Students applying to Oxford or
Cambridge are not informed about whether they've been accepted
until about three months after they've graduated from secondary
school. That leaves nine idle months before they begin their
break gave rise to "gap year travel." It's now common for students
throughout Great Britain to take time between high school and
college to explore the world. Gap year travel has become a rite of
passage not only in the U.K. and Ireland but also in Australia and
Israel. The trend is making significant inroads in just about every
Western nation save one: the U.S.
The benefits to our
industry if gap year travel were to become fashionable here would
be enormous and long-term. Experiencing, as a young adult, how
exciting and enlightening travel is makes one a traveler for
Data supporting the
preceding statement are based on an extremely small sample, with a
margin of error of plus or minus 99%, but I believe in my bones
that it's true.
That's because I tend
to believe that my personal experience is projectable.
I've taken two gap
years. The first was after an aimless year at a university with a
curriculum my mother kindly characterized as "unfocused": Japanese
tea ceremony, bowling and oil painting were among the courses I
took as a freshman. ("What, no Ping-Pong?" my father asked, less
kindly.) My second gap year began at age 29.
Though they weren't
"years" -- I worked nine months to earn enough for three months of
travel the first time, and six years to travel for 18 months the
second -- both trips transformed me as a traveler and a person, and
their influence affects me on a daily basis in ways large and
In the absence of
research on gap year travel in the U.S., I unearthed one piece of
data indicating that the trend, while small, is beginning to catch
Travel, No. 13 on the Travel Weekly Power List, caters almost exclusively to
students. The agency has negotiated special fares for people age 26
and younger, and among its offerings are around-the-world
I asked Kristen
Celko, STA's vice president of marketing, how many tickets spanning
six months or longer STA had sold in the last two years. The
increase from 2005 to 2006 surprised even her. She initially
thought "about a thousand" such tickets had been sold each year.
Turns out that in 2005, STA sold 16,298. In 2006, it was 22,719.
That 39% jump is substantial, but it's still a drop in the bucket
considering there are 17.3 million full-time students enrolled in
U.S. colleges and universities.
Though it may be
difficult to compete on price with STA's negotiated fares, if you
want to cash in on gap travel, a bigger opportunity awaits. Gap
travel is as much about transitions as it is about age, and the 78
million baby boomers, their nests emptying and retirement staring
them in the face, strike me as ideal candidates.
They won't be
eligible for STA's $1,350 26-and-under, round-the-world tickets,
but that's OK. In fact, some of them may want to ponder the
mysteries of life from a first-class seat. Grown-ups can choose
from Star Alliance's $3,950 to $14,000 round-the-world fares, One
World's options ranging from $3,900 to $10,400 and SkyTeam's
offerings available for $2,655 to $14,073.
And although adults
may, like students, be happy with serendipitous guesthouse
experiences, a fair number tend to feel more comfortable with hotel
reservations made well in advance.
So the next time
you're talking to an empty-nester and they begin telling you about
their oil painting classes, how their bowling team is doing or
elaborating on one of their esoteric pursuits (Japanese tea
ceremony? Ping-Pong?), they might be signaling that they're in
transition and ripe for a life-changing experience. It's time to
mine the gap.