Helen, seasoned traveler and EF Gap Year alum, offers her advice on how to live in the moment while traveling abroad—advice that she practiced personally while exploring Rome and Thailand.
How would you describe your EF Gap Year experience in three words?
"Dreamy, jam-packed, and inspiring."
What packing tips do you have for prospective travelers?
"Use packing cubes! Invest in good ones, too, so they don’t split open–and don’t overpack! Compile a capsule wardrobe."
When was a time you impressed yourself on your adventures?
“Through solo traveling, I learned that I needed to take time for myself and actually discovered that I almost prefer traveling alone! You can do anything you want at your own pace when traveling solo; where it takes confidence is when you want to meet other travelers and locals. I noticed that I was comfortable alone, but going outside of my comfort zone and starting conversations with folks was difficult.”
What song takes you back to your travels abroad?
“Walls, by The Lumineers.”
What advice would you give yourself prior to embarking on your gap year?
“Live in the moment. Things happen, drama doesn't matter–be there for the experience and be above it all. Take so many pictures and journal every day, starting day one. Try to remember everything, stay in touch with all your friends from home, and remember that travel is sometimes frustrating. You'll figure it out. Don’t hesitate to spend money on experiences, you’ll regret it if you don’t, and don't buy so much clothing! Don't bring so much clothing, either, or stuff from home. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You'll be fine! You'll be great!”
What was the significance of the more challenging or difficult moments of your journey?
“The challenging moments of my gap year turned into the best stories that I still tell today. When I solved problems, unexpected things happened; sometimes the unexpected was better than the expected, and sometimes it was just a learning experience.”
What unexpected scenarios lead to more opportunities for adventure and/or problem-solving?
“I was flying back to Rome from Sardinia solo one Sunday around 9:00pm; the flight was about to touch down when it suddenly changed direction and leaped back up in the sky. The announcer came on the speaker and I couldn’t understand what she was saying– all I understood was Napoli."
I got up to ask the attendant to tell me the announcement in English and she informed me we had been redirected to Naples; that was certainly a scary thing to hear as an 18-year-old English speaker traveling alone who had school at nine the next morning!
We touched down in Naples about an hour later and my portable phone charger began to die. As the plane was just sitting on the tarmac and there were minimal announcements, I began to wonder if we were ever going to be able to disembark as my phone battery dwindled.
After sitting there for two hours, the plane started moving and we flew back to Rome, arriving around 2:00am. We were allowed to get off the plane and I thought I was in the home stretch of my long night, until I entered the taxi queue and quickly realized that the line was wrapped around the side of the building.
I waited there for two hours, chatting with some of the folks around me to pass the time: they were from all around the world and we bonded over the frustrating situation we were stuck in. I finally reached the front of the queue and, with a doomed feeling, realized I didn’t have any cash on me. I knew taxis in Italy rarely took cards, which I confirmed with the driver when I hesitantly walked up to ask. At that moment, I had no idea if I would ever get home.
Suddenly, the woman who had been behind me in line approached me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I got it.’ She got in the taxi with me and told the driver to just drop me off on the way. I was stunned.
The drive from the airport to my apartment was about an hour, and I expected the trip to cost around 80 Euros; I tried to decline her offer, but she insisted. I told her I could pay her back but she refused. As we sat in the back of the taxi on the way to the city, we chatted and I asked her about what she was doing in Rome. She told me, ‘I’m actually the Spanish UN Ambassador to Italy.’ My jaw dropped and I sat there in shock!
We reached my apartment and parted ways, and I knew that this would be a story I would tell forever.”
How did your EF Gap Year experience prepare you for college? For your future?
“Before my gap year, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college. One day during my internship module in Milan, one of the EF staff was in town so we went to grab a coffee and check-in. We talked about my career goals and I had a moment of clarity: I said, “Well you get to travel and help people for work, what did you study in college?” And she said Global Studies, which is now my major at UNC. I know that in my career, I want the opportunity to travel all around the world and work with people.”
Discover your own best-year-yet with an EF Gap Year, Semester, or Short-Term program today!