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How to survive a gap year

Harriet Forster (right) spent her gap year working at a girls' boarding school in Surrey. © How to survive a gap year Harriet Forster (right) spent her gap year working at a girls' boarding school in Surrey.

Of the 220,000 young Australians offered a university place last year, almost one quarter deferred their study. Many of these will head overseas for their gap year.

I'm now safely ensconced back home in Sydney with my family, and can reflect on my 12-month gap year in Britain. I spent 2013 at a girls' boarding and day school in Surrey, The Royal School. Located about 74 kilometres from London, thankfully the nearby town of Haslemere has a major train station, meaning the city was less than an hour away.

The school provided me with a modest income (about £350 [$640] a month – a lot less than my fellow gappers); board and lodgings - and the realisation that I never ever wanted to work with children again. Then again, during my year away, I travelled to 19 countries in the holiday breaks, including France and Spain (both three times); Italy; Portugal; Germany; Austria; Switzerland and Malta.

As much as I was thrilled (and somewhat amazed) to learn I had been offered a place in Law and Media studies at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, I was more excited about heading off on my big fat gap year. A 2012 report on students taking a gap year released by the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER) found 24 per cent of young Australians also took a gap year in the 2009-10 calendar year - an increase from 10 per cent on 1999-2000 figures.

Given so many Australians are embracing the trend, here are my top tips for the next wave of temporary migrants bound for Britain.

1. Clear for takeoff

When I flew out of an Australian summer this time last year, I was totally unprepared for the wet, cold, snow and slush in which I would land 24 hours later. My worn-out Converse trainers with a hole in the sole were woefully inadequate. Aircraft weight limits are always a consideration for gappies - but it's worth investing in at least one warm outfit, including jacket and (I can't believe I'm writing this) semi-sensible shoes. That way you won't freeze before you're able to find an ATM and hit all the shops I now miss dearly – Topshop, Urban Outfitters, River Island and Zara.

2. Ten-hour days

Unless you're lucky, be prepared to work long and relatively lowly paid hours for the unskilled labour you provide. I was met at Heathrow by one of the school minibus drivers. (I'd emailed the school months before with flight details and they organised someone to pick me up.) When we arrived, I was shocked by how isolated the school was, situated at the top of a hill surrounded by woodlands. My room in the sixth form boarding house was a reasonable size (with two single beds); I shared a small living area and bathroom with another gappy. Our set-up was basic but adequate – and we soon learnt we weren't going to be spending much time there … the next day we were sorting the boarders' laundry and making their beds. The following day was even worse - I worked 8am to 6pm in the junior school's nursery and afterschool care. Ten-hour days soon became a norm. Many times over, I was to draw on the wise words of the school bus driver: “The more you put into the job, the more you get out of it."

3. Posh pounds

I was paid about £350 a month - and I received a £500 bonus when I left the Royal School. Some of my friends, such as two girls working at nearby St Catherine's, earned £500 a month, but didn't get a bonus on departure. A lot of gappies apply to schools their elder siblings worked at. It's also worth asking around to get a sense of the various payment structures of each school. The general rule of thumb is the closer to London the school is, the better the pay - and the more posh the school will be.

4. Go-to technology

My friends and I supported each other as much as possible in those first few months by texting and Skyping, constantly asking questions about each other's schools, some with situations worse than the others'. Three weeks into work, after figuring out the trains, I met a few of my girlfriends in Guildford (the most accessible town for all of us). It was exhilarating to be reunited and to explore and shop in a foreign place. As soon as you arrive, buy a local sim card from O2, Orange, Vodafone or another provider. I took an old iPhone and my Mac laptop from home. I'd advise gappies to take an iPhone as you can message other iPhones for free and use FaceTime for video calls. We also used the apps Viber and Whatsapp.

5. The Australian bubble

It's very easy to travel and socialise exclusively with your own group or other Aussies you meet in the UK. Make an effort to get to know the “other” people you're travelling and working with. I keep in weekly contact with the British girls I worked with via Facebook and Instagram, while one of my childhood friends also working in the UK ended up dating a South African boy we met in Ireland. He now plans to come and study in Sydney.

6. Cut-price travel

The gap year is all about the travel. Get one-third off all UK rail travel with a student travel card - £28 at any British train station (you'll need a passport photo). An International Student Card (from STA Travel in Australia) gets you a student discount on trains and buses all over Europe and up to 20 per cent off at many fashion chain stores.

You also need to be organised - booking in advance is key if you want the right accommodation, flights and trips at the right price. Skyscanner is a great site to compare airline prices. The budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easy Jet are cheap, but extras like luggage do add up; a sturdy plastic bag makes for fabulously light carry-on luggage. Make sure any cabin luggage you take from Australia fits the cabin-sizing requirements of the European budget airlines.

7. Package it

Some people might cringe - but organised tours are a cheap and effective way to see a city.

A Paddwagon ( tour of Ireland remains one of my favourite travel experiences. We did the six-day "all of Ireland" tour (Dublin, Killarney, Dingle, Galway, Derry, Belfast and back to Dublin). For £300, you get bus travel, tours and all accommodation.

Turning to the Continent, it can be daunting trying to organise travel and accommodation in countless countries. Topdeck ( was our saviour. Five of us pre-booked the 27-day 10-country European explorer tour for gap students before we'd even left home (priced at about $3700, it includes accommodation, transport and most meals). Half of Sydney's north shore had the same idea – at least 40 per cent of the bus was from various private schools.

8. Gap fat

Who'd have thought great pubs, beer, and stodgy food could be bad for you? Warning: the UK is notoriously unhealthy. Exercise while overseas, and even if you're working at a school that provides three hot meals, try to exercise self-restraint!

Did you take a gap year after finishing high school? What are your tips? Are you planning a gap year in 2014? What are you planning to do? Post your comments below.

Sydneysider Harriet Forster struggled with the cold of the UK during her gap year. © How to survive a gap year Sydneysider Harriet Forster struggled with the cold of the UK during her gap year. Harriet Forster (right) spent her gap year working at a girls' boarding school in Surrey. © How to survive a gap year Harriet Forster (right) spent her gap year working at a girls' boarding school in Surrey.
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