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Should I Do a Gap Year On My Own or Through a Program?

Gap year

You've made the choice to take a gap year, and are now faced with the "how should I take a gap year?" question. Undoubtedly, you've come across a ton of blogs of solo-travelers on working holidays in Australia, or backpacking through Southeast Asia, doing it on their own.

Few people actually act on this unique opportunity to learn, discover, make mistakes, and go on adventures.

You've also uncovered some amazing-looking structured gap year programs. Unlike the do-it-yourself gap year, gap year programs come with support, organization, and sometimes even courses or volunteer projects. So which one is right for you? An independent gap year? Or a gap year program?

When weighing the pros and cons of each, we looked to the experts -- our gap year community! Our friends at American Gap Association conducted an informal survey to find out what exactly were the pros and cons of doing a gap year with an organized program. The results are below:

An Independent Gap Year

Independent gap year

There's something romantic and timeless about setting off on your own in the world. Few people actually act on this unique opportunity to learn, discover, make mistakes, and go on adventures. It's a challenging road less traveled, but one that can change your life forever. Though we can't outright tell you which choice is right for you, here's an idea of what to expect if you do an independent gap year -- whether you're with friends or solo:

You Get to Do Exactly What You Want

Of course the biggest benefit of being on an independent gap year is getting to do exactly what you want. This is especially true if you go solo (without friends). No waiting for someone who wants to fight the tourists to see the Mona Lisa, or following the group on an urban slum tour that you really don't want to be a part of.

Your gap year is just that -- yours. You get to chart your own path, see and do and eat and drink what you what, where you want. If you’re interested in engineering and not art history, plan your trip so that it hits every cool bridge and skyscraper from here to Kuala Lumpur.

This is a chance (and there aren’t many) when you can travel and not listen to a teacher, a boyfriend/girlfriend, parent, or sibling. Your independent gap year can be exactly what you make of it, and help you grow exponentially.

You'll Have An Easier Time Meeting People

When you’re traveling solo, and even if it's just you and one other friend, it’s much easier to meet people on an independent gap year. The backpacking, gap year scene is an open, friendly one built on mutual respect. In fact, it’s so easy to meet people at the hotels, on buses, trains, and in restaurants, that you might have a hard time actually being alone.

After wandering the world independently, there'll be few things in life that are intimidating, daunting, or unmanageable.

There is a sense among solo gap year takers that while you’re on your own, you’re really part of a larger community that supports and encourages each other. It’s common to make friends and travel together for a while, then go your separate ways and find another friend or group of friends.

It’s also a lot easier to immerse yourself in the local culture if you’re traveling independently. You can make friends with locals, explore off the beaten path, go "undercover" (rather than standing out as a part of a group of foreigners), and really eschew your “Americaness.”

You'll Become Self-Reliant More Quickly

One of the most lasting benefits of an independently-run gap year is becoming self-reliant. If you’re going it without the support of a program provider, then you're fully responsible for keeping up with your passport, making reservations, getting the to train station on time, reading maps, making friends, steering clear of the dodgy bits of town, doing currency conversions, learning a few local phrases, partying responsibly, or facing your hangover when you don’t.

Solo gap year

As part of a team or group you can break up these tasks so that no one is responsible for everything. When on your own, however, it’s all on you (and maybe the one friend you dragged along), baby. At the same time, it’s amazing the skills that you’ll develop when you have to.

After wandering the world independently, there'll be few things in life that are intimidating, daunting, or unmanageable. Once you’ve learned how to read a Serbian train time table, or negotiated your way onto an already full Tanzanian ferry, and have dealt with every other challenge that has come up -- all on your own -- you know you can handle just about anything life throws at you.

But At The Same Time... It's All Up to You

As mentioned above, you'll become totally and completely self-reliant. If you want to tour the Greek Isles, you’ve got to figure out how to do it. Everything about your adventure and experience is really on you. While this is a tremendous learning experiment and will give you skills and confidence to last a lifetime, doing a gap year on your own is hard and time-consuming.

It seems counterintuitive, but when you’re alone, as opposed to part of a group, you tend to pay more for accommodation, transportation, food, and entertainment.

Even when you’re the most easy going person on the planet, and you don’t care that you’ve missed a train and don’t have a hostel reservation and it’s raining and you’re broke, there are times when you might wish someone could have helped with the logistics.

Though you'll learn a lot by showing up at the airport and realizing you forgot to get that visa to enter Vietnam in advance, having a program provider help out would have circumvented that problem entirely. So really, this whole self-reliance thing is a double edged sword.

Independent Travel Gap Years Can Be More Expensive

From a practical standpoint, traveling solo can be more expensive. It seems counterintuitive, but when you’re alone, as opposed to part of a group, you tend to pay more for accommodation, transportation, food, and entertainment.

Of course, if you're working on your gap year this may not hold true. You can counter some of your expenses by taking on a part time job or doing a work exchange. Though some gap year program providers will help you organize this, most gappers who choose to spend a year working abroad are likely to opt for an independently organized gap year.

A Gap Year With a Program

Gap year with a program

A gap year is precious. There aren't many chances in life when we can skip off into the unknown, just for the pure joy of adventure and discovery. That may mean that you want to make your time really count and sign up for a gap year program where you can focus your time and energy on specific goals. The structured approach to gap years is increasingly popular and the opportunities are really endless.

Whether or not it's for you, however, depends on your goals. If you're looking to get academic credit or volunteer, for example, an organized gap year is your best bet. Or, however, if you just want extra support or are intimidated at the thought of traveling abroad without an expert (and perhaps for the first time in your life) then again, a gap year program can give you that peace of mind. Other reasons to consider one:

Programs Offer Structure and Optimize Time

Organized, established gap year programs, whether in the U.S. or abroad, offer structure. This is helpful for several reasons. The structure is specifically designed (with hopefully many years of experience) to help the gap year students develop personally and increase their skill set.

This means that you’re using your time wisely, getting the most out of the experience that you can. Employers and college / university officials like to see that a gap year program is offering the type of structure that can lead to real development and learning. These are the types of programs that can lead to academic credit, internships, and maybe even future employment.

They Offer a Layer of Security

Organizations offering gap year programs are going to also provide a layer of safety and security. You’re going to know that you’re going to a safe area, one where there are people looking out for your welfare, and that experts are on the ground, assessing any situation that could arise.

Whether it’s political unrest or a broken ankle, your trip leaders are trained on how to deal with challenges that might arise, and they have security measures in place to take care of any medical or security emergency.

Especially if your parents are worried about your personal safety as you break out into the world, going through a program provider will provide all involved with peace of mind.

They Help with the Messy Paperwork

Almost all gap year program providers will help you out with visas (emphasis on help -- you'll likely still have to do some of the work yourself.) and make sure that you're aware of which visa you need and for where.

Programs Come with a Mentor

In addition to providing safety and logistical support, the team responsible for your gap year experience can also provide helpful mentoring. That means if you’re completing an internship or volunteering on a project, there are people in place who can help counsel and advise you if you’re having problems.

They also might be able to help you switch programs if one isn’t working out. There is a built-in safety net that helps ensure that your gap year is worthwhile and valuable.

You'll Spend Less Time Planning, More Time Growing

Benefits of doing a gap year through a program

Because your program knows what it’s doing, you should get to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience. You won’t have to arrange every single tiny detail of your experience.

Depending on the program you select, you may not have to worry about arranging flights, trains, or even groceries. This gives you more time to focus on the project, the people, and reaching the goals that you’ve set for your gap year.

They're Connected with Local Organizations

The gap year program (especially the well-established ones) have amazing local connections. They can grant you access to the community that you would never be able to have as a solo traveler.

This could take shape through excursions, unique volunteer opportunities, or homestays with families who are experienced in hosting and helping to educate foreign gappers. Beyond that, they also have a much more intimate awareness of the local culture, political situations, and how to navigate the country you're in.

You'll Have Guaranteed Friends!

There is a built in social component of organized gap year programs. You are pretty much guaranteed to find like-minded people since you’re all off saving rhinos in South Africa together, or volunteering with street dogs in Thailand. You won’t be lonely and you’ll probably make fantastic friends that last a lifetime.

More Organization -- But Less Flexibility

The most glaring one is that you have a real lack of flexibility. Organized programs have schedules, start and end dates, rules, and guidelines. There is no skipping off to barhop in Amsterdam, as one survey respondent noted. There is a real lack of spontaneity.

In some ways you loose the romantic spirit of adventure. While organized programs can still offer life-changing experiences and real chances to challenges, learn, and test yourself, it’s not the same as exploring the world on your own.

Organized Gap Years: Things to Keep in Mind

Why do a gap year program

Although there are tons of perks with an organized gap year, and they might alleviate many of your original concerns about an independently organized gap year, there are a few things you should keep in mind about them before making the final decision:

Organized Gap Years are Less Individualized

These programs tend to be less individualized. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a program that fits your interests and schedule (there's such a huge variety out there!), but it does mean that you’re part of a group or team so you’ll probably have to compromise on some things -- which, would be the case traveling with your friends as well.

On the other hand, perhaps you'll end up on a project, trip, or destination you didn't even know about because of this organized gap year. Often, they come with an educational angle -- and that's the kind of thing you can't really do if you're just winging it as a backpacker.

It Could Be Harder to Immerse in Local Culture

It can be hard to meet local people precisely because you have a built in social group and support network. This can also make it hard to learn the local language.

Try to do a rough estimate of how much an independent gap year would cost you versus a program.

If that's a concern for you, look for programs that set gappers up with host families for a true immersion experience, or place you with only one or two other people in local communities abroad.

Yes, if you're only traveling around with a pack of other foreigners, making those impromptu, genuine interactions with locals could be harder, but maybe you'll make an even deeper connection by living with a host family, or going to class with a local teacher each and every day.

It Could Be an Extra Cost

Cost is another big con for organized programs. Gap years are expensive already, and going through a program provider could prove to be an extra cost. Because these programs have so many built in advantages, like arranging all the details of the trip and providing security and guidance, they tend to be more expensive than an independent gap year.

Before you write it off completely though, try to do a rough estimate of how much an independent gap year would cost you versus a program. Does the fact that you get college credit for this program offset the extra cost? Is it money you'd be spending on your education anyway? Will you end up spending less on transportation, lodging, and food because you're sharing it with others?

It may look like a lot up front, and it really may be more expensive, but make sure you total up those independent gap year costs as well. Chances are, you're not looking at the total cost yet, but just the pieces. The overall costs could be comparable in the end.

Only You Know What's Right for You

Ultimately, a gap year is a fantastic, life-changing experience no matter what you do. There are major pros and cons to every option. It’s ultimately up to each of you to decide what is the best fit for your personality, goals, interests, temperament, your stage in life. But just in case you came here only looking for a summary:

Take an independent gap year if...
  • You just want to travel.
  • You want to get a job abroad.
  • You want to challenge yourself and test your self-reliance.
  • You prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, rather than have an organized itinerary.
  • Academic credit isn't a priority for you.
  • It proves to be more cost effective.
  • You want to immerse fully in the local culture or blend in better.
  • Next step: Read more gap year articles.
Take a gap year with a program provider if...
  • You want academic credit.
  • You want to volunteer abroad but don't know where to start.
  • You want more support organizing your gap year and taking care of you in case of an emergency.
  • It proves to be more cost effective.
  • You prefer more structure and organization.
  • You're nervous of not being able to make friends!
  • Your parents are worried about your safety.
  • Next step: Get started and search for gap year programs.

No matter which path you choose (and all of these paths are going to lead to good things) there will be challenges and sacrifices. Be sure to do your research, reach out to others in the gap year community, and learn from their experiences. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and throw yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Whether you’re part of a group making archaeological discoveries in Crete or you’re on your own, with a new friend teaching you to play a bagpipe in Glasgow, you’re going to come home with a new and wonderful perspective on the world and your place in it.

Photo Credit: Martha Landry, Madeline Hill, David Greenky, Caitlin Lucas, and Jessie Beck.
Kate Evans

Kate Evans is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa. Published internationally, travel is her favorite pastime and writing subject. Follow her on Google+ or on Kate Evan's website.