Important life lessons can be gained from gap year solo travel.



Life Lessons of Gap Year Solo Travel

“You want to do WHAT?” I mentally reached for something solid to hold onto as the panic punched me in the gut. This was going to be a bumpy ride.

My youngest announced, in her senior year of high school, that she was planning to take a gap year and travel. Alone.

She explained (again) that she had no idea what she wanted to study and was disillusioned with the prospect of being burdened with college’s “life crushing debt” (her words). And she reminded me (again) how she loved to travel.

So she connected the dots pretty quickly and reasoned that the year after graduation was the perfect time for her to travel—no serious job responsibilities, no classes to complete, friends who would be off pursuing their own plans. She was ready for her adventure. Me, not so much. But I promised that we would continue to talk about it. Obviously this wasn’t going to be a snap decision.

And I thought, “Give it time and see if it sticks.”

It did.


Lesson 1:  Get the Facts


Image of a hand with the word info rising out of it. Get the facts; Information is power
Get enough information to sort fact from beliefs which may be biased.

I agreed that a break from school would be a good idea. I myself had taken a year off between high school and college to work and found it to be an eye-opening, motivating experience. And it was reassuring to learn that more and more students are taking gap years and that the concept is becoming more acceptable to colleges and universities (Gap Year Association). So it wasn’t the idea of time off from education that worried terrified me, it was the thoughts of what could happen to my baby while she was exploring the world on her own. It was time to address the solo travel idea.

First we narrowed down her potential destination, because the “where” would definitely affect the “how.” Although Australia was her heart’s desire, my daughter eventually decided she would like to start her traveling experiences with a cross-country road trip. I was relieved—I wasn’t ready for her to be crossing borders just yet!

Next I needed to be convinced that her travel would be a SAFE, worthwhile experience. I needed to know that my daughter’s travel plans had a substantial purpose. That she had sound reasons for wanting to seek such an adventure. That she wasn’t, in the midst of senioritis, flaking at the prospect of making major life decisions.

My daughter voiced legitimate reasons for wanting to experience a solo adventure. She believed that travelling alone would give her the opportunity to challenge herself to become more independent and learn new life skills, which would, in turn, help her to mature and prepare for her next step in life, whatever that might be. She was quite convincing. But there was still the issue of her safety.

So we researched. We read dozens of articles and watched hours of YouTube videos about travelling the U.S. and solo travel. We took notes and made lists of tips. We talked about “what if” scenarios and trusting your gut instinct. As the months passed and we learned more about independent travel, particularly for young people, her plan grew on me. She understood the risks and came up with good solutions to the potential problems we discussed. 

And her thirst for adventure struck a chord with me. After all, what better way to spend your life than really living it?


Lesson 2: Prepare 


Image of a magnifying glass and car keys laying on a map
Preparation makes a journey easier.

When I finally agreed that she could go, (you knew it was coming) we set a timetable and the preparations began. She wanted to travel as inexpensively as possible so we concluded that she could camp/travel in our minivan. My daughter loved the idea–we just had to figure out how to make it work.

Preparing for “the next stage” after high school was a familiar feeling to me because I’d already gotten two kids off to college. This project however, was decidedly unlike revamping the dorm rooms and apartments of my older children. There was no parent orientation and I had no idea what I was doing. It required all new research.

The resulting rolling accommodations we created suited my daughter’s travel needs perfectly. I built a bed platform that converted into a “couch” and made cushions from a mattress topper. We made blackout window coverings and a curtain to divide the front of the van from the sleeping area. We invested in camping gear, including solar lights, propane canisters and a camp stove. My daughter decked out the inside of the van in true hippie gypsy fashion. A homemade tie-dyed tapestry and mini lights graced the roof while dream catchers and small wind chimes swayed from the clothing hooks. Funky pillows and a favorite quilt gave the van a homey feel. On top of it all perched her guitar which, of course, had to accompany her on her travels. 

I was truly excited for my daughter, yet equally worried, as her departure date loomed nearer. Anxiety got the better of me. I envisioned a multitude of horrible tragedies that could befall her. I questioned my sanity—who lets a 19 year old girl loose to travel the country alone?

With a lump in my throat and battling tears, I smiled and waved as she pulled out of the driveway to discover the country on her own. Watching her leave was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Fortunately for me, my daughter was easing into her trip. Her first destination was her sister’s apartment in North Carolina, a 10-hour drive she had already maneuvered on her own. After a day of visiting, she would be off to Key West, another semi-familiar place that we had recently visited as a family. She would stay with a friend for a few days before heading west, exploring the country, until she reached California. And if I played my cards right, I might be able to join her for part of the adventure.


Lesson 3: Focus on the Goal


Image of a target or goal
Focusing on the goal can help to overcome distracting thoughts.

Soon the pictures started to arrive via text and Facebook messages. I had been tracking my daughter on an app (Life 360) rather obsessively, so was aware of her whereabouts, but the pictures eased my painful awareness of the miles between us. The photos revealed fun, new places my daughter was experiencing and beautiful scenes that she was witnessing. The pictures were reassuring. She was okay. She was having great adventures.

Of course, the adventures weren’t always palm trees and sunsets. On occasion I became “Mom’s Phone Support.” Like when the driver’s windshield wiper completely fell off during the torrential downpour of a hurricane while my daughter was driving on I-95 in Florida. She had already gotten herself to a Walmart, purchased a new wiper and Rain-X. The reinstall wasn’t going well, though, and she needed a little reassurance. Ten minutes of mom time and she was back on the road with a great story to tell.

While I tracked my daughter’s journey and downloaded her photos, I reminded myself of her reasons to undertake this excursion. It helped balance the risks in my anxious mom mind. Recalling the stories she’d shared, I realized that she was, in fact, obtaining her goals. During her trip my daughter had to rely on and develop her own resourcefulness. She became more comfortable interacting with strangers. And she has learned to recognize when she just needs to talk to someone or ask for help instead of trying to do it all herself—a lesson I still struggle to master myself.


Lesson 4: Adjust Accordingly


Image of a bi-plane contrails creating a u-turn against a clear blue sky.
Even when everything seems clear, sudden events can change your course.

And then my daughter’s plans took a sudden U-turn. She had to cut her trip short only halfway across the country. But you know what? She dealt with the shocking realization that life had thrown her a curve decisively, with practicality and with grace. She accepted that when plans change you just have to adjust and initiate plan B.

And THAT has been the best lesson from my daughter’s gap year travel.



Interested in our minivan to campervan conversion? Read Part One, Planning and Building the Bed and Part Two, Everything But the Bed.

Has your son or daughter been talking about a gap year or travelling solo? Are you on board with their plans? Comment below–I’d love to hear about it!

Gap Year Solo Travel Teaches Life Lessons

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