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 university studies.

This matriculation 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 life.

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 small.

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 on.

Dallas-based STA 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 itineraries.

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.


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