By Andrew Tipp
It’s not difficult to find news stories of horrible things happening to young people on their gap years.
Whether it’s a bus crash, a robbery or even a murder, the mid-market tabloids splash multi-page spreads full of emotive and frightening reports when something bad happens to a young Brit abroad.
It’s usually an attractive white 19-year-old middle class girl that’s been attacked in India, or a group of friendly 18-year-old boys that have died in a road accident in Thailand.
The message is usually implicit from the reporting: this could happen to your child. Imagine this happening to your child.
Imagining the worst
It’s a horrible thing for a parent to think about, and instinctively it makes some parents think of ripping up their child’s plane tickets, cancelling their volunteering placement and refusing to let them head off on their gap year.
It’s an understandable reaction. Natural, even. Why let your child go off travelling somewhere dangerous when they could be safe and sound at home?
But let’s think about this for a bit. Just how dangerous is a gap year? How many of these reports are down to bad luck? Or even foolishness?
The truth is that gap years are relatively safe, worthwhile and fun. The chances of anything bad happening to your child on their dream backpacking trip or volunteering placement is incredibly small.
Putting it into perspective
Every year an estimated 200,000 British young people take a gap year of some kind. Of that number some will run into problems. It’s inevitable. But most of the problems are things that could happen anywhere.
It’s definitely not worth you or your child being put off the adventure of a lifetime because of some sensational news reports that highlight the few occasions when something bad happens on a gap year.
The right approach for your son or daughter is to seize the chance at a travel experience, take precautions, use common sense and establish an understanding of how you will stay in touch so they can let you know they’re safe and sound.
There are certain things your child can do before their trip to reduce and manage the risk of anything negative happening to them.
There should be plenty of research before the trip. Make sure your child knows where they’re going, who (if anyone) will be meeting them at airports and bus stations, how to get between places, what hostels they will be sleeping in and who will be their contact locally (if they’re doing a volunteering placement).
Make sure your son or daughter knows some of the local language for where they’re going – especially how to ask for help in different situations. They should know who to contact if they get into trouble, and how to get in touch with the regional UK embassy.
While planning and before travelling, your family should consult the travel advice from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Oh, and make sure your child buys adequate travel insurance – there are plenty of perfectly avoidable horror stories every year involving parents paying thousands so their child could be flown home after breaking a leg trekking in the wilderness without insurance.
The easiest way for your child to avoid crime and danger abroad is simply by not making themselves an easy target.
Tourists wearing expensive clothes and dangling pricey cameras around their necks are calling out for someone to rob them; these things are like a sign that flashes in neon lights: “I have money, come and take it if you can.”
This isn’t too much of an issue for independent gap year travellers, as most of them genuinely have little money – either in the bank or on them. Even so, it would be a good idea for your child to segment their money – storing some of it in wallets/purses, some in bags, socks, hostel safes, etc.
Behaviour can make gappers as much of a target. What you do is as important as what you wear. Be sure your child knows not look too much like an innocent, naive and vulnerable fish out of water. Being able to ask for directions confidently and not looking lost with a huge map is helpful.
Locks for backpacks is an option to stay safe, but obviously it’s a good idea not to take anything that’s worth stealing in the first place. In terms of personal safety, rape alarms and ‘defence’ spray cans are good purchases – although be careful with the latter as in some places this is considered a weapon.
Control and intuition
Although drinking and having fun is part of the gap year experience, staying in control is important. Getting really drunk makes young people abroad vulnerable, so be sure to make them agree to staying with groups and friends if they’re heading out drinking.
Just as you wouldn’t wander into the wrong area of Manchester or Birmingham, it’s crucial your child avoids the dangerous areas of any city, but especially high-crime urban sprawls like Johannesburg or Bogata.
Likewise, it’s obviously no safer for your son or daughter to go home alone with any strangers on an evening of romance.
Staying in contact
Maintaining communication between parent and child is important during a gap year. It’s easy for parents to worry if their son or daughter drops out of contact.
It might be a good idea to agree on a rough contact schedule. Nothing too rigid, but maybe a clear but informal understanding that they will try and check in weekly or fortnightly by email, and let you know if they’re going on a trip to, say, a rainforest and will be out of contact for a while. You might also want them to let you know what hostels they’re staying in.
If your child plans to be very active online during their gap year, this could be an issue; if they blog and tweet and facebook every other day you might also worry if they suddenly stop. It might be a good idea to agree that they let you know if they’re going to cease updating their digital profiles for a while.
Ultimately, there’s no way of guaranteeing safety abroad. There’s no way of eliminating risk completely. Bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time can happen to anyone, anywhere.
But if you have frank and thorough discussions about taking precautions, using common sense and staying in touch there should be nothing to worry about.
Read more about gap year foreign travel advice:https://www.gov.uk/gap-year-foreign-travel-advice
Learn more about volunteering abroad placements:http://www.originalvolunteers.co.uk/
Visit a gap year advice and community site: http://www.gapyear.com/
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He’s spent more than a year backpacking and volunteering abroad, and used to work as a site editor for travel advice and community website gapyear.com.