Things I Learned Traveling in My 20s

Travel in your 20s central station
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Traveling in your 20s is marvelous. You (probably) don't have a house or a ("real") job or a family or "real" adult responsibilities, allowing you to embrace the youthful, carefree, bohemian culture of the globe-trotting vagabond armed only with your passport, small backpack, and ample trust fund. But hindsight has its benefits, and the wisdom you get from your traveling experience is better than a bottomless bank account (I assume). All those things people say about "If only I had known this when I was 22"? Well, we collected all of that accumulated wisdom from grown-ass adults very much no longer in their 20s to present to you here, dear readers, so that you can take advantage of this knowledge from your elders to have the best post-college/pre-adult-life travel experiences EVAR.


One thing all of our over-30 travelers agreed on unanimously is that you should make like Nike and just do it, and not just because you're young and (relatively) carefree, as outlined above. It's also a great -- possibly even essential -- way to experience the people and cultures of the world outside of your personal bubble.

"You're much better off traveling when you're young and your perception of yourself and the world is still malleable," said one correspondent. "If you're lucky enough to be able to travel in your 20s, don't think twice. Career, family, and all the other trappings of adulthood can come later, and they'll be richer experiences informed by a broader worldview."

Go alone

Our responders widely agreed you should embrace traveling solo. You meet new people -- and natural introverts are forced to -- and gain the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any situation. Friends and security-blanket acquaintances (i.e., those people you travel with to avoid solitude, ever, at all costs) can hold you back. They don’t necessarily want to do the things you want to do; they can potentially bum out your trip by being profoundly irritating; and talking only to a companion prevents those spontaneous interactions that make traveling so unexpected and delightful (even if they are just single-serving friends).

Or not

And yet! You should also travel with your closest friends, because you will have the absolute best times of your life bonding, making memories, and finding fodder for those "remember that time you did this incredibly stupid/funny/amazing thing?" reminiscences. And that might sound cheesy, but it’s a fact. My dearest friends are the ones I travel well, and often, with, and those are some of my best times ever.

And you can’t truly consider a relationship serious until you stress-test it with a trip together. "Travel with someone you plan on being with for a while,” one of our observers said. “You'll find out very quickly if you are actually going to be together for a while."

I've broken up with a few boyfriends after a vacation when it became painfully clear that things just weren't going to work out. Still had a nice enough time. But better to learn that sooner than later.  

Hostel traveling in your 20s

Stay in hostels. Or figure out how to avoid staying in hostels.

This split our respondents. Some say YAY HOSTELS, meet new people, socialize, make friends you hang out with for the rest of your trip and maybe for the rest of your life! And others say BOOOOOOO HISSSSSSSS GROSS HOSTELS. Again, this depends on personal thresholds. You either love hostels -- in which case, lucky you because you will be able to travel for the price of used dirt -- or you hate them, in which case, figure out a way to afford hotels. A lot of people will tell you that "it's just a room" and "you won't even spend that much time there so why spend the money on it," but I can tell you that my lodging experience absolutely plays a role in making or breaking my trip. Do what you gotta do here. Dropping $200 a night on a room can be one hell of a treat.

You CAN afford it

The biggest reason people of all ages give for not traveling is that they can't afford to. Au contraire, says our survey group. You probably can, either by borrowing -- “travel is priceless and worth getting in debt for,” one person insisted -- or by saving ruthlessly. Another of our respondents said: "I started saving $20 a paycheck on a $13,000 salary and made it to Ireland.”

How does that happen? Math plus time. Sock $5 a day under the mattress and you’ll have almost two grand to travel on by the end of a year. Get creative! And if you need a hand, we’ve got 100 ways to save money on travel.

Spontaneity is great. So is planning.

This comes down to you doing you. If you're a free spirit, go-with-the-flow, YOLO type, spontaneous trips and "playing things by ear" can be amazing. But for other people that sounds like a neuroses-inducing nightmare. And that’s OK too! Plan the shit out of that trip if that is what it is going to take for you to actually enjoy it. Because you really should actually enjoy it.

One of our responders suggests that even the planner types can find satisfaction in planning spontaneity: "If you're a planner, go ahead and plan; just be sure to include: '1-5pm hang out, stroll, linger, see what happens...'”

Intentional impulsivity. It's a thing!

Eating local food in your 20s

Eat local food, and don't be a douchey "foodie" about it

There are few things more grating than traveling with someone who needs each and every meal to be an experience. Look, so long as you're not ducking into a McDonald's in every city you visit because the unfamiliar terrifies you (in which case, why even travel?), it's ALL an experience. Eat the street food. Don’t rely on junk food. And, most importantly, "When you're hungry, eat. The best dining gem is the shitty restaurant where you were just really, really hungry."

Get a taste for the local flavor, beyond just food

Get outside your friend herd/own head and talk to people. Chat up locals at bars and coffeehouses to find out about cool places TripAdvisor hasn’t discovered. Go to the places where they hang out. Let them take you to those places! "Talking to people,” one of our participants said, “is better than visiting sites.”

Another took it a step further: "Meet people in the places you travel and make friends. This is the joy of travel and how to get to know a place. Listen to stories, tell your own. But mostly listen. Now you have friends to stay with next time you travel and they might come visit you. Modern social media will allow you to keep in touch and share other experiences in ways I couldn't take advantage of when I traveled in my early 20s."

Take the practical advice. The internet doesn't know everything.

Get ready, baby birds, ‘cause our panel is about to drop some big ol’ nightcrawlers of wisdom on you, rapid fire-like:

"Never underestimate the value of good luggage."

"Break your shoes in before you go. And bring a handwritten journal. Seriously."

"Guided tours of sites may seem lame, but they can be great experiences (yes, you can know more about the Paris sewers than you ever thought possible!)."

"A sleeper car is WELL worth the money on a long train ride."

"Make the most of anywhere you travel even if it's not your first choice to be there, like a trip for work. A lot of places are more interesting than we would give them credit for before you get there. Everywhere has something worthwhile."

"Travel cheaply even when you don't necessarily HAVE to. Then, you can travel more."

"You get sick of big cities and old shit surprisingly quickly -- leave room for retreats in nature, small villages, and diversions you won't find in any Lonely Planet guide."

Passport traveling in your 20s
Atstock Productions

And more practical advice specifically for international travel:

"Get your passport. Have it sitting around. It's good for 10 years."

"Don't let not speaking the language be your excuse. Plenty of people speak English and are willing to help if you need it."

"Europe is beautiful but so are Southeast Asia and South America (the latter two are way more affordable)."

"Buy a SIM card for your phone when you get to where you are going."

"Bring as little as possible. You can buy things if you really need them. You will be surprised how much you can do without."

And for the sake of driving that point home: "Pack light. Lighter. No, even lighter. You don't need almost everything you think you need."

"If going out of country, buy supplemental health insurance. Also tell your bank and credit card companies you're doing so."

"Go to places where the currency exchange rate works in your favor."

"Practice balance. Pit toilets are far more prevalent than you think."

Just go!

To reiterate: GO. You've probably heard about all the studies that support the claim that experiences make us happier than possessions. So quit making excuses, figure out a way to make it happen, maybe cut a redundant streaming service (yes, Hulu exists, but does it need to?), and forgo a few Frappuccinos a month; whatever you've got to do, just do it. And heed this particular piece of advice: "If opportunity knocks, answer the fucking door."

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Nicole Rupersburg is a traveler who also learned things in her 20s, though she thinks the most valuable insight here is the thing about the pit toilets. Do your squats, people. Do your squats. Follow her going places on IG: @eatsdrinksandleaves.