You’ll have heard of the traditional gap year, the much-mocked “gap yah”, and all the associated talk of “finding yourself” in the countries you visit along the way. Perhaps you even took a gap year yourself, back in the day, intent on exploring the world before heading off to university, or diving into the workplace. But what if you could do it again – take the opportunity to do the travelling you have always dreamt of, finally making a dent in that must-visit list that’s been gathering dust for the past two years?
Well, you can – subject to Covid restrictions easing as time goes on. It’s called the “grey gap year” – or, if you like, the “grown-up gap year”. Despite the connotations of grey, you needn’t be retired to enjoy some time out – all you need is a yearning to discover new places.
There are as many different grey gap years out there as there are beach holidays, ski trips and all-inclusive packages. But whether you do yours independently – by car, train, boat or even in a campervan – or led by a tour guide, there is guaranteed to be a grey gap out there for you. Here’s how to plan yours now, plus the five best itineraries from the USA to India.
The top tips for planning your grown-up gap year
Get your house in order
If you are going for a long period, “rent your house out”, suggests Tim Riley, managing director of insurance company True Traveller (truetraveller.com). “If you are near the M25 and you have a four-bedroom house, then you might be looking at £5,000-£6,000 a month in rent.” Planned well, the rent could cover the cost of your trip. As an added bonus, you will know that your house and garden are being cared for while you are away.
Admin, admin, admin
If you’re going to let your house out, it is imperative to let your mortgage lender and insurance company know. If you are going away for a year or more, adds Riley, “tell the taxman”. Download a P58 form from HMRC. If you have overpaid your tax, you may get a refund – more money for the pot.
Get a check-up – and jabs
It is worth getting a “full medical”, including a trip to the dentist before you go away, says Riley. “Travel insurance will pay if you get sick, and they will also pay for dental work – but only emergency dental work.” Go to see your GP and, while you are there, make sure you get any jabs required for the destinations you are planning to visit.
Look at your particular insurance package. Riley’s True Traveller is “known for gap year, adventure travel insurance”, and allows you to return home mid-trip – which you may well need to do – without voiding your insurance. As well as this, check that your insurance provider will allow you to extend your policy if necessary.
Go with your gut
Plan your route the old-fashioned way, advises Riley. “Get a map, work out how much time you have and how much money you have to spend, and then ask, ‘Where shall we go?’” When one thinks “gap year”, stints of do-gooding might spring to mind. But, adds Riley, “It’s not compulsory to work on a kibbutz!” If you want to have an extended holiday – which might include trekking, cycling, skiing, or anything else – you needn’t include all the gap-year elements sold to the under-25s if you don’t want to. Nor is it compulsory to “find yourself” (though many grey gappers do experience a voyage of self-discovery), or to go backpacking. A van will do nicely, as will a luxury hotel – if that’s your style.
Ask an expert
If you’re taking a road or rail trip around Europe, you might want to plan your trip yourself, day by day. For wider adventures, using the services, expertise and support of a tour operator really helps. The peace of mind that if something goes wrong there is a number to call and a point-person to liaise with, is priceless.
Five grey gaps years to choose from
Each of the below has been rated on accessibility, based on how physically demanding the tour is.
Accessibility rating: 3/5
Length: 26+ days
For many, rail is one of the most enjoyable methods of transport, but interrailing takes this up a notch. With your flexible Interrail Pass, permitting you travel between 33 European countries for up to three months at a time, you can make the Continent your own.
Many Interrail trips begin in Amsterdam, but why not start in Belgium? Fly, or get the Eurostar, to Brussels and enjoy a spot of Flemish architecture. From Brussels, hop on the train an hour to Bruges to explore the canals, before the 90-minute journey to Antwerp, where you can enjoy jazz at the De Muze café. From here, Amsterdam is just over an hour away on the train; if you’d rather Rotterdam, it’s even closer.
From Amsterdam, northern Europe opens up: the train to Berlin is an enjoyable six- to seven- hour trip, comfortable preparation for your action-packed trip further south. Arrive in Berlin and Europe is your oyster. Look east towards Warsaw, six hours away, or visit Leipzig, an hour south, famed for its connections to both Bach and Mozart.
Journey on another hour to Dresden, to cycle along the River Elbe from the city to Pillnitz Castle, a restored baroque residence of the kings of Saxony. Prague is over the border, from where you can continue south-east to Vienna, on to Budapest, or to Munich, four hours to the west.
Dipping south, take the five-hour trip to Verona, where you can continue on, or return home. If you choose the latter, a special train awaits: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, and its overnight trip to London, where you will be welcomed aboard with a glass of sparkling wine.
If carrying on, make the five-hour journey to Zurich, before exploring Bern, and head to the south of France: Lyon, Nice, Montpellier, and anywhere else that takes your fancy. Wend your way home through France, or extend your trip again with a three-hour train from Montpellier to Barcelona where you can board a 22-day Mediterranean cruise, ending up in Athens.
Book it: Interrail tickets cost from €167 (£140) (interrail.eu). A twin cabin on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express starts at £2,825pp (luxurytraintickets.com). Princess Cruises (princess.com) runs a 22-day grand Mediterranean cruise from £2,889pp based on two sharing.
Accessibility rating: 1/5
Length: 66 days
Kick off your trip to South America by joining Trailfinders’ 14-day End of the Earth tour, which begins in Buenos Aires. Fly to El Calafate in Patagonia, before winding through the Los Glaciares National Park to El Chaltén. The next day’s hike will have you marvelling at Mount Fitz Roy, before returning to El Calafate to explore the town. Crossing the Chilean border, you’ll enjoy the post-glacial landscape of Torres del Paine National Park before visiting Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city where riding, hiking and cruising are on offer.
Book it: Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) offers its End of the Earth tour from £2,609pp, including internal flights and 13 nights’ accommodation.
Fly to Santiago to begin a 35-day tour beginning on Route 40, wine and steak country. Arriving at Cafayate, there’s time to explore the wineries before chances to ride, cycle, or trek in the city of Salta. Visit the Uyuni salt lake in Bolivia before touring the local silver mines in Potosí and moving on to Lake Titicaca to stay the night with a local Andean family. Then it’s on to Cusco for six days where you will hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, before visiting the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest, before heading to Lima, where South America’s contrasts are there for all to see.
Book it: Oasis Overland (oasisoverland.co.uk) offers a 35-day Cordilleras tour from £1,995pp.
Fly from Lima to Quito, Ecuador, to join a 17-night cruise around the Galapagos. First, explore Quito before flying to Baltra, right in the centre of the volcanic archipelago, where an early highlight is a trip to Isla Santa Island in search of giant tortoises. Explore Plaza Island’s cactus forest, the white sand beaches of Santa Fe, and swim with sea lions at Gardner Bay on Española Island. Venturing to the island of Chinese Hat, snorkel with penguins, if you’re lucky, before exploring Isabela Island, where there is some whale-watching to be had.
Book it: The 17-day Galapagos Wildlife Cruise with Exodus (exodus.co.uk) costs from £8,099pp, excluding flights.
Scandinavia and the Baltics
Accessibility rating: 4/5
Length: 18 days
Make like a Nordic-noir fan and hop on the plane to Bergen, the gateway to the fjords, to join a 10-day rail tour to Helsinki, via Oslo and Stockholm. Catch a train to Voss (Stalheimskleiva), before a bus to Gudvangen, where a two-hour fjord cruise awaits you, along the Naeroyfjord, the narrowest fjord channel in Europe, to Flam. Board the Flam railway to Vatnahalsen for a night’s sleep, before the journey to Oslo, where you will spend a day at leisure, meandering around the Viking Ship Museum. Journey on to Stockholm where there is the opportunity to explore the Old Town, before an overnight ferry to Helsinki.
Book it: Authentic Scandinavia (authentic-scandinavia.com) offers a 10-day Fjord Norway, Stockholm and Helsinki tour from £948pp.
Take a ferry from Helsinki to the nearby 18th-century Unesco Suomenlinna Fortress before leaving Finland to cross the Gulf to Estonia. Docking in Tallinn, visit Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Palace, before returning to the city, with its pastel-coloured baroque architecture and the hotchpotch of winding streets.
Travel on to Tartu, Estonia’s cultural capital, and enjoy views of the Emajogi river, before venturing to Riga, capital of Latvia, for an evening of local cuisine. Enjoy the delights of Riga Old Town, exploring the city’s Central Market before spotting the golden cockerels on top of the church spires.
Book it: Riviera Travel (rivieratravel.co.uk) offers an eight-day Helsinki to Riga tour from £1,019pp.
India and South Asia
Accessibility rating: 5/5
Length: 43 days
Fly to Mumbai to explore Rajasthan. Begin by touring Mumbai’s Crawford Market, before flying to Udaipur for a boat trip on Lake Pichola. Driving on to Bundi, explore the city before dining with a local family. In Pushkar, home of the Savitri Temple, visit the sand dunes, and enjoy a traditional dinner while dancers perform. Then it’s on to Jaipur to visit a local Brahmin family, and tour the Hawa Mahal. Enjoy a safari within the Ranthambore National Park before visiting the Taj Mahal, and then returning to Delhi.
Book it: Intrepid (intrepidtravel.com) offers a 14-day tour of Rajasthan starting from £856pp.
Fly from Delhi to Guwahati to visit the Kamakhya Temple before boarding a cruiser for a 10-day trip. Visit a tea estate to see what makes Assam tea world-famous, meet members of the Mishing tribe, and explore the Shiva Dol temple. From there, venture into the Kaziranga National Park for a rhino-spotting safari, before disembarking at Jorhat.
Book it: Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) offers its 10-day Wonders of the Brahmaputra River tour from £2,466pp, based on two adults sharing.
Begin your cycling trip in Chennai. Stop at Mahabalipuram before cycling four miles to Puducherry. Ride on to Chidambaram and along the Kaveri River to Thanjavur, then into Chettinad and the cultural capital of Madurai. Visit the Periyar National Park for a boat safari, before wheeling through plantations to Kottayam and Vembanad Lake, where you’ll board a houseboat overnight; finally, cycle the coast to Fort Kochi.
Book it: The 14-day Southern India Coast to Coast Ride with Exodus (exodus.co.uk) costs from £2,399pp, excluding flights.
Fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage before travelling to Kandy. Here, visit the Temple of the Tooth, before driving to Nuwara Eliya. Explore the Amman Temple in Nuwara Eliya, and the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, before heading to Lake Gregory. Return to Colombo and to the temple Seema Malaka.
Book it: Aaditya Tours (aadityatours.com) offers a five-day tour of Sri Lanka from £259.
Accessibility rating: 2/5
Length: 42 days
Start your North American journey in Quebec City and join Silversea’s cruise around Nova Scotia to New York City, passing giant Atlantic salmon, moose, and black bears – as well as blue whales in St Lawrence. Sail on to Sept-Îles with its sandy beaches, explore the history of local shipwrecks, and visit a scallop farm.
Further along the route, journey to Point Prim Lighthouse on Prince Edward Island, where you can climb to the top for the best views. Then it’s onwards to Halifax, where at rustic fishing village Peggy’s Cove the local chowder is a must. Arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, visit the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, as well as Harvard University, glimpse the USS Constitution on a harbour cruise, and tour the Quincy Market.
Passing through the Cape Cod Canal, where you might spot a North-Atlantic right whale, wake up in Newport, Rhode Island, where there is time to take a helicopter sight-seeing tour, before arriving in New York City.
Book it: Silversea (silversea.com) offers an 11-day Quebec City to New York City cruise from £6,700pp.
Hop on a flight from New York City to Nashville for a nine-day steam rail adventure. Travel by coach from Nashville to Chattanooga (choo choo!) where you’ll visit Studio B, Nashville’s oldest surviving recording studio, and on to a steam train ride through the landscape. Next up is Pigeon Forge, and another train ride along the Tuckasegee River, and a trip into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Board the Great Smoky Mountains railroad steam train for a scenic four-hour round-trip along to Dillsboro, before you board the coach to Asheville, NC.
On the last day, tour America’s biggest privately owned house, the Biltmore Estate, family home of George and Edith Vanderbilt, where you will enjoy nosing around their 10,000-book library, winery and gardens.
Book it: Vacations by Rail (vacationsbyrail.com) offers a nine-day Smoky Mountains Rail Adventure tour costing from £2,203pp.
Fly to Austin, Texas, next, to enjoy a nine-day trip in the Lone Star state. Begin in Austin spotting bats at the Ann W Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, and enjoy a drink at one of 6th Street’s bars. Onwards to San Antonio, in Texas hill country, for three nights, where you can swim at Jacob’s Well, wander around the Alamo, the scene of Davy Crockett’s fateful 1836 battle, and taste the local Tex-Mex.
Next stop is cowboy capital Bandera, and the Mayan Dude Ranch, with its 348 acres of trails ready to be explored on horseback. Spend your final night in historic Fredericksburg, where the Pioneer Museum is a must-visit, before dropping into one of the 15 award-winning wineries nearby.
Book it: Hayes and Jarvis (hayesandjarvis.co.uk) offers a nine-day multi-centre Texas tour for £2,699pp.
Fly to San Francisco to join Intrepid’s six-day hiking tour of Yosemite National Park. Begin with a downhill hike at the Tuolumne Grove of Great Sequoias, before a trip to the Cathedral Lakes and a seven-mile hike to take in the high-altitude scenery. Next up is the Yosemite’s signature hike, over the Mist Trail, passing waterfalls, before the famed Half Dome rock formation. On your final day, hike a short way on the shores of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, before returning to San Francisco.
Intrepid (intrepidtravel.com) offers a six-day Hiking in Yosemite National Park trip costing from £1,580pp.
To cool down, take Princess Cruises’s seven-day Pacific Northwest Coast voyage, travelling through Astoria, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and on to Canada’s Vancouver and Victoria. Indulge in some killer whale watching, visit Victoria’s Craigdarroch Castle, and climb Seattle’s Space Needle to survey the city from its 520ft observation deck.
Book it: Princess Cruises (princess.com) offers a seven-day Pacific Northwest Coast cruise from £639pp based on two sharing.