Once you’ve made the decision to take a gap year, whether that’s in Europe or by staying in the States, planning it properly is essential to turn your dreams of adventure into reality. To avoid the struggle of dealing with the planning process, many students choose to enroll in a structured—but often quite expensive—gap year program. If you’re an independent traveler who wants to take a gap year on a budget, you should consider planning your year abroad yourself.
If the thought of this is overwhelming, never fear. We’re here to help you through all the necessary steps of gap year planning. What’s more: we’ve compiled a gap year checklist, which you can download as a PDF to help you jet off worry-free.
Once the excitement of organizing your dream trip is over, you need to start thinking about the more practical, and probably less exciting, details of taking a gap year in Europe. In order to make the most out of this experience without going broke after a couple of months, it’s important that you plan your finances before you leave.
But how much money will you really need? That’s a million-dollar question. Quantifying your budget can be complicated, especially as there are several factors to consider. For a rough estimate, you should break down all the expenses required for a year away in the following categories:
The cost of your trip will vary significantly in relation to the type of experience and destination you choose and how long you plan to be away. But don’t give up hope just yet—your gap year doesn’t have to cost you the equivalent of a trust fund. There are trips to Europe by bus or train which are inexpensive and also better for the environment. It’s easy to pick up cheap train tickets in Europe so you can explore several countries at once.
The most obvious option to set aside money for your travels is to start cutting back on unnecessary expenses. Cooking at home and using public transit can save you a ton of money. There are many free budgeting apps that help you with money management skills to keep track of your spending habits before and during your trip.
Most students also try to earn extra money by working for a few months before taking a gap year. Even a part-time job will help you secure some extra cash. It is also common for ‘gappers’ to work during their time abroad.
Lastly, you could also apply for a scholarship. Many organizations recognize the value of a gap year and offer grants to young people taking a year off—based on the project and motivation.
One of the cheapest ways to explore Europe is to travel by train. The ideal solution for non-European citizens is to buy one of the Eurail Passes. The Global Pass is an all-in-one train ticket that gives flexible access to most trains across 33 different countries in Europe. If you’re 27 or younger, you can also benefit from discounts. However, the Eurail Pass is not just about trains: It also gives you discounts on hotels, car rentals, tourist attractions and ferries.
If you prefer to explore a single country in-depth, the One Country Pass may be a better option. Thanks to the variable validity of the Pass, which ranges from just three days up to a maximum of eight days within one months of unlimited train travel, you can customize your itinerary and travel at your own pace. The ticket price depends on the number of travel days and the country you choose.
If you prefer to plan individual trips, the Omio journey planner is the ideal app to compare trains, buses and flights throughout Europe to help you find the cheapest deal. The best part? You won’t have to deal with different languages or currencies in the booking process, even when visiting multiple countries.
House hunting in a city that you aren’t familiar with can be challenging and time-consuming. You should start looking for an affordable and livable place as soon as you know your destination.
Hostels are one of the most popular choices among money-savvy travelers who want to explore Europe. Although they aren’t luxurious, hostels offer basic facilities and, if you’re lucky, some additional amenities such as a swimming pool, a chill-out area or even your private room. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to meet new people and exchange experiences with other travelers.
If you are an adventurous traveler and you really want to save up for other activities, you can also try Couchsurfing. You’ll be able to visit more expensive cities without breaking the bank, since you can sleep at a local’s house for free. Couchsurfing is also a fantastic way to befriend local people and immerse yourself in their culture.
A more expensive, but also more comfortable alternative is sleeping in a hotel or Airbnb. Some travelers choose to alternate between hotels and budget-friendly hostels to experience some comfort while also saving money.
The best option for gappers who are staying in the same place for longer than a month is renting a room in an apartment. If you don’t want to pay extra fees to an estate agency, you can find your future lodging by using online resources.
There is bureaucracy involved in every part of travel—so it’s best to get it out of the way to avoid any nasty surprises.
Make sure that your passport valid for at least the duration of your stay. Some European countries require at least 6 months validity before allowing you to enter the country. To remain in Europe longer than 90 days, you’ll also need to apply for a visa prior to your arrival:
Once you have checked off the visa application, you should consider buying travel insurance for your year abroad. Although it’s not mandatory, we highly recommend it. Depending on the exact policy, most travel insurance policies cover lost or stolen baggage, airline cancelations, personal liability, and most importantly, emergency medical expenses.
The last pre-departure item you should focus on is your healthcare. Unfortunately, traveling the world can expose you to various diseases and illnesses. Therefore, you should visit a doctor for a thorough pre-travel physical and ensure you have all the recommended vaccinations for your chosen destination.
Keep in mind that at the moment there are worldwide travel restrictions in place. Most European countries gave the green light to American travelers, but the entry requirements can vary from country to country and can be updated with little notice based upon changing conditions. So, make sure to check the rules and restrictions for each country you’d like to visit. For example, some countries ask U.S. travelers to show proof of vaccination, a medical certificate confirming recovery from COVID, or provide a negative COVID-19 test. Useful resources to verify this information are the website of the U.S. State Department, the individual country’s foreign affairs office, as well as the airlines.
Here’s the final challenge you need to face before hitting the road: packing your stuff! Two realities when packing for a gap year: it’s impossible to take everything with you—and what doesn’t fit inside your luggage and is non-essential, can also be bought upon arrival.
To make sure you don’t forget anything essential, ensure to prepare and check off your personal packing list.
Organizing a gap year on your own is a complex and challenging process, from planning your budget, to arranging the accommodation and the logistics, to health checkups and packing. But with some patience and a structured approach, you’ll organize one of the most worthwhile and rewarding experiences of your life. With Omio in your pocket, you can hop to different countries using different transport methods—all in English with payment in USD ($).
Between demanding studies and a competitive job market, more and more young Americans decide to hit the pause button for a little while. Traveling, volunteering, or interning during a gap year can give you the much-needed time to recharge your batteries and develop valuable skills. Spending some time whilst on your gap year is a great opportunity working out what you want to do in life. Take a look at our comprehensive guide on planning a memorable gap year in Europe and start planning you adventure abroad.