Gap year programs

If you are planning on going abroad to volunteer, travel, work or learn, it’s often a good idea to choose a placement with a gap year agency.

These offer a structured placement with the reassurance of full 24 hour local support, orientation on arrival, and provision of meals and accommodation.

It also means you’ll be with other like-minded people, so you’re bound to make some friends and enjoy your trip even more!

Here we’ve listed some tips on things to consider when choosing which gap year agency to book your placement with.

They vary greatly between organisations, so research each factor thoroughly before making your final decision.

1. Costs

Be aware that gap year agency placements can be expensive, and you should look at each agency carefully so you can see whether you are getting the best value for money.

Costs for a conservation project, for example, can vary greatly between agencies, so it’s important to research thoroughly.

You should also check what the cost of the project includes. With most gap year agencies, the cost does not include:

So work out how much more money this will be on top of the project fee before booking a placement, because if it turns out to be more than you’ve budgeted, then you could lose your deposit if you have to pull out.

A couple of other things to check are what happens if something comes up and you have to cancel your trip, and when the payment deadline is.

2. Participants and selection criteria

Some placements have a maximum of only 2 participants at one time, so if there is a particular project you wish to do, it’s best to apply as early as possible to avoid disappointment.

Also consider whether you’d prefer to go with a smaller or larger group, although more people means you will encounter a wider range of cultures and backgrounds, making it a more interesting experience and the opportunity to make more friends too!

Some placements require you to attend an interview to make sure you meet particular criteria.

This is not to try and catch you out, but the agency ascertaining whether they think the placement is suitable for you – for example, you have the right personality, the project will meet your expectations and you are happy with the values promoted by the agency.

Try not to be too disappointed if they suggest you try a different placement elsewhere – they are probably saving you from wasting money on a less than enjoyable experience you won’t benefit much from, and just want you to find a placement that allows you to get the most out of your gap year.

Some agencies will be looking for traits such as resourcefulness, imagination, resilience and hard-working to pass their selection process.

Others say it helps if you have certain language skills, experience with animals, or looking after the elderly (obviously depending on what your placement involves).

The application procedure varies between agencies, but don’t be put off by interviews and application forms.

Generally, if you are enthusiastic about the placement, and can show you are capable of undertaking the tasks involved, you are likely to get the placement you are after.

3. Program content

Make sure the placement covers the activities you’d like to do and places you wish to go, so you can get the most out of your Gap year by doing the project best suited to you as an individual.

Research is the key, and if you are in any doubt over the project you are considering or have any questions about it, it is important to contact the agency and ask.

You may also want to know who else benefits from it, e.g. local communities, wildlife, charities, and whether the programme will continue in the future after your placement finishes.

It’s always nice to know your hard work will be carried on by someone else, contributing to a better future for the people and/or environment involved.

4. Reputation

It is also good to check the agency’s reputation by searching for reviews of their projects by previous Gap year students who booked with them, or ask the agency directly to put you in touch with previous volunteers.

In today’s economic climate, it may also be wise to find out how long they’ve been running, if they are financially sound and whether they are a full member of the Year Out Group.

This is an organisation that UK registered Gap year agencies who provide structured Gap year programmes can become a member of if they meet strict, specific criteria.

These include having systems in place to protect any money paid by customers for a placement.

So if an agency is Year Out Group registered, you are guaranteed some peace of mind if the company hits financial trouble.

On 13th March 2009, one of the UK’s leading providers of Gap years and career breaks, Global Xperience, filed for administration as it was no longer able to fulfil its obligations to customers who had paid for projects but had not yet travelled.

Fortunately, they were a member of Year Out Group and held an ABTA bond, allowing people who had booked with them to claim their money back. So make sure the agency has the correct financial safeguards in place before booking a placement.

5. Support system

Booking a placement with an agency should mean there is 24 hour support if you run into any difficulties whilst abroad.

Usually this will be a hotline number so you can speak to someone at the agency at any time, 24 hours a day, about whatever the problem is.

There may also be a separate number for emergencies. Depending on the individual project, there will be at least one English-speaking guide for assistance and/or direct co-ordination during the project.

Finally, check out our Travel Planning section too, for information and advice on insurance, visas, what to take with you and how to stay healthy on your trip.

Leading gap year program providers

If you are considering a gap year agency placement, some of the leading providers include:

  1. Intro Travel
  2. Real Gap
  3. Frontier
  4. Global Vision International
  5. i-to-i
  6. Quest
  7. Projects Abroad
  8. Greenforce
  9. The Leap
  10. Madventurer
  11. Raleigh International
  12. Oyster
  13. International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)
  14. Xtreme Gap Year
  15. Gap360
  16. British Exploring
  17. Gap Force
  18. Volunteering Solutions
  19. Volunteering Journeys

However, it is also worth considering the benefits of going direct.

There are organisations that will offer an identical placement for a fraction of the cost set by an agency.

Cheaper gap year agency options

Some agencies charge up to 600% mark-up on their programs, so it’s worth checking out these organisations below that offer similar projects at a lower cost, and save yourself some pennies:

  1. Back & Pack
  2. Volunteer Latin America
  3. Volunteer South America
  4. Oasis Overland
  5. CoralCay
  6. Aviva South Africa
  7. Blue Ventures
  8. Experience MexECO
  9. Ecoteer
  10. Development In Action
  11. Ripple Africa
  12. Nonstop Ski & Snowboarding
  13. G Adventures
  14. Enkosini Wildlife 
  15. Africa & Asia Venture (AV)
  16. Global Medical Projects
  17. Original Volunteers Ltd
  18. Natucate
  19. The Mighty Roar
  20. Pod Volunteer
  21. Connect 123
  22. Tru Experience
  23. Letz Live
  24. Contiki
  25. Love Volunteers
  26. Top Deck Travel

However you decide to spend your Gap year – whether you plan your own trip abroad or book a placement with an agency – it may seem a daunting prospect to raise the thousands of pounds needed to do this.

If you already have enough money set aside, then great, as this will be one less thing to factor into your planning.

If you have to raise the funds from scratch, or need that little extra more to completely cover the costs, check out our fundraising guide for ideas on raising cash.

Further information

For more tips and advice on planning your gap year, please see: