Planning Your Gap Year: Take Test Trips

Would you let someone take off driving on the Interstate if she hadn’t yet driven around the block? Of course not, because driving takes practice, right? So does developing the confidence to travel well and safely. It’s likely you started with riding a bike to the park, or school. You eventually they graduated to day trips around town with friends, and maybe some summer camps or overnight trips with a school group. Each of these forays into independence was preparing you to eventually be master of your own destiny.

There is, however, a big difference between traveling with your family on holiday, or participating in a school trip, and traveling under your own steam. It’s possible that you haven’t yet had the experience of charting your own course, ordering your own days on the road or getting from A to B without someone helping your. Not to mention finding lodging or navigating the minor challenges of daily life on the road.

Every new traveler needs to take a test trip.

It’s money well spent in the educational process of learning to navigate the real world independently and assessing what still needs to be learned and acquired before you hit the road.

Plan a weekend, or a week if you can manage it, and go away on her own, or with the person who you’ll be traveling with on your big trip. It’s a great opportunity for you to find your feet, iron out any kinks in that travel partnership, and do a trial run with minimal cost or risk, compared to the big launch.

It’s also a great opportunity for a gear test and to hone your packing skills. Taking a short trip will allow you to practice preparation, launch, daily life on the road, and what it’s like to come home. Brainstorm some of the new experiences you’re going to have on your journey and try to simulate some of them in this test trip.

Do you plan to do lots of overland travel in Southeast Asia? A Greyhound bus trip would be good practice, preferably a long one.

Investing in a Euro Rail pass in Europe?
Take a train trip closer to home to get a feel for it.

Are you thinking hostels will be your accommodation of choice?
Make sure you stay in a hostel in a new city near home.

Planning on WWOOFING abroad? Look for a short stint somewhere one state away.

Does couchsurfing sound like a good option in Central America? Try it out on your test trip.

When to Take a Test Trip

Don’t plan your test trip for a special occasion or a holiday, don’t plan it for good weather. Plan it for a random block of time and let it be what it is. Don’t change plans if the weather doesn’t cooperate or money is tight; things won’t always be ideal on the road either. Don’t have all of the gear you wish you had? No problem, roll with it, make do, borrow something from a friend, work it out and make it happen.

Solving these little problems without support at home will build your confidence and teach you some important lessons that can be applied to your trip.

It’s okay to be a travel newbie. It’s okay to admit it.

Everyone starts somewhere, the main thing is to dive in, to do your best, and to work to figure it out. But, there’s no reason to take off on a big trip completely untested.

My kids begin taking test trips at around 14 years of age. These have included a two week backpacking trip to Belize with other teenagers (but no adults) when we were living in Guatemala month long internships several states away, and WWOOFing style gigs where they’ve worked for room and board and a little pay but been largely on their own, under the eye of a trusted adult. We call that the “illusion of freedom.” At 15, one of my boys planned, executed and paid for a month long trip to Guatemala by himself, to work with an NGO that matters to him. He was on his own, but there was support nearby. By the time they’re 17 we’ve graduated to six weeks hopping trains with a buddy in Europe, and summer long backpacking trips in America. It’s fun to watch their skill set and their confidence blossom.

Plan a test trip, to the next city, to the next state, to the other side of the country, across international boundaries for spring break, whatever can be managed on the available budget, and make sure it is planned with skill building in mind.

Action Step: Plan a test trip. Make a list of new experiences you will have as you begin traveling, areas in which you feel you could build your travel skills, and things you’d like to learn to do on familiar soil, in you primary language, before you take off traveling. Get it on the calendar, in ink. Consider it a vital part of your larger traveling plans.

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