If your son or daughter is considering taking a gap year or is planning a volunteer abroad trip, you’ll no doubt understand their excitement but also feel a certain level of trepidation. Worrying about them heading off on their own and possibly travelling to the other side of the world is only natural! Of course you’ll be concerned about their welfare and also how they will pay their way.
A good starting point to help relieve your fears is to get involved! Help out with their preparations beforehand by sharing advice on managing budgets, finding work and travelling safely. You’ll be surprised just how much help you can offer! Create a check list to go through and tick each item off as you go along – this will help you physically and emotionally prepare ahead of their departure.
Keeping in touch
One of the big concerns we often hear from parents is about staying in touch with their children once they’re away. Well, the internet can certainly help! Regardless of their destination in the world, the chances are your son or daughter will find an internet access point so you can email or Skype. Most places have a signal for mobile phones too so you can make regular contact, which you can agree before they leave. Do make sure they have contacted their network provider to unlock their phone so they can purchase a SIM abroad and continue using it as normal. This will also mean you can call and they should not be charged. As a general rule of thumb calls are about £1 per minute. We believe a short call every now and then is more than worth the cost of calling
The buddy list is a good place to start to meet a travel buddy.
No need to travel alone
The hardest part of the gap year journey can often be saying goodbye as your children get ready to leave for their once in a lifetime adventure. You’ll be emotional and worried but try to remember that your son or daughter is embarking on an incredible journey which will teach them so many wonderful skills and help them plan their future.
Many students decide to travel alone but don’t forget that they’re also part of the Original Volunteers team! For most projects we can pair volunteers up with another volunteer so they can fly out together. travel buddies and at every destination (except for Honduras) can be met at the airport and warmly welcomed as they settle into their accommodation.
Naturally, your son or daughter will be super excited about their year ahead but try to ground them a little to make sure they are fully prepared well before their departure date!
Some parents have recommended advising their children only to make two calls or messages, the first to say they have been met at the airport (and not before to avoid further worry) and a second call after about 3 days when settled in. This is because there can be a period of adjustment on arrival. From new bed, new food, new routine, new weather to lots of new faces. There is a lot to take in after what has been a long journey. Sometimes not calling home can help your son and daughter to connect better with their new volunteer friends and progress faster. There is nothing worse than a new arriving volunteer who keeps themselves isolated from the group with calls home to family where family may not be in a strong position to understand the environment they are in. It is not uncommon for parents to fall into the trap of wanting their son and daughter home after a worried sounding call then to find the next day they are fine, having fun and have made new friends. Give them time to get over their new environment. For some it can take 24 hours, for others it might need a week and another new arriving volunteers after them for them to feel confident and find their feet.
What happens if my son or daughter gets ill abroad?
Did you know that visitors in a developing country suffering from dizziness and sickness with a mild temperature will be hospitalised and the most common treatment a drip and rehydration salts? Obviously this is not something which is routinely offered in the UK as this will be managed by self-care at home. Private hospitals charging anywhere from £50 to £100 a day can mean everyone is offered a bed upon approach. To a longer stay visitor and ex-pat this soon becomes apparent when they are offered a bed following every visit to the doctor during their stay. This is not say it is not worrying when you get a call to say they are in hospital, and it can be quite distressing when you are miles apart and your so or daughter has never been in hospital before. If you get a call, do call the local support team for clarification on what the matter is and they will be more than happy to advise. De-hyration following heat exposure or partying is the most common annoyance for volunteers. A day or two’s bed rest either in the hospital or at the volunteer house, eating lightly and drinking plenty resolves things.
How much money do they need?
The best gap years are to be had when they are well organised and the students are totally prepared for every event. Encourage them to create a travel plan so they can layout where they are going, what they would like to see in their free time and what work they’re planning to get involved with if they know in advance.
A common snag occurs when our students underestimate how much everything will cost! Try to take them through how much they will need to pay up front and consider what they will need to allow for once they reach their destination. They’ll need to pay for food, drink, excursions and any souvenirs they may like to bring home. Although it is possible to live on £5 a day at most destinations, the camel trek will cost considerably more and can eat into a limited budget. The general advice is to take as much as they can, it is a trip of a life time, they won’t want to miss out on activities or can’t give the children a meal or party because they needed an extra £50. As a very rough guide, you can estimate on £50 per week comfortably for meals and local transport, £100 for emergencies (ie when the money runs out or an unplanned excursion), and as much extra that can be afforded. If you are concerned that your son /daughter will overspend too quickly, you can put money into their account on a weekly basis or if they do not have a bank account yet, use a money transfer service like Western Union. If you would like to know what a realistic amount for spending will be, get in touch and we will be happy to advise.
Learning valuable life skills
Does your son or daughter realise that they really will need to fend for themselves while they’re away? They may be used to their dinner being cooked or laundry being done but they should get into the habit of dealing with all their own chores. Now is a good time to teach them some solid life skills! Show them how to create a simple meal of pasta/rice and tuna and get them to wash their clothes in a plastic bowl with shampoo. This is just the sort of thing they may have to do at some projects.If there is no cafe and no washing machine and they can’t manage, this will affect their experience or they will spend more money on taxis getting to expensive restaurants and laundries. At one project the volunteers were asked by the local team if the house needed a modern kitchen and the reply was a categorical no. All the volunteers agreed that the hardship and living like a local was an integral part of the experience which was increasingly hard to find in the modern world. Also help them decide which clothes and footwear will be the most appropriate for their trip and how to pack their bags.
Remember: it’s always best to be prepared!
Volunteering is often in a group, which is better for volunteers and better for the local community to get more done more quickly!
What happens when things go wrong?
But don’t worry if the original travel plan you draw up together goes awry, there are always slight adjustments made which can’t always be foreseen. There will always be support and advice from the local support team who will do everything they can to help resolve the problem whether rearranging volunteer placements, fixing the bed, escorting to the local doctor and helping them onto the bus for the next stage of their journey.
We recommend that you keep a copy of their essential travel documents, such as passport, insurance policies and tickets as well as a list of telephone numbers for our support team and local project co-ordinators. Every volunteer receives an email with contact details for their local support team and any updates before travel, called the ‘arrival email’. At the top of the email it requests that a copy is left with family so you can call direct. Ask your son/daughter to search for this email in their inbox before travel and forward it to you. You can also set up a “3rd party mandate” on their bank account so that you can transfer funds to them if necessary. If they run out of money, Western Union is a great transfer service and they can collect money in minutes in all our destinations.
What do I need to do first?
If your son or daughter has already booked with us, ask to see the emails they have received from us. These will contain further information on the project. The Next Steps guide can be a useful tool for knowing what to do when. Did you know for example that you cannot apply for some visas months in advance or the visa will run out before travel. Check the emails and if you have any questions, we are only a call or email away and will be happy to advise, many of us are parents ourselves! It’s only natural that you’ll be concerned about your child’s safety while they’re travelling and staying away from home. Your son or daughter will experience situations which are alien to them but this is why a gap year is such a fulfilling experience. They will meet new people, see incredible landscapes and be involved with amazing and worthwhile work projects. All of these opportunities will open up a whole new world to them and help them prepare for adult life with a well-balanced attitude and fantastic life skills.
Once you son or daughter has decided on where they’re going on their gap year, why not sit with them and Google the destination. The FCO website will help reassure you that the region is safe for travelling and more generic websites will give you an idea of the environment and culture they can expect during their stay. It’s true to say that some countries do have issues with social or political unrest so if you have a search across the internet, you will discover which destination would be the best one to choose.
Here is an outline of a check list you may like to follow to help you and your son or daughter prepare for their trip:
My son/daughter travels in 6 weeks time?
- Have read through all the emails we have sent your son/daughter? Have a look through so you can see what stage we are at and if we still need anything
- Do we have their flights?
- Do they need a visa to enter the country? The Next Steps email will advise on this or pop us an email. If travelling at short notice, agencies, for a fee of approximately £80 can obtain them for you within 7 to 10 days or so if applying by post.
- Check their passport will have 6 months left on it when they arrive at their last destination on this trip. Many countries will not permit entry without 6 months left. If not – renew now!
- Create a rough plan of their travel route, from start to finish with any stops in-between
- Draw up a list of important contact numbers such as mobile phone details while they’re away, our project co-ordinator on site and our support number
- Decide on how you will stay in touch – pay-as-you-go mobile, email, social media or Skype? Also agree on a regular contact day beforehand.
- Find out which currency they will need and how people buy and sell in their country of destination.
- Ensure financial arrangements are made well in advance and that your son or daughter understands how they can withdraw money and what to do to stay safe or if they need help in an emergency. Arrange a visa debit card and take enough cash for their pick up and the first week. It is not fun after a day to have to go and withdraw money from town when they will miss out on the volunteering and may have to make a trip to a bank on their own. Any good travel journalist will advise “cash is king!” And the advantages of having cash on you outweigh the potential disadvantages. As long as they keep money spread around in safe places and do not advertise it, they should have no problems.
- Educate yourselves about the customs and culture of the area they are visiting. The last thing anyone wants is to accidentally cause offence to their hosts! For volunteering, unless they are doing manual work or animal conservation, leave the strappy vests and cut down shorts out of the classroom and for the beach and touristy areas only
- Insurance arrangements are essential – make sure your son or daughter has comprehensive cover to allow for medical treatment and repatriation costs. Some of the cheaper policies will only cover lost or delayed baggage. There will usually be an excess. In most cases for very minor matters doctors appointments are very affordable from £5 to £15 excluding prescriptions so this can be paid for without the need to contact the insurer. Make sure they know that if something more serious happens they will need to contact home or contact the insurer immediately to find out which hospital they recommend in the country as this may not be the local clinic but a larger hospital elsewhere.
- Do they have everything they need for their trip? Take sensible, practical items which can be packed and carried without too much hassle! Advise them to pack with the thinking that their luggage might be delayed or lost on route to their destination. So pack all the absolute essentials in the hand luggage. This might include usual medication, underwear, bedding if required for your project, phrasebook, travel documents and anything else they won’t manage without if the luggage never arrives.
- At the airport on the day of departure, recommend that rucksacks are wrapped in plastic. Straps which get caught in the conveyor belts can rip the bags. In the UK the belts are of a reasonable standard but abroad, especially when changing flights a couple of times the risks increase. Many foreign travellers coming to the UK routinely wrap their luggage because they are aware of the added risk of theft in poorer destinations.
- Photocopy all their travel documents so that you have copies in case of loss or theft.
Just before they go
It’s true to say that a gap year will be an incredible experience for your son or daughter and will teach them a variety of valuable life skills. With some dedicated preparation time and support from you, they will get the most out of their trip and remember their amazing journey for the rest of their lives. Just imagine the people they will meet and the wonderful things they will see! To help them truly maximise their experience, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their excitement as well as their worries. Although you won’t want to limit their opportunities, try to impress upon them that there will be limits as to what they can see and do – try to come up with some ideas of what is realistic so that they can get the most out of their time while they’re away.
Remind them that some destinations will be in very poor countries compared to the UK and they will be staying in basic accommodation. They’ll need to be ready for lack of facilities and having to make an effort to look after themselves as well as their belongings. After all, you won’t be there to pick up after them!
Reassure them that they won’t be left alone and will make plenty of new friends, with other travellers and with people they meet along the way. If they’re intending to socialise or head off on adventures on weekends or days off, they may like to enhance their fitness levels first, especially in countries which are well above sea level or have mountainous terrain. If they’re not sure what activities they’d like to try, do some internet research! And please remember that they won’t be in the UK any longer and some behaviour will be frowned upon, depending on the culture. For example: “in Thailand it’s very disrespectful to touch a man on his head, whilst in Australia, its advised not to climb Ayers Rock, as it is sacred to the native Aboriginal people.”
Of course, there’s no way you can fully prepare for a gap year as situations pop up and events occur which aren’t on your carefully considered check list. Just make sure you maintain contact with your son or daughter and you have copies of all of their essential travel documents. Your first instinct is probably to panic as soon as you hear the “gap year” mentioned but trust them to know that they are ready to embark on a challenge of this nature. They’ll want to explore the world and come back feeling more confident and at ease within their own skin. It may also help them decide whether to continue with higher education or branch out into the world of work. Respect their choices but don’t be afraid to pass on your valuable life skills and helpful advice.
Some parents may find it difficult to understand why a gap year is a good idea but it’s true to say that more employers and universities are recognising them as valuable experience which will give your son or daughter the edge when they need to complete an application. A gap year is often seen as a brave, dedicated and responsible choice and therefore will be a wonderful foundation for their future, whichever path they decide to take.
After you’ve been apart for several months, their arrival back home will be a wonderful and emotional experience. Try to meet them at the airport if you can – they’ll be so pleased to see you, not to mention grateful for some help with their luggage (and find out what’s for dinner!). It’s probably best not to invite the whole family over to greet them as they’ll no doubt be very tired and just want to sink into a bath and a comfortable bed! Give them a few days to adjust back to home life before you ask them all about their trip and pull out their photos. They’ll probably feel exhausted, overwhelmed, jet-lagged and possibly a bit deflated after the excitement of their travels. Once they’re settled in at home, take an interest in what they’ve learned and offer your support and advice if they have questions about what to do next. A gap year makes a huge difference to someone’s outlook and expectations; it offers an unbeatable window on the world and can open out their opportunities both now and in the future.