30 Gap Year Ideas: Epic, Unique, and Underrated

Epic Gap Year Ideas!

30 Gap Year Ideas: Epic, Unique, and Underrated

Maybe you’ve heard of a “gap year” or perhaps not. 

According to Global Citizen Year, a gap year is “a period of time between high school and college where a student takes time away from the classroom to continue their education in other meaningful ways.”

While European and Australian students are more familiar with gap years, the idea is now beginning to grow in the US

In 2015, UCLA found that 3% of American high school graduates take a year off before going to college. Even former President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia opted to take a gap year before attending Harvard.

Think this might be for you? Read on!

Benefits of Taking a Gap Year/Semester

So, why should you consider a gap year or gap semester as an option? 

Maybe you are itching to see the world before you settle into four years of college, grad school, or a career. Perhaps you are feeling altruistic and want to help others through volunteer or service-learning work. Or maybe you’re curious about the benefits of taking a gap year.

Similar to the benefits of studying abroad, research suggests that students who do a gap year experience a number of positive takeaways:

  • 98% said their year had helped them develop as a person
  • 96% found it increased their self-confidence
  • 93% agreed that it had increased their communications skills

What’s more, another study of GPA results found that “gap-year students tended to outperform in college by 0.1 to 0.4 on a 4.0 scale, with the positive effects lasting over the entire four years.” Also, 90% of gap-year takers return to college within a year. 

Overall, doing a gap year can help you be motivated to go back to school and study. Plus, it suggests that students who take a gap year may return home more confident and self-assured.

When can I go on a gap year?

The traditional gap year typically takes place following high school graduation and before starting college. However, you can take a gap year at any point! Some students opt to take one after graduating from college, before or after graduate school. We even know professionals who have taken gap years (or sabbaticals) later on their careers — it’s never too late!

The benefits of this is that you may not know what you want to study before you go to college. A gap year can give you experience and perspective that might shape your future studies. What better way to try out some potential areas of interest?

You likely don’t have much money as a recent high school graduate. Unless your parents are able to foot the bill, you may be on a tight budget.

Doing a gap year after college allows you to get your education under your belt. This leaves time to explore the world before you start your career. 

You might not have the financial means after college to solely travel. But now you have more skills under your belt. There are plenty of options you could explore during this time to work on developing some new skills or prolonging going into a traditional 9-5. Some of these include two-year postings like Peace Corps and Teach for America. Or you could opt for a work/study visa in a foreign country for at least a year.

Maybe the timing isn’t right before or during college or not to mention you didn’t have the cash to travel. But you’re sick of your 9-5 job, and you can’t quell the thought of handing in your resignation and walking out of the office forever. Now that you’ve got some work experience behind you, it’s time to save up for that escape!

It’s hard to walk away once you are more established in your career. The good news is, you don’t have to give up your job if you have the travel bug. There are now several companies that cater to working professionals. If you want to go remote and explore the world, check out Remote Year and Unsettled as a start.

What type of gap year is right for me?

Costa Rica Spanish Immersion Program

Ask yourself: what am I hoping to get from this gap year? How do you want to spend this time, and what are your priorities or goals?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you want to travel outside the US or stay domestic?
  • Are you looking to visit many different countries or put down roots in one place?
  • Are you interested in volunteering, interning, or working during this time?
  • Do you speak another language that could be useful? Do you want to learn one?
  • How independent of a traveler are you? Or do you prefer to be with a group/community the whole time?
  • Are you interested in taking classes or earning college credit during this time?
  • How do you want to challenge yourself, or what skills do you want to develop?
  • What is your financial situation? Do you need some form of income during this time?

Next, we’ll go into the most common type of gap year experiences you can choose from.

Volunteer & Service Experiences

Volunteering is a trending gap year option. It can be hugely rewarding and help give you an idea of what area of study you want to pursue. By getting firsthand experience on-the-ground, it can also give you a taste of what you DON’T want to pursue. 

Here are some places to start.

Gap Year Volunteering Programs

These are options all over the world. Help to preserve the Great Barrier Reef or work on animal conservation in the Amazon. If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out the Gap Year Association’s list of accredited member organizations

Teaching English

Teaching English Abroad

Native English speakers are in high demand all over the globe. Organizations, like Greenheart Travel, will assist you with finding a placement in a school to teach English abroad. 

Even if you don’t have prior teaching experience, they can help you get TEFL certified (if it’s required). Teaching English is a popular way to get a visa to live in another country for an extended period of time. You’ll also learn another language and develop some new skills! 

Peace Corps

While Peace Corps is a two-year commitment, it’s a rewarding experience that is sure to open doors to future career opportunities. Volunteers are placed all over the world in service projects in a variety of sectors. 

These include agriculture, environment, community economic development, health, education and youth in development. One former volunteer describes the Peace Corps as “the most important transformational moment in my life.”

City Year

Maybe you’re looking to make an impact here in the US by working with children and young adults. City Year AmeriCorps serves much-needed communities in 29 cities in 21 states. Members of the program receive training and job skills as well as a bi-weekly stipend, health insurance and other benefits.

Work Exchanges

Get work experience by interning or doing a work exchange program. If you’re looking for hands-on experience in exchange for free accommodation (and sometimes meals), there are a couple options:

Workaway

Working Abroad

Workaway gives you the opportunity to live in another country with a free place to stay and meals in exchange for a few hours of work per day. There are Workaway options all over the world in a variety of areas. 

You could get involved with an NGO, school, animal welfare, helping out families or communities, and farm stays. It’s a great way to live somewhere different and meet new people. You could choose to work at a backpacker hostel in Mexico, help on an organic farm in Portugal or with children in a community project in Tanzania.  

WWOOF

WWOOF, which started out as “Working Weekends On Organic Farms,” has now expanded to include opportunities across the world. Volunteers work on organic farms in exchange for food, accommodation and the opportunity to learn new skills. 

If you’re looking to get your hands dirty and spend time outside, this could be a great way to live in another country on the cheap! Check out this option if you want to learn about sustainability and renewable energy, winemaking, organic gardening, and more!

Language Learning & Immersion

If you’re looking to learn a language or take what you already know to the next level, an in-country immersion program is the way to go. Being fully immersed 24/7 in the language is the best way to make big strides with fluency. Check out our list for finding the best immersion experiences in Spain or Latin America. Some of them even offer college credit!

Study Spanish and social justice in Central America

Spend three months traveling through Guatemala, Nicaragua and Southern Mexico. Work on your Spanish while also learning about Mayan culture and local community projects.

Live with a host family and study Japanese

Study Abroad In Japan

Live with a host family in Fukuoka, Tokyo or Kyoto. Immerse in Japanese culture through language lessons and traditional or pop culture excursions. 

Learn Portuguese while living and volunteering in Brazil

Stay with a host family in Florianópolis, an island off the southern coast. Participate in an apprenticeship focused on making a responsible impact for the community. 

Adventure Travel & Exploration

If you’re open-minded, curious, and willing to roll with the punches – this might be the time to explore some adventure gap year options. There are various programs offering authentic and customized global experiences. Participants can dive into foreign cultures, volunteer and explore new lands.

Global Gap Year

Spend a full seven months exploring the globe like a real adventurer! The Global Gap Year program includes stays in Guatemala, Thailand, Ghana, Panama, Cambodia and Morocco. Keep in mind this is not a vacation – this program focuses on environment, education and public health. Participants should be curious about culture and passionate about their world and helping others.

Region-Specific Trips

Get to know a specific corner of the globe’s language, culture, and people with Where There Be Dragons. Opt for a three month Spirituality & Resilience program in Southeast Asia. Or for the adventure-seekers, an Andes Leadership Semester from Patagonia to Peru.

Help save the sea turtles in central america

Where?

  • Guatemala
  • Costa Rica

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

In addition to helping with beach cleanups and turtle hatching and nesting, you'll also work on your Spanish!
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Learn about spirituality and climate change while diving into the rich culture and history of India. You'll explore temples, desert landscapes, and bustling city life.
Gap Year Idea

Discover the magic of India

Where?

  • The whole country

Recommended Programs

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SCUBA dive in an exotic location

Where?

  • Australia
  • Fiji
  • Mozambique
  • Mexico

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Try out a dive for the first time or get PADI certified. You'll spend time in a tropical and exotic locale while also learning about reef life in warm turquoise waters.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Walk in the footsteps of the Inca to discover the ancient ruins. You can also learn about llama conservation and brush up on your Spanish skills.

We particularly recommend Knowmad Adventures for ensuring a sustainable trip, with fair treatment for all porters and support staff. They'll help you avoid the crowds and keep costs low by travelling in a group.
Gap Year Idea

Trek Peru's Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Where?

  • Sacred Valley region of Peru

Recommended Programs

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Learn extreme watersports in unforgettable settings

Where?

 There are tons! We recommend Bali, Kenya, and Latin America

Recommended Programs

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Learn how to surf in Bali's world-famous waves. Or go white water rafting on the Nile River.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

These epic mountain treks are not for the faint of heart. You'll develop outdoor survival competency as well as hone your bouldering skills.
Gap Year Idea

Conquer some of the biggest mountains

Where?

  • Patagonia
  • The American West
  • Mount Kilamanjaro

Recommended Programs

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Upgrade your extreme winter sport game

Where?

Anywhere cold, but we recommend The United States

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Learn outdoor survival skills in Alaska or how to dogsled in Minnesota. Or maybe you're looking to perfect your skiing and snowboarding moves in Montana.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Live in a monastery in Tibet or participate in a meditation retreat in Nepal. Alternatively, learn Buddhist breathing exercises in Northern Thailand.
Gap Year Idea

Get spiritual in the Far East

Where?

  • Nepal
  • Tibet
  • Thailand

Recommended Programs

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Perfect your Spanish in Latin America

Where?

Any Spanish-speaking country! We recommend Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Live with local host families and volunteer with a local human rights organization. Full immersion is aided with local speaking partners and college credit at an Argentine university.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Work on HIV prevention in South Africa, shadow doctors in coastal Panama, or do a medical internship in Nepal.
Gap Year Idea

Volunteer with local health professionals

Where?

Anywhere! We recommend South Africa, Panama, Nepal

Recommended Programs

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Explore the ancient temples of Southeast Asia

Where?

  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Laos
  • Thailand

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Learn outdoor survival skills in Alaska or how to dogsled in Minnesota. Or maybe you're looking to perfect your skiing and snowboarding moves in Montana.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Explore the Galapagos Islands and assist with turtle conservation. Enjoy snorkeling, hiking, and other adventures.
Gap Year Idea

Get up close with wildlife in the Galapagos

Where?

  • Galapagos, Ecuador

Recommended Programs

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Teach English as a second language

Where?

Anywhere! We recommend Spain, Italy, and Indonesia

Recommended Programs

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Be a teaching assistant in a bilingual playschool in Southern Spain. Serve as a volunteer tutor with a host family in Italy or teach computer skills to a community in Bali.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Support local elephant communities at a Thai animal reserve. Or spend several days at an elephant reserve on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Gap Year Idea

Work with Elephants in Asia

Where?

  • Thailand
  • Cambodia

Recommended Programs

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Explore Europe by train

Where?

Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, France

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

One of the most iconic gap year experiences is backpacking through Europe. Take the scenic route and see the continent with a Eurail pass.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Assist with marine conservation efforts in the Gulf of Thailand. Or learn about the diverse ecosystems off the coast of mainland Madagascar.
Gap Year Idea

Contribute to coral reef conservation

Where?

  • Thailand
  • Madagascar

Recommended Programs

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Kayak the glacial Waters of Patagonia

Where?

  • Southern Chile

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Kayak in the iceberg-choked glacial waters of Lago Grey and approach the massive Grey Glacier. Explore the effects of climate change on the melting glaciers in Patagonia while embarking on a seven-day adventure which includes mountain biking, ice hiking, canoeing and more. You'll find yourself amidst the towering peaks and glacial lakes of the famous Torres del Paine National Park.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Live with a Senegalese host family and participate in a community apprenticeship. Or take on environmental issues in the Middle East, working with students from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
Gap Year Idea

Make a difference with a local community

Where?

Anywhere!

Recommended Programs

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Backpack through Southeast Asia

Where?

  • Vietnam
  • Cambodia
  • Laos
  • Thailand

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Embark on the adventure of a lifetime by forging your own path through Southeast Asia. Explore the temples, palaces, rice paddy fields, caves, beaches, and hectic cities that make up this exotic corner of the world.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Become an environmental steward in the South Pacific. Or learn about deforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Gap Year Idea

Dive into environmental conservation

Where?

  • Central & South America
  • The Pacific Islands

Recommended Programs

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Contribute to women's empowerment

Where?

Anywhere! We recommend India and Argentina.

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Live with other volunteers in Dharamsala, India, while working on a service-learning project. Or complete an internship for college credit with an Argentinian non-profit.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Set sail for the Caribbean (or anywhere in the world)! Learn about complex marine environments through field-based research all aboard a ship. Some programs also offer sailing and scuba certifications.
Gap Year Idea

Make the ocean your classroom

Where?

Anywhere with water.

Recommended Programs

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Work on a farm in New Zealand

Where?

  • New Zealand

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Live, work, and travel in a country world-famous for its outdoor activities. If farm work isn't for you, maybe you'll want to work at a national park hotel located in "glacier country".
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Take classes in Spanish history and politics at the Universidad de la Habana, while living with a host family. Learn firsthand about Cuban culture and daily life while exploring the island's fascinating past.
Gap Year Idea

Study the Cuban Revolution while living in Havana

Where?

  • Cuba

Recommended Programs

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Help protect rhinos in Africa

Where?

  • Uganda
  • Namibia

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Live with local host families and volunteer with a local human rights organization. Full immersion is aided with local speaking partners and college credit at an Argentine university.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

The trek to Everest Base Camp is undoubtedly one of the most famous in the world. This trek goes into the heart of the Himalayan Range, with awe-inspiring views. You'll explore lush valleys and Sherpa villages with their Buddhist monasteries and yaks.
Gap Year Idea

Trek to Everest Base camp

Where?

  • Nepal

Recommended Programs

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Explore ancient cities of Morocco

Where?

  • Morocco

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Trek through the Atlas Mountains and explore the ancient cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez. You'll also build fluency in Moroccan Arabic (Darija). Or opt for a program that explores both North Africa and Southern Spain.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Whether you are looking to be a student or teacher, there is no shortage of opportunities to work on your yoga practice abroad. Check out Go Overseas' list of yoga retreats and teacher training for some inspiration.
Gap Year Idea

Practice or teach yoga abroad

Where?

Anywhere!

Recommended Programs

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Share your passion for music, dance, and art with others

Where?

Anywhere!

Recommended Programs

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Highlights

Teach music in Tenerife, an island oasis in Spain or dive into the artistic and musical traditions of West African in Senegal. There's even a company entirely devoted to gap year programs for dancers in the US and abroad, with placements in Germany, France, Argentina, and Japan.
Gap Year Idea

Highlights

Haven't found something that fits what you're looking for? Create your own gap year experience! Engage in an independent gap year experience or combine various programs to build an experience that meets all your goals.
Gap Year Idea

Customize your own gap year experience!

Where?

Anywhere!

Recommended Programs

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Summary

Spending a few weeks, months or a full year abroad can be a transformative experience. Whether you are devoted to adventure travel, volunteer work or studies — gap years can be fun and rewarding. 

Just remember, there are no shortage of places to go and things to do when it comes to deciding on your gap year experience. And there’s no time like today to start planning your escape.

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