You’ve made a decision: defer college this fall and take a gap year.
This wasn’t the only decision you made — you considered international versus domestic travel, evaluated programs to find one matching your career goals and interviewed like-minded students, faculty and potential employers to determine your focus.
Now that you are packed and ready to go, you realize a gap year is a lot like a solo travel adventure. In either situation, you’ll be traveling to, living in and exploring an unfamiliar environment. You might not have left your country’s borders, but you may be 100 miles or more from home — and outside your safety zone.
During the coronavirus pandemic, a gap year can be a little risker: the U.S. Department of State notes students “may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions and challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad.”
Global Rescue experts know the ins and outs of travel safety and it’s easy to adapt those concepts to gap year safety. Whether you are volunteering with the Red Cross, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or working on a farm in Montana, here are seven gap year safety tips to help you have the best year possible.
1. Check in with your primary care provider
Make sure your body is ready for whatever you have planned. If you are traveling, this appointment is called a travel health consultation, an appointment with a health care provider to discuss the health concerns that might pop up during a trip and what steps they can take to decrease the risk. On campus, you’ll check in with health services and at home you’ll contact your primary care provider. Let the doctor know your destination, bring your itinerary if you have one and ask about immunizations and vaccines needed.
2. Conduct pre-travel research
Smart travelers research a destination weeks before a scheduled trip. You’ll want to collect information from a variety of sources — state department, people who have been there, online research, foreign and local news reports, CDC coronavirus information — and take it all into account for the gap year you have planned. Check crime rates, research local culture and customs and use Google Maps to get a closer view of where you are staying. You’ll want to know as much about your location as you can before you get there.
3. Pack well
No matter where you’re traveling, you’ll want to carry a first aid kit, perhaps starting with an off-the-shelf commercial kit and adding the items appropriate for your location. Traveling internationally? You might want a water purifier or iodine tablets. Staying in a remote location? A clinic or hospital could be miles away, so pack a few extras — compass, tourniquet, splint — to turn your first aid kit into a wilderness first aid kit. You’ll also need a COVID-19 travel bag with the essentials: face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
4. Determine your finances
A gap year is more than a week-long travel adventure, so be sure you’ve planned for any contingency. You could be spending a year without money, spending a year on borrowed money (school loans), or earning money through an internship. In all cases, it’s a good idea to set up a daily budget to keep yourself on track.
International gap year programs recommend limiting the amount of cash you carry and using a prepaid cash card, which isn’t linked to any bank account. Pay attention to the exchange rates and check if your credit card or debit card has foreign transaction fees.
5. Map out a communication strategy
Harding Bush, associate manager of operations at Global Rescue, shares his safety advice for students traveling during a gap year.
- Purchasing or renting a local mobile phone is a good idea. It’s easier for people supporting your trip to contact you on a local phone rather than calling your U.S. phone; they may not have international service. It also keeps your own number private.
- Keep your own cell phone as a backup. Make sure it will work in your destination, check for international roaming packages, and turn off cell data. You’ll also want to delete as much personal information from your phone as possible, such as saved passwords, social media accounts and photos.
- A fully charged phone is critical. “When it’s not in use, make sure it is charging and have a spare battery/charging device,” Bush said. “Also remember to bring the appropriate electrical outlet adapters.”
- Share your itinerary with folks at home and update them with scheduled text messages or phone calls. “They should know how to get hold of you while you’re away: cell phone, hotel, work and the program coordinator’s contact info,” he said.
- Let someone know if you’re going off schedule or plan to do a little exploring.
6. Have an emergency plan
Even if you’re not particularly far from home, things can still happen — and being in the United States doesn’t always mean it’s easy to get help. The coronavirus pandemic has limited access to park ranger offices (if you’re climbing or hiking), many countries have mandatory quarantines for visitors (if you’re traveling) and health care providers, like clinics or pharmacies, may have reduced hours.
Students and parents should sit down to develop a gap year emergency plan which will include advance preparation for possible health and safety emergencies. This is more than just memorizing important contacts or making copies of important documents; it is knowing what health care facilities are nearby, what your health insurance covers and if you can get home if you need to.
7. Enroll in a travel protection membership
Whether you are on the other side of the world or the other side of the country as part of your gap year, managing a serious emergency in an unfamiliar hospital can be a difficult process. Lily Goodman, a 16-year-old student traveling abroad in China, began to vomit blood. With a language barrier and her parents an ocean away, her Global Rescue membership saved the day and her semester.
Tenn Hildebrand, studying abroad during a gap year, was bitten by a wild dog shortly after he arrived in India. Global Rescue provided translation services, reviewed medical records, and “advised him on how to obtain the medication he needed and how to seek assistance administering immediate treatment,” says Beth Hildebrand, Tenn’s mother. “Big thanks to Global Rescue and especially to the paramedic who was kind, compassionate and professional.”
The situation doesn’t have to be life or death to warrant a call to Global Rescue. Maredith Richardson lost her passport in Paris the day the pandemic lockdown ended and Global Rescue streamlined the replacement process for her.
A Global Rescue travel membership provides peace of mind for gap year students, parents, program coordinators and employers. Students will have access to updates on restrictions, quarantines and hotspots; experts who can provide immediate information regarding appropriate nearby health care facilities all over the world and emergency medical evacuation services to a hospital of choice.
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