Gap years for both adults and teens seem to be more popular then ever. Just take a look at Malia Obama who deferred her admission to Harvard to spend a year working in the film industry. Or, take a look at Elizabeth Gilbert whose adult gap year chronicled in “Eat, Pray, Love” inspired other women to do the same. Malia Obama and Elizabeth Gilbert may have more money to play with than most of us, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rich to take a gap year!
For example, I spent my gap year interning in Germany before starting college. The program included seminars in Washington, DC and Berlin. There was also a 6-week language course in Bonn with weekly excursions all over Germany. Sounds pricy, right? Well, it was actually completely free thanks to a scholarship available for both German and American citizens! I didn’t even have to pay for my flights, but I’ll get to those details later on.
Earning a gap year scholarship was a godsend for me, but it’s still possible to plan an affordable gap year without one. Hopefully, these affordable gap year ideas will inspire you to take your own gap year!
Find Your Own Project of Interest
For a membership fee of $29, you can join Work Away or Help X for volunteer opportunities around the world. This could include anything from helping out in a hostel in Nicaragua, teaching English in Poland, or volunteering with animal conservation efforts in Ecuador.
There’s so many hosts and unique opportunities available that there is bound to be something to suit your interests. In exchange for your help, hosts offer free accommodation and/or a stipend.
WWOOF operates similarly but focuses on connecting organic farms with volunteers. I probably wouldn’t last long working on a farm, but I have heard only good things from other backpackers!
Learn a Language
Knowing a second or third language is a valuable skill for both traveling and expanding your career prospects after your gap year. There’s no better way to become fluent in a new language than being immersed in another culture!
Many language schools offer affordable tuition that includes a home stay experience, food, and activities. For example, this Spanish school in Guatemala costs only $215 per week and includes all meals, lodging, and cultural activities.
Look for an Internship Abroad
Another cheap gap year idea is to look for an internship abroad. There are plenty of unpaid opportunities but finding a paid one can be difficult. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though! You will just need to be resourceful and patient.
Idealist connects non-profits with job seekers and is an excellent place to start your search. International internships with free housing and/or a monthly stipend are posted on a semi-regular basis. Internships in office settings are available as well as more hands-on internship experiences.
AISEC also arranges work placements and internships abroad for a very reasonable fee (usually less than $1k).
There are a ton of gap year programs charging thousands of dollars to coordinate unpaid internship placements. Save your money! With a little grit, outside help is completely unnecessary.
Take a Working Holiday
A working holiday won’t make you the next Bill Gates, but you should earn enough to at least cover your expenses. There are loads of options for earning money while traveling. For example, you could teach English, be an Au Pair, or do a working holiday visa scheme. Most working holiday participants go to Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. Depending on your nationality, there are several options available for working holiday visas.
Teaching English in South Korea has become a popular option for recent college grads as well. This is a great option if you want to pay off student loans while traveling since the benefits are pretty sweet. For more teaching abroad options, check out this list of countries where English teachers aren’t required to have a degree.
Who says your gap year has to be well-structured or career-oriented!? Save for a few months, grab your backpack, and go! While volunteering or working abroad is certainly rewarding, so is traveling in general!
If you’re tight on cash and traveling alone for the first time, I recommend Southeast Asia. It’s safe, cheap, and easy to navigate compared to other regions with similar costs of living.
You might also want to consider hiking or trekking during your gap year. Completing a long hike like the Camino de Santiago or Appalachian Trail would definitely be a great opportunity to learn outside your comfort zone. Check out my post on how to spend a gap year hiking as a good starting point.
You don’t have to go abroad to make an impact! If you’re passionate about social justice and serving others, consider applying for AmeriCorp’s City Year. City Year volunteers work with students to improve graduation rates in America’s most underserved school districts.
Volunteers receive a monthly stipend and the program covers most living expenses. Those who successfully complete the program are eligible for the Segal Education Award (worth ~$5,730). The award can be used for future studies or to pay off student loans. Many universities match or supplement the award through private funding as well.
AmeriCorps also offers several other long-term volunteer opportunities with similar benefits.
Department of State Scholarships
The Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers scholarships for those interested in cross-cultural exchange. The two programs best suited for graduating high school students and young professionals are NSLI-Y and CBYX.
NSLI-Y supports students interested in studying less popular languages, such as Turkish, Korean, and Russian. The cut-off age for the youth program (there’s also a similar scholarship for college students) is 18-19. So, this would only be an option for graduating high school seniors looking for a gap year.
Another amazing scholarship opportunity is Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, which is how I spent my gap year. The CBYX scholarship is funded by the US and German governments, offering students a fully-funded year in Germany to study or intern. Click here for more information on the three different CBYX programs and how to apply.
If you’re a German citizen interested in going to the United States, the German version of the program is called the Parlamentarische Patenschafts-Programm.
I hope these affordable gap year suggestions are helpful! If there’s anything I missed, please don’t hesitate to share! If you took a gap year, how were you able to fund it?