"The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas Adventures" by Lonely Planet, $21.99

"The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas Adventures" by Lonely Planet, $21.99

Thinking of taking some time away from the books before heading into college? Robin Barton, editor of Lonely Planet’s “The Big Trip,” says you’re not alone.

“People are seeing gap years not as an excuse to party, but as a part of personal growth,” Barton says. “You can volunteer, you can teach, you can do all sorts of things. You can simply travel and work if that’s what you want to do.”

The evidence is there. Ninety-seven percent of gap year-goers said it helped them become more mature, and 93 percent said it helped them improve their communication skills. Indeed, a 2014 study at Middlebury College showed that students who took a gap year actually did better than their predicted academic performance during all four years of college.

The one question: what to do with all that time off? That’s where “The Big Trip” comes in, with itineraries and ideas for a gap year anywhere in the world. We’ve outlined some of these below, so you’ll know exactly where to go and what to do.

Take a course

Want to immerse yourself in a country and to meet people? Taking a language or cultural course is an easy way to do so without shouldering a full-time class load. 

“It can be an enjoyable way of experiencing a foreign country, because you'll be socializing with fellow students,” says Barton. “It won't all be study. You'll find time to explore.”

Try Cactus Language, which offers “language holidays,” like Language and Gastronomy in Italy,
or OISE Intensive Language Schools, which feature homestays in Heidelberg, Madrid and Paris.

Another program, Art History Abroad, offers gap year trips to Italy to study European art. Or you can just wing it: land in any country and you’ll likely discover classes through local listings upon arrival.

Go for the jugular

One way to get the adrenaline rush you’ve been missing during your study sessions in the library is an adventure trip. From National Park-hopping, to surfing in Indonesia, the options are endless — check out Great Outdoors Research Page for more tips and ideas.

Barton also encourages travelers to consider the “festival circuit,” and he's not just talking Carnaval. Festivals — from the religious Mevlâna Festival in Turkey to Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat Festival — offer a chance to “mix it up,” he says, and give travelers a deeper glimpse into a culture. But know that finding accommodations during festivities can be tough (and expensive). 

“Book as far ahead as possible, before your options have dwindled,” advises Barton. “You can also save money by sharing rides and other expenses."

Invest time in others

If you're scared to go it totally alone, try an organized volunteer program. United Planet, for example, has opportunities in everything from public health to farm work in 32 countries, giving travelers hands-on experience but also structure.

You can also volunteer with an NGO, charity or through a sending agency. These require a longer commitment and offer a more immersive volunteer experience — though you may receive less support.

No matter what type of volunteering you choose, look for a program with “transparent financial structures and minimal administration costs,” says “The Big Trip” authors. Start with NGOs and tourist groups with long track records.

Go with the flow

Still having trouble committing? That’s OK. The beauty of the gap year is that you have the freedom to explore it all.

“Part of the pleasure of the gap year is mixing it up a bit and doing different things. You can go to Europe for two months and save money to spend the next three months on a beach in Thailand,” Barton says.

Rather stick around?

Taking a gap year doesn’t necessarily mean you have to travel the world either. You can volunteer in your own community, find a job or internship in another state, or road trip across the country.

“There’s such diversity in a single country that you can certainly have a varied experience right on your doorstep,” Barton says.