Ultimate Gap Year Guide: Where to Volunteer + Work, And What To Know Before Going
When I took a gap year shortly after graduating from poly, it was planned in the poorest possible way. That’s to say – I didn’t travel, unless you count a four-day trip to Kuching, Sarawak, with friends.
What I did do, though, was wing it: three editorial internships spanning a year and, in-between, plenty of drunken nights out after work. Oh, but it wasn’t all bad; I eventually got my sh*t together and went off to university.
Thankfully, funding your path to enlightenment is easier than you think – and all it takes is some planning.
In this piece, I’ll take you through:
- What To Consider Before Going On Your Gap Year
- Gap Year Volunteering Opportunities
- Work Exchange Opportunities
- Working Holiday: Visa, Jobs, Checklist
What To Consider Before Going On Your Gap Year
Figure Out Your Finances
Funding your gap year means planning your finances…and we all know how tricky that can be, particularly if you aren’t using an expenses-tracking app.
Your (lack of) finances shouldn’t be reason to stop you from livin’ la vida loca, though. These are some easy ways to save $$ for your trip.
Platforms like Greenheart Travel and Rustic Pathways Student Travel also offer gap year scholarships, although you’ll need to take note of application periods and eligibility criteria. Often, these scholarships are only open to first-time gap year travellers.
And if you’ve been following the multi-currency wallet wars – think YouTrip versus Revolut – you might also know the two digital banks offer commission-free exchange rates.
Revolut’s even got a Vault option in the app, which helps you save towards a bigger goal…like your gap year. It’s essentially a digital piggy bank: your transactions are automatically rounded up, and the difference deposited into your Vault. You’ll then be able to transfer the sum out for later use at any point.
Consider Unforeseen Circumstances
Naturally, it’s not all fun and roses when travelling for the long-term.
Visa issues, possible discrimination, communication barriers, intermittent internet connectivity, hunting down an ATM if you run out of local currency in an area that doesn’t accept cards – these are only a handful of scenarios to consider.
(Don’t mind my pessimism; my incessant worrying has saved me in many ways.)
So be sure to suss out exactly what the area has. It’s always best to check with your host prior to your arrival.
Plan Your Goals
Gee, it’s just a gap year, not my retirement, you scoff.
Except it really is true: you should have an idea of what you hope to achieve during your extended break – whether it’s learn a language, build five homes, or complete 20 hiking trails.
You don’t want to be ambling from city to city aimlessly; it’d probably wear you down after a couple months.
At the least, do your research on transport and accommodation – and any essentials you’ll likely need, depending on how much you plan to rough it out. If you’re hoping to hike in a national park, you’ll minimally need durable trekking shoes and a headlamp, for example.
Gap Year Volunteering Opportunities
Contributing to philanthropic causes is great and err’thing, but the organisations behind them are not one and the same.
Some things to consider include:
- Is the organisation nonprofit?
- Is it accredited?
- What are the fees like?*
- What do the fees include? (E.g. Accommodation and meals are typically provided, but bathing towels are not)
- What’s the minimum commitment period?
*While doing my research, I found a number of travel programmes that charge needlessly hefty fees.
Take GVI, a (presumably credible) organisation that’s been featured in National Geographic and CNN. Its 24-week Conservation Internship with Elephants in Chiang Mai comes up to S$12,893 (USD9,395). That’s around S$540 a week – an unjustifiable sum, if you ask me.
On that, these are reasonable alternatives to consider:
Juara Turtle Project
The sea turtle population is on steady decline, which is where Juara Turtle Project comes in. As a volunteer, you’ll be tasked with protecting turtle hatchlings on Tioman Island by conducting beach patrols, relocating sea turtle eggs and collecting data on them. You’ll also be required to minimally commit to seven nights’ stay.
Cost: From S$328 (RM1,000/week) during nesting season, or March to November. This fee includes accommodation, breakfast and lunch, Wi-Fi, plus equipment for snorkelling and kayaking.
Healthcare Expeditions International (HealthEx)
Founded and run by medical students, this Singapore-registered organisation organises expeditions for medical and allied health students. Most of its volunteer programmes take places within Southeast Asia; past projects include a ten-day medical expedition to Sri Lanka to tackle chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Because medical work is involved, you’ll understandably need to be qualified. Volunteers are expected to give health talks, do health screenings and educate locals on water filtration techniques.
Cost: This varies; email [email protected] for the latest. Its eight-day dental mission trip to Cebu came in at around S$400 per person (before flights), for instance.
Baan Unrak Animal Sanctuary
Set in the Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand, this animal sanctuary aims to provide injured and abandoned animals adequate medical care. They’re also open to veterinary professionals and students helping out, although regular folk like you and I are just as welcome.
Cost: S$6.80/night (150 Thai Baht/night), or or~S$82/week. This includes vegan lunch on weekdays, accommodation and Wi-Fi.
Habitat for Humanity
You’ve likely heard of them – or know someone who’s volunteered with Habitat For Humanity. This nonprofit organisation’s primary focus lies in building homes for low-income families; the only prerequisites are that you can swing a hammer and set a brick in its place.
These so-called Global Village Trips take place anywhere ’round the world, and usually last five to ten days.
Cost: No full prices available, but take into consideration in-country costs – including accommodation, compulsory accident and illness insurance, transport and your visa (where needed).
Operation Hope Foundation (OHF)
At OHF, volunteers build either a house, well or toilet for Cambodian or Nepalese families in need. Building a well means direct access to actually clean water; meantime, toilets are a necessity we so often take for granted. Unlike Habitat for Humanity, though, homes in Nepal are built from filled rice bags. These volunteer trips typically last five days.
Work Exchange Opportunities
Work exchanges are a barter of sorts. In exchange for helping with everyday tasks such as chopping wood or gardening, for instance, you’re given accommodation – and sometimes even meals.
Here’re some of the best platforms to source for work exchanges:
- WWOOF: Organic farm stays
- HelpX: Organic farms, homesteads, ranches and backpackers hostels for volunteer helpers
- Workaway: Family exchanges and more
Working Holiday: Visa, Jobs, Checklist
If you’re looking to fully immerse yourself in a specific culture, a working holiday visa might be worth considering. These often have age restrictions on them, though. I’ve yet to live out my dream of returning to Australia to complete my working holiday, and time’s a-ticking.
What To Prepare After Securing Your Working Holiday Visa
So, what should you do after you’ve secured your visa? Let this checklist be your guide:
- Prepare proof of your finances: In Australia, this includes a bank statement indicating you’ve a minimum of AUD5,000.
- Choose your city: Here comes the fun bit: doing your research on which city or town you’d likely enjoy residing in. Consider your interests; if you’re into music and the arts, a city like Melbourne may be up your alley.
- Open a local bank account: And link it up with your home bank account for rainy day purposes.
- Source for accommodation: That’s unless you elect to teach in Japan, in which case housing would likely be provided. Ideally, staying somewhere close to the city centre would help you save on transport. Be sure to also ask about utilities and any excess charges you may be required to cover.
- Apply for your tax number: Without it, you won’t be able to get a job, much less be paid. In Australia, it’s called TFN; in New Zealand, it’s known as IRD.
- Understand how you’ll be taxed: And how regularly, too. In Japan, tax rates are pegged to your income – so the more you earn, the more you’ll be expected to pay, although this will only be applicable after your first year of stay.
On that, these are some popular part-time and full-time jobs worth considering.
Working Holiday Jobs in Australia
- Be a barista (you may need to pay for a barista certification course)
- Waitressing at restaurants/cafes/bars
- Retail jobs in department stores, supermarkets or convenience stores (Target, Big W, Woolworths, 7-11)
- Housekeeping in hostels
- Farm work (typically for backpackers)
Minimum wage: Around S$17.60 (AUD18.93) per hour
Working Holiday Jobs in New Zealand
- Horticulture work/fruit-picking
- Dairy farm assistant (you’ll even learn to drive a tractor!)
- Receptionist (in hostels)
- Charity fundraising work under UNICEF NZ
- Ski field work
- Childcare/au pair jobs
- Construction work (through recruitment agencies)
Minimum wage: Around S$15.40 (NZD17.70) per hour
Teach A Language (in Japan)
Specifically, English! As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, you’ll be provided accommodation – but may not be given the option to choose where you’d like to work, or the age group of your students. You could, for example, be tasked to teach primary school students – or conduct night classes for working adults.
I seriously contemplated embarking on my pseudo-teaching career in Japan some months back, but ultimately decided against it.
These are some of Japan’s more popular providers. As a general rule, you’ll need to be a Bachelor’s degree-holder and native English speaker with a scotch-free criminal record (obviously).
Monthly wage: S$2,530 to S$7,590 before rent and taxes. The latter only applies after your first year of residence in Japan.
Have Fun While You’re At It!
Lest you lose sight of the fact that a working holiday’s primarily for enjoyment, carve some time for the things you’ve always wanted to do.
Explore the prefecture or city’s scenic parts, traverse dirt trails, get acquainted with wildlife – maybe even chase some sheep. (It sounded better in my head, lolz).
There’s also no better way to discover a town’s best parts than by talking to locals, so go in with an open mind!