Popular Gap year destinations & travel routes

What are some of the most popular gap year destinations? There are thousands of travel routes around the world but some are visited by many more traveller’s. When considering the places you’d like to see on a long term trip there are multiple factors you will need to think about to see if a travel route ticks all of your boxes.

Generally speaking, many people that take a gap year are young 18 to 20-somethings and heading out on a journey between university studies and the start of their career. But believe it or not, they are not the only age group going on gap years. However,

Not everyone travels in the same way or to the same places. Some people want relaxation on a budget, others care less about the financial aspect and more about how to get their adrenaline pumping.

Since going on multiple of these long trips myself I set out to research the most common travel routes and destinations for gap year traveller’s and will lay them out for you today.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you purchase something through my links I may make a small commission at no extra charge to you.


Australia

Australia has long been one of the most popular gap year destinations and it’s attracting more traveller’s than ever. Not only is this one of the quickest working holiday visas to get, it also has amazing weather! Australia is a stunning country with something for everyone and is often one of the first destinations people think of when planning a gap year.

What attracts people to Australia is the seemingly endless coastline, beautiful barrier reefs and the unique wildlife that you can only find here. Kangaroos, koalas, wombats and more, not to mention the huge amounts of sea life you can see at the reef.

It may be more expensive than many other backpacker destinations but the memories you can make here will last a lifetime. Plus, if you’re on a work visa here, the earning potential is significantly higher than in the UK. So it would be rude not to!

map of australia east coast popular gap year destinations route
Most popular route: The east coast trail

Typically speaking this route travels between Cairns and Melbourne in either direction as they are located to the north and south of the east coast.

Since you’re travelling in one continuous direction it’s extremely easy to hit all the stop off points along the way. You can cram this journey into just two weeks, just as easily as you can slow down and cover the route over a few months. Although many people opt to do a self drive by renting a car or campervan, you also have the option to use the greyhound service to meet fellow travellers.

Trip highlights

LocationDestination Highlights
Queensland– Daintree Rainforest & Cape Tribulation
– Spend time in Cairns
– The Great Barrier Reef
– The Whitsundays & Fraser Island
– Visit Brisbane & Surfers Paradise
New South Wales– Byron Bay
– Share Pebbly Beach with Kangaroos
– Visit Sydney & the city sights
– Hike in the Blue Mountains
Victoria– The Great Ocean Road & 12 Apostles
– Melbourne city living
– St Kilda Beach (expat central)

New Zealand

The official home of Lord of the Rings (you can go on a LOTR self drive here) and the backdrop to countless other movie franchises. New Zealand is one of the most popular destinations for gap year traveller’s due to the friendly residents and how small the country is. Due to its size it’s very easy to travel around the entire country during your time here.

This country has everything from stunning pacific island beaches as well as ski hills and volcanoes. Practically every landscape you can think of, New Zealand is home to. It’s an easy country to get a working holiday visa in or just travel around.

Many people will choose to rent or buy a vehicle and do a country-wide road trip. Others choose to join the kiwi experience bus journeys to meet other travellers. There is so much opportunity here and some amazing hiking trails to explore.

new zealand north and south island itinerary for gap year destinations

Most popular route: North to south (both islands)

Trip Highlights

LocationDestination Highlights
Auckland & Waikato – City life Auckland
– Visit Hobbiton in Matamata
– Glowworm cave adventures in Waitomo
Hike the pinnacles in Coromandel
– Visit Hot Water Beach & Cathedral Cove
– Enjoy the continents’ super volcano in Taupo
Bay of Plenty & Taranaki– Hike the Pouakai trail in Taranaki for sunrise
– See Volcanic activity at Wai-o-tapu, Rotorua
Walk Mt Maunganui & beaches in Tauranga
Wellington– Visit New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington
Nelson & Marlborough– Nelson Lakes & Nelson
– Abel Tasman National Park
Canterbury– Sealife & watersports in Kaikoura
– Mountains and lupins near Lake Tekapo
– Christchurch
– Akaroa wildlife tours & alpaca farm visit
West Coast– Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier
Otago & Southland– Wine tastings in Wanaka
– Adrenaline sports in Queenstown
– Hikes such as Bob’s cove, Queenstown Hill
– Visit Te Anau the gateway to Fiordland

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to some hugely popular destinations for traveller’s on a gap year. Although working holiday visas here are not possible for many countries, they’re often a highlight for traveller’s wanting to see multiple countries at once.

If you are travelling from a western country, the entire region of southeast Asia is easily affordable for low budget visitors who want to enjoy new cultures. This makes it easy to travel around the four “hub countries” without breaking the bank!

This route covers everything from bustling cities like Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok, to quiet and calm countryside like Mai Chau and Nong Khaiw. With adventure-filled activities and endless opportunities to learn about history, this route caters to every type of traveller.

south east asia common destinations to visit on a gap year

Most popular route: The banana pancake trail

The banana pancake trail covers Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in a loop, in either direction. The most cost effective way to do this route is using overland transport which you can book through 12Go.Asia.

Some people choose to extend this trip by including India, China and Myanmar (Burma) as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but the vast majority of travellers stick to the central 4.

Trip highlights

LocationDestination Highlights
Thailand– Khao San Road in Bangkok
– Koh Pha-ngan full moon party
– Koh Samui & Ko Lanta beach life
– Chiang Mai city life and ruins
Elephant sanctuary volunteering Chiang Mai
– Pai relaxing village
Laos– Slow boat down the Mekong River
– River tubing in Vang Vieng
– Hiking and village life in Nong Khiaw
Vietnam– Boat tours in HaLong Bay
– Hiking in Sa Pa & Mai Chau
– Ho Chi Minh museums and city life
– Ninh Binh & Phong Nha
Sand dunes & Fairy stream landscape Mui Ne
Cambodia– Ancient temple Angkor Wat in Siem Reap
Bamboo train in Battambang
Kayaking the green cathedral in Kampot

USA

The United States is known as the “land of the free” and there is so much variety in this vast country. It’s a place many travellers visit to take part in a road trip and there really is something for everyone here. They have huge powerhouse cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as stunning beaches along their coastlines in California and Florida.

Whether you’re here to join a road trip down the famous Route 66 or hit the musical states, there really is so much opportunity for a unique and enjoyable gap year experience. The USA has some world renowned cities and stunning hiking trails that you’d be a fool not to take an extended trip here and enjoy your gap year travelling coast to coast.

popular usa desatinations for travellers

Most popular destinations: From Coast to Coast

Trip highlights:

LocationDestination Highlights
North East & East Coast– Explore New York City
– See the USA’s capital in Washington DC
South– Party and see the beaches in Miami
– Live music in Memphis & Atlanta
– Eat cajun food in New Orleans
– Visit Dallas & Houston
Midwest– Explore Chicago
– Spend some time in the Rockies near Denver
– Explore Yellowstone National Park
West & West Coast– Pink salt lake in Utah plus the Spiral Jetty
– Surf & see Hollywood in Los Angeles
– City sights in San Francisco
– Enjoy the San Diego beaches
– Explore Yosemite

Central America

Central America was overlooked by young traveller’s for many years but has recently started being recognised again. What makes this region perfect for a gap year is how easily connected everything is and how you only really need to know one language to get by – Spanish!

This is an exciting trail that takes you through ancient Mayan civilizations, across stunning Caribbean and Pacific beaches, all while making the most of the amazing food that sweeps the region.

In this part of the world there is almost every summer landscape imaginable, from stunning hiking trails up volcanoes and through valleys. As well as lots of history from the Mayan and colonial periods throughout the ages.

This is an easy area to travel to if you are on a budget due to being much cheaper than your typical western countries like the USA and United Kingdom. You’re guaranteed an amazing time!

Top Tip: Unlike south-east Asia where each country speaks a different language, most of the central American region speaks Spanish or English.

popular destinations to visit in central america

Most popular route: The Gringo Trail

This route travels in either direction between Mexico and Panama. The route covers Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Hondorus, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, Many people also choose to include El Salvador in this trail since it’s along the way anyway!

For the more adventurous backpackers or those with a lot more time to spare, you can even continue the Gringo trail down from Panama to through South America to the mountain range of Patagonia.

The most cost effective way to complete this journey is via overground transport. This can be anything from a self drive. those famous chicken buses or small mopeds – depending on how brave you are!

Trip Highlights

LocationDestination Highlights
Mexico– Explore Mexico City
– Party in Cancun & Yucatan
– Ancient ruins of Chichen Itza
Belize– Chicken drop & crab racing in San Pedro
– Snorkelling & diving in shark & ray alley
– Caye Caulker island living
– Explore the Belize barrier reef
– Dive or fly over the blue hole
Guatemala– Historical city sights in Antigua
– Visit Hobbitenango & the valley
– Hike Acatenango, Pacaya & Fuego volcanoes
– Lake Atitlan
– Tikal Mayan ruins
Hondorus– Diving and PADI cert in Utila
– Explore the Bay Islands
Nicaragua– Surf on the Pacific Coast
– Enjoy parties & history in Granada & Leon
– Climb volcanoes Masaya, Mombacho & more
Costa Rica– Cloud forest near Monteverde
– Visit a centre for rescued sloths
– Visit Tamarindo
– Surf in Playa Jaco
Panama– Diving in Bocas del Toro

Europe

What’s amazing about Europe compared to many other continents is how many countries are located in a relatively small area. You can easily cross multiple country borders in one day here which makes it extremely easy to travel throughout the region.

If you’ve ever met people that have travelled Europe you will have heard about interrailing. It’s one of the most common ways for long term travellers to explore the entire continent with ease. Since most major cities in Europe are connected well by rail it becomes easy to tick off your European travel bucket list.

There are so many vastly different cultures and cuisines in a relatively small place (since Europe is a similar size to just the USA) this is a prime choice for those traveller’s who want a little bit of everything in one trip!

common stops on a european gap year

Most popular destinations: West to Eastern Europe

There is usually a significant price shift between the western countries of Europe and the eastern countries. This is why when people are travelling across the whole continent, they generally start in the west and gradually travel east.

This is beneficial if you’re travelling for a long time as it can be hard to stick to a budget over a longer period of time. If you start off in the more expensive places and finish where everything costs a lot less, it’ll be easier to make your money stretch (although you will still need to maintain a sensible attitude towards your spending).

Plus, if you were to start where a beer costs just 1 Euro and then finish where everything is 5-7 Euros, you’re going to be in for a shock.

Trip highlights:

LocationDestination Highlights
Spain– Explore busy city Madrid
– City and coast in Barcelona
France– Eat French cuisine
– Louvre & Moulin’ Rouge in Paris
United Kingdom– Head to London for a royal tour
Netherlands– Party in Amsterdam
Germany– Learn about history
– Enjoy lively nightlife in Berlin
Italy– Experience the wine in Italy
– Ancient ruins in Rome
Austria– Hiking in the mountains
– Shopping in Vienna
Czechia– Beer tastings
– Historical architecture in Prague
Poland– Try polish street food
– Lots of history in Warsaw
Hungary– City life in Budapest
Romania– Day trip to Bran castle
– shopping markets in Bucharest

Need help planning your own gap year?

Whenever you are looking into travelling to a new country you should always check if you need a visa to enter. When travelling on a British passport many places allow us Brits to travel visa free as a tourist if under 30 days or in some cases up to 90! If you need to check on the entry requirements you can do so on these two sites:

If you’re planning on heading out on a work permit or working holiday instead check out what countries Brits can get a work visa or different nationalities if you’re not British.

For flights or long distance transport I will always check on a price comparison site in the first instance such as Skyscanner or Kayak. Once the ideal flight path and times have been found, I try to find the exact flight on the airline’s website directly.

For accommodation I always recommend either HostelWorld for hostels and social accommodation, or Booking.com due to having the world’s largest collection of other property types.


Summary on popular gap year destinations

The beauty of a gap year is you can choose any destination that you’re interested in and make it your own dream trip. Although this list above covers just some of the most popular routes, they are not the only routes people take.

Depending on your age, interests and goals out of the trip will depend on which places and destinations are the most suited to your gap year plans.

Want to know what to expect on a gap year?

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