Gap Year

The 10 Best Gap Year Destinations for 2021

Are you looking to take a meaningful gap year? Here are the best destinations for 2021 to gain knowledge, skills, further your career, and even learn a new language!

Colin Murchison
Topic Expert

Colin was born and raised in Colorado, with the Rocky Mountains inspiring a passion for snowboarding, environmentalism, and photography. After...

With the challenges we’ve all encountered during 2020, there are compelling reasons to consider a gap year in 2021. Even during uncertain times, the desire for travel and independence remains strong, as do gap year opportunities. The benefits of a gap year, like the opportunity to gain knowledge, confidence, and new skills through experiential learning, are as relevant and needed as ever. A gap year in 2021 means spending the year investing time in your mental health and self-reflection, and broadening your perspective through taking a break from your traditional job or academia.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we travel, volunteer, and work, the decision of where and how you take your gap year is paramount in 2021. That said, the unique challenges presented during these hard times may also provide an opportunity for a truly unique and meaningful experience.

International travel is an important aspect of many people’s gap years, but it is not required for a life changing experience, and many of the same lessons learned through trotting across the globe can also be learned during local travel. As countries worldwide are implementing new and changing restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19, what is possible continues to develop as we all navigate this global event. It is important to stay up to date with the latest restrictions based on your individual circumstances, as well as the refund and deferment policies for any programs, flights, or experiences you book.

Organizations have worked overtime to develop innovative experiences that provide many of the same gap year benefits but consider stay-at-home orders, border closings, and safety requirements. International travel, work, internships, and volunteering may not be as widely available during 2021, but domestic and virtual gap years are in!

Choosing a gap year destination for 2021

Pandemic or not, if you’re traveling during a gap year, when choosing your destination you should consider:

  • Your proficiency with a second language or desire to learn one
  • Your budget, including cost of living, transportation, and program fees
  • The activities, including work, volunteering, internships, or adventure sports you would like to take part in

Each year, Go Overseas ranks the top ten gap year destinations based on a number of relevant factors. This year, countries are evaluated based on their popularity on Go Overseas, their popularity on Google, and current and expected border closures and international travel restrictions.

Country Rank (2021) Previous Rank (2020) Change
Ireland 1 - New
Australia 2 3 +1
Japan 3 2 -1
USA 4 4 -
New Zealand 5 8 +3
Canada 6 - New
France 7 7 -
Costa Rica 8 10 +2
Spain 9 9 -
Thailand 10 - New

1. Ireland

Benefits of a Gap Year in Ireland: Home of Halloween, Guinness, and lush, rolling green landscapes, Ireland offers gap year opportunities in 2021 ranging from enrichment arts, to cookery school, and much more! Ireland remains inspired by a deep cultural connection to its land, expressed through traditional music, literature, and games.

Ireland is the 3rd largest European island, with 80% of its land mass occupied by the Republic of Ireland, and the remaining, Northern Ireland, is part of the United Kingdom. Due to Ireland's vast, green landscape it has been nicknamed the emerald isle. Ireland is also known for gorgeous beaches, rocky cliffs, and historic monuments.

Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are currently welcoming international visitors, although COVID-19 restrictions and requirements are changing fast so it is important to review the current policies for visitors from your specific country. Review the latest Ireland travel restrictions and policies here, and the latest U.K. travel guidance here.

2. Australia

The Best Places to Go on Your Gap Year in 2019: Australia
Photo by Mckenzie H., Pacific Discovery Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in Australia: Australia is a popular gap year destination for travelers worldwide, as they offer a working holiday visa, giving gappers the ability to legally work during their travels. Many visitors on the working holiday visa find short-term employment in hostels, bars, or on working farms to fund their travels. Due to the size and remote nature of Australia, long-term travel here can be expensive, so the opportunity to supplement travel with work makes a gap year in Australia possible for many more travelers.

Australia has a large land mass, with most of its population focused on the South and Eastern coasts. With its size comes a huge spectrum of climates, like the tropical beaches in the state of Queensland, to the temperate climate in Victoria and Tasmania. Australia also has over 500,000 square miles of desert.

Australia’s borders are currently closed, although many gap year programs are expecting to resume hosting international travelers as early as summer 2021. There are also virtual internships available in Australia for the spring semester.

3. Japan

The Best Places to Go on Your Gap Year in 2019: Japan
Photo by Joshua E., EA Ski & Snowboard Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in Japan: Japan is a popular destination for travelers looking for a language-focused gap year. Commonly, English speaking gappers either focus their travels on learning the language, or teaching English in local schools. Additionally, Japan's mountains draw gappers looking to ski and snowboard, as well as those interested in learning how to be an instructor.

Japan is a densely populated island country known for its ancient temples, bustling cities, and dramatic volcanos. Japan consists of four main islands, with thousands of smaller islands spanning the North Pacific Ocean.

Japan currently has an entry ban for most international travelers. Review their current COVID policies here.

4. USA

The Best Places to Go on Your Gap Year in 2019: USA
Photo by Jon, Camp America Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in the USA: The United States of America offers a huge range of opportunities for gappers, both domestic and international. Known as a “melting pot,” the United States has a diverse range of cultures and landscapes spread across its large geographic area. The USA is a great place to gain insight on potential career choices, and see an array of different lifestyles without having to cross country borders.

With everything from iconic cities like New York City and San Francisco, to nearly untouched wilderness found in national parks, the USA truly has something for everybody. That said, with its scale comes challenges for travel, so it's best to research and focus on visiting a few states or geographic areas as opposed to trying to ‘see it all’.

A USA gap year in 2021 is a great option for US citizens who are hesitant to travel internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States is currently prohibiting travel for most non US citizens. See the current USA travel restrictions and policies here.

5. New Zealand

The Best Places to Go on Your Gap Year in 2019: New Zealand
Photo by Michel A., Pure Exploration Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in New Zealand: New Zealand offers a working holiday visa, similar to Australia, allowing young people (with specific passports) to work throughout the year while they travel. New Zealand consists of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island, which offer a wide range of landscapes and climates. Many people interested in an adventurous gap year find New Zealand to be a great option, with adrenaline pumping activities being the norm in much of the country.

New Zealand is an expensive country to visit and travel through, making the working holiday visa a great option for young travelers on a budget. With a thriving economy and large agricultural demand, it is easy to find work either in the cities or on farms spread across the islands.

New Zealand’s borders are currently closed, however programs are hoping to begin during the summer of 2021. Review New Zealand’s border policies here.

6. Canada

Photo by Javier R., Stepwest Alumni
Photo by Javier R., Stepwest Alumni

Benefits of a Gap Year in Canada: Ranging from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and reaching far up into the Arctic, Canada is a gorgeous country filled with vast, photogenic wilderness and world class skiing. Many travelers looking to teach ski or snowboard lessons choose Canada, but the options for a gap year supplemented with work go far beyond that through the International Experience Canada work permit.

Canada is the second largest country on Earth, behind Russia, with forests making up nearly half of its land mass. Additionally, Canada is home to over half of the lakes on the planet, including Moraine -- dubbed the ‘most photographed lake in the world.’ Canada is also a great option for gappers looking for a culturally rich experience, as Canada is among the most multicultural nations on earth.

Canada is currently restricting access to all non Canadian citizens. Review Canada's COVID-19 travel restrictions, policies, and advice here.

7. France

Cristina, Foundation for International Edu London
Photo by Cristina, Foundation for International Edu Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in France: France is one of the largest and geographically diverse countries in Europe. France is also centrally located between northern and southern Europe, making it a great ‘base’ for travel through Europe. From the iconic city of Paris to the Alps bordering Switzerland, to the beaches along the Mediterranean coast, a gap year in France can provide a bit of everything.

Gap year programs in France often focus on art, culture, and language. French is the second most studied language on earth, and is a romance language, making language immersion programs a popular gap year option.

France is currently allowing international travelers to enter with specific requirements based on the country travelers are entering from. Review France’s international travel policies here.

8. Costa Rica

Theo, The Experiment in International Living Costa Rica
Photo by Theo, The Experiment in International Living Alum

This small Central American nation is famous as one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Its forests, mountains, and coastal areas are home to a vast array of animals, birds, and fish, many of which are endemic to the country. The beautiful beaches are also an ideal place to surf, and there are countless other outdoor adventures to enjoy, including white-water rafting, horse trekking, and ziplining.

Naturally, many gap year opportunities in Costa Rica revolve around wildlife, conservation, and the environment. There are conservation centers and programs all over the country, but it’s a good idea to ensure that those you visit are properly credentialed and not just using ‘eco-friendly’ as a fashionable buzzword.

9. Spain

The Best Places to Go on Your Gap Year in 2019: Spain
Photo by Abigail W., CIEE Gap Year Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in Spain: Spain is known as an affordable gap year option for those looking to travel in Europe. Many gap year programs in Spain focus on art, music, and language, and there is a strong demand for volunteers to help with conservation efforts around Spain's beautiful beaches. Spain is one of the most popular gap year destinations in all of Europe, with Barcelona consistently being ranked among the top cities on earth.

Language immersion is extremely popular for English speakers looking to learn or improve their Spanish. Additionally, Spain is a home to many important cultural sites, a vibrant nightlife, and a world renowned culinary scene.

Spain is welcoming international travelers from much of the world, but does have restrictions, including for citizens of the United States of America. Review Spain's current COVID-19 policies and updates here.

10. Thailand

Photo by Lucy L., Projects Abroad Alum
Photo by Lucy L., Projects Abroad Alum

Benefits of a Gap Year in Thailand: From tropical landscapes to architectural masterpieces, Thailand is a popular gap year destination for those looking for an affordable and rewarding experience. The many programs and volunteer opportunities in Thailand lead to it being the most visited country in Southeast Asia.

Thailand is a tropical country in Southeast Asia, so mosquito-borne and water-borne diseases are common, making it important to receive vaccinations and immunizations before visiting. It is also important to be conscious of your food and water sources.

Thailand is currently restricting tourist travel. Review Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health travel advisories here.

Getting the Most out of a Gap Year in 2021

2021 is a year that will provide unique and changing challenges for those looking to take a gap year, but you can find the rewarding experience you are looking for if you stay open-minded, flexible with your plans, and informed on the policies that countries implement to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Additionally, taking a gap year doesn’t have to include international travel. Programs are adapting to the difficulties and restrictions on international travel by creating domestic gap years and virtual gap years that provide many of the same experiences travellers find abroad. Having a life changing gap year experience isn’t about where you go, but what you do to challenge yourself to grow, learn, and expand your perspective.