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Why You Should Travel While You’re Young at Any Cost


Maria in Thailand: Why you should travel while you're young at any cost.One of my friends recently shared a Humans of New York photo on Facebook. It was a portrait of an elderly man and he had told the photographer, “Travel while you’re young. Even if you have to borrow money to do it.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that photo all day. As someone who is money-conscious and also hopes to travel a lot during my lifetime, it really resonated with me. I started to create a whole storyline for this man in my head. Maybe he was a world traveler. Or maybe he never had the chance to travel, and it was a regret for his whole life.

As I’ll share here, I’ve had two amazing opportunities to travel before I’ve even graduated from college. Although I was fortunate not to have to borrow money to do so, I had to work, save, and apply for grants. As a result, I think you should travel while you’re young at (almost) any cost. I would love to hear your thoughts on suspending some of the “rules” about money for amazing travel experiences. Have you done it? Do you wish you had? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Here’s my story:

One of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make so far in my own life was whether or not to study abroad. No one in my family had ever done it. Plus, it was tough for me to justify the cost. If I weren’t a Spanish major, I doubt I would have taken the plunge. I had never traveled out of the country before that experience. And I had to pay for most everything myself, with my own savings — the flight there and back, all the traveling I did during those five months, food, public transportation. It really wiped out my bank account.

But it also marked a turning point in the way I think about the value of traveling abroad. Put simply, it was much more worthwhile than I could have imagined.

A month ago, I had another opportunity to take a big international trip. I was fortunate enough to get a grant from my school to go on a 10-day reporting trip to the border of Thailand and Burma. I spent months in the fall and winter with my research partner preparing our grant proposal. We tracked down potential interview subjects and solidified our story’s angle for hours each week. Sometimes I felt like it was too much; I already had a lot on my plate. But we wanted to report on Burmese refugees on Thailand’s border, and we couldn’t pay for a reporting trip like that ourselves. I was so excited to find out we’d been selected among all the grant proposals our school received. It was a tough process, but I think our hard work showed.

This time, the money wasn’t coming out of my pocket — all the expenses were covered by the grant. But it solidified my feelings about whether or not travel is worth it.

I know that every time I have traveled — whether to Argentina, Thailand, or somewhere in the United States — I have added “value” to myself. In some ways, that’s obvious; while studying abroad, I improved my Spanish conversation skills, for example. But some of those ways have been more subtle.

Talking about travel has become such a source of currency since I began taking these trips. I’ve found that even when you come from different walks of life or are drastically different ages, discussing a trip can become wonderful common ground. Job interviewers always ask me about my time in Argentina — it’s usually the aspect of my life they’ve focused the most on, and been the most interested in. Even at a dinner party or on a date, travel stories are the ones I’m most likely to draw on to make myself a little more interesting.

While deciding whether or not to travel, I wasn’t always thinking, “How can this trip add to my professional and personal value?” Most of the time I was thinking, “I want to travel while I’m young. I’m ready for another adventure.” But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results.

Whether it was drinking a terremoto in Valparaíso, riding on the back of a motorcycle and stepping into a refugee camp for the first time in rural Thailand, celebrating American Thanksgiving in Uruguay, making a lifelong best friend in Atlanta, waking up to a breathtaking view of the Andes in western Argentina or squinting to see Cuba from Key West, I knew I was leaving a bit of my Indiana suburbs self behind and becoming someone profoundly different.

All of those times I was doing something that made me afraid — both for my safety and my bank account. I guarantee I considered how much that terremoto cost before I bought it. You can drive yourself crazy budgeting while you’re on the road.

But maybe it’s a good idea to let yourself exhale a bit and realize something magical is happening that just might be worth it.

For me, it’s gaining a sense of confidence I never would have had otherwise. I used to even be afraid to take public transportation from my campus to downtown Chicago. Now I barely flinch at an international flight. I know myself, both my strengths and weaknesses, like I never could four years ago. Because on all of these adventures, only one thing remained consistent — me. And it’s valuable to see how I’ve reacted to all the circumstances I’ve found myself in.

If you don’t believe me, take it from the experts.

I love this quote from a book called “A Hat Full of Sky.” In it, the author Terry Pratchett writes, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Or as Mark Twain wrote more famously, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I’ve gotten a lot of wanderlust out of my system in just a few years. What makes me happiest is, I don’t think I’ll look back and say, “I should have.”

I know taking this approach is risky. I do feel fortunate that it has worked out for me thus far. But if you can make travel work while you’re young — and do it responsibly — there are ways it can pay for itself.

What do you think? Do you think it’s worth travelling while you’re young even if money’s tight? What about if you have to borrow money to travel? Have you done it? Weigh in with a comment.

About Maria LaMagna

Maria LaMagna is a recent graduate of Northwestern University where she served as editor-in-chief of the university’s award-winning daily newspaper and studied for five months in Argentina. Before joining Money Under 30, Maria worked as a reporter for CNN and the Indianapolis Business Journal. Follow Maria on Twitter @MCLaMagna.

Comments

  1. EuropeanChik says:

    I completely agree, that you should travel while you are young before marriage, kids, and life gets in the way. I’m 26, and so far I have been to eight different countries and I can’t wait to expand that list. It is such once in a lifetime experience that I would not trade it for the world, even if it did put a little bit of a dampen on my finance (couple thousand, but nothing i can’t pay off in few months). But as I see it, money will always be the issue no matter what, so you might as well live and enjoy.

  2. Tim Ferriss got this whole concept started back with the 4-hr workweek. And its growing in acceptance. Not sure where, but recently I read where this is now being called the “mini-retirement” concept that the 21 to even 35 crowd should enjoy.

    The days of working in one spot with the hopes of one big normal retirement at 65 are over. People need to grab pockets of travel where needed and even work in “spurts” where it makes sense.

    Great article and thanks for sharing.

  3. Needed this. Everything in life can’t be about dollars and cents. I’ve been hemming and hawing over whether to go to Germany next year. Trip is as good as booked :)

  4. I completely agree that travel is extremely important. It opens your eyes to new cultures and makes you learn about yourself. Although I do not think you should spend all your savings and that research should be done to make the trip economical, I think that it is worth the money to travel. I have been to England, Italy and Greece and I must admit that by being out of your comfort zone truly is a beautiful thing. I want to plan a trip to Germany and Austria asap!

  5. I disagree. Travel is stressful – both the act of traveling and the culture shock of the destination. Time and money can be better spent learning a new skill.

    • I think you have a great point, Joseph. For some people it would be better for them to stay at home and learn a new skill. However, travel does inherently involve change which ultimately causes growth. I think that it was valuable for me to leave my small community. When I came back I was better able to see the issues in my town with a more open point of view.

  6. Thank you for this, Maria. I was blessed enough to marry a woman who has kindled my love of traveling. We moved to Madrid, Spain within a week of getting married, and four months after graduating from college. Even though we’d saved (and been given generous wedding gifts), we still faced (what I now know to be) the financial pitfalls that are inevitable in long-term travel. I’ve always been the budget-conscious one (hence, my subscription to this blog!) but it was a real adjustment for us to scrutinize everything from a pay-as-you-go phone plan to a 2€ bottle of wine. Though, like you, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for someone to borrow large amounts of money to travel, I would highly recommend that the fiscally conscious readers of this blog consider adding a “Travel” line-item to their budgets. Just as a savings account is intended to mitigate unforeseen financial troubles, or propel dreams into reality (homeownership, a child’s college education, retirement, etc), a contribution to, and subsequent use of, a “travel savings” account will mitigate the temptation to become complacent, or disinterested in the cultures and sights of this world. If you’re looking to REALLY travel, it’s not as expensive as you think. I’ve stayed in some beautifully appointed hostels in Spain and Italy, each with a private bathroom, for less than 40€ per night. Do your homework, come up with a number, and start saving. We’ll be in Mexico for the next two weeks on a mission trip, and are already debating where to go next. Being married doesn’t have to preclude you from seeing the world and learning about yourself. In fact, marriage augments it. There’s nothing like traveling the world on a budget with someone you love. Thanks again, Maria.

    • Chase,

      I completely agree with your idea of having travel as a budget item. My husband and I travel somewhere every 3 or 4 months. Some trips are international and some are only a 4 hour car ride for a weekend getaway, but all are worth it. We’re able to make all these trips because we contribute to a separate vacation saving account every paycheck. I absolutely love that we started doing this once we got married – for us, it really takes the guilt out of spending the money since it was specifically saved for this purpose.

    • Maria LaMagna says:

      Chase, I think that’s an awesome idea. Also, marrying someone who likes to travel is going to be a priority for me, too. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

    • Maria LaMagna says:

      Chase, thank you so much. I think budgeting for travel is a great idea. And marrying someone who values traveling is so important to me, too. I hope one day I’m fortunate to end up with someone like that, as you are!

  7. I agree with so many things that you said Maria (awesome name by the way). Traveling teaches not only about other cultures and beliefs but so much about yourself, your personal beliefs and characteristics. During my short study abroad in Costa Rica, I definitely learned a lot about myself. I saved up, but getting grant money is another awesome avenue. Chart a path and then walk it.

  8. Travel While Young ended up being my life mantra! I started traveling at 18 & caught a serious case of wanderlust:) since then I ve seen quite a few amazing places in both hemispheres of the globe. It’s been a cocktail of tight budget trips & lavishing vacations depending on my financial situation of the day…which explains my rather sporadic career where a job always fell sacrifice to an upcoming trip. Sadly as a result, at the age of 34 I have a less than desirable financial situation with little certainty in my future. On the flip side, I have an endless collection of magnificent memories & breathtaking photographs in my travel books…I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth & am writing this laying on the white sandy beach of Florida. I am starting a new chapter with a new acquired profession & having to say No to some of the travels that come my way, for the first time sacrificing fun for a more secure future.

  9. DeAndra Tanae says:

    I have an superfluous love affair with travel but only within the constraints of my mind. (lol) I’ve always envisioned myself traveling, studying abroad and embarking on new adventures. It is less stressful and intimidating to daydream about travel verses actually traveling. Last year I turned 30 and I wrote a list of 30 things I wanted to before I could no longer blame spontaneous adventures, mistakes and drunken nights on my misguided 20’s. One of the things I wanted to do was travel to Africa. Almost a year later and approaching 31, I’ve been given the opportunity to travel to Uganda for two weeks in July. I have to pay for everything out of pocket. I work fulltime, I’m four classes away from finishing my Masters, I just bought a condo, I don’t have any money saved up; so many deterrents from traveling abroad. But this article reassured me of my decision and destiny. Thank you for reminding me that travelling is more about deepening my connections with others, broadening my understanding of self and expanding my horizons verses fearing the unknown.

  10. I have also seen all kinds of benefit from my study abroad in Australia. In my first “real job” interview, I remember talking about my experience (as prompted) for about half of the interview! (And I got the job) Especially in entry-level positions, such as jobs straight out of college, firms want to know how well you can adapt and learn to work with others and they want to see a level of social confidence and maturity that will add value to the team. My experience abroad boosted my confidence and ability to adapt to change and meet new people.
    As far as the finances, I was able to get a job while abroad, which I would highly recommend. This income brought my study abroad tuition down to that of my regular (out of state) tuition. So it didn’t set me back financially. Some people can return from a study abroad trip unchanged… But it’s never the ones that invest in the culture and get jobs or do volunteer work. Also the minimum wage in AU was about 14 US dollars per hour, so I was able to pay for scuba lessons too!
    I would also agree that study-abroad is not for everyone. Simply going out of state for college can be a big step for some, and that can also have some of the same benefits. However, I do believe that my experience has helped me to grow as a leader, and so I would suggest that if you believe that leadership is one of your strong ponts, then there is no better test than to see if you can function as a leader in other countries as well, where you have no history with people. Other organizations like Engineers Without Borders is another great way to get this experience.
    My study abroad organization offered to pay me and others to blog about our experiences, and you can find mine here: http://www.ifsa-butler.org/blog/?author=5

  11. I completely agree with this. I’m first generation European so I traveled to Europe to see my relatives every summer from the time I was 8 months old to 17 yrs old so I was never a stranger to international travel and saw my fair bit of Europe. Cut to age 26, I was working in NYC in a major company and I just started to think that there was more to life then a long commute, long hours, little pay and big expenses. So I convinced my husband that we should take a round the world trip while we were still young and childless.
    After selling off our stuff and planning as much as we could we took off at the age of 28 and traveled from West to East Europe, China, SE Asia and then Australia. While in Australia we got a working holiday visa and as the 1 yr visa was about to expire my employer offered sponsorship. At age 30 we’re still here and still have travel plans in our future! :)

  12. I studied abroad for a semester in Denmark while getting my bachelors degree. I had saved for the experience, but only about a month into it I realized that I was going to run out of money, as Denmark is a pretty expensive place to live. I took out a loan for that semester that I will be paying off this year (5 years later). It was worth every single penny. I don’t regret it for one second.