Gap Year

The 10 Best Gap Year Destinations for 2020

Elen Turner

Elen Turner is a travel writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has a PhD from the Australian National University, which examined feminist...

UPDATE: These Gap Year selections were made before the outbreak of the Coronavirus. We've covered the situation in detail in our article about Coronavirus safety and studying in China. This is an ongoing and rapidly changing situation so please consult the appropriate resources and for the latest updates:

Taking a gap year is an exciting experience that is sure to change the way you see the world. If you plan things well, you’ll gain knowledge and skills that you can use to further your future career, and any volunteer or work experience you undertake on your gap year will look great on your resume. But, the kinds of experiences and jobs you have during this year away will vary enormously depending on your chosen destination. Deciding you want to take a gap year is only the first major step in the journey—the next is deciding where you’ll go!

Choosing your destination should depend on several factors: whether you have a second language already or want to learn one; your budget, and whether you can afford to travel to an ‘expensive’ destination or need to pick somewhere more budget-friendly; what kind of work or volunteer experiences you want to have, and how important it is for you to earn money while doing so. There are no right or wrong choices, as everyone’s needs and interests are different.

But, we’re here to help you narrow down your options. You could pick one of these countries for your whole year away, or choose a couple that are near each other to combine varied experiences. These ten countries have been identified as the ten best gap-year destinations for 2020 based on a number of factors: their popularity on Go Overseas, their popularity on Google, and the internship/volunteer/work opportunities available in each. Get ready to be inspired!

Country Rank (2020) Previous Rank (2019) Change
China 1 4 +3
Japan 2 2 0
Australia 3 1 -2
USA 4 5 +1
Italy 5 - New
Cuba 6 - New
France 7 - New
New Zealand 8 6 -2
Spain 9 3 -6
Costa Rica 10 - New

1. China

The largest country in the world by population, China offers an enormous range of experiences. If you’re planning a career in finance or business, you’ll find many internship opportunities. You can also opt for programs that work with socio-cultural issues if you’re not so interested in business.

Having an interest (or even a background) in learning Chinese will go a long way if you want to travel to China on your gap year. While you may be able to get by with English in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai, this will be harder elsewhere. Traveling around China is one of the major attractions of taking your gap year here, as you can see bucket-list destinations like the Great Wall of China, panda conservation centers, or the high desert plateaus of Tibet.

2. Japan

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

Japan is a great destination for a language-focused gap year: you can either learn Japanese or choose to teach English in a private or public school (or, both!). There are large numbers of foreign residents in Japan doing both.

Although geographically quite small, Japan is very densely populated yet also has areas of wild, scenic beauty. Traveling around Japan should be a priority on your gap year. Explore the eclectic neighborhoods of Tokyo, learn to ski at one of Japan’s under-the-radar (with foreign travelers, at least) ski resorts, and soak in a hot spring bath in a traditional onsen.

Popular Gap Year Programs in Japan:

3. Australia

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

Australia is an attractive destination for a gap year partly because it offers a working holiday visa program for young people of certain nationalities. Although you might get lucky and be able to find a job that advances your professional skills, many working holiday visa holders enjoy working in bars, hostels, or on rural farms. Australia is an expensive place to travel around, so doing some part-time work is a great way to fund your travels.

Australia is a huge country, but very sparsely populated, and most cities and towns are along the south and east coasts. If you love tropical weather and beaches, head to the state of Queensland. If you prefer a greener, more temperate climate, look at Tasmania or Victoria. And, of course, there’s plenty of deserts to explore, too.

4. USA

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

If you’re from Canada, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, the USA is an attractive gap-year destination. Many young people from these countries like to work as camp counselors at US summer camps, as these are a unique part of many American childhoods that you don’t find elsewhere.

The US is another geographically enormous destination, which can offer practically any kind of environment and experience that interests you. From the iconic cities of New York and San Francisco to the great national parks dotted all around the country, wherever you go you’ll be near many beautiful and fascinating places. You’ll never see it all, not even in a year, so it’s best to stick to one broad region.

5. Italy

Antonia B., SAI Italy
Photo by Antonia B., SAI Italy Alum

Beautiful Italy is a dream destination for many art, culture, and history lovers. On a gap year, you can go beyond standard whistle-stop tour itineraries that race around the art galleries way too fast. Slow things down and really delve into the art, culture, and history of one (or more) of Italy’s art centers, such as Florence, Venice, Rome, or Sienna. Some available gap year programs focus on art history or Italian language.

As well as being rich with fascinating places to explore, Italy has the benefits of being fairly compact and being ideally situated in Europe. With a year you could see a lot of the country, and also travel to neighboring countries like Greece, Switzerland, or France.

6. Cuba

Victoria, ARCC Patagonia Cuba
Photo by Victoria, ARCC Patagonia Alum

A country that is so close to the US, yet so mysterious because of the difficulty for Americans to travel there for so long. Spending a gap year in Cuba is a (relatively) easy way to spend time in the country. While conditions for US citizens to travel to Cuba for tourism are unstable and often changing, there are more open opportunities for participating in ‘cultural exchange’ programs.

Cuba is an ideal destination if you want to learn (or improve) your Spanish. Cuban Spanish is distinct from the Spanish spoken elsewhere, but having a knowledge of the Cuban variety would prove useful for working in certain parts of the USA (especially Florida).

7. France

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

One of the largest countries in Europe, France is a great destination in itself, and because of its centrality in Europe, between north and south. From the glamour of Paris to the history of rural Normandy, the beaches of the Mediterranean coast and the Alps bordering Switzerland and Italy, there’s something for everyone in France.

As the country has such a rich history and culture, many gap year programs revolve around language learning, art history, and cultural preservation. When else might you get the chance to work in a medieval castle!?

Popular Gap Year Programs in France:

8. New Zealand

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

Like Australia, New Zealand offers a working holiday visa to young people with certain passports. To get this visa you need to prove that your main purpose is to travel in New Zealand rather than to advance your career per se, and there are caps on the number of hours you work. But as New Zealand is another expensive destination, getting work in a café, bar, hostel, or ski field is a good way to fund your travels to this country.

Many would-be travelers to New Zealand make the mistake of thinking the small South Pacific nation is more similar to Australia than it really is. The two countries are vastly different, culturally and geographically, and both highly worth spending extended time in. On the whole, New Zealand is much cooler and wetter than Australia, with lush forests, deserted beaches, and some very high mountains. In short, it's paradise for the outdoor lovers.

9. Spain

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

Spain is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, as well as one of the cheaper ones, which is good news if you need to make your dollar (or Euro, as the case may be) stretch further.

Spain is an ideal place to learn Spanish or improve your existing skills. While you’re not in the classroom you can explore its medieval and multicultural cities, its northern mountains, its Mediterranean beaches, and eat and drink to your heart’s content.

10. 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.

Wherever you choose to go, you’re sure to have a great time if you travel with an open mind and a willingness to push yourself beyond your familiar limits. Taking a gap year is about having new experiences and learning new skills—whether they be work-related or inter-personal. Even better if you can earn a bit of money, or add a career-boosting experience to your resume, along the way.