This week MaptheGap.co.uk looks at the other side of the story and chats with American Maggie Eckel about her gap year in the UK and travelling around Europe.
First things first, money is an issue for a lot of backpackers -how did you fund your gap year?
I didn’t actually do the traditional backpacker thing. I wanted to travel but had zero money saved, so I tried to find programmes that would allow me to go someplace on a scholarship, or allow me to work, so I could support myself wherever I ended up. I came to the UK with a company called BUNAC, which arranged for me to have a six month work visa.
So, having sorted out the finance side of things, what did you decide to do during your gap year?
I just wanted to live outside the US. So I found a way to do it. My overarching goal for the whole experience was just to try new things.
Being travel though, plans will inevitably change. What did you actually end up doing?
I hadn’t had fixed plans for anything - I didn’t even open a guide book before I got here. I ended up travelling to Paris and Dublin with a friend and I also saw Brighton, Bath and St. Andrews in Scotland, which were all great experiences. I tried to explore new things about London whenever I could - I saw a lot of exhibitions and shopped at a lot of different markets and went on walking tours, historical tours and wandered around a lot of parks. I had a friend who was interning at the Houses of Parliament and she took us on a behind the scenes tour and then to the Parliament bar - that was a fun night, I watched a member of the House of Lords get really pissed!
Did you plan meticulously every step the way or did you just decide to wing it?
When I was travelling, the only arrangements I made before hand was where I was going to sleep. Obviously there were museums and attractions I wanted to see in famous cities, but some of the best stuff was stuff you couldn’t ever plan - like when my friend Stacy and I were exploring the student quarter in Paris and got caught in a rain storm. We ducked in to this tiny Greek café and made friends with the owner (even though he spoke very little English and we spoke very little French) and he sent us home with a bulging box of Greek pastries and cookies.
What was the best experience you had on your gap year?
I think the best thing I managed to do was make friends with people who live in London. One of the first pubs I wandered in to is now my local and I’m still friends with loads of the people I met there in the first few weeks I was in the city. Meeting people who were at home in London meant that I saw places and did things that were kind of off the beaten track, like getting invited to celebrate Guy Fawkes night in someone’s garden or going to car boot sales – I never would have found that stuff on my own!
What was the worst?
Sitting up most of the night in A&E to get an emergency prescription and realising my bag with my phone and all of my bank and credit cards had been stolen, two days before I was supposed to go to Paris are tied.
What advice would you give to someone planning their gap year now?
Well, have fun first of all – travelling is brilliant! I think on the same theme as the rest of these questions, it’s important to have some plans so you feel like you saw and did things that you were looking forward to, but wherever you go, leave time for yourself to just wander around so you can find places that aren’t written up in guidebooks or travel blogs – then you feel like you’ve discovered them, which makes them more special. Practical advice – keep photocopies of your IDs, passports, visas and your credit card numbers (and the number to call to cancel them!) in a safe place so if something bad does happen, you at least have information to start taking the next steps with (I learned that the hard way!). And, always be friendly and ready to have a chat because you never know when the people you meet travelling will end up being your neighbours!