can always tell you who the gap year kid is. The confidence you gain whilst travelling means that speaking to new people is a breeze, which means meeting people for the first time at university (which might actually seem scary to most) is super easy. This confidence is not only useful in ordinary life, but in situations that will genuinely benefit your future, such as in job interviews. In fact, travelling is a major bonus when it comes to your career for many reasons (but I could write a whole separate blog post about this).
- Handling money
As I said earlier, in order to travel, you will need some money. Unless you have parents who could not only afford to cover the costs of all your travel but would be willing to do so (and very few are, and for good reasons), you’ll probably have to get a job. Not only will this experience look good on your CV in the future, but you can genuinely have lots of fun while working, especially if you choose to work somewhere with lots of other young people you can interact with (this, again, helps with independence and social skills). If not, getting a job can teach you patience and perseverance, and the importance of doing something you enjoy for a living (or whether you’d be able to suck it up and do something less enjoyable if you think the money is worth it).
A little money you earn from your job might be spent on small occasions here and there, but you really should save it all for the travels. And then once you have a total, you can work out your monthly budget. After paying for flights, this will then let you work out how cheap your hostel needs to be, how much money you can actually spend while you’re there, and so on.
If you run out of money, you would literally be stuck in a foreign country with nothing to do and nowhere to go, so absolutely no one makes this mistake. Some people of course run low, but they work out how to make it stretch for as long as possible, and if absolutely necessary work while they’re away (like being a rep at a hostel). But most people work and stick to their fixed amount of money, and are absolutely fine.
One thing that my parents said to me before I went travelling is important: do not try and save money on experiences. Budget where it’s sensible to: food and accommodation. Don’t stay in fancy hostels and eat out constantly if it’s going to mean you can’t have a day at the elephant sanctuary. Those sorts of experiences that you can only get in that place, that you have travelled to that place for, and that you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to do again for a while if ever, are the ones you should be prioritising. What’s the point in spending all the money on flights and getting there if you’re not going to spend a little bit more to see, for example, natural glow worms that are only found in that part of New Zealand?
- Potential lack of communication
Again, like I said earlier, although a seeming con (and more so for you than for them), this can also be a massive pro. A lack of data and wifi might mean limited communication with friends and family from home, or no Google maps for a while, but this is usually for the better. No one would suggest that modern life would be the same or any easier without modern technology, but while you’re out travelling you should be enjoying it and not worrying about what’s going on at home. Keeping in contact is of course lovely, but it should be far from a priority. And it might mean you have to ask for directions now and then, but as long as you keep safe, I think it’s genuinely refreshing to be disconnected for a while. The week I spent island hopping in Fiji with no data or wifi was possibly the best week of my entire life, and I don’t think this was a coincidence.
This lack of internet also teaches massive patience, as there are some seriously long journeys you have to take. Of course, when wifi is available it’s possible to download something to watch while you travel. But the rest of the time, TV isn’t really a thing travelling. It’s more likely that you’ll rediscover your love of reading, or listen to a ton of music. Or just sit and think and look around you.
There are many more pros and cons that I haven’t listed here. And I’m sure there will be many other blogs you can check out that will have a more comprehensive list. But for you, as parents, I think that these are the most notable, for important reasons that I hope I’ve explained sufficiently. I cannot recommend travelling enough; all of my friends I met travelling said we think it should almost be mandatory! And that we wish taking gap years was more common. Because not only is it genuinely the best year of your life, but the advantages it gives you stay with you for all your years to come.