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.
For me, it all started with the decision to study abroad
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.
The second time, it was an easy decision
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.
Why the benefits of travel last long after the trip is over
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?