9 things to do on your European gap year

You can see Annie's back as she is sitting and looking over the Mediterrinean sea

Are you thinking of taking a year off/a gap year but wondering what can you do in that time? Are you European or from the Schengen area? Great! Let me tell you more about work, volunteering, travel, and internships across Europe (some of which are EU-funded). 

Depending on where you’re from, you might have to check if your country is eligible for the project. Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, and Egypt are some of the countries that are not in the EU, but their citizens could go on some ESC volunteering projects.

 Here’s an overview of what you can do:

  1. Try out what you want to study and work
    (Online) Course/Program
    Shadow a professional
    Start your own project
  2. Get a job
    A regular job
    Work as a freelancer
    EU traineeships and jobs
  3. DiscoverEU trip
  4. Youth Exchange(s)
  5. Volunteer abroad or in your home country
    Paid by you
    Paid for you
  6. Entrepreneurship/ Entrepreneur Exchange
    Start your own business!
    Take a look at Erasmus Entrepreneurs and Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Global.
  7. Work at a farm or a workcamp
  8. Travel like a broke adventurer
  9. Chill (and do nothing!)

Now that you know what options I’ll be covering, let’s dive right in what you could do with your free year!

1. Try out what you want to study and work 

If you’re deadset on studying but have no idea what you want to do, why don’t you test out a few different ideas?

a. (Online) Course/Program

The easiest way to see if something is for you is to dedicate some time to it – a great way to do that is to try out a professional or academic course/program!

You’ve probably heard of EDX, Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare. They’re a great place to find courses on the topics that interest you for free or very cheaply. See if you’ll still be interested in a topic after you’ve done 2-3 month-long courses.

Another idea is to look for professional programs that don’t ask for a degree as a requirement. Usually such programs are paid, at least a year long, and offered by the Ministry of Education in your country, by educational companies, by international work unions or certification institutes such as The Project Management Institute. That’ll be much more intense than an online course.

Not every profession will have such a program as some of them rely on highly qualified experts such as doctors, engineers, aviation personnel, laborants, etc. So for those professions, I suggest you:

b. Shadow a professional

Do you have some areas that you’re interested in? Maybe communication, sales, automobile engineering, accounting, chemistry? Whatever it is, there is most likely someone in your region that works or has worked in that field. 

Find that person, reach out and ask them if you go follow them along at work for a day, a week or even longer (most people won’t agree to longer, but you can try asking after the first few days). Use LinkedIn, yours and your family’s network of acquaintances to find the person you need. 

Once you meet that person and have shadowed them for a few days, you can suggest to help with the very basic and easy tasks of that person’s job. Be it proofreading texts, measuring things, small calculations, or assisting the person – it’ll give you a chance to try the actual work. 

c. Internship

Maybe you already tried shadowing or have worked in a given sphere before, and have narrowed your interests. Try doing more in your field of interest by doing an internship. 

The EU Parliament is working on making internships fairly paid, but for now – they’re mostly either low-paid and for graduating students or unpaid at NGOs. It depends on where you’re based. 

I suggest you check out if the NGOs or startups near you are looking for people to help them with whatever you’re interested in – social media, accounting, project writing, organizing events, IT, etc. If you’re a graduating student or already have a Bachelor’s, then try your hand at a corporate internship. 🙂

NGOs and startups are typically more flexible with how much you work, and with what you do, so even if you get an internship as a Project Coordinator you’ll likely have the opportunity to help in other departments. Plus, you’ll be making an impact!

Be aware that in NGOs and startups you’ll likely have to know a little of the subject beforehand, as you might have to work unsupervised most of the time. If you’re up for the challenge, then this is for you!

You don’t wanna leave your house? Man, I get you. 

Do a virtual internship – thanks to corona, lots of things are online now, work being one of them. I personally got 2 digital marketing internships through Acadium, which is a free platform to learn more about digital marketing and to try it out as you work for someone else. I also found  Virtual Internships, which sounds amazing, but it’s paid, unfortunately. 

Comment below if you have experience with either platform or with one I haven’t listed here!

d. Start your own project

What if you have ideas and have already went down the internship route or just can’t find one that suits you? You get creative and start your own project!

This is my most active suggestion as here you’ll be responsible for everything. Maybe you can find some friends, willing to join in, and you can start a project together. This could be a business, startup, a community project, or anything else you think of. 

In 2020, I tried starting my own coaching practice, which failed pretty quickly. But you can learn from my experience here

2. Get a job

What if you just don’t want to go to university? You just want to move out and be independent already? Then, get a job!

a. A regular job

I was going to suggest a job at a restaurant, hotel or café buuut then Corona hit. 

You could still get a job at essential stores, as a janitor/cleaner, assistant, delivery person, truck driver, security guard, customer service (if you know a language and depending on where you are). In some countries you can also work as a social worker without a degree. 

b. Work as a freelancer

If you have a skill already or in-depth knowledge of something, you can use it as a freelance service. Obviously you can make a profile at Fiverr or Upwork and hope for the best OR you could use your network, the brands/companies you follow, your parents’ acquaintances and offer THEM your service. 

I’ve had an Upwork profile for 6 years or so and I only started getting offers when I got a testimonial. Before that, there was nada. You could ask your friends to leave you a professional looking review to get your foot in the door, and then ask each of your employers for a review to build credibility. 

Think of something you enjoy doing and has brought you praise – giving advice, writing (my case), video shooting and editing? Then think of what problem does that solve for other people. Do you offer a fresh perspective on a long-term issue, write texts that resonate with a certain audience and sells, or help a brand gain popularity thanks to your videos?

An important note – freelancing requires you to be flexible and able to work on your own. It also rarely provides you with a stable income until you build yourself a name. 

c. AuPair

Do you like kids and want to travel? Become an au pair! 

AuPairs are basically live-in, part-time nannies. There are families with differently aged kids, so you can help with a baby, toddlers, kindergartners, older kids. Depending on the family, you might also have chores and household work to do. I was thinking of becoming one, but then I realized that I’m not that into kids. 

Anyways, friends of mine have gone to be au pairs, and they really recommend www.aupairwold.com. I would certainly root for you to try this out if you’re wondering whether you want to be a teacher someday! 

d. EU traineeships and jobs

Now we’re going into some EU-funded opportunities!

Are you inclined to work in the social field? Or have you graduated with a Bachelor’s and want to work somewhere where you’ll have an international impact? 

The EU funds traineeships at their institutions and agencies, more about that you can read here (the terms and offers are different depending on the employer organization).

Here you can find traineeships, jobs, and volunteer projects (more details on volunteering below) offered by NGOs and businesses in Europe. 

Annie in Gdansk, Poland

3. DiscoverEU trip

I might still be a teeny tiny bit bitter because the EU announced the launch of the DiscoverEU trip the year I was turning 19 and therefore was unable to participate. This opportunity is only for those of you who are currently 18 and will be 18 on June 30th, 2021 (or whichever year you’re reading this). 

The initiative gives 18-year-olds the chance to travel for free almost exclusively by rail (the exception is if you are from an island or one of your destinations is an island) in the European Union. 

As far as I understand, accommodation and food are not part of the covered expenses, only travel.

 Everyone who wants to take advantage of this offer should apply through here when the procedure is open and wait to hear back whether they’re approved. 

In the above link you’ll find when the applications will be open as thanks to corona that is very unsure, you can also read that at least 30 000 people will be selected, and that yes, there is a quota by country. 

If you’re one of the people going on a DiscoverEU trip or if you’ve already been on one, email me and tell me more about your experience!

Annie on her youth exchange in Spain in 2017 with some other young people eating their goodbye dinner

4. Youth Exchange(s)

Do you want to learn during your free year? Meet other young people from the EU, while traveling for a short period of time? Check out Erasmus+ Youth Exchanges!

This is another EU initiative, where youth between 13 and 30 years old can go somewhere with a learning goal for up to 21 days. Youth exchanges are usually organized around a certain topic like entrepreneurship, climate action, the Erasmus+ program itself, etc. 

These exchanges usually consist of workshops, cultural evenings, lectures, debates, etc.

It could be difficult to find youth exchange opportunities as not every country has a database with youth exchanges (Bulgaria does, so if you’re Bulgarian, here you go). What you can do is figure out your country’s Erasmus+ National Agency and contact them to ask what youth exchanges are there. 

Another great way to find the right opportunity for you is to join Facebook groups made specifically to disseminate info about youth exchanges! Search youth exchange on FB in the group section, and you’ll find 5+ active groups, the one I’ve used before is this one

Search for such groups in your native language as well, I’m sure there’ll be some. This one in Bulgarian, for example.

5. Volunteer abroad or in your home country

There are so many ways to volunteer – free, paid by you, and paid for you. 

a. Free

You can find an NGO or a public institution nearby that’s looking for volunteers and join them. It’s really that simple! 

Some countries have more NGOs than others but you can also help out at senior centers, domestic abuse or homeless shelters, your neighborhood, orphanages, libraries, festivals, eco centers, farms, even hospitals (thanks to corona, hospitals are understaffed and some take volunteers that have no medical background for non-treatment tasks). 

You can also research about community projects in your vicinity and join as a volunteer.

This option does not pay you but can make you some friends and help you narrow down what you want to do in the future!

b. Paid by you

Volunteering does not need to be super fancy and expensive – yes, there is a whole industry selling volunteerism trips (volunteer tourism) but there are also international organizations that offer short trips at a manageable price, depending on where you come from.

One such organization is UNESCO. If you’re interested in anything related to cultural heritage of the Global Sustainability Goals (GSG), and want to meet people from all around the world, while you work towards an impactful objective outside your comfort zone, then volunteering at UNESCO might be something for you. 

From what I’ve gathered, the participation fees for a 3-week project vary between 200 and 500 euros, which includes accommodation, food, experiences at the camp, and sometimes local insurance. This means that you have to handle all necessary visas, flights, insurances, and extra activities.

Another option would be UN Volunteering – open calls for these opportunities are far in between and often very specific unless you are a specialist in one of UN’s focus topics. 

However, if you have an opinion you long to share and wish to start a political career, consider applying to become a UN Youth Delegate. If you want to know more about this, leave a comment below! I have a friend who was Bulgaria’s Youth Delegate for a year and a half, so I can interview him for you 🙂 

If you’re looking for a longer term volunteer project, check out Service Civil International, who offer social and teaching work in a majority of their opportunities. The application process is a bit slow as the organization’s priority is personal contact with each volunteer. The costs vary from project to project, and from country to country.

Finally, if you’re interested in a specific country you can Google ‘country name volunteer’. This will show you options such as:

  • The Armenian Volunteer Corps, which is a national organization and pretty affordable, or
  • Websites like GoOverseas for countries without a national volunteer association (the example link leads to Japan), where a collection of volunteer opportunities is gathered. These options can be affordable and can often be a great learning experience.

Other volunteer trips that I’ve come across have been way out of a young adult’s budget, so I will not be mentioning them here. 

c. Paid for you

Are you up for a challenge? Do you want to live on your own abroad while doing valuable work and having your expenses paid?

I’ve got 3 ideas for you. The last one is my favorite 😉

This organization offers projects similar to the UNESCO ones, short-term and mostly in Germany. There is an application fee between 90 and 120 euros, and you have to cover travel costs to and from the volunteering location. 

What is covered is accommodation, food, the educational and cultural program and the travel costs during the project, sometimes even health/accident insurance. 

In 2021 there isn’t a whole lot of options on European Heritage Volunteers but is definitely worth to check it out!

Are you a polyglot that speaks a combination of any of these languages: Spanish, Italian, German, English, French, and/or Portuguese? Do you have an interest in territorial cooperation and/or journalism?

If you said yes to both questions – definitely check out Interreg! They are very specific in their volunteer profile, yes, but that means you will get a very intensive experience out of it. 

If you go on one of their projects, email me and tell me about it!

A blurry picture of Annie in her Alice in Wonderland costume, sittting in a chair with a big red heart as a headrest

This is my favorite option to go volunteer abroad! ESC projects are for young people, 18-30,  and can last anywhere from 1 to 12 months – short-term projects are all projects under 3 months, while long-term projects are from 3 to 12 months.

It is important to know that you can go on only 1 long-term and 1 short-term (that has to be less than 60 days) project in your lifetime. You can also do a few short projects and skip the long-term one altogether. This is so that more young people can take advantage of this chance – the ESC covers travel costs to the placement, food, accommodation, health insurance, bills, pocket money, training, and language lessons if you’re on a long-term project.

ESC works through a network of NGOs that offer volunteer placements with a focus on a specific topic. When you open the opportunity list, choose a project at random and click apply – that is where you can make a profile for yourself.

The profile is important because when you are signed in, the website will only show you opportunities for which you are eligible. The eligibility is sometimes determined because of the project’s goal – if it aims to bring together Polish people and Russians, it makes sense to exclude everyone that isn’t Polish or Russian. 

Other times, your country might not be eligible for a project because the hosting NGO does not have a partner there. In this case, you can look through this list of accredited organizations, and reach out both to the hosting organization and to an organization in your country from this list, asking them to be your ‘sending’ organization. More often than not, the answer will be yes 🙂

I did an ESC project in Romania in 2020, which I’ll link here once I write about my experience. Sneak peek: it was awesome!

6. Entrepreneurship/ Entrepreneur Exchange

Do you dream of being your own boss? Do you have an idea for a product or service that you can sell to thousands of people? Have you already tried being a freelancer and want to take the next step?

a. Start your own business!

Junior Achievement Europe has great initiatives in young adult entrepreneurship education, support, mentorship, and sometimes funding. There are also tons of free resources that can teach you how to create a business model/plan, how to come up with an idea, how to prototype or test it through cold calling, and how to start acting on your idea.

There are also so many podcasts, videos, books, and articles about successful entrepreneurs sharing their stories. How I Built This is one example. On this blog I’ll also be posting for free of my own experience with starting a business.

Have you already gone through all that and are itching to make contacts across Europe?

b. Take a look at Erasmus Entrepreneurs and Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Global.

If you already have started a business or want to do so in a niche that is well-established, you can go abroad for 1 to 6 months, where you receive on-the-job training, can shadow and be mentored by a successful businessperson. 

This way you can see first-hand how business is run and make contacts abroad that can be useful when you want to widen your own reach.

With this program, you receive an allowance that will help cover your travel and subsidence costs. You can see the eligible countries here and read the program guide here.

If you have your eyes set on going beyond the EU, check out Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs Global. The two programs are similar but the funding and opportunities offered differ.

7. Work at a farm or a workcamp

You might not be very socially-minded or like working with disadvantaged people, or people in general. Yet, you still want to go away for a while and do something useful, move your body, hope you can get/stay in shape through your work, or maybe you just like animals and nature.

How do workcamps or helping at a farm sound? 

Workcamps are where you can work on a short project that will have a positive influence on a community. These are almost always 2 weeks long and paid by you, but the price is relatively low (between 90 and 300 euro from what I’ve seen).

Here, here and here you can find workcamps opportunities (in 2021 there aren’t a lot thanks to Corona 🙃), while here you can get persuaded as to why join a workcamp and browse a few more links.

Farm work is a popular way to get immersed in a culture, while also exercising in an old-fashioned way. There is one global platform, that lets organic farms cover your accommodation and food in exchange for work – WWOOF.

If you want to go on a WWOOF trip, then you need to choose where you want to go, and purchase a membership for that country’s WWOOF organization. The prices for this vary, and since I haven’t been on such a trip yet, I can’t say how much they differ. 

8. Travel like a broke adventurer

Here I’ll share some opportunities, which I haven’t had the courage to try yet as I will be traveling solo and have to work on my money mindset. I’m providing links where you can read more about the 3 options I’m suggesting, and once I’ve tried them – you’ll see link to my own articles about them 🙂

a. Workaway/Volunteerbase/Worldpackers

Similar to WWOOF above, platforms like Workaway, Volunteerbase, and Worldpackers connect small businesses and families with travelers for a food & accomodation/work exchange. All you have to cover for yourself is the travel to get to the destination.

The way the platforms work is that you sign up, create a profile for yourself, and reach out to hosts. Workaway and Worldpackers are paid – 39 euro and 49 USD (~42 euro) for a year membership for a solo traveler. Volunteerbase is free to use. 

I haven’t been on a trip with either platform yet, as I am mustering the courage to solo travel and working on my money mindset before I set off on the adventure.

b. House-sit

Accomodation is one of the biggest expenses when traveling – house-sitting lowers it down to zero. 

I am very excited to try house-sitting as it can take you to places where it’s difficult or impossible to find affordable accommodation – like in rural areas or big metropolises. 

The concept is simple – someone is traveling and offering their home as accommodation for other travelers, who will be responsible for keeping the house/apartment tidy and/or to take care of pets or farm animals. 

Here you can read more of the benefits of this kind of travel and how to become a housesitter.

c. Couchsurf

You’ve probably heard of coachsurfing already. There are a few websites that offer a connection between travelers and locals in that locals provide very short-term accomodation to adventurers – Couchsurfing, Servas, Horizon, and BeWelcome, for example.

If you do couchsurfing, your accommodation would be flexible and taken care of, but your food and travel expenses will not be covered. 

It’s a great way to meet locals, learn about the culture from their viewpoint, and it makes me so excited to travel! (If only my fears didn’t stop me from doing so, but as I said above – working on it, and I’ll share how on here at some point 😉 )

Here you can read tips on how to start couchsurfing.

Blurry picture of Annie smiling in home clothes, laying on her couch with one leg and one arm up

9. Chill (and do nothing!)

All of my suggestions so far were for people who want to fill their life with things to do, feel pressured to have a plan or at least tell others they have one, and/or have a need to be productive. 

I am such a person but recently I became aware of the option to just be. Without plans and things to do. Go with the flow, as they say. If this is you and your family is nagging you to do things, then I’ve just provided you with 8 ideas to pretend doing 😉


If you decide to travel Nomadic Matt has shared a list of ways to use the shared economy for cheaper travels here, and if you want to look for professional growth, scholarships, or other EU opportunities – check out EuroDesk Opportunity Finder

Let me know in the comments if you’ve done any of the things listed or if you’ll make use of my suggestions! 

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