Traveling before medical school provides an ideal option for students who want to explore more of the world, learn about different cultures, donate time abroad, or gain lifelong memories.
Becoming a doctor is a long and arduous journey, beginning with four years of medical school and followed by at least another four years of residency. While it is still possible to take time off or to travel in small doses in the summer, you won’t have the same chunk of time available to you for many years.
Whether you’re still considering travel or in the midst of making travel decisions, this guide will provide strategies and resources for making smart travel decisions. We’ll discuss the benefits of traveling before medical school, travel options, and how to successfully plan memorable experiences.
The Benefits of Traveling Before Medical School
Traveling presents a number of skill building opportunities that you will be able to use and continue building upon throughout your life. You’ll also gain a clearer understanding of people and cultures that are different from your own, which is an invaluable asset to have as someone who will be working with diverse people and communities.
And medical schools will take note of this too. School and residency programs are looking for globally-conscious prospective doctors who will enhance the diversity of their program.
In addition to these benefits, travel can create long-lasting memories and experiences you will cherish forever. You may even be able to speak about some of these unique experiences in future applications, essays, and interviews.
Travel benefits at a glance:
- Gain a better understanding of people, cultures, and viewpoints different from your own.
- Become a more well-rounded person.
- Build practical life skills.
- Practice real-world problem solving.
- Create lasting memories you will always carry with you.
- Pursue a passion outside of school and medicine.
- Experience more of the world to become a better conversationalist.
- Gain topics and experiences you can use for future applications, essays, and interviews.
- Practice your networking and social skills.
- Make new connections and, in some cases, lifelong friends.
How to Make Travel (or Gap Year) Decisions
Decision making is tough, and as a premed or medical student, you’ve already had to make a few big, life changing decisions, including deciding to become a doctor, which major to pursue, and what schools you want to apply to.
And the main question for today: What will you do with your time before medical school?
Traveling before medical school could occur between your final year of college and when you begin medical school in September. Or you may decide to pursue travel as part of a gap year before medical school.
If you’re struggling to make a big decision, you’re not alone, but at some point, you do have to take the plunge and decide one way or another.
The most important strategy for effective decision making is putting in the time to do your research. Spending ample time in the research phase will set you up for success and give you the tools you need to make the decision that’s best for you.
Go beyond simple Google searches and dig deeper by asking people you know who have been in a similar situation to yours. Reach out to other students, ask questions online, and go that extra mile to collect the information that will aid your decision making.
For example, we have a full guide that covers the pros and cons of taking a gap year if that’s a decision you’re struggling to make. Should I Take a Gap Year Before Medical School? Pros and Cons.
Another effective decision making strategy is to take some time away from the important decision. Give your brain a break to reflect and reset by meditating, exercising, spending time with friends or family, or working on a hobby you enjoy. Afterward, you can come back to the decision again to see if anything has changed. Has time away made you lean in a different direction? Do you have a new perspective now that you’ve been away from the problem?
Utilizing decision making strategies will help you make informed decisions you can feel good about for years to come. Read our 7 Strategies for Better Decision Making.
Travel Options and Ideas
Think you want to travel but aren’t sure what the right option is for you? Next, we’ll share some ideas that may pique your travel interest.
Donate Your Time Abroad
Donating your time abroad provides multiple benefits. You’ll get to experience a new part of the world while also adding to your philanthropic resume. Giving back to communities in need is looked at fondly by admissions committees, schools, and medical institutions. After all, it’s people and communities that you will be serving once you become a practicing doctor.
Another benefit to this type of travel is that it won’t cost you nearly as much as other types of adventures. Depending on the program, you may have a portion of your travel expenses paid for since you are donating your time. If you do need to pay for transportation and accommodation, these costs are generally lower than other touristy travel options.
Go Somewhere You’ve Always Dreamed Of
Is there a part of the world you’ve always dreamed of exploring? Are there specific countries you have on your bucket list? Did you see an exotic location in a movie once and think, “I have to go there one day?”
Life will continue passing by whether you pursue your dreams or not. And as an aspiring doctor, the next chunk of your life is going to breeze by pretty quickly. By the time you complete medical school and residency, you will be a new person with new dreams, goals, and desires. Plus, the career you begin as a doctor may not allow you to take time off to travel for quite some time.
If there’s somewhere you truly want to explore, before medical school begins is an ideal time in your life to do so. Take time to deeply consider what you value most in life and whether or not a specific travel experience will be something you will always regret not following through on.
Complete a Backpacking Adventure
For some people, choosing just one place to explore is too limiting. If you have a long list of must-see places, consider a backpacking adventure in which you jump from one city to another every few days or weeks.
The obvious location for a trip like this is Western or Eastern Europe since these countries are easy to travel between and aren’t placed too far apart. You can easily get from one country to another on an afternoon train or overnight bus, but keep in mind this type of trip will keep you on your toes the entire time. You’ll need to be careful about how much you pack, problem solve on the move, and organize many types of transportation and accommodation along the way.
You aren’t limited to Europe for this type of travel. Sections of Asia and Central America also have clusters of countries close together, making it easy to jump from one to the next.
Discover Your Cultural Roots
How connected are you to your personal ancestry? Do you have distant relatives or even close relatives that live in another country or city? Discovering or rediscovering your roots can help you feel closer to your family and where you come from.
This type of travel may help you solidify your own identity, or it may be an ideal chance to catch up with relatives you don’t see much or have never even met in person.
Visiting people who actually live in the city you are exploring will give you an inside look at what life is like there beyond the tourist attractions.
Go On a Road Trip
Do you want to travel but are tight on cash? With all of the costs of applying and going to medical school, it’s no surprise that many premeds don’t have additional means for long trips before school begins.
A road trip is an in-between option that won’t cost you as much while providing a much-needed escape. You’ll be able to spend time exploring unseen corners of the world, even if those corners may be a few to a few hundred miles away.
Pull out a map and put in some time researching to determine what’s within driving distance of your current location. If you’re headed to medical school in another state, a road trip may serve the dual purpose of providing an adventure while transporting you to the location you need to end up in September.
Strategies for Successful and Memorable Experiences
1 | Take Time to Research
Traveling anywhere requires lots and lots of research. Put in the time to better understand what it’s like to travel to and in all of the countries you are considering. Look online for travel advice for the specific locations you hope to visit and reach out to people who have completed similar trips before.
Even the simplest overlooked detail can completely derail your trip. You need to have a clear understanding of the local weather, how busy the location is, the costs of getting there, the type of bugs and wildlife in the area, the currency currently in use, how much it is to exchange your money, whether or not you can get by with the languages you know, how or if you’ll be able to use your phone, and if you have to pack adapters in order to plug in your devices. The list goes on, which is why it’s so important to take time to research the places you want to visit.
For example, there may be a specific tourist attraction you absolutely want to see, but maybe it’s closed or must be booked in advance at the time you’ll be there. Or you may arrive at a destination only to find out it’s 20 degrees hotter or colder than what you packed for.
Ample research and planning in advance will set you up for success, and it will ensure you actually know what you are getting yourself into.
2 | Learn Language Basics
In many, many countries, you can get by speaking English, but whatever country you visit, it helps to know a few basics of the local language.
At the very least, ensure you know how to say please and thank you. If you have any specific dietary restrictions or medical needs, ensure you know how to communicate those in the local language as well.
As you prepare for your trip, use free tools like Duolingo or other online courses to familiarize yourself with the basics. It’s also a good idea to download a translation app on your phone in case you get into a communication bind.
3 | You Don’t Have to Pack Everything
Believe it or not, soap, shampoo, moisturizer, and toothpaste are all available in other countries. You don’t need to fret about packing absolutely everything you’ll need for your trip. Unless you’re going to a very remote location and not staying at a hotel, you’ll be able to find any of the basics you need once you get there.
Prioritize packing any specialty medications, skincare, or cosmetics that you know you can’t live without—the rest you will be able to find. Plus, not packing so much will reduce the weight of your luggage, which is often a hidden cost when booking your plane ticket.
4 | Understand the Laws and Courtesies of the Country
Read up on the laws of the countries you are visiting before you go. Is drinking alcohol allowed in public areas? What substances are legal? Are there any curfews or dangers of being out late at night?
In addition to the hard laws, what common courtesies should be abided by in that country? What common actions could be perceived as rude or inconsiderate? What are the policies around leaving tips? What services do you typically tip for, and at what percentage?
Understanding the laws and courtesies of the places you visit will ensure you have a safe, enjoyable travel experience, and you may even make some friends in the process.
5 | Get Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Traveling is about exploring the world—seeing and doing things you can’t do from the comfort of your home. Try to take this opportunity to get outside of your comfort zone.
Depending on your own comfort zone, this could mean trying a food you’ve never tried before, shopping in a local market, or trying scuba diving for the first time.
No matter how nice your hotel room or Airbnb may be, ensure you take the time to step outside and actually explore the place you are visiting. Aside from being an incredibly rewarding experience for you, many of the stories you collect could be useful during future applications, interviews, and essays.
Pave Your Ideal Medical School Path
The decision to travel before medical school is a personal one. Don’t feel like you have to travel just because you have the time available. While traveling is incredibly rewarding and builds your character, problem solving skills, and understanding of other perspectives, it’s not for everyone.
The best thing you can do for yourself is complete plenty of research to better understand what the experience will be like. Reach out to others who have had similar experiences and put in the time to understand what you will be getting yourself into. At the same time, no travel experience is perfect. It will be difficult at times, and there may be road bumps along the way, but it’s all part of the experience. The variety of challenges you face is why people learn so much from traveling.
Not sure what the ideal path is for you? Do you have questions about what to do with your time before medical school? Med School Insiders offers one-on-one advising that pairs you with a physician advisor who best fits your specific needs. We can answer your questions about medical school applications, what to do with the time between your studies, how to transition into your first year of medical school, and, down the road, how to choose and apply to residency. It’s our goal to help you create a future that aligns with your vision.
Reach out to our team to learn more, and follow the Med School Insiders blog for the latest how-to advice, strategies, and personal stories. We share new content multiple times a week, and our newsletter roundup of videos, articles, study advice, industry news, and more goes straight to your inbox once a week.