Spending time travelling, working abroad or volunteering in a developing country can make for the best year of your life – but don’t forget the importance of health and safety. Here are a few tips to help you plan ahead…
If you’re planning a gap year, there are plenty of safety issues to consider, and whether you’re travelling alone, in a group or on an organised trip, there are steps you can take to ensure you stay as safe as possible. For more detailed information, check out the website www.gogapyear.com from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). From here you can also order a free copy of Travel Safe, a Lonely Planet guide to gap year safety.
From an uncomfortable bout of Delhi Belly to a potentially fatal case of Dengue Fever, you never know when illness might strike abroad. Make sure you visit your doctor at least six weeks before you leave for a health check, vaccinations and malaria pills if you need them. If you take any prescribed medicines, pack enough to last the duration of your trip and check that you’re allowed to take them into the countries you plan to visit.
When it comes to illegal drugs, the advice is simple: avoid them. Drug taking is frowned upon in most areas of the world, and the jail sentences for possession and use of drugs can be very serious – some countries even apply the death penalty. Remember that alcohol consumption is also a big no-no in some countries – and even in places where drinking is acceptable, you should be more careful than you would at home; although cheap pints might seem an attractive proposition, the heat can mean you get drunk much faster, leaving you open to dangerous situations.
According to David Smith at Africa & Asia Venture, a specialist gap year organisation which organises worthwhile volunteering opportunities, sunburn and bad tummies are the most common safety issues facing gappers. To steer clear of a dodgy belly or dehydration from heat, drink plenty of bottled water. You should also slather on lashings of sun protection, and be choosy when buying street food to avoid the dreaded runs. Finally, if you’re planning on making some new close friends while you’re away, make sure you protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV by carrying – and using! – condoms.
When you’re abroad, you need to make sure you have your wits about you – be aware of what’s going on at all times and don’t dive into anything without thinking it through. Charlie McGrath, Director of Objective Gap Safety, which organises pre-trip safety training courses, explains: “The trouble is that people apply the same standards when they’re away as they do here. You jump on a bus in this country and it never occurs to you to smell the driver’s breath or wonder when he last had some sleep.” But in 2004, there were 513 deaths and 2,782 injuries from accidents involving buses in Colombia alone, and road traffic accidents are one of the biggest causes of death among travellers worldwide.
Travelling as part of a pre-organised project can be a good idea – organisers will usually have staff at each of their projects, providing support to gappers and reassurance to worried parents. Rachel Wood from the Real Gap Company says: “Safety is paramount for our company. We employ a project quality team that carefully researches every project we have. Each programme is assessed for risk, we have on-site coordinators with the volunteers, and we have an emergency mobile number here in the UK that can be reached 24 hours a day.” i-to-i also has teams at each of its projects who look after gappers, but as Jo Little explains: “It’s not a case of smothering them and holding their hands – it’s just having that security in case they do run into any difficulties.”
To reduce the risk of becoming a victim of crime, it’s advisable to split up your valuables and carry them in numerous places on your body (don’t leave them in your room), and perhaps consider sewing some emergency cash into your clothes or putting it in your shoe. Before you set off, take photocopies of all your important documents, such as your passport, visas and insurance policy, and carry them with you – don’t forget to leave copies at home for your family. You should also give them copies of your tickets,
itinerary and contact details. And finally, don’t forget to consider security when booking into hotels or hostels – it’s always wise to ask them what their policy is regarding things like unidentified packages.
ENSURE YOU’RE INSURED
A recent survey published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website highlighted that one in three backpackers aged 18 to 24 travel without insurance. According to i-to-i, the cost of an air ambulance and medical fees can mount up to £100,000, so unless you want your folks to remortgage the house to pay for treatment if you fall ill, get yourself insured. Sorting out insurance isn’t complicated and works out as good value for money if something untoward does occur – don’t risk travelling without it.
It’s important when you’re travelling abroad to respect local cultures and traditions. Being a responsible tourist means covering up in public if required, valuing traditions and social practices, and learning some key phrases so you can get by with the locals. However, don’t greet everyone with a wide smile and open arms – David Smith of Africa & Asia Venture told us of the dangers of becoming complacent: “After being in the country a few weeks and realising that not everybody’s going to rob them or rip them off, gappers realise everything’s much nicer than they thought it was going to be and become over-confident. They relax and get things stolen because they become careless.” As a rule of thumb, don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t do at home, and always err on the side of caution.
There are many dangers to be aware of while gapping, but it’s the headline-grabbing incidents, like the kidnappings and tsunamis, that will worry your loved ones most. Gap year organisations usually have contingency plans in case something terrible happens, as Jo Little from i-to-i told us: “If anything does go wrong, we have strong crisis management systems in place. We employ outside agencies to help us if there is any crisis so we can contact everyone and look after all our volunteers as best as we can.”
If your folks are concerned about your safety, it may be worth considering attending a safety training course before you leave, just to reassure them you’re doing everything you can to stay safe. The courses run by Objective Gap Safety teach gappers how to think on their feet and judge situations, as Charlie McGrath explains: “Our one-day course advises on everything from medical issues, changing money and dealing with bribes, corrupt officials and taxi drivers, right through to surviving avalanches and earthquakes. It’s designed to give people confidence so they can get off the beaten track.” Some basic research about your destination will help to increase your confidence too.
And finally, although you do need to keep your wits about you and stay safe, don’t forget that the reason for your gap year is to enjoy amazing experiences, meet interesting people and have a great time. Don’t lose sight of that while packing your torch and first aid kit!
Find out more
Africa & Asia Venture
01380 729 009
British High Commission
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
0845 850 2829
0870 333 2332
Objective Gap Safety
01788 899 029
Real Gap Company
01892 516 164