Five years ago, I (melodramatically) posed the question, “Is it smart to travel young?”
At the time, I was 22, working in Paris as an au pair. Though I loved my life in Paris, I feared I had preemptively ruined my career by taking a gap year.
I certainly hadn’t, but I understand why I felt that way. While I corralled French children and earned a pittance of a salary, my friends racked up prestigious internships and started their careers. In comparison, I felt unaccomplished, and was worried about falling behind.
Now that I’m several years into my career (and newly admitted into grad school!), I wanted to respond to the original question.
The short answer is yes, it’s smart to travel young, depending on your circumstances and goals.
The long answer? Travel may or may not help you find the right career, but it will undoubtedly help you grow as a person. If you do it right, you’ll acquire invaluable friends, skills, and experiences.
How travel changed me
When I was 22, I was very insecure. Why am I not prettier/thinner/more accomplished?, I asked myself on a merciless loop. I suffered from anxiety, and sometimes, depression.
But then, a few months after graduation, I moved to Paris for a year. And after Paris, I spent a year backpacking the world, mostly solo.
After two years of living and traveling abroad, I was a girl transformed. Travel had changed me, in ways both big and small.
One way is that I became more outgoing. After navigating dozens of hostel dorms as a solo traveler, I could strike up a conversation with almost anyone.
I also became more self-reliant. If I could barter with a tuk-tuk driver in Delhi, I could certainly negotiate a lease in Denver.
Most importantly, travel gave me self-confidence in spades. This came from knowing that I could do hard things: learning fluent French in less than a year, backpacking the Himalayas, scuba-diving with sharks despite my lifelong fear of them.
By proving myself to be capable time and time again, I gained confidence in my own strengths and abilities. And as I’m sure you know, confidence makes all the difference in every area of life: career, love, and everything else.
Why traveling is easier when you’re young
When you’re young, you have a higher tolerance for just about everything, from dirty hostel dorms to day-long hangovers.
Physically, being in your early twenties is like a super power: You can fall asleep anywhere, including a bean bag in a hostel common room. You can drink like an Australian (for a few weeks, anyhow). You can eat pad Thai every night and mysteriously not gain weight.
Another benefit of traveling young is that being broke feels less problematic. Cost-cutting measures like sleeping on airport floors and cutting your hair in the sink seem weirdly fun and almost romantic.
Travel is a joy and a privilege at any age. But travel, especially long-term budget travel, is easier to do while you’re still in your twenties and have yet to accrue many responsibilities.
So if you just graduated from college and feel an overwhelming desire to travel, do it. To even consider traveling abroad is a privilege, and not one that everyone has. You are not shooting yourself in the foot by deciding to travel — you are investing in yourself and the person you will eventually become.
(One caveat is that there are certain jobs that recruit at the end of college, like consulting, so if that’s your ideal career path, perhaps post-college travel is not the best idea.)
That said, be responsible. Have savings, get your vaccinations, and buy travel insurance. Social media enthusiastically espouses the idea of quitting your job to travel, but moving or traveling abroad is a big decision, and should be carefully considered.
. . . . . . . . . . .
In my opinion, the best way to travel after college is to work abroad. That way, you’ll be able to make money while also exploring the world.
Here are some ideas on how to work abroad after graduation:
- If you have hefty student loans, consider teaching English in Korea. My friend Audrey made $17,000 in one year while teaching in Korea.
- If you’ve always wanted to learn a language, au pair in Europe.
- If you love road tripping, become an adventure tour leader and lead people around the United States.
- If you’re outdoorsy, pick up a seasonal job like working as a lift operator in Colorado or guiding kayakers in Alaska.
- If you’re a strong student, apply for grants or scholarships that let you study or work abroad after college (I really wish I had done this). Some ideas: Rhodes Scholarship, Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Fulbright Program, Watson Fellowship.
All this being said – I’m so happy I traveled young, and I feel fortunate that I was able to do so. The two years I spent living and traveling abroad were some of the best of my life.
And given the chance, I wouldn’t change a thing.
What do you guys think? Do you think it’s smart to travel after college? Did you do so yourself?
P.S. How to Plan an Inexpensive but Awesome Trip Abroad and How to Find a Job After a Gap Year.
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12 thoughts on “Is It Smart to Travel Young? A Follow-up Five Years Later”
Congrats on grad school! At the age of 26, I’m actually taking my gap year now. I had considered being an au pair right after college but instead got a full-time job that was too good to turn down. Now that I’m a few years into my career and not sure it’s the “right path” for me (do we ever really know what the right path is?), I’m taking the opportunity to hit the brakes and figure out what I really want to do. Teaching English abroad, joining the Peace Corps, going to grad school…who knows! But you’ve inspired me to go be an au pair in Paris for a year, listen to myself, and find out who I am by traveling (sadly I haven’t really traveled much at all!). It’s still such an enormous privilege to be able to take this year off and figure out what the next move is, and I’m so happy to be able to say if not now, then when? And then go do the dang thing.
That’s awesome you’re taking a gap year! It’s so nice to be able to take the time to figure out what you really want to do (and travel a bit while you’re at it). When I was 26 I quit my job and moved to Uganda, and having that time to think about my life back home and what I really wanted was so valuable. Good luck with whatever you decide to do!
Absolutely agree that traveling young is awesome! I believe travel is way more beneficial than any educational program, internship or job you’re going to land right out of college. It teaches you so much about yourself, the world around you and what you want for your life moving forward. I wish the idea of a gap year after high school or after college was almost enforced so everyone got out there and did some traveling. Would be so beneficial!
I totally agree! Gap years are so common in so many countries — I wish they were more popular in the US. I think you grow so much from traveling at a young age!
Ashley, first and foremost, you are gorgeous woman. Your smile could melt any men’s heart. Been enjoyed reading your adventures over the years. Keep it up and best of luck in graduate school. Remember, YOLO.
Thanks, Chuck! :)
I loved reading this, it was so uplifting and relatable. Definitley cut my own hair into a sink a few times and have stayed in some pretty awful hostels! I graduated last year and have been travelling and interning at the same time which has worked pretty well. I do get the feeling sometimes that I’m being left behind though, in terms of career but then like you I have gained so much confidence travelling that I think it balances out. I’m new to your blog so sorry if you’ve answered this before, but I’m curious! Do you have a full time job now or do you travel for a living (whatever way you can)?
Hi Jenny! Thanks for stopping. I just got into grad school at the University of Michigan, so that’s what I’m doing now. I don’t travel full-time anymore!
I feel like my whole adult life has been a gap year. I’ve only had a good paying job and politics ruined it, a job I really liked but the atmosphere became toxic about 4 years after starting in it. Through all this time, the constant has been that wherever I lived, I’ve always saved my money to travel. I still see everybody around me earning a lot more money than me, and I often think it would be nice to own a house, especially since I have two children now, but I end up using my money to take them to watch a total solar eclipse in Wyoming instead.
I don’t know, maybe I’ll stop with this extended gap year at some point. XD
I think I’ll always be saving up to travel too! Thanks for stopping by, Carlos :)
I love this post!! I wanted to travel in my early 20s and ended up being tied down to something I couldn’t get out of until I was 26. In a lot of ways, I’m glad I had to wait until I was more mature because I feel like I would have missed out on so much, or done things I would have regretted (22-year-old me would have jumped on the back of an elephant without a second thought. 26-year-old me volunteered with them instead). But travelling young is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do, and you’re right – it depends on your circumstances, and it does depend on you, too. But I don’t think many people regret their decision to travel! :)
So true! I don’t regret it one bit :)
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