Gap Year

What Type of Meaningful Travel is Right for You?

Go Overseas lives for promoting travel with purpose. Learn about working, volunteering, interning, studying, and taking a gap year abroad to decide which type of meaningful travel is right for you.

A girl posing with a city in the background.

The world outside your door is calling, but with so many options, it can be hard to choose which way to go. Here at Go Overseas we’re all about travel with a purpose and believe that the most impactful experiences are immersive. The following experiences surround you with opportunities to learn about the world and its many cultures.

The path that is best for you depends on a number of factors. Your current status as a student or employed graduate, how much time you can spend abroad, and what you can spend will all influence your direction. Get to know the various types of meaningful travel to help weigh the challenges and benefits of each.

Breaking down the types of meaningful travel

Meaningful travel comes in all shapes and sizes. We highlight several different types below including:

  • Work abroad
  • Intern abroad
  • Study abroad
  • Volunteer abroad
  • Gap years

Let's take a look at each of these in-depth!

Enhance your career: Work Abroad

Work Abroad - Man with Beard

Working abroad is an awesome experience. In a way, you get the best of everything. You'll gain unique insight into a culture that many people have never had the chance to experience while making money to support yourself in your new home. Hands down, you’re going to learn a lot.

The other great thing about working abroad is it shows initiative and makes you more marketable for future employment. Whether you taught English abroad, participated in a working holiday, or found a job in your field, you demonstrated your independence ability to thrive in uncharted territory. You gained useful experiences and skills and surmounted challenges you wouldn't have otherwise encountered with your job back home. Way to go, you!

Speaking of challenges, working abroad isn’t always easy though. You are going to have to do things the other options might not require ling open a bank account, get a visa, find a place to live, pay taxes, and more. If you are working abroad on a fellowship or a transfer within your own company, you might receive some help in these areas. Whether you're going it alone or with assistance, the overall challenge is so worth it in the end.

Read more about working abroad:

Build your resume: Intern Abroad

Intern Abroad - Woman at Airport

Personally, I think interning abroad is one of the most underrated and underutilized international experiences. Sure, it may require a lot more effort than studying abroad, but it will also make you stand out more!

The experience you gain from an internship abroad is pretty much unbeatable. You'll not only be gaining practical experience in your field, you’ll also be gaining invaluable skills for our increasingly global workplace.

Another great thing about interning abroad is that it can be a great budget option. You can potentially find your own internship, and there’s even a chance you could get paid (and/or get free/subsidized housing and meals). There are also a number of organizations fellowships that can help match you with an internship for free or a very low cost.

Interning abroad also allows you more independence and cultural immersion than some of the other options. Like working abroad, you will likely be spending most of your day interacting with locals, not fellow students or expats. This helps you ditch and language or cultural crutches you may be tempted to take up.

Lastly, in my own (very unscientific) observations, those who intern abroad seem to be the most likely to return to their host country -- whether it’s to go to graduate school, teach or work -- than almost any other option. So if that’s something that interests you, interning abroad might be a good option to consider!

Read more about interning abroad:

Get college credit: Study Abroad

Study Abroad - Students Working Together

There’s a reason study abroad is one of the most popular adventures. Studying abroad is a perfect mix of all the things you’d want in an international experience, especially if it’s one of your first tastes of going abroad.

With study abroad, you get to spend a significant amount of time abroad, but it’s justified. You’re getting something out of it. You’re getting credit, most likely. You’re learning. You’re experiencing the culture and meeting some locals. You still have enough free time to have fun and really explore your host city and country, and perhaps beyond. Generally speaking, you'll be independent but will probably have some support to lend a hand and help you out if you need it.

But one of the great things about study abroad, partly because it is so widespread, is that you really can tailor it to your personality and goals. You can study abroad for two weeks or two years. You can take all your classes in Spanish and learn about history and tango, or take all your classes in English while studying Italian art. You can live with other students from your university and go out on the town every night, or you can opt for a homestay and immerse yourself in your host country’s language and culture. These days, there really is something for everyone.

Read more about studying abroad:

Make a difference: Volunteer Abroad

Volunteer Abroad - Volunteer with Children

I talk a lot about how your choices can benefit you, but what about what you can do for others while you’re abroad? Spending time abroad can open your eyes to how lucky you are and highlight how many people in the world face daily struggles. Truthfully, volunteering abroad is one of the most rewarding international experiences you can pursue.

There are other benefits, too. Volunteering abroad can be great for those on a budget, as sometimes you receive room and board in return for your work. Of course, it can also be expensive, depending on the organization or provider you choose.

That said, there are a vast array of volunteer programs and organizations out there. Make sure you do your research to be sure you’ll be volunteering responsibly and making a positive difference. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a few “fun” things as well while you’re abroad, and some of these providers provide those extras.

Overall, your focus point will be the cause you’re supporting. You will have enriching interactions with the locals and other unique experiences and opportunities, whether it’s with wildlife, habitats, or communities. In many ways, your volunteer abroad experience may leave you more changed than any other international experience.

Read more about volunteering abroad:

Explore the world: Gap Year

Gap Year - Woman on Mountain

Sometimes you just want to wander! Gap years and traveling may have less structure, but for some people it just works better that way. Travel is great because it’s so flexible. It can fit any length of time, any budget, and any goals. You can get just as much cultural immersion by Couchsurfing or WWOOFing as a homestay while studying abroad.

As long as you’re making an effort to get to know the places you’re visiting, and not just getting to know the inside of different bars in each city, travel is just as worthwhile an option as any other. It’s great to get to know one place inside out, but it’s also great to see a number of places and be able to see their similarities and differences. And for those who might not be able to pursue any of the other options, it is certainly better to travel than to just stay at home!

Read more about gap years abroad:

How do I decide what's right for me?

To figure out where you're going, it's important to understand where you're at currently and identifying any time or budget constraints you may be facing. Let's consider the following questions:

Where Are You in Your Life's Journey?

Are you in school? Studying abroad or interning abroad will probably make the most sense, as you can earn credit and gain great experience, and perhaps even receive some scholarship assistance for your endeavor.

If you’ve recently graduated from school, interning or working abroad might be your best bet. Those settled into a job at home or taking a mid-career break will likely find volunteering or simple travel abroad to be the easiest.

What is Your Budget?

Generally speaking, certain experiences cost more than others. If you’re on an incredibly tight budget, working abroad and being able to earn some money just makes more sense.

Volunteering or interning abroad can really run the gamut, but depending on the opportunity you stumble upon, you may be able to at least get free housing and get by with only paying for the cost of your flight and extra spending money.

Studying abroad can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be; there are plenty of ways to study abroad for free. Traveling and gap years can also be a huge money-suck, but like with study abroad, you can find ways to really stretch the money you have on those as well.

If you find one type of international experience that fits you better than the others, money can be found no matter what your budget. Scholarships and fellowships are available for study abroad, volunteering abroad, interning abroad, and even working abroad. These life-changing experiences are inclusive, too. Everyone from high school and college students to young and mid-career professionals can take up one of these meaningful travel options.

How much time do I have?

Three people hiking at Machu Picchu.

Whether you have a week or a year, there is a meaningful travel option for you. Generally, interning and working abroad tend to be longer-term commitments. This is because it takes some time to become established with a company, learn the ropes, and undertake a project.

Those without a lot of time may consider short-term study abroad or volunteering. Study abroad programs, while commonly offered as a semester or full year in length, can also be as short as a couple of weeks to a month in summer. In terms of volunteering, agencies often suggest that participants stay on for several weeks to make the most impact, but some programs have week-long opportunities for those who can't get away for long due to work or family constraints.

On the flip side, don’t discount an option because you think it will take too much or too little time. Every single one of these options can be flexible in certain circumstances. Some people volunteer for one week, some for six months. Some people intern for a month, some for a year. And travel can last days or years! The point is, don’t box yourself into a category. Be flexible and open yourself up to different opportunities.

Just Go Overseas!

Go Overseas - Woman on Hillside Overlooking Beach

If you can't decide on just one, why don't you mix and match your experiences? Work, intern, study, volunteer, travel... they’re not exclusive. When people study abroad, it’s not uncommon for them to do a lot of traveling. Why not volunteer or do an internship during or after your program? You could easily do a number of these at once while at home, so why not abroad?

Although one adventure might seem overwhelming on its own, it gets easier with time and experience, and you will definitely not regret doing more. Take it from someone who’s done them all, they are all worth doing!

The important thing is to realize that all of these adventures are achievable -- it doesn’t matter your age, your financial situation, or your academic/professional field. There’s an adventure out there waiting for you, so go get it!

This article was originally published in May 2014 and was updated in June 2021.