Often when we talk about safety and traveling overseas, the issue of drinking pops up pretty quickly. In many countries, the drinking age is 18, so it’s important to set up boundaries for yourself before you leave, rather than wait until you’re faced with a tough decision.
If you choose to sign on with a program, it’s likely that you’ll also be required to abide by a strict set of rules. For example, Carpe Diem has a contract in place that every gapper is required to sign at the start of their experience. In it, gappers agree to refrain from alcohol, drugs, and risky or harmful behaviors. They also agree to challenge themselves, treat others with respect, and abide by all group decisions. “We call our rules the Sacred Six, and we are very serious about them,” says Drew Edwards, Carpe’s Executive Director. “We absolutely mean what we say, and every single year we send students home for violating the policies.”
The programs that restrict alcohol in-country aren’t doing so to limit your fun. According to the government, preventable injuries are the leading cause of death and disability in travelers in general, and alcohol increases the likelihood of an accident. “Drinking is easily one of the most dangerous preventable situations students can put themselves in while abroad, and it’s an added liability that we're unwilling to take on,” says Edwards. “From a sheer safety perspective, we are incredibly serious about that.”
Rebecca Cruze was in a program that didn’t allow partying, something her mom was insistent on before they signed up. “There are a lot of people who go to Thailand to party,” says her mom, Shelly. “Rebecca said there was a lot of opportunity to drink if she wanted to, but she knew the program directors were very serious about enforcing the zero-tolerance policy.”
No partying was also a test for Rebecca to see if she could stay true to herself, remain focused, and be there for the right reasons. “She was very proud of what she accomplished on the trip as far as learning more about herself and building confidence. She feels very empowered,” says Shelly.
For students who chose to do self-directed gap years, drinking was a personal decision, often based on where they were traveling. When Lucy and Sophie journeyed through India and Nepal alone in the spring of 2015, they consciously made a choice not to drink. “In terms of being smart, we just thought it wasn’t worth it,” Lucy says.
Many gappers find that removing drinking from the equation was constructive in ways they didn’t consider beforehand. Instead of blurring or dulling the interactions, not drinking allowed them to be fully present, to reflect, and to explore more safely.
Drinking Responsibly On A Gap Year
However, let’s say you’re on an independent gap year in a country where you’re legally able to drink, and you’d like to partake. It’s unrealistic to think that every student on a gap year will remain sober, but it’s also important to recognize that drinking while traveling poses different dangers than drinking in the US. The basics remain the same: never drink so much as to be out of control or disoriented, don’t get behind the wheel of a car or motorcycle, and don’t leave your drinks unattended—even for a moment.
It's even more important to be extra vigilant and aware when you're abroad, so please, please, please take extra care to stay safe. For more tips, the website Safe Gap Year has some general rules for gappers who plan to drink while overseas.
The Rule On Drug Use
In circumstances of drugs, there’s one rule: just say no while you’re traveling. Aside from the fact that you never know if what you’re buying is actually what you think it is, in many countries, drug laws are incredibly strict and police target young, unsuspecting travelers.
"In many countries the punishment for drug possession can be considerable; the sentences for drug dealing (the quantity of drugs required for a charge of dealing can be very small) range from long prison terms to the death penalty,” says Safe Gap Year’s website.
At the end of the day, it’s not worth the risk of ending up in the hospital, in jail, or on the next flight out of the country.