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Could Europe Be the Next Big Thing in Gap Years?

By Blanche Delany

Last updated: 24th June 2012

Say the words ‘Gap Year’ to any 18 year old who’s just finished their A-Levels, and images of Thailand, BrazilAustralia, or anywhere else similarly exotic and distant will spring to their minds. Countries within a 2000-mile radius of their own however,  (there are approximately 1875 miles between London and Istanbul) are unlikely to be at the forefront of their thoughts.

For British students who decide to take a year out to travel the world, very few take the time to explore their own continent, instead jetting off to far-flung locations such as South East Asia or Africa. Consequently, the question arises of why gap yearing Brits overlook the countries on their doorstep? Has Europe, our very own continent, really got that little appeal to travellers? It seems that if you don’t have to make a big enough jump through time zones, your gap year will be deemed unadventurous, lacking in diversity, and generally not in the true spirit of the thing.

So, why should people consider Europe?

Firstly- and this is an obvious one- it’s close. The proximity to our own country doesn’t need to be seen as a bad thing, it simply means that you don’t have to spend half of your savings on reaching your destination. Further to that, the ease of travel between countries in Europe is a definite advantage; train links between countries are, generally speaking, very good, and if the train networks aren’t up to scratch in a country then there are likely to be excellent coach services, while the cost of internal flights is not going to break the bank. So, we know that getting around isn’t a problem.

Secondly, and this leads on from the first point, it’s cheap. In terms of flights at least, taking out the cost of return flights to South America or Australia from your trip saves a serious chunk of money that can instead be spent on seeing and experiencing a wider assortment of countries during your travels. Okay, so it’s cheaper and closer. But what is there to actually do that’s going to draw in the gap yearers?

For the travelling student in search of a good time, there are plenty of opportunities to do so closer to home (you don’t have to go all the way to a Full Moon Party in Thailand…) Cities such as Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona and Budapest offer vibrant nightlife scenes, and throughout the summer months a huge selection of festivals take place across Europe. Benicassim is held annually on the East coast of Spain, Hideout and Outlook festivals are both based in Croatia, Tomorrowland is on offer in Belgium, and Berlin Festival takes place in, you guessed it, Berlin. These are just a select few of what’s on offer, but do your research and you’ll stumble across plenty of other festivals across the continent.

A man staning in a gondolier in a Venice channel, giving a thumbs up

If you’re more interested in marvelling at some natural wonders, then head towards the Northern latitudes in Finland and get a glimpse of the aurora borealis (that’s the Northern Lights to the everyday tourist), go and relax in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, or head to South West France where the tallest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pilat, can be found. There are also countless cultural and historical diversities across the continent, ranging from the Grand Bazaar markets in Istanbul, the ruins of ancient civilisations in Athens and Rome, the remains of Pompeii in the Bay of Naples, or the winding labyrinth of streets that is Venice.

If you want to experience a range of climates and landscapes then you won’t be disappointed; from sunbathing on the Greek islands, spending a ski season in the French Alps, experiencing the stark landscape of Iceland or taking in the breathtaking Plitvice lakes in Croatia, there is undoubtedly something to interest everyone across the 50 countries that comprise Europe. If you try to argue otherwise then trust me, you’re being fastidious.

Snowy Austrian Alps

Interestingly enough, Europe is already hugely popular when it comes to gap yearing Americans, Canadians and Australians. However, the crucial difference here is that Europe to them is not the place where they have probably spent a large portion of family holidays during childhood. The whole idea of exploring new and exciting places is somewhat lessened when you may have visited the same country as a grumpy, unwilling teenager aged 15. But then again, setting off as an independent traveller will give you a sense of freedom and opportunity that’s never experienced on family holidays, both in terms of your independence and ability to go wherever you want, so I’m afraid that doesn’t qualify as a valid excuse.

Speaking to a university student, Katy, who’s recently travelled through Europe, she highlighted that “travelling through Europe is so flexible. Frequent train connections, internal flights and boat trips make travelling a breeze. It’s not just travel but an experience.” But does she think that Europe seems just too ‘boring’ for 18/19 year olds? “Maybe there is an element of that- you think of it as a family holiday destination. But places like Berlin and Budapest are known for the nightlife just as much as Rome’s know for the Vatican… I guess it’s the way you portray it.”

She does however concede, “Europe’s expensive. It needs to appeal to a student market more than it does. Travelling around is pretty cheap; it’s just the living costs.” This highlights an important consideration when it comes to travelling; although the costs of long-haul flights are expensive, the cost of living in Asia or South America is a fraction of that in comparison to daily life in Europe. It’s often easy to overlook flights when you’re actually travelling, seeing as they’re usually booked and paid for in advance, whilst money spent on a daily basis can feel like a big impact on your budget.

Despite these drawbacks, it’s clear that Europe has a lot to offer as a travelling destination. While the barrier of proximity may have the hindrance of diminishing the sense of excitement and novelty that goes hand-in-hand with travel, on the flipside it provides a plethora of countries to explore on our doorstep. So take a leap of faith, although a hop would probably get you there, and seize the opportunity to experience our own continent.

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