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Gap year programmes: Getting started

If you've just started thinking about your gap year, you're probably overwhelmed by all the information out there, from how to start making plans to what to pack for your travels.

Planned gap year programmes can be great way to take the hassle out of your year out as most of the work is done for you. Even so, there is a multitude of opportunities to choose from, which can make it tough when trying to narrow it down.

What do you want to get out of your gap year?

Well first off, you need to know what you want to get out of your year out. That way, you can quickly narrow it down to programmes that help you achieve that aim. For example, do you want to volunteer or earn money? Is your main aim to see the world, or to help disadvantaged people and communities?

What do I need to know?

Once you know what you're looking for, you can start assessing the programmes on offer against your personal check list. Ask questions like these:

  • What will I gain from doing this?
  • Will anyone benefit from this placement apart from me ?
  • Why are young people from the UK needed on this and who asked for us to do it?
  • Will the programme continue after I have left?

Next, you can start thinking about the practicalities of the programme:

  • What is the age range of participants?
  • Who are they looking for and what is the interview procedure?
  • Is there a choice of different programmes?
  • How many participants selected on each programme?
  • What is expected of me? What will my responsibilities be?

'Ask the right questions of your gap year provider to be sure of a smooth ride'

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Know what you're getting into

Some people have pretty bad experiences on their gap year programme, so it's vital to know that both the UK-based gap year company and the programme they're sending you on are legitimate, and that you'll be well looked after If you have any doubts, cross them off.

  • Why does the organisation exist? How long has it been around?
  • How has the programme been chosen and checked out? Has a representative of the sending organisation had a good look?
  • Are the host organisations paid to take me? Do they pay me?
  • What exactly will I be doing?
  • Will I be alone, and who will I be placed with?
  • What can I expect in terms of accommodation and food? You will need to be realistic here and expect local food – not mouth-watering culinary delights.
  • Do I have to sign anything? Is there a written agreement between me and the organisation?
  • Is it a partnership, private company, public company, registered charity, sole trader or other? Where is it registered?
  • Examples of successful programmes and a chat to past participants can shed a lot of light very quickly and easily on whether you feel the programme is right for you.
  • What if there is an emergency? Does the organisation have sufficient funds to cope with emergencies?
  • What are the organisation's policies on equal opportunities?

How much money do I need to take with me?

You may be expected to pay for the programme. Be wary if you're expected to pay a lot of money in cash when you arrive. You should take as little physical money with you as possible.

Here's what you should ask early on, and certainly before any money has changed hands

  • What is the precise programme cost and what does it cover?
  • What is the recommended budget for extras?
  • If I have to pay a deposit, is it refundable?
  • When and how do I pay? What happens if I cancel?
  • If I have to raise funds, does the organisation give advice?

What to organise before, during and after your gap year

You need to find out what is included in the package and conversely what you're responsible for yourself. Ask the company about this at an early stage so you can take care of all the important things like flights, vaccinations and any prep you need to do long before you go:

  • Who is responsible for travel arrangements? This includes travel visas and work permits.
  • Who provides insurance and what is included in the cover? Health, possessions, cancellation and repatriation?
  • What about inoculations and health precautions? Help and advice please!
  • How about training and pre-departure briefing - do I get any of that?

Ask about support and safety whilst on your placement:

  • Who is the person responsible for me at the programme location?
  • Where is the nearest representative of the organisation?
  • What if there is a major emergency - can somebody deal with this and get me home?
  • If I have a problem with my placement, can I chat to somebody?
  • What is included in the living arrangements? Who selects and checks out the accommodation?
  • If staying with host families, are they paid or are they volunteers?

What happens when I get back?

It might seem like a long way off, but it's important to know whether you'll debrief when you arrive home after your adventure is over:

  • Will the organisation have any contact with me when I return?
  • Can my experience be of any use to future participants?
  • Will I get a reference or certificate, indeed anything to prove that I was actually there and completed the programme?
  • Will I be debriefed?

Where can I go for more advice?

For further advice and information, check out the Year Out Group and the  Foriegn & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) Know Before You Go campaign.  They've produced a travel checklist that's worth reading before every trip.

If you follow these steps, you can't go far wrong. That's not to say that you're guaranteed a smooth ride, but at least you'll navigate the potholes with the confidence that you've done all the important groundwork.

Good luck, and have a great time!

If you're planning to work your gap year but don't know whether to do it abroad, at home, or what type of job you should look for, check out our guide to choosing a gap year job.