Is It Smart to Travel Young?

“You should travel while you’re still young,” the well-meaning and wiser adults told me. “It’ll be a lot harder once you’ve started you career.”

I heard (and still hear) those words countless times as a young person, and this blog stands as testament as to how much I took them to heart.

The question I ask myself now, after 28 countries, three languages, dozens of flights and more than a few travel-related illnesses, is not, “Was it all worth it?” but rather, “Was it smart?”

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Some travel bloggers love to hate on all those who don’t pursue the same travel-based lifestyle. “They’re sell-outs,” they write. “They’re wasting their youths, all they do is sit in cubicles crunching numbers. They’re not really living life.”

For a long time, I almost believed those words. Whenever I made an unorthodox life choice, I repeated them like a mantra: “At least you’re not in a cubicle. You won’t be able to be this free when you’re older, you have to do x now.”

I am now firmly of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you do with your life as long as you do it with passion and intent. While for others that might be anything from home-making to optical engineering, my life-long loves are travel, languages, food and writing, all of which I engage in regularly here in France.

Paris April

While for the most part I’m very happy with my low-income expat lifestyle, and am very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to travel this beautiful earth, sometimes I feel covetous when I take a peek at what my friends back home are doing. (Thanks, Facebook.) It’s hard not to feel jealous when I see former classmates landing jobs that I would really want: an internship with Condé Nast, an HR position at Google San Francisco, an editorial assistant job at Buzzfeed in New York. For a moment, I feel a glimmer of envy and think,”Oh, wait… I would kind of like a job like that too.”

And then what surfaces next is a thought that scares me a little.

 

If I do decide that I want a conventional job, will I be able to get one?

 

This might sound a bit pessimistic for a 22-year old recent college grad, but it’s a serious question because unlike my peers I haven’t been working tirelessly towards my dream job for the past decade. For the past seven odd years I have dedicated myself to world travel, not to the job market. Instead of snagging impressive summer internships, I’ve been working in Asian fusion restaurants in California, hiking the Ecuadorean Andes and sun-bathing in the south of France. As someone who currently cuts her hair in the bathroom sink and can’t afford to pick up her dry-cleaning, I’ll be the first to admit I’m scared about future job prospects.

Another thing travel bloggers love to hate is materialism, and to a greater extent, comfort. “Be able to fit everything you own into a backpack,” they advise. “Memories are more important than things. Don’t wear mascara.”

To that I say that I’ve been saving up for travel since I was 15 so I can’t “sell off all of my belongings” because I don’t have any. I have one pair of jeans. I don’t own a single piece of furniture. I have no idea what it feels like to be completely self-sufficient, to have a sizable check turn up in my bank account every two weeks, to pay for cable, to buy a glass of soda with dinner and not worry about the bill.

And once and a while, I think guiltily to myself, “Wow, that might be nice.”

So after my upcoming trip to Asia, nearly two years after graduation from university, I will start looking for my first job. And I truly have a fear that I’ll be toiling away at Verizon Wireless, dreaming of Thailand. So I think it’s time to admit the following to myself:

 

Maybe I won’t regret having travelled in terms of my life, but I might regret it in terms of my career.

 

Which brings me back to the question: In terms of working towards a successful career, is it smart to travel young?

Personally, I have no idea. I suppose time will tell. I’d like to think that everyone’s right, that life will sort itself out and I will emerge triumphant, secure and happily employed, but I’m honestly not sure of what will happen.

What do you think? Do you think it’s a good idea to travel young? How have you fit travel into your life?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

57 thoughts on “Is It Smart to Travel Young?”

  1. i personally see so many blogs out there that constantly promote travel and telling people to shun careers and settling down young. And I hate to be the one to say this, but a nomadic lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people don’t get the fulfillment out of travel like you and I do. Doesn’t mean they are wrong and we are right…we just all have different lives and different backgrounds and that is okay. :) For me, I would rather travel while I’m young. But really, I don’t still completely know what I want to do. I pretend that I do ;) But I don’t. I do know that I could never have the nomadic lifestyle that some people have. I like having a place to call home and knowing that I always have a dog waiting for me after my travels.

    I am not sure whether it is smarter to travel while young or while old. But I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted for a minute being unsettled and traveling on a whim when I do ;)

    • I don’t think I could be completely nomadic long-term either… I love living abroad but living out of a backpack definitely gets old after a certain point. And ah, I would love a dog! Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Megan!

  2. I think it is great that you are traveling young. I have a corporate job that pays the bills. I try to travel the most I can. You are still young. You can put a twist in your interviews of gaining cultural experience, along with learning languages that could help you land a job. Even if you have to take a job that you have to work your way up to a dream job after, you still have plenty of time. It is all about being happy with the decisions you have made for yourself and living with no regrets.

  3. I am one of those people living in New York with an apartment, a ton of furniture and a steady paycheck and while its very validating being able to live on my own sans parentals and support myself, I also know that its just for now. I want to travel full time, or atleast work abroad for a few years, either teaching or WWOOFing or whatever. I’m using this job as a way to save and to work towards that dream, and I think it’s amazing that you (and so many other) full time travelers are able to do it right out of school. I use my vacation time and my weekend to travel as much as I can, but its not the same as full time living.

    I think you’ll be surprised if you decide to come back to do the job thing, that your travel experience will come in insanely handy. When you apply for jobs (especially at our age) its more about personality during the interviews then actual ‘skills’ anyway. Unless you want to be like a nurse or a scientist :P

    Anyway, travel young, travel old, travel always.

    • I love that, “Travel young, travel old, travel always.” And good for you, living in New York looks incredible from what I’ve seen on your blog, I would love to live there someday too! And good luck reaching your goal of traveling full time :)

  4. Great read Ashley! I can totally relate to this dilemma as I’m currently struggling with the exact same questions — especially since so many of my peers start questioning me things like “When will you stop running away from reality and grow up already?”. I think, in the end, you can only do what you think is best for you now. Go with your guts — and remember: The grass is always greener on the other side! You may dream of a job in New York, but someone who has it, is surely envious of your unattached travel life style.

    • That’s so true that the grass is always grener on the other side. I suppose it’s really hard to have the best of both worlds! And let’s both stay strong in the face of peer pressure :)

  5. My dear Ashley,
    I’m sure you have questioned if you are doing the”right” thing, but what
    is right for me or someone else is obviously not right for you. It is good
    to travel while you are young–energy, curiosity, learning of skills you can’t obtain elsewhere. I think many people dream of what you are doing, but are not willing to make the sacrifices you make to do so. All your trips and knowledge are definitely not wasted. Continue to go with your heart and your passion.

    I love you and admire what you are doing,

    Gamma

  6. I’ve been following you for a few weeks now (I love your blog!) and I completely agree with you. I just graduated, am also 22, and taking my first teaching job in Milan, Italy. I’m absolutely freaking out. I cant believe I’m leaving my family, my boyfriend and I broke up because distance for 3 years is just too much, and I don’t speak a word of Italian. But like you, this has been my dream for as long as I can remember. My apartment will be small and it might not be full of my own beautiful new furniture (my other dream is to someday be a domestic goddess/homemaker), this is the time in life to be selfish. We don’t have husbands or children to take care of, mortgages to pay off, and are still able to get away with eating a Snickers for dinner if money is a little tight. You’ll be able to have the dream job for sure when you want it, because you’ll get it based on life experience!

    • Hey Jesye, I will actually be in Milan next month for a few days, tweet me if you would like to meet up :)! And I totally agree that this is the time in life to be selfish and have crazy adventures. Good luck in Italy, I’m sure you’ll do great!

  7. Personally, I’m the most envious of people who are able to combine theirs careers with traveling, because it often feels either-or for me too – settle down and build my career, or continue traveling unattached. I do believe that, for the right company, traveling represents an asset rather than years without real-work experience. It’s true that the decision of whether to travel when you’re young depends on what’s right for each person, but I’ve never met anyone who regretted traveling, with regards to their career, overall life, or anything else.

    • I agree, I would love to build my career on the road and have been trying to figure out how to make something like that works. And that’s so true, I’ve never ever met someone who said they regretted traveling.

  8. Yes, it is smart to travel young. I’m not yet 29 and I’ve been to more than 30 countries. During my time abroad, I’ve broadened my horizons, gotten engaged and furthered my career as a writer at the same time. Sure, you can travel when you’re old – but who wants to wait? Especially when in my case it was a very good move.

  9. I think it’s never too late and never too early to start your nomadic life, but it’s not for everyone. The earlier you start, the more experience you become, but as Megan pointed out this nomadic lifestyle doesn’t suit everyone.

  10. I don’t think there’s something like a right or wrong time to travel. It always depends on the personal circumstances and on whatever you put value in right this moment. I believe it’s important to follow one’s heart and for some that may mean to go out and travel the world and for others it may mean something complete different. There’s always the question of ‘What if?’, and it will be there no matter what you choose to do. But if you follow your heart, you’ll always know that no matter how things turn out, you’ve done the right thing for yourself!

    I don’t know how it is in the US, but at least in Europe, employers put a lot of value into stay abroads – whether it’s study abroad or something else – as long as you got something valuable out of it, of course and what is more valuable than sound knowledge in foreign languages? Your friends may have taken more steps towards their careers, but during your time abroad you will have learned so many soft skills that you couldn’t have gotten at home! And let’s be real – we’re all still so young! You still have plenty of time for a career and travelling, so don’t beat yourself up too much about it! :)

    xx
    Melanie

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement, Melanie. I’m not sure of what employers in the U.S. think of time spent abroad but hopefully I’ll be able to apply the skills I’ve learned to a career I love. We’ll see!

  11. It’s certainly a fear I have going back to the US – but honestly, I think some people will be impressed with your choices, your sense of adventure, and others won’t. But those that will, will help you find a place in the working world. And undoubtedly, everyone will be impressed with your multilingual abilities and your blog, which are both crazy valuable skills :)

  12. Firstly, I’ve been reading up on your blog for the past couple of weeks and truly enjoyed your writing, your photography, and obvious passion for travel and Paris!

    Secondly, I think part of your concern might come down to what you consider to be a successful career. Like you, a lot of students post-graduation haven’t earned too terribly much, especially considering the alarming rise in popularity for unpaid internships (even after the degree that was supposed to help you avoid it!). The way I see it, there’s a substantial chance that you’re not going to get a high-paying job or colorful and fantastic internship right after graduation unless you’re an electrical engineer or working in a really vital field. If, therefore, you’re not likely to be making much money (or even to be working in an internship that provides skills beyond data entry), then traveling while not making much money doesn’t seem to make too much of a difference. At least you’ll gain a lot of “real-world experience” (aka cool stories to share during interviews), including dealing with people in a variety of cultural settings, working on your writing, multi-tasking, etc. For some careers, maybe years of accumulating unpaid internships really is valuable…but I don’t think that’s the case for all of them.

    • This is really practical advice- thanks so much for your thoughtful answer. I would be totally open to an internship when I get back as long as it is relevant to a field I’d like to work in. We shall see! And I’m glad you enjoy the blog, that means a lot :)

  13. Not all conventional job are conventional anymore… young perfessionals aren’t punching away on typerwriters. At 25, I was managing IT departments from my couch. Working full-time from home. There are so many options to work from home / be mobile that it’s possible to strike a balance.

    I would say it’s a common social behaviour to look at your peers and compare. It’s also normal to see someone take an opportunity and day dream about if it was you taking the opportunity.

    I think, that life you’re curious about is available when you want it. And then when you don’t, ya hit the road again.

    EVERYONE gets introspective about thier life because you never know if you’re making the right choices. But therein lies the adventure! :)

    p.s. Gamma’s always have the best advice!

  14. I’m reading your posts for a few weeks and I like your blog so much! I also admire what you are doing, continue to follow your heart and make the most of it!

  15. If I have learned one thing from my current trip around Asia is that I am NOT a long-term backpacker. I get tired, I get cranky and sometimes all I want to do is sit on a couch or cook! Slow travel and living places is definitely for me and yes, I totally envy people who can can combine high-paying “real jobs” abroad. I wouldn’t trade my current travels for the world….but I also know I suffer from the “grass is always greener syndrome” Hopefully we will all figure it out soon and our youth travels will make us better for it!

    • I have a feeling I’m not a long-term backpacker either and am probably more suited to the expat lifestyle! And yes, I’m sure our travels will overall just enrich us even more :)

  16. Why are we the same personnnnnnnn?!?! Like, we’re in basically the same situation but I’m one year behind you :E and I’m just as scared/anxious about the transition to life back home after 2 years of working in Spain! I love travel, languages, and writing as well and being a language assistant in Spain while blogging on the side has been a great way to combine all those interests.

    And like you, I don’t think I could do traveling long-term…it just wears me out and I need time to chill, gather my thoughts, and edit and upload pictures/write quality, researched blog posts! Haha. Having a home abroad (if only for 8 months) has been great in that it’s allowed me to take weekend trips once a month to places across Spain.

    Looking forward to hearing about your travels in Asia this summer!

  17. Great post Ashley! I must admit, life is what you make it. Not everyone shares the same passions and interests, and thank goodness for that – the World would be a boring place. I’m the odd ball out amongst my friends who all have families and careers and a solid life. But I love them for who they are and know that just because I choose this life and they choose theirs – no one is right or wrong, it’s just a choice!

  18. Hi Ashley!
    Loved this post. hit right at home for me, too. I’m halfway through my year as an Au Pair in Germany and am struggling with the decision of continuing to travel/live abroad for a while longer, or return to the states and find a job. I have the same fears about my future career, but also have the major fear of settling into life back in the States and then realizing too late I actually want to be abroad! These choices are tough. But I loved your honest thoughts on this topic.

  19. In our case, I think it is, because we wouldn’t be able to do this so easily if we were already settled with a mortgage, etc, and while we’re able to rough it because we haven’t gotten used to luxuries. For me, it was a case of “will I regret doing this, or will I regret NOT doing it more?”

    • That’s a great way to think of it- personally I know that if if I never would’ve learned French I never would’ve forgiven myself! Best to just live your dreams rather than look back and wonder what if.

  20. Ahh…the question of a lifetime. I think it all depends on how you spin it later. If you travel around in your early 20s just to go back and accept a job you hate – no, it’s not smart. But if you live it up and let you carry you wherever you’re meant to go….that’s a different story.

    I love this post.

  21. What about a travel agent? I’m assuming you’d have some great stories about certain places that people wanted to go to, or at least have experience. Just a suggestion. ;x

    I’ve never actually gotten to travel. I wish I had received opportunities in high school like many of my other classmates, but such a thing would have then required me to have grown up with a totally different life than the one I have now.

    I like to think that it shouldn’t matter if you travel now or if you wait. I like to think that people who travel have more doors opened in the career aspect of their lives because they’ve seen the world and have possibly experienced more things than those living in small towns who have never gotten out of such.

    I hope finding a job won’t be too hard!

    • Being a travel agent would be great but I think it would pain me to set up trips for other people because I’d want to go so badly myself :). And I think travel is a great idea at any point of your life, I plan to keep traveling until I’m old and grey.

  22. I went through this whole questioning myself and my lifestyle things too. Don’t worry! You have to have faith that you’re exactly where you need to be. While your peers are working, you’re learning languages and seeing the world. There is definite value to this for the day you do decide to enter the workforce, and you’ll be recognized for it. You’re still young (even if it doesn’t feel like it). I’m 26 going on 27 and STILL don’t have it figured out. Keep doing what you’re doing, and acquiring new skills that will eventually help you land the job of your dreams one day.

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement Christine, I’m hoping you’re right and someday I’ll be able to have my dream job as well as several good years of travel behind me. I’d love to live in Basque Country like you do someday by the way :)

  23. I imagine it’s fun to switch back and forth, that’s what I’m betting on. I have spent the last few years as a full time parent, a journey of it’s own, and am looking at going back to work as well. Our journey’s outside of the ‘mainstream’ job scene will add to our skills in unique ways…that’s how I see it. I hope it all works out well for you!!

  24. Hi Ashley,
    I can understand your challenges and thought processes from your perspective and thinking from an employer’s perspective I would say “it depends”. I think when it comes to travel experiences some people learn and grow in their ability to think more broadly about the world, to respond differently to different situations, to adapt quickly, while other people learn to enjoy new places and new food and sometimes become entrenched in their own way of thinking.
    Interestingly the research shows cultural intelligence (the ability to be effective in a diverse cultural environment) is not predicted by overseas travel. So it’s travel plus. And it’s that plus you would need to demonstrate to an employer.

    Think about what you can bring to a job now that you couldn’t before these experiences. Yes definitely languages so you can understand more in a global workplace, but also a level of comfort when you can’t understand what’s going on – so you won’t avoid the situations of uncertainty. You will have demonstrated the ability to manage stress under pressure, navigating unknown streets in challenging situations. You can probably quickly build relationships, even with people from very different backgrounds to your own. You can probably also quickly assess a situation for threats and opportunities. You may be more creative than you were before travelling given that you have seen and experienced some very different environments and therefore can view alternative ideas and solutions.

    Your job is to describe these and other skills in a way that seems valuable to whatever company you are hoping to work for, and to prepare all those travel stories into relevant situations so you can answer the behavioural interviewing questions in appropriate workplace ways. Tell me about a time you’ve worked under stress, managed a difficult person, got the outcome you wanted from someone who didn’t want to give it to you etc etc
    Happy to talk further if you want.
    Trisha

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Trisha. I read it over several times and it really does make a lot of sense to approach the job hunt like this. I really appreciate the encouragement and will seriously take your advice to heart!

  25. Wow, Ashley! Thank you so much for this… you know, this is something I struggled with when I returned from living in France. I enrolled in a business grad program and while we recruited for summer internships, the companies didn’t have much of an interest in me… and I think it was partially because of my nomadic and wandering ways. It’s not so much that they aren’t impressed, but they are less likely to want to invest in someone who is a flight-risk… someone who likes change so much. If they can find a candidate who is JUST as qualified, but more likely to be a stable return on their investment, then they will go with the safe bet. It’s just smart, corporate business.

    Now that being said, it’s been a good thing because it’s forced me to create my own path and pursue the things I love. And when I am being myself, my experiences serve as an ASSET rather than an hindrance.

    I think there are always going to be times when we wonder “what if?” and I think it’s natural to wonder if your unconventional ways may be shooting you in the foot. But at the end of the day, I don’t think so. I think you’re on the right path for the life you want to live. You’re following your passion and that has a place even in a more conventional lifestyle. Plus, you’re 22 and it IS more forgivable and looks really impressive. When you’re heading into your late twenties, like I am, you look more directionless and purposeless. But don’t worry about that for now.

    And you know what else? It’s totally cool and okay to want those things that your friends have (and it’s cool for them to want what you have, too). I’m totally in that in-between stage where I really want a cute apartment and savings and nicer things, but I also feel like I might want to sell those things once I get them and travel the world. Haha, it’s okay to want seemingly competing things. I’m on my way to figuring out how to have both. :)

    Thanks for opening up and I’m interested in seeing how you figure things out. And also, I think you probably are already aware of her or know her blog, but C’est Christine has found a lot of success in the corporate world after traveling… so she’s a good example of how it can work for you and how you can be happy with a little more of a conventional life. :) Bonne chance!

    • Thanks so much Erika for this well thought-out comment. I love what you said about when you’re doing what you love your experiences serve as an asset rather than a hindrance- so true! I’d love to find a career into which I can incorporate writing, creativity and foreign languages but we shall see :). Bonne chance a toi aussi !

  26. I stumbled across your blog today, and I have to say that this post hits so close to home right now.

    I studied abroad in Germany during high school and recently graduated with a degree in German. I was lucky enough to stumble into an entry level job at an international company. As long as I can remember I have wanted to go back to Germany. There have been promises of the possibility of going abroad for this company, but it’s really not a sure thing. I have been planning to go to grad school for my MBA, but am realizing that I hate being stuck in an office and don’t really know what I want.

    At 23 I have a car payment, rent, furniture, etc. I pay all my own bills and don’t really have parents that I’m able to fall back on financially. Part of me feels so trapped in this lifestyle. I want to quit, sell everything, and go on an adventure. I want to be back in Germany working on my German and exploring again. But the other side of me is so afraid to walk away from the real job and life I have only to come back and start over a year or two later.

    I really don’t know what to do. And am struggling with the same growing pains you are right now.

    I love your blog and you live an inspiring life!

    • Thanks so much for this heartfelt comment, Miquel. Whatever you choose I really hope it works out and that someday you definitely get back to Germany! It’s so hard at our age to figure out what you want and not only that, but how to get it. Good luck with everything!

  27. Thank you so much for this post. As a recent graduate student has chosen to live an expat life of au pairing, teaching english, and studying languages languages for the next few years I have come across far too many people who propagate the idea that unless you’re backpacking you’re not living. I hope to be a diplomat some day. I love travel, people, languages and politics and that job can give it to me, but if I were to follow the advice of many bloggers I would simply be giving up a “life of freedom” and “a fun life” in order to sell out as a stiff who works in cubicle. I don’t believe that and it looks like you don’t do either.

    In short, thank you for having the courage to say your envious of a friend with a good job, a friend whose married with a house, a friend who has stability. Those things aren’t the enemy and if try, there ARE ways we can merge our travel lifestyles with a “real” job.

    • I definitely plan on doing that. I would love to have the stability, comfort and especially community that a fixed life offers while still being able to go off on adventures. Ideally I’d live somewhere 9 months out of the year and travel for 3… but it may take a while to be able to finagle that!

  28. have you found your answer to this? i’m in my final semester and torn between whether to find a full-time job or continue travelling. money is also an issue, when you’re a fresh graduate. any advice? :(

    • I’m going to write an update to this post but long story short YES, I think travel at a young age is smart for the most part. As long as you have enough money (or can make it on the road), you’ll be just fine :)

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