Say Wha?! Is There Really Such a Thing as a Free Gap Year?

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Taking a year to travel the world, invest in yourself, learn some new skills, have incredible adventures (some of the-kind-you-tell-your-parents variety, others of the keep-between-your-friends variety), and passport stamps to boot? Hell yeah! Who WOULDN’T want to double their world travels as a meaningful learning opportunity, or the chance to get to know yourself better. It’s the “perfect combo of globetrotting and enlightenment,” and positively impacts your career and college path to boot.

girl snapping photo in rainy weather

Gap year adventures are out there, and their price tags don’t have to be in the thousands!

Oh, there’s just one tiny thing. They can be hella expensive. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars for top-shelf programs. And while we firmly believe the experience pays for itself ten fold and generously outweighs the cost, the cost is still there, being a big ol’ hurdle, getting in the way of your plans.

Until now.

What if we told you you could do a FREE gap year? What if there were organizations out there, ones that so believe in the transformative power of travel, that they’re willing to foot the bill for your grand international escapades?

Can you actually find free gap year programs?

Alright homie, here’s the situation. Unless you get a lucky break and come across a sweet gap year deal or discount (like the one mentioned above!), you’re probably going to have a hard time coordinating a free gap year. Other unlikely (but certainly useful ways) to fund your gap year without paying a dime include getting your family to pay for it, growing a money tree, or finding buried treasure.

There are a couple tried-and-true strategies to lessen the overall costs and design an affordable gap year. Programs might range in their prices, but with the right combination of search tenacity, taking advantage of all of your avenues to funding, some bravado, and a degree of reliance on the goodness of humanity (because trust us, you’re not going to find any reliable looking website with free gap year programs), you might need to contact us to write a brand new article on how you were able to rock a free gap year.

[Download your free copy of our gap year before college ebook!]

kids with painted hands

You can stop going to school, but you should never stop learning. Discover the world on your gap year!

Are free gap year programs trustworthy?

This is a tougher question to answer and parse out as you do your gap year program research. When organizations or enterprises don’t charge a fee, you might feel a red flag coming on. Is it safe? Is it legit? Is it a real, actual person talking to me?

On the other side of the coin, you shouldn’t equate a well-polished website and support system on the ground as being worth a $20,000 price tag. Higher program costs don’t necessarily indicate higher quality programming or better overall experiences.

So, what are you to do, this young person trying to coordinate a gap year from the comfort of home without trying to go broke for life in the process?

Get picky and ask LOTS. OF. QUESTIONS.

Don’t be afraid to grill potential host organizations, NGOs, hostels, etc. about the type of experience you will have while you’re there. If possible, try to speak to past participants on the program directly—ideally on the phone or a Skype call. You could even be so bold as to ask why they are allowing you to come and participate in their project without paying a fee. 

Trust your gut.

If something feels fishy or a bit off, follow that feeling. It’s better to forego a free experience that gives you the heeby jeebies, even if that means paying a little extra for one that instills more confidence in you.

Do some sleuthing.

One tip is to always search “<name> + reviews” or “<name> + experiences” before pulling the trigger and saying yes to an experience that is continents away. Don’t just leave your due diligence to the web though, either. Ask friends and family if they know others who are located in these countries. Not only might this build you a physical support network while you’re abroad, but it might also give you inside information, straight from the horse’s mouth, about any given organization or company. 

aerial view of windy path

There are lots of paths to a free gap year—find yours and run with it.

Ask around your network for connections abroad.

If your dad has a work colleague that used to live in Dresden, Germany or your friend’s mom did the Peace Corps in Guilin, China, they might have some current contacts in foreign places that can help set you up with a comfortable life abroad. Perhaps they know specific companies or businesses that are hiring or they’ll let you stay at theirs’ free of charge.

Ask around and make your plans known. Any connection might lead to something great—and something cheap. While this tactic does forego a formal gap year program (which we LOVE), it is one way to accomplish your goal of taking a free gap year.

On the flipside—if you are paying for your gap year, learn where that money goes.

As we mentioned before, gap year programs aren’t a bottle of wine. You don’t need the most expensive, aged option on the menu to have a successful overall experience. Especially when you start to look into where all that money goes when you pay for program fees.

Organizations should be happy to tell you—sometimes in vague terms, others in more concrete terms—where their money is going and why. Does it support the international projects? Fund the staff on-the-ground facilitating the program? Contribute to overhead?

It’s probably some combination of the above, but if you have a better understanding of where your funds are being distributed, maybe you’ll feel more motivated to achieve your free gap year status through fundraising or scholarship applications.

Strategies for a free gap year

Apply for gap year scholarships

You know there are scholarships to go to college, scholarships to help you volunteer, or maybe even scholarships to help you study abroad, but did you know you can also find gap year scholarships, too? These handy-dandy awards can cut a serious chunk of change from your overall costs. These gap year grants typically range from $200 to upwards of a few thousand.

Don’t just limit yourself to gap year scholarships, either. There are scholarships out there to match with your planned travel activities. Yup, you can find volunteer abroad scholarships, study abroad scholarships, even intern abroad scholarships. So as you look to plan your gap year, consider adding specific activities to your itinerary that will up your chances of receiving financial aid from scholarships. 

[Enroute Consulting Launches Gap Year Student Activist Scholarship]

There are also TRAVEL SCHOLARSHIPS out there for anyone who is going to rough it with the variety package on their gap year. If you’re planning on visiting multiple places / filling up your passport with stamps OR hope to partake in a lot of different projects while on your gap year, these jack-and-jill-of-all-travel-trades scholarships are absolutely worth pursuing. Anything to get you one step closer to a free gap year, right!?

man carrying basket of flowers in Guatemala

Don’t be TOO stingy on your gap year. Make room in the budget for one-off treats, like fresh flowers or ice cream.

Consider work exchanges

Work exchanges are the crème de la crème of long-term, sustainable travel (the kind that doesn’t resign you to a life of busking on the street). With these types of gap year programs, you are given room and board in exchange for a mutually-agreed upon amount of work.

You can often find gap year work exchange programs on farms or other projects that require more manual labor (like harvesting grapes for Italy’s wine season or pineapples in Hawaii). You can also generally find these types of arrangements at hostels or other places that welcome frequent travelers. Sure, you’ll have to do the dishes—and do tons of laundry (seriously, the sheets never end…)—but you’ll also move your gap year expenses closer to the “free” mark, too.

Barter your skills

Do you have a useful skill that would come in handy to other individuals? Go wild and barter! Swap your carpentry, massage, cooking, English language etc. skills for a place to stay and a bite to eat. You never know who might say “Yes” to your enticing offer.

Couchsurf the daylights out of this planet

Anyone on a quest for budget travel or a free gap year has had to have heard of couchsurfing, the international network that connects travelers of a mutual philosophy to other travelers’ empty beds, couches, air mattresses, etc. Get yourself verified and then start doing your outreach! It takes a bit of work to coordinate these living arrangements, and you don’t usually hear back from 90% of the people you message, but sometimes, something right connects and you’re giving a free space to live short-term, no strings attached.


Trying to crowdsource your random idea on Kickstarter might not have worked last fall (c’mon, it wasn’t that clever anyway…), but you’ll be happy to know that you can employ similar strategies to get free money for your travels. Simply create an online campaign on websites like FundMyTravel or GoFundMe, upload your images, write the words that will drive readers to click the “donate” button, and then pass your beautiful link around to family and friends.

You never know who will be moved by your gap year goals and want to contribute to your travels. That ‘s why we encourage all gappers to 1) actually have goals and 2) align those with how you’re going to grow, change, and impact future communities because of it. People love when you paint a bigger picture.

range rover in snow

Fill your gap year itinerary with MUST HAVE experiences, then budget well in advance for them. Sunset 4-wheel drive across Iceland? YASSSS.

A free gap year? Hard to come by, but certainly not impossible

We’re still cranking out tons of new content for gappers here at GoAbroad, but we have our sights set on even more information about affordable gap year ideas—from lists of cheap gap year programs, to comprehensive tools and questions you can ask to have confidence in doing a gap year on your own (without getting scammed). Stay tuned for even more details on lessing your gap year cost and maybe, just maybe, finding that elusive free gap year.

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