If you’ve ever visited a tourist hotspot like Southeast Asia, Western Europe or South America, you have probably encountered a traveler on his or her “gap year.” You know, the year before or after university studies during which British and, in some cases, European students travel around the world, typically on their parents’ dime.
Oh, you say you don’t know? Yeah, I don’t know about the gap year either.
The Concept of the “Gap Year”
My chief problem with the “gap year” is that it assumes travel to be an experience with a defined beginning and end. To me, there isn’t a lot of conceptual difference between the gap year and what I called the “American model,” i.e. waiting until you’ve retired to fulfill your whole life’s travel goals.
This would be fine enough if gap year travelers went about their travelers as non gap year travelers in the same age bracket tend to do: Armed with only a vague outline of their trips and a sense of adventure. Unfortunately, gap year travelers are perhaps the only demographic more prone to taking organized tours and embarking on set itineraries than senior citizens.
A further inherent flaw of the gap year is that, perhaps owing to an extremely young average age, many gap year participants travel in large groups. Obviously, not everyone can be a solo-traveling ninja, but I’ve found that the more you’re surrounded by people who are just like you, the less you’re likely to be profoundly changed or even moved by your surroundings.
Gap Year Funding
I try not to make generalizations in life, particularly when it comes to peoples’ social classes. One thing that becomes more and more evident every time I encounter a gap year traveler, however, is that they disproportionately “come from money.”
I’m not trying to start a traveler class war here and indeed, it isn’t so much that I believe parent-funded travel isn’t “legitimate.” Rather, I’ve found that a great part of the triumph inherent in travel comes from being able to plan, execute and pay for an amazing travel itinerary.
Stepping onto a plane, train or automobile takes only a boarding document and a minute amount of forethought; being able to incorporate serious travel into your life without going bankrupt cultivates an aptitude for achievement that becomes increasingly ingrained in your character the more you do it.
Behavior of Gap Year Types
An additional benefit of paying your own way around the world is that you know and appreciate the value of every aspect of your trip and, hopefully, are able to respect the sanctity of your fellow travelers’ experiences, regardless of their backstories.
With only a few exceptions in my seven years of travel, I’ve found gap year travelers to be the most inconsiderate group I encounter. The most common offenses are in-room partying at all hours of the night, gratuitous dorm room sex and utter ignorance to any of the actual culture in a particular place.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the otherwise town of Vangvieng, Laos. For the classic gap year traveler, the highlight of this mountainous region is not the lagoons, karsts and agricultural communities that surround the town. No, people on their gap year come all the way to Laos to ride inner tubes down a river and drink themselves sick, sometimes quite literally to death.
I won’t say that I’ve never gotten fucked up while traveling because let’s face it, you sometimes need to alter your state of conscious to be totally present and aware. But I do wonder why you’d travel half a world away only to live the exact same life you live at home.
The Gap Year Industry
The worst part of the gap year is that I don’t believe it will be going anywhere. In fact, I imagine it will only get more popular at time passes — and it isn’t only because the rich are getting richer, although this is of course an important factor.
Indeed, gap year travelers constitute an increasingly important demographic for large travel companies. Within seconds of loading the homepage of any such company, you are bombarded with “Gap Year Trip Suggestions” that offer a pre-packaged, “comprehensive” experience of a continent or region at a price that’s only cheap if you’re not paying.
With this in mind, I largely bite my tongue when I encounter gap year travelers these days. I do my best not to judge them, to assume for a second that the premise of their travel isn’t bogus, to see if anything lies beneath the oblivious, usually drunken exterior. And sometimes it does! Some of the most genuine, interesting people I’ve met on the road have been modern-day Arab princes and Marie Antoinettes.
More importantly, however, gap year travelers motivate me to keep fighting the good fight: To keep traveling on my own dime and on my own terms — and, most importantly, to keep writing articles that help you fine people do the same thing.