You just completed four gruelling years of all-nighters, essay questions, and group projects to get that shiny diploma in your hand. But before the rat race begins, you want to take some you time, with purpose. Gap year, anyone? You do the research, pick your destination, and change the wallpaper on your phone to that majestic mountain village, or maybe a pristine beach town. But when you break the news to your parents, your mom hits you with the classic, “But will it be safe?” Well….will it?
Here's what we're talking today:
- Are gap years safe?
- Safest countries for gap years
- Basic safety tips
- Special circumstances
- When to take additional precautionary steps
- Whether or not to get gap year insurance
Are gap years safe?
The Sparknotes answer is absolutely yes, gap years are safe! Gap year safety is pretty simple, as most don’t generally include life-threatening work, wartorn cities, or infectious diseases (unless you want it to?—to each their own). However, to stay safe during your gap year, you’ll have to do a little more than pay attention to your pre-flight safety demonstration.
There are a plethora of health and safety concerns to consider when traveling in general; think sunburn, pickpocketing, scams, food poisoning, the list goes on. It’s always necessary to keep your head on straight and practice Mad-Eye Moody levels of vigilance when in unfamiliar territory. Fortunately, there are no safety concerns that are associated with gap years in particular.
Your gap year safety will have a lot to do with your environment and the risks associated with it. For example, if you’re taking a gap year to volunteer on a glacier in Iceland, it might be a good idea to know how to prevent hypothermia; or, if you’re working in New Delhi, take the time to brush up on common tuk tuk scams that are run against tourists before arriving. Gap year training will go a long way.
World’s safest countries that also double as popular gap year travel destinations
The good news is that if you practice common sense and stave off recklessness, your gap year should be safe and secure no matter where you go. The better news is that many popular gap year travel destinations will do almost all of the heavy lifting for you!
claims that New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Ireland, Spain, Australia, and Chile are among the safest countries in the world, and they just so happen to be some of the best, kick-you-in-the-pants awesome places to spend a year abroad, too. No need for pinches, this isn’t a dream!
What is it that makes these countries so safe? According to the same report, factors like high GDPs, high education rates, and high functioning democracies generally contribute to things like low homicide and crime rates; so, even if your ideal gap year country isn’t listed above, it’s probably still a pretty safe place if the basic indicators of safety are still present.
10 basic gap year safety tips
1. Pack accordingly
Ask yourself fundamental questions the environment you’re en route to and the activities you plan on partaking in, and base what you pack off of those answers. Will it be sunny? Pack that hat and sunscreen. Freezing? Bring a warm coat, pal. Rocky? Sturdy shoes are a must. Dusty? You might need a scarf or something to cover your nose and mouth. See where we’re going with this? Also consider packing iodine tablets or a water purifier if you’re going somewhere with undrinkable tap water.
2. Prepare and plan ahead for your arrival
We have all fallen in love with the romantic notion of arriving in a completely new place and seeing where the wind blows us. In reality, it’s unfortunately a recipe for disaster. To avoid trouble, have your accommodation booked before arrival, and have a backup plan for in case you miss your bus or have a canceled flight. A smooth landing bodes well for future ease of gap year travels.
3. Know where and how to get help
Even if you have done everything in your power to prevent trouble, emergencies still happen. When you arrive at your destination, learn the local emergency numbers, or better yet, program them into your phone. It’s worth learning where the police station and hospital are in relation to your hostel or homestay, too. And please, for the sake of your mother’s restless nights, hand your information over to your parents (or any suitable emergency )!
4. Don’t go out alone after dark
On the safest street in the safest city in the safest country in the world there is still an unsavory charlatan who will be tempted by the lonely tourist reading a map by the light of their iPhone. Even if you know where you’re going, trouble can still follow after dark. Just stay in, or at the very least, take a couple friends along.
5. Research the water and food standards
For Westerners, food and water safety is often forgotten because they have the great privilege of never really having to worry it. A quick Google search will tell you if your destination has potable tap water; if it doesn’t, be extra mindful of foods that haven’t been boiled or cooked at high temperatures (we’re looking at you, Large House Salad). Often times though, an upset stomach or foodborne illness is an inevitable part of international travel. Keep in mind that gap year insurance is your friend, and it might be a good idea to have it just in case you land yourself in the hospital.
6. Know local common ailments and how to prevent and treat them
Practice good gap year planning and do research on your destination to learn what diseases or ailments are prevalent, and how to prevent and treat said ailments. Dengue Fever? Yellow Fever? Parasites? Malaria? Pro tip: a mosquito net and bottled water go a long way in keeping you happy and healthy.
7. Respect local culture and customs
You know how you get annoyed when someone cuts in line or stiffs on tipping? The same respect you expect to receive should also be awarded to locals at your destination. Practice empathy when local norms might be frustrating; being an arrogant tourist is a surefire way to bring all the wrong (and possibly in the worst case, violent) attention to yourself.
8. Know the associated risks
For some destinations, there are associated risks that you would be wise to prepare for. Japan and New Zealand, for example, are prone to earthquakes and tsunamis; take the time to learn what to do in disaster situations prior to arrival.
9. Don’t go looking for trouble
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth saying anyway: Don’t put yourself in situations that you know can bring trouble. Political protests might make a great story for your blog, but are total oh-no-no’s, and you hitchhiking around a foreign country is your mom’s worst nightmare for a good reason. Putting too much trust in new people or situations you don’t know can be problematic, so please pack your common sense.
10. Stay sober
For adults, this advice might seem restrictive or even impractical, but it is absolutely necessary. Impaired judgment will make you an easy target for crime, as well as more inclined to accidents and injuries. And don’t kid yourself what you can handle—you’re no Ron Swanson.
Of course, you could follow our advice down to the punctuation, but there are still situations and circumstances that will call for your extra preparedness.
Teen female travelers deserve to feel as empowered as other travelers, and they should. It will be discouraging and frustrating how often you’re warned of danger, and exhausting (to say the least) to constantly be on edge; so, take the time to just relax every once in a while. To help put your mind at ease, consider gap year training or international travel safety training. Or, a cheaper and more simple trick is to always tell a friend or roommate where you’re going and when you’ll be back, so that you know there’s someone expecting you; it never hurts to utilize the buddy system, either!
If you have thoroughly researched your destination and know how to avoid or handle dangerous situations, you can breathe easy. Teen females, admittedly, have perhaps the most to worry in terms of personal safety, but don’t let your wonderful gap year be thwarted by persistent feelings of uneasiness.
LGBTIQ* gap year students who travel openly must also take care to research their destinations and how their sexuality will be received. Generally, westernized countries are safe for LGBTIQ* travelers, such as Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and most of western Europe. For your own safety, exercise discretion if planning a gap year to parts of Africa, South America, the Middle East, Russia, and other eastern European countries—these places have been frustratingly slow in acceptance, and some even have strict laws regarding homosexuality.
Novice solo travelers will spend most of their gap year in trial and error. Therefore, they’ll be a bit more susceptible to danger and common mistakes. If it’s your first time going abroad alone, consider getting your feet wet with a gap year in a more secure, westernized location, such as Canada or New Zealand. Or, consider coordinating your gap year through a program. This way, you will have a ton of valuable resources at your disposal designed to keep you safe and happy! If you’re still determined to go full Tomb Raider, though, do yourself a favor and take international travel safety training first.
When to take additional cautionary steps
Hey daredevils and thrill-seekers! Did you think you were gonna slip under the radar?
The natural progression of the gap year is to start out small and timid, and then be flinging yourself off every available cliff by the sixth month; going abroad tends to evoke a strong sense of “now or never” in every traveler. If that’s the case with you too, you’ll want to exercise some additional caution in the way of extreme sports or activities that are generally considered liabilities. We’re talking bungee jumping, skydiving, catamarans, four-wheeling, water skiing, paragliding, ALL of it.
With some of these activities, your life is almost literally in the hands of the vendor you choose—so choose wisely. That smarmy dude on the corner who says he’ll give you a discount if you grab three more friends? Nah, bro. A reputable travel company who is held accountable by law? Yes! There’s a lot of truth in online reviews, too, so check ‘em out prior to booking excursions and activities.
Again, use your best judgement, and trust us… it’ll be pretty obvious who’s just trying to make a quick buck, and who actually knows what they’re doing.
Should I get gap year insurance?
Honestly, yes, you should really have . Can you take a gap year without it? Absolutely. Will you regret not having it if you fall seriously ill or if your new MacBook is stolen from your hotel room? Absolutely. “Better safe than sorry” is an old adage which rings true, and which must’ve been written with insurance in mind.
Many insurance providers now allow you to build your own plan, which is ideal for saving money. Just remember a lot can happen in a year. PROTRIP-WORLD is both affordable and comprehensive, and they even have an option for legal assistance. ISIC is well-known amongst students, and they have nice options that cover baggage loss. Also consider CareMed, who have an ecological edge in addition to coverage for trip cancellations and easy online enrollment.
Make your gap year safety a priority
There’s no doubt that you’ll be chomping at the bit waiting for your gap year to begin. While there’s SO much to be excited for, it’s important to take the time to research and do gap year planning so that your excitement doesn’t morph into panic or regret. If you practice good sense, and always pay attention to your surroundings, your gap year safety will be nothing to write home (but your mom still appreciates it).