Milly Whitehead of The Leap writes a letter to parents offering a five-step guide to planning a gap year in a pandemic

gap year advice: A lone traveller looking for her departure times @ Getty Images
 A lone traveller looking for her departure times @ Getty Images

Dear Parent, Navigating this pandemic has been a unique challenge for us all but last year, we at The Leap jumped through many a hoop, hurdled 101 border issues and conquered the mysteries of QR codes to save the gap year for the class of 2020/21. Along the way, it’s safe to say we became Covid travel experts and are now ready to help the next gapper generation exit home safely and responsibly. So, panic not, parents – they won’t be on your sofa for the next 18 months providing we…

1. Brace them for Covid Travel Admin

There is nothing simple about travelling right now. The new gapper must be super flexible; flights will be changed countless times and cold beer is a bonus.

Flights: Do NOT let them book cheap flights online through dodgy booking sites. This is not the time; you need access to a human being. Remember buy cheap, buy twice.

Incident support teams: At the start of the pandemic, we were helping as many people as we could to repatriate kids from faraway places. I know the worry of a parent; my son was one of those rescued from Bolivia. So do not let them leave home without signing up to an Incident Support Team. We can advise you on the best.

QR codes and PCR tests: Entering or leaving a country is a minefield and ever-changing. Make sure whomever your student books their travel with has experience of the ‘procedures’ required to enter that country.

Do not leave home without the right insurance: They simply cannot leave home without it and the key message is the policy must insure you regardless of the FCDO travel advice saying stay at home. This is essential and many insurance companies are happy to sell them their policy without telling them – do not let them fall into this trap.

gap year advice: Beach clear up as part of the scuba program in Costa Rica
 Beach clear up as part of the scuba program in Costa Rica

2. Covid Risk Assessment

I am not going to bombard you with the Covid statistics per country or indeed the number of fire escapes in each hostel. Right now, what they and you, as a family, need to think about is a country’s infrastructure. Ask questions such as:

Hospitals & facilities: How many are there and how are they equipped for a Covid or other emergency?

Flights: How many airlines are flying in right now? This has a bearing on how fast we could get you out if there was an emergency.

Internet & phones: Again, how reliable and efficient are they to assist in repatriation out or to reach a hospital which could cope with a covid case.

Government: How reliable and dependable is it? Looking back at last year how fast did they lockdown and how did they look after trapped tourists? Who will look after your children in a crisis?

gap year advice: Early morning trek on the reserve in Namibia
 Early morning trek on the reserve in Namibia 

3. Be Flexible 

Destinations: These are changing by the week so remain flexible and open-minded. It’s not easy to travel between countries so forget the cross-Asia hostel-hopping extravaganza or the Top Gear-style race from Argentina to Colombia. Now is the time to choose one country and do it well. Slow down and take it all in. You can keep a close eye on the UK government website, or you can just ask us and we will keep you up to date.

Red lists: Do not be afraid. Gap year students are not holidaymakers and have much to offer of real relevance to countries – last year gap year students stepped in to save animals about to be shot because there was no one to feed them. We have learnt so much this year about what the red list means and how to circumnavigate it. I can bore you for hours on our red list planning.

Do NOT let them book cheap flights online through dodgy booking sites. This is not the time; you need access to a human being. Remember buy cheap, buy twice.

4. Find their perfect destination

Don’t let their friends, or indeed Instagram, tell them where. This is their time and a definite match of challenge is essential. You want them to feel out of their comfort zone but not freaked out. Do this by asking them what they want to experience: jungle, mountains or beach? Hot, humid or arid? Architecture or environment? Wildlife or community? Level of challenge? Africa, for example, offers a completely different experience to South America.

gap year advice: Removal of invasive species on the reserve in Namibia
 Removal of invasive species on the reserve in Namibia

5. Travel with a conscience

Simply put, we know too much about the people and projects who are struggling overseas – no furlough for them. Giving back is so rewarding and this year’s gappies, who all had to volunteer to legally leave the country, were amazed at how much they got back from it. You really do have a different, dare I say it richer experience than just being a hostel hopper.

So, there we have it – five guidelines for the kitchen table gap year chat. No more full moon parties around Asia but rather a more responsible, life-enhancing adventure. Even Covid has a silver lining. 

Always here to guide and advise.


For more information on accessing help with your gap year advice get in contact with the Year out Group or join LEAP VIP which provides backup support throughout their travels. 


Press Reset with Queen of Retreats | Wellness Retreat: Harnessing Peacocks