If I could somehow magically take a trip with my younger self, I’d probably kick my own ass before we left the tarmac.
I was an idiot at 23 — I wore a leather headband to hold back my shoulder-length hair — and even though I’m still an ass at 33, the past 10 years of adventure travel have taught me one very important thing:
People in Their 20s don’t know how to travel.
I sure as hell didn’t.
By the time I turned 25, I considered myself “well-traveled.” I’d lived abroad in a few places, worked abroad at some odd jobs, even dated a broad abroad *wink*. I’d seen it all, done it all, and had the wild stories — and the scars — to prove it.
I even moved to New York City to keep my “travel lifestyle” going in my home country; always on the hunt to add more anecdotes to my hipster quiver.
Like I said, I’d kick my own ass.
But travel in my 20s wasn’t a non-stop douche parade. A lot of it was kind of amazing. You might even say, *gasp* formative.
Every flight was a one-way ticket to adventure. I was curious, driven, and up for anything—even the crappy stuff that comes along with budget travel:
Heck, in 2007 I decided to walk across Spain on a freaking whim with zero preparation. It didn’t go well.
Travel in your 20s is “Adventure or Bust” — there’s no middle ground.
It’s all overnight trains to save $5 and all night parties where the whiskey flows like…well, really cheap whiskey. There’s no moderation, or consideration, and very little reflection while it’s happening.
Now, I can hear some of you millennials bristling. Easy. I’m painting with a broad brush, and can only speak to my own travel experience and what I’ve observed in a decade of travel. I’m sure your 2-week yoga retreat changed the way you see the world, and I think it’s totally cool that you still say “Cheers!” after your semester abroad in London. Very cosmopolitan.
But this isn’t a war between generations. I don’t think that “20-year olds these days” are ruining travel. Far from it. I think all 20-year olds throughout linear time have ruined travel. Twenty-somethings are fundamentally terrible at travel for the same reason that travel is so great when you’re young: nothing really matters.
Nothing really matters in your 20s.
When you’re young, something dire has to happen to you, just to make an impression. That’s just the way we’re wired.
Talk to any diehard traveler in their 20s and they’ll look at you with pity as you confess that, no, you’ve never been mugged. Watch as they explain with wisdom beyond their years how you’re not “really living” if you don’t get robbed at least once, or “drink enough mezcal to hop an enclosure and taunt a bull.” It’s always the same story.
It’s why I hate burning man so much.
Sure, those are two pretty unique experiences (please don’t do that last one), but why is it that 20-somethings seem to embrace the sour side of travel just to have a great story, without even trying to cushion the blow? It’s confusing, even though I was exactly that kind of traveler just a few years ago.
And so, here I find myself: 33 years old, with 10+ years of adventure travel — and the scars to prove it — torn between worlds.
On one hand, I have the Dionysian frivolity of my 20s, on the other…well, I’m not exactly sure yet.
What does travel look like now that I’ve crossed the Rubicon into…middle age? Is it all bus tours and museums from here on? Should I buy some cargo shorts and just throw in the towel?
Can travel be transformative without almost killing you?
Absolutely. In fact, I believe that travel, like most things in life, only gets better with practice.
So, what exactly changes when you turn 30? Why does a full moon party sound like a waking nightmare, when just a few years ago I was in line to get my chest painted neon yellow?
Easy. When you travel in your 30s, you finally start traveling for you — not for other people. Not for your Instagram followers, your Facebook feed, or to impress your college friends. In your 30s you travel because you want to see and experience new places.
To be even more specific, the biggest difference between travel (and life) in your 20s vs. your 30s is simply that in your 20s, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
Fresh out of college, you don’t know what you want out of a trip to Europe — you can’t — you haven’t had enough experience to forecast that. And that’s ok. The mystery of the unknown is what makes travel so alluring; but that vagueness also leads to one of the harbingers of a truly bad trip…
When you don’t know what you’re doing, where you’re going, or why you’re heading there, it’s easy to homogenize disparate destinations and bite off more than you can chew.
Most (American) 20-somethings’ first trip is to Europe. Naturally. It’s English-friendly, safe, and predictable, but the real reason it’s so popular is because it’s a cultural smorgasbord. Literally.
You can have breakfast at the Eiffel Tower, hop on a train and lunch in Geneva before catching a puddle jumper to London for a nightcap. Sound exhausting? Then you’re probably not in your 20s anymore. To a 23-year old that whirlwind European trip is an exciting blur full of possibilities, not missed opportunities because they’re simply moving way to quickly to really see or experience anything besides the inside of a train car.
Nearly every young traveler makes this same mistake: they try to see too much.
There’s no way you can do Paris justice in a month, yet 20-year olds spend a weekend there on their way to Berlin, Rome, and Barcelona. It’s crazy and, in hindsight, it’s a shame.
That frenetic pace is exciting in your 20s, but ridiculous once you realize that you’re not really experiencing anything but jetlag.
I think it was noted philosophizer and sayer-of-smart-cocktail-party-isms Jean-Paul Sartre who said:
“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
Word, JP. Word.
Transformative travel is about reflection, not reaction.
After 10+ years of overnight trains and blurry morning flights I finally realize that truth, and it’ll take me another 40 years to internalize just a fraction of the wonderful complexity on this crazy spinning globe we call home. In my 20s I tried to sample everything the world had to offer, but it was like eating a plate full of ghost peppers on a dare instead of enjoying my meal and discovering my unique pallet.
Plus, back then anything I tried would have just tasted like Red Bull from the night before. So…
Now that I’m a traveler in my 30s I want to slow down. I prefer it. A day spent reading at a cafe, then wandering the streets in a foreign city is ideal. I try to maintain the same natural life and rhythm that I have back home, while experiencing the nuance and differences of wherever I am. I write. I play guitar. I do laundry.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this:
Do your laundry in a foreign country. The way it slows you down for a few hours is magic.
Taking an afternoon to do my laundry—something that would have driven me insane 10 years ago, jives with one of my favorite (alleged) Einstein quotes:
“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”
I travel more than ever these days — it’s my job — but, even I cringe at the pace and punishment I put my body through during those first few trips.
The clearest example of the chasm that divides travel in your 20s versus your 30s happened in a recent conversation with a 27-year old friend. He was flying home for the holidays, and was complaining about having to go to JFK at 4 am:
“Four in the morning?!” I squealed. “Why the heck would you fly so early?”
“It was way cheaper,” he replied nonchalantly. His shoulder shrug sloshed whiskey and Coke out of his red Solo cup.
“That’s rough,” I conceded as I sipped my Cab Franc from my crystal chalice. I paused. “How much cheaper was it?”
“Like 37 bucks, bro,” he replied, chin turned up smugly as he slurped a jello shot.
What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is that he’ll spend at least:
If he really wanted to save money, he’d should have just paid the extra $37 for the 11:30am flight, slept in, had a nice breakfast at home and taken the subway to the airport.
His $37 red eye actually cost him $50 more than my noon departure, not to mention that he’ll look like — and feel )) a zombie when he lands.
But what would I know? I’m just an old fuddy duddy.
Epic travel writer, war correspondent, and author of World’s Most Dangerous Places, Robert Young Pelton has one solid piece of advice that I’ve adopted for all my future travel:
“I don’t know if you’ve been to combat, but the old guy with the grey hair is the guy you hang out with, and he’s the one who teaches you how to stay alive.”
My travel mantra in my 20s was:
“Tourists collect souvenirs, but Travelers collect Stories — and the scars to prove them.”
While I still appreciate the sentiment, I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to pick up a keychain or two next time I go to Thailand instead of catching dengue fever. That suuuuuuucked.
Criticizing your younger self and your past vices is like scoffing at your “dorky” yearbook photo while you get a Chumbawumba tattoo — trust me I get the irony.
I love the traveler I was 10 years ago. That guy was impetuous, exciting, positive, and oh so enthusiastic. I’m the person I am today because I was foolish enough to take a lot of wonderful risks. I love my travel record, scars and all.
I’d love to hang with him for a few hours. I just wouldn’t plan a trip with him. Because he’s an idiot.
I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in my decade of travel. Hopefully one of those things is how to travel better.
Travel is a skill.
You get better with practice.
If you ever feel like taking a nap when everyone else is going to the Louvre, take heart. That just might mean that you’re finally traveling for yourself. Who knows, now that you take the time to look at destinations more closely, you might see something that no one else ever has.
Young or old, take your time, travelers. The best way to see the world is at your own pace.
Oh, and money. That’s a actually the biggest difference between travel in your 20s and 30s.
You make way more money in your 30s. Forget everything else I just said.
This story originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
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