Want to be the smart traveller? I'm going to assume that it's a 'yes' you are shouting at the screen right now. Well, here is your comprehensive pre-departure checklist to help you be just that.
Passport and visas - If you haven't got a passport make sure that you apply for one well in advance, as sometimes delays occur and it can take up to 6 weeks to arrive.
If you have one already, I would recommend that it is valid for at least 6 months after your last day of travel. You want your passport to last the duration of your trip, but for exact entry requirements check the Travel Advice section of the FCO site.
If you need a visa you have to apply at least 3 months before departure. How long does a visa take? It depends on the country that you applying to and the type of visa you want. For tourist visas expect at least 2 weeks, for working holidays visas they can take up to 8 weeks and more if a medical is needed.
Travel Insurance - It's very important that you never, ever, leave the UK without travel insurance.
It doesn't matter how you feel about it, it is imperative that you not only have insurance but have also checked that is the right insurance for what you plan to do.
Do you read the small print of your mobile phone contract? No, neither do I. Do I read the small print of my travel insurance? The short answer is no - after all have you seen the contracts that they send you? They are lengthy with legal jargon that is hard to understand.
If you follow this flowchart you can ensure that you are never caught out.
Vaccinations and antimalarials - You should look into this once you have a final plan for your gap year as the areas that you are travelling to will influence the recommendations for particular vaccinations, or if antimalarials are needed.
Vaccinations and antimalarials are also something that you need to budget for as they are essential before your gap year travel and not all of them are free.
I have found that parents are generally quite happy to foot the bill for this (just don't tell them that I told you this).
Your parents will also be more receptive if you have done some research previously.
There are some vaccintions that are free on the NHS, and some that you need to pay for. You can find out more information in my article about vaccinations.
Packing list and travel essentials - You should aim to be very minimalistic with your approach to packing, mainly because you have to carry it on your back wherever you go, lunge it on top of buses, or carry it upstairs in hostels (you won't be finding lifts in hostels).
One golden rule is: don't take things 'just in case' (it's not a holiday!!). If in doubt, leave it. Make sure that you have the bare essentials. If you run out of something while you are away you can just get the local version. This means that you don't have to carry tonnes of toiletries or wet wipe packets.
The same goes for clothes - you don't need two hundred t -shirts, or even six, you can buy more if the ones you have get lost or damaged.
You also need to think of local customs and what they deem as appropriately dressed. You don't want to offend the locals or call unwanted attention from the authorities or petty criminals (in some countries it is difficult to tell them apart).
So, no camouflage trousers or jackets. It may surprise you but in some countries camouflaged clothes are illegal and only the military can wear them. Also, no joky big slogan kind of T-shirts, plain color t-shirts, or t-shirts with smaller unoffensive logos are the best option.
When I first started out travelling, I used to carry a lot of stuff that never left my bag. With fifteen years of travel this soon changed. Stick to my list and travel like a pro!
In here you will get my ultimate kit list that I have been perfecting over the years.
Build your medical kit - Make sure that you carry your personal medication. Do you need an asthma inhaler? Take a few of those. Any allergies? Maybe you need an epipen. Do you suffer from hayfever? Are you prone to blisters?
Your medical kit has to reflect your personal ailments, the challenges of the environment that you are going to and the activities that you are planning to do. The NHS has a great list for a basic travel health kit.
Buy a Lonely Planet - There are loads of different guides out there, and you will need one for your gap year planning as well as while travelling,
I recommend the Lonely Planet simply because it is way better that any of the competitors. Their recommendations are spot on and it has a lot of useful advice and resources to keep you going on your gap year.
Remember to read the culture and history sections to gain an insight of the places that you will be visiting.
Staying in touch - Before you leave you should discuss with your parents a suitable communications plan that works for you all. Leave a copy of your itinerary with them and make sure to keep them in the loop when anything changes.
Here are the most common ways of staying in touch:
Email: There are internet cafes in all major cities, big towns, and even small towns that are on the tourist trail. This is probably the most inexpensive and best way to keep regular contact. Internet cafes tend to charge very little for usage and you will probably be able to use free wifi at your hostel.
Mobile Phone: When I travel I leave my expensive smartphone at home and buy a cheap quad band unlocked phone instead that can be used globally. Then you just need to get a global sim card for it. This way I am contactable, can use my phone in-country and avoid extortionate roaming charges.
Skype: There are many communication apps out there, but I use Skype. It is free to download and its users can make free calls to anyone else with a Skype account no matter where either is in the world.
Make sure that you and your parents set up an account, if you haven’t already, as it is a great way to stay in touch. You can also make calls to mobile phones or landlines for a fee and they are usually pretty cheap compared to normal phones, or even global sim cards.
Buy some currency - The best way to get the cheapest rates when buying currency is to buy in advance on the internet and have it delivered to your home or the airport that you are departing from.
Never buy at the airport as you leave or arrive as their rates are generally really poor.
How to carry your money - You should used a combination of methods to carry your money on your gap year. Avoid using your debit card to pay or withdraw from cash machines and instead use a prepaid travel card. They have better rates than your bank and it can be reloaded online by a bank transfer by yourself or even a parent.
Carry some cash with you but not the bulk of it and have a debit and a credit card just for emergencies.
Booking your flights - Do you know how much a round the world flight cost? its this the best option for you? I have plenty of advice on how to find cheap gap year flights, where I explain the process I go to to bag the cheapest flights possible.
Electronic documents - Use a cloud storage provider like Dropbox to save electronic copies of your documents. You can also make sure that your parents can access it in case of an emergency.
These are the documents you want to save in the cloud:
- Driving licence
- Travel insurance policy
- Vaccination certificates
- Plane tickets
- Copy of debit and credit cards
Book airport pick up and accommodation - Make sure that when you arrive to your destination you have something pre-booked, this is essential as you will be most vulnerable in your first days away.
Read my guide to gap year hostels, so you can find the best advice about finding a hostel that works for you, booking it and what to expect when you are there.