Mind the gap

SO WE’RE still knee-deep in February mulch.

Mind the gap

Our backs are against the wall with budget cuts, dreary weather, healthy eating regimes and a never-ending trickle of household bills. Not the best time, you might think, to contemplate a year-long vacation.

But isn’t that precisely the point? Aren’t gap years, sabbaticals, years-out — whatever you want to call them — the ideal way to get away from it all? To reinvigorate, to rip yourself from routine by plunging headfirst into exotic, challenging and meaningful adventures overseas? Instead of getting stuck in a personal fog, why not go the way of Phileas Fogg, and travel the world? It doesn’t have to cost the earth, either. Trailfinders has been offering round-the-world tickets for 42 years, with prices quoting from €1,166pp in economy class.

Granted, that’s for flights only, and it doesn’t include extras (taxes and fuel charges can add a cool €550 or more, and nice and all as the folk at Trailfinders are, they won’t be covering your living costs).

But it does bundle flights from Dublin to LA, Auckland, Hong Kong and back.

Round-the-world customers are mainly school-leavers taking a year out before college, Trailfinders says, and post-grads taking a year out before settling down. Thailand is the most popular first-stop, and many travellers don’t get past Australia.

“We get a lot of excited people coming in, taking one last trip before they join the workforce,” says marketing manager Jonathan Bridge. “But once they get down to Sydney and get a job and get comfortable, a lot of people pretty much forfeit the return ticket. All of these round-the-world tickets expire after a year.”

Trailfinders has also seen a growth in older travellers taking big trips, Bridge says — be they on foot of career breaks, or redundancies that may have included pay-offs.

“They mightn’t necessarily take a full year; maybe six months. They’re probably more adventurous than younger clients too — they might take in South America, or Africa. Whereas with the younger crowd, it’s: ‘Right, we’ve got to go to Australia’.”

The term ‘gap year’ may be relatively new, but the concept has been around for centuries. In Georgian and Victorian times, young aristocrats ranged around France and Italy on rites of passage known as ‘Grand Tours’. More recently, travel companies have been catering specifically for sabbaticals and student years-out since the 1960s.

Tourism marketers have been tapping into our desire to “see the world” too, with competitions offering spectacular travel prizes. Remember Tourism Queensland’s “Best Job in the World”? It saw some 35,000 candidates, including Irishman George Karellas, compete for a six-month contract to “house-sit” the islands of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Wanted!” blares the PR for the latest gap-year competition. “One curious and open-minded person to venture on an incredible, year-long trip around the world!”

It’s from Havana Club, the Cuban rum, and it’s offering competitors the chance to visit 12 countries, including stints in Cuba, London, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo, over 365 days. You can enter on facebook.comhavanaclubireland.

But you don’t have to enter a competition, or even pay, for the trip of a lifetime.

If you volunteer with VSO, for instance — a development organisation working to fight poverty through volunteering — all travel and accommodation costs will be covered, and you’ll be paid a living allowance based on local rates of pay.

Granted, your mortgage — or other ongoing expenses in Ireland — aren’t going to disappear. But it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than flying to say, Ethiopia, on an escorted tour.

Volunteering overseas could be viewed as a more ‘meaningful’ or ‘conscientious’ way of taking a year-out. Whereas brief trips or escorted tours often just scrape the surface of a foreign culture, the opportunity to live and work with local communities in Africa, South America or Asia can be far more immersive... and rewarding.

“If you’ve ever been burnt out, or if you’re testing or doubting your commitment to your vocation, a VSO placing can really re-instil your passion for teaching, nursing, medicine or whatever the case may be,” says spokesperson Donnacha Maguire.

Over 1,300 Irish people are currently working as development workers, volunteers or missionaries overseas, according to Irish Aid. They not only stand to improve their skills, CVs and professional development, but to grow themselves personally too.

“If you think about it, you’re challenging yourself as a person to live in quite demanding circumstances,” Maguire says. “It’s a leap. You’re leaving your comfort zone in Ireland behind... you’re really going back to your basics.”

Volunteering ranges from short-term assignments that last a few weeks, don’t require specific qualifications and for which participants generally have to pay (or fundraise), to longer-term placings that cover costs, but generally demand specific technical skills.

One Irish non-profit offering the chance to work and study abroad through short-term placings is Cork-based EIL Intercultural Learning. Its projects range from teaching English in Nepal for 24 weeks at €2,899pp to helping conserve dolphin habitats in Brazil, at €3,199 for 12 weeks. Prices include meals and accommodation, but not flights.

VSO’s most common long-term placings are in Ethiopia, Uganda and Papua New Guinea, with the majority of volunteers working in education, health,business and IT.

Ultimately, whether you opt for a long or short-term trip obviously depends on family and financial considerations. In terms of your impact on the community in which you’ll be working, however, long-term generally has a more lasting outcome.

“Think about the place you want to go, and the impact you want to have,” says Donnacha Mahguide. “A VSO teacher in Ethiopia could train up to 500 teachers, for example. Those 500 teachers could go on to teach 500,000 kids over the years.”

In travel terms too, a year in East Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — not just to immerse yourself in the local culture, but to travel to places like Lalibela, the Simien Moutains National Park or cities like Kampala and Addis Ababa in your free time.

To find out more about volunteering overseas, visit Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Development Workers (volunteeringoptions.ie), or talk to staff talk at the Irish Aid drop-in centre on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. They’ll get you asking the right questions.

Whatever you decide to do — be it a round-the-world adventure or volunteering in the developing world — think carefully before you travel. Consider the time you can afford to take, the skills you can realistically offer, and the impact you want to have.

You’ll not only get away from it all — but get the most out of it too.

A Round-the World Ticket

Trailfinders has been doing round-the-world tickets for 42 years, so it knows a thing or two about global itineraries. A classic route from Dublin, with stops in Bangkok, Sydney, Auckland and LA, costs from €1,599, including taxes. For travel mid-April to mid-June.

Details: 021 464-8841; trailfinders.ie.

A Great South American Escape...

Fancy a gap year on the gringo trail? Sunway has an 82-day group tour of South America, taking in seven countries and classic sights like the Inca Trail, as well as experiences, including home-stay on the Amazon, from €5,449pp.

Details: 01 231-1888; sunway.ie.

A working Holiday... in Australia

Australia’s Working Holiday Programme (immi.gov.au) allows people aged 18-30 to supplement travel in Oz through employment. Abbey Travel currently has return fares to Sydney from €990 including tax, with a Working Holiday Starter Pack bundling a one-year working visa, travel insurance, a bank account and tax-saver pack from €549.

Details: 01 804-7188; australia.ie.

Work with elephants... in Sri Lanka

Like elephants? Then you’ll love the opportunity to help care for them in Kegalle, 100km east of Colombo. Offered by for-profit company i-to-i.com, trips range from three to 12 weeks, starting from €1,069pp (excluding flights, insurance and visas).

Details: +44 1132 050 076; i-to-i.com.

Time out in Turkey...

Cork-based non-profit EIL Intercultural Learning has several projects in Turkey – in areas ranging from teaching to the empowerment of women. Trips cost from €1,349pp (four weeks) to €4,249pp (36 weeks), excluding flights, visas and insurance.

Details: 021 455-1535; eilireland.org.

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