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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Update and Travel Resources

Since coming home from my adventures in June, I have struggled to accept my life at home as reality. After trying to apply to University in both Naples and Malta, I was unsuccessful (due to visa issues and arbitrary requirements for foreign students), and forced to face another year without school. Although at first I was crushed and felt as though I had come right back to the place where I was when my official gap year first started, I have since clawed my way out of the dark cave of depression and am now thriving and extremely happy. I have gone back to work at the Hangar Pub and Grill, this time as a server, and am happy to be reunited with many of my friends there. In addition to work, I am training (very slowly due to recurring health problems) for a half marathon, auditing a Dostoyevsky class at Smith College, and am working on a book about my gap year. As for the rest of this year, it looks like I will be headed to Cambodia in January to work in a hostel, then to Malta, then to walk the Via Francigena in Italy before returning to Naples to try again to apply to their school of social work. As I have learned, however, plans are always tentative and life leads us in the direction we need to go despite where we think we should be. The goal of my time at home is to finish a first draft of my gap year book which will be aimed at young people as they reach the last years of high school and start to think about college and the future. To accompany the book, I have collected a document of resources I have used to travel and take my gap year and ones I have heard about through the grapevine of young travelers, and would like to share that here to assist any of you who are considering a gap year or cheap travel in the near future. Please feel free to contact me with questions or advice!

For studying abroad, guided gap years, and working abroad:

CIEE (ciee.org): A non-profit NGO dedicated to connecting Americans with opportunities abroad. Through CIEE you can get internships, placements in dozens of countries for high school and college students studying abroad, work exchanges, volunteer opportunities, and gap year programs. CIEE is one of the leading study abroad programs and is well established and organized.

My experience: When I was 16 I studied abroad with CIEE in Italy and it was that experience that awakened my love for travel and started me on the path to adventure that I have been on ever since. I chose to study abroad for one semester (although there are also opportunities to study abroad for the whole year) and after a written application and phone interview, was accepted to the program. After my acceptance I had to go through a training session, was given a placement with a host family, and had a local coordinator who met with me several times during my stay and helped me through the adjustment period and any problems with my host parents. I loved that I was the only American student in my placement city, which meant that I learned the language very quickly, and I felt that I was fully supported throughout the whole experience. There were also opportunities for group travel with other CIEE students placed in Italy, although I did not take the opportunity.

My rating: 9 out of 10 (the only downside was the cost)

Cost: 9 out of 10 (although some scholarships are available)

Best for: Study abroad in high school when you are not experienced enough to travel completely on your own. This program gives you the opportunity to live an authentic life abroad, but with a full support system and host family situation.

For volunteering abroad:

IVHQ (volunteerhq.org): IVHQ is the most widely trusted, most affordable, and provider of the most options of all volunteer abroad organizations. They have 35+ destinations and 150+ projects to fit any volunteer’s interests.

My experience: I volunteered abroad for two weeks in Naples, Italy in March of 2017 and had a wonderful experience. The program was pretty new in Naples, so there were aspects of it that were very disorganized, but in general it was well run. I chose a project working in afterschool care with children in the ghetto of Naples. Although I thought that volunteers would need to speak Italian and be there for at least a month to make a real impact on these children, I thought the volunteer project was a good one. By providing these kids who lead provincial lives with stories of life abroad and examples of young people traveling and learning about new cultures, it expands the world view of these youngsters. There were also volunteer placements working in agriculture, with refugees, teaching kids english, and with environmental protection, although my sense was that the afterschool program was the best organized. You pay a fair amount for an IVHQ experience, but that includes comfortable housing, three meals a day five days a week, travelers insurance, and an on site pickup. IVHQ allows you to volunteer and not have to worry about details. I met several travelers overseas who had done multiple IVHQ programs that had led to connections in the countries where they had volunteered.

My rating: 8 out of 10 (A great experience largely due to the fact that we were given a lot of independence and because I met incredible people who were my fellow volunteers, but I also think that volunteer abroad organizations in general are expensive and don’t actually do any real good. They are the wealthy white person’s experience that makes them feel good but doesn’t save the world.)

Cost: 7 out of 10 (The programs vary greatly in price, but are generally affordable. However, you could travel much more cheaply without paying for a volunteer experience. Some of the program fee goes to the local volunteer organization which you can also choose to donate to.)

Operation Groundswell (operationgroundswell.com): Operation Groundswell was started by a group of young backpackers who were dissatisfied with other volunteer abroad options and how they claimed to “save the world.” It is fairly new to the scene and not super popular yet, but the mission of the organization is to give volunteers and authentic, sometimes gritty and dirty, experience partnering with grassroots organizations in the countries themselves. Volunteers often backpack and trek to their destinations or take local transport, stay with host families, and work with organizations based in the countries that take local volunteers as well as foreigners.

My experience: Although I did not end up pursuing a volunteer experience with Operation Groundswell (due to cost), I was very impressed with their “Backpactivist Manifesto”and the different projects they had around the world. I would recommend Operation Groundswell to travelers with some experience who are looking to have enriching, interesting volunteer experiences abroad but who will not miss the comfort of alternative volunteer programs.

My rating: 9 out of 10

Cost: 8 out of 10 (Some programs are more affordable than others. Considering the experience you get for the money its a good deal, but flights are not included and it is more expensive than traveling without an organization. There are no scholarships offered, but there is a financial advisor who will help you raise the money)

For work exchanges abroad:

Worldpackers (worldpackers.com): For a one time fee of $50, Worldpackers gives you access to hundreds of work, volunteer, and farming placements all over the world. The majority of their placements are in South America, but they also have a large number of hosts from Asia and Europe, and some from Africa and Oceania. Worldpackers is fairly new, but provides support in dealing with hosts and pressures hosts to respond within 48 hours. Worldpackers is easy to understand, with graphics showing what services you must provide and what is provided to you in return. Some placements also show an estimate of how much you should budget weekly. Usually you provide an average of 20 hours per week of hostel work (reception, cleaning, cooking, bartending) in exchange for free lodging, some meals, and often discounts on tours or bars.

My experience: After a fair amount of research, I decided to pay the fee to join Worldpackers and am so glad I did! I instantly applied to dozens of interesting hostel jobs (many of which had detailed reviews from travelers who had worked there) and received responses in only a few hours, thanks to Worldpacker’s policy of replies in 48 hours or the offer is dropped. Other than the one time fee there are no other costs, and the website provides security and support before and during your stay. I have officially signed up to work in a hostel in Cambodia, and one in Malta, and will provide more information after those experiences.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Cost: 2 out of 10

Workaway (www.workaway.info): This is the most popular site for young people seeking work exchanges. For a one time fee of $29 you have access to hundreds of work, volunteer, and farming opportunities abroad. This is pretty much identical to Worldpackers, but has been around longer. I didn’t choose it because I thought the options were overwhelming, but I know many people who have successfully used Workaway and had great experiences.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Cost: 2 out of 10

Hostel Jobs (hosteljobs.net): Similar to Worldpackers and Workaway, Hostel Jobs connects you with hostels abroad looking for help. However, it is not updated as often as the two above sites and does not provide all of the support and assistance of the sites mentioned above. Good if you are looking for hostel work only. It also allows you to post a profile and have hostels seek you out, which puts the focus more on the hostels rather than the workers.

My rating: 7 out of 10

Cost: 2 out of 10

HelpX (helpx.net): Help X’s website has not been updated, but it provides connections with farms, ranches, lodges, hotels, B&Bs, hostels, and sailing boats looking for workers. Help X provides a free or a premier membership (for 20 euros for 2 years) that allows workers to create a profile and browse host profiles. This site is less modernized than the others, but provides a wider range of experiences.

My rating: 8 out of 10

Cost: 2 out of 10

WWOOF (wwoof.net): WWOOF is the go to site for connections to farming work exchanges abroad. This is the least glamorous of work exchanges, and requires that you become a member of your national WWOOF organization. I talked to several WWOOFers abroad and their experiences ranged greatly from the best experience of their life to slaving away on a farm and living in a cold barn sleeping on a stack of hay. WWOOF is a well organized program with tons of destinations, so if you are looking for farming, gardening, and eco work, this is the site for you.

My rating: 8 out of 10

Cost: 2 out of 10

Places to stay abroad:

Hostelworld (hostelworld.com): This is the best site for connecting you with hostels to stay in around the world. It also includes some cheap hotels and has an extensive rating system with information on how far each hostel is from the center of town and the nearest train station.

My experience: I used hostelworld to find all of my accommodations abroad. It is better to book in advance, because often hostels are overbooked and can only provide private rooms for higher prices if you leave your booking to the last minute. I stayed in both shared female dorms and shared mixed dorms and never had a problem or felt unsafe. Hostels range in cleanliness.

My rating: 8 out of 10

Cost rating: 5 out of 10 (Average of $15/night for a bed in a shared dormitory.)

Airbnb (airbnb.com): Airbnb is one of the best ways to travel cheaply and comfortably. Airbnb has users all over the world who rent out either a room in their apartment or their entire apartment. This is the best way to book accommodations for a long period of time, if you’re craving your own private space, or if you are traveling in a group. If you find an apartment with a group of people that has multiple beds, you can end up staying in a nice place for the cost of a hostel and having your own kitchen and bathrooms. Be warned that since Airbnbs are often people’s homes they rent out when they are away, there are often last minute cancellations.

My experience: I mostly used Airbnb the summer after I graduated high school when I traveled with a group of 8 of my closest friends. We found great apartments and houses in interesting cities for around $30/night per person. I also rented a room in New York city using Airbnb which was a different experience, and found an apartment to live in by myself for a few days in Forli, Italy. This was slightly more expensive than a hotel or hostel would have been, but it provided me with relaxation and privacy and I saved money by cooking for myself.

My rating: 9 out of 10

Cost rating: 6 out of 10

VRBO (vrbo.com): This was the predecessor to Airbnb with a slightly different idea behind it. Instead of people renting out their living spaces when they are away for a weekend, VRBO connects travelers with home owners who rent out their vacation homes. Often many of the same apartments and houses can be found on both VRBO and Airbnb.

My experience: I used VRBO a couple of times on my own and with my friends and family on travels. Again, this is better when you have a group of people and want to rent an affordable apartment for a long period of time. These homes are often more expensive but also very well maintained and sometimes come with a cleaning service. Unlike Airbnb, where the owner’s things are kept in the apartment, VRBO provides empty apartments and houses that feel more like a guest house.

My rating: 6 out of 10

Cost rating: 8 out of 10

Travel apps and websites:

Rome2Rio (rome2rio.com): Rome2Rio was my greatest assistant on my travels. It allows you to plug in your origin and destination and gives you detailed data on the ways of getting from point A to point B with their range of costs. When you click on the travel details, it provides links to the websites to book tickets and also provides you with lodging and food recommendations in your destination.

My experience: Using this tool I was able to budget my travels and play with different routes around the world. The cost estimates are extremely accurate, and they list many options as to the cheapest places to fly to or from, how long the journey may be, and if there is any walking involved.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Cost rating: 0 out of 10

Trainline EU (application on Apple store): The trainline EU app allows you to search for and purchase train tickets all over Europe.

My experience: After discovering this app on my Eurotrip with friends the summer after graduating from high school, I have used it in all my European travels. This app is convenient, allowing you to buy train tickets at the last minute. You simply enter the details on the passenger(s), search your destination from your origin, choose a time, and you find a list of every train on that route that day. Rather than looking through the websites of multiple train companies, Trainline EU has it all in one place and allows you to book tickets and receive PDFs of them all in the app for a low cost. It also allows you to choose which class you would like to travel in.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Cost rating: 1 out of 10

Splitwise (on the Apple app store): Splitwise is a free app that allows you to enter costs when traveling and provides a final tally of how much each person is owed.

My experience: I used Splitwise when traveling with friends and it eliminated the hassle of figuring out who was paying for what and how much was owed each person. If you pay for a meal, for example, you simply enter in the app how much the meal cost and how much each person owes you, and then each person who has the app and is connected to you sees what the balance is. Then, if one of your friends pays for the next meal and charges you for your share, that is deducted off of what they owe you for the meal you covered. You can continue to do this with every expense until your trip is over, and you can settle your debts based on what the app says. This is extremely useful when abroad with a group!

My rating: 10 out of 10

Cost rating: 0 out of 10

Those are my recommendations to those of you who are craving adventure but don’t know where to start. There is lots more where all this came from and lots of advice I have accumulated from years of experience and lots of mistakes. Please contact me for more info or with any questions, and happy travels!

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