Going on a gap year can be a hugely significant choice in your life. It can mark the graduation from adolescence into adulthood, or the end of being a student and starting a career. For many, it is one of the most exciting, fulfilling experiences of their lives. If you want to make the most of your big trip, you’ll need to make sure you plan right.

The last thing you want is to pump all your hard earned money and months of your life into something with no direction. It’s definitely possible to miss out on great experiences if you don’t know what your plan is.

This article will help you to take the necessary steps to plan the ultimate gap year and make sure you have an unforgettable time.

Figure out what you want to get from the trip

Before booking anything or even deciding where exactly you want to go, the first step for anyone planning a gap year should be to figure out exactly what you want to gain from the gap year.

Do you want to learn about ancient civilizations and see relics of history first hand? Or maybe you just want to visit a warmer climate and hang out in the sun. Maybe you want to try to make a difference to a cause that you really care about?

Regardless of what you want from your trip, you should decide early on. This can then dictate the way your next steps and make the whole planning process a lot more efficient.

Do some research

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Once you’ve figured out exactly what you want to get out of the trip, you can start to research which destinations will suit your needs best. You can use a variety of tools to do this. Guidebooks, like Lonely Planet, are a great start, collating lots of relevant information in one place, but can be expensive.

Nowadays, the internet is without a doubt the best resource for any research. Free information from travel blogs and travel-related sites like Wikitravel can give valuable first-hand insight into specific areas from people who’ve been in your position before you.

Using your research, pick your top destinations. Do you want to hit the classic backpacker trail and head to South East Asia? How about somewhere more off the beaten track, like Africa?

How long do you have before you need to be at home, start university, or start a job? Make sure you organize your available time in the most efficient way possible, so you can fit into everything you want to see and do.

Set your budget

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Unfortunately, the main limiting factor for any trip is generally going to your budget. Once your money runs out, you will probably have to go home. You should work out a plan to save as much money as possible, as every extra dollar equals more time.

Cut out all the excess expenses you can. It might seem like you’re losing out at the time, but it will pay dividends later on when you can afford to visit another country or have another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see something incredible. Even little things like not buying takeaway coffees, making your own lunches instead of paying for them every day, and cycling or walking instead of paying for transport, can help you save a great deal more.

That doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your budget, though. There are a lot of ways to get more out of your money when traveling and enjoy yourself for longer. You should figure roughly how much your day-to-day costs will be, then find a way to make your budget meet those needs.

Find ways to make your budget go as far as possible

If your budget seems a little small to achieve all the things you have planned, consider some money-saving techniques. You can always find ways to spend less, so if you really want to go somewhere, make it happen.

Why not try volunteering? There are all sorts of options available, for example, you could volunteer in Ghana teaching English, or volunteer in turtle conservation in Costa Rica. Not only can you save money this way, but you will also have a hugely rewarding experience and meet a lot of like-minded people.

You could try getting buses around a country instead of flights, hitchhike whenever possible, cooking for yourself instead of eating in restaurants, and many other small things that can add up to big savings.

Make sure you actually do it!

The most important step to make your dreams of the perfect gap year a reality is to go for it. You should try to book big things like your flights as far in advance as possible so that you can’t back out. It commits you to a specific date and prevents you from delaying setting off. You will probably also find that this helps you to budget more effectively, as you know for sure that anything you don’t save before that date is money you won’t have.

Despite all this talk about the importance of planning, there is such a thing as thinking too much. Put effort into the planning process, of course. You want to make sure you have enough in place to keep yourself safe, and can fill your time with worthwhile endeavors. But don’t get too caught up in the details.

Finalize your plans, say your goodbyes, and set off. You won’t regret it.

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Your planning will pay off

It might not be obvious at first, but the planning of your gap year can be as important as the execution. To make sure you get the most out of your time and money, put in the time beforehand and really figure out what you want to get out of it.

Whatever you choose to do with your gap year, make sure you travel with a purpose.

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