Backpacking Then vs. Now: Does Travel Wisdom Come with Age?

I’m 29 years old,  and from what I understand (source: MTV) there’s a slippery slope of some description and I am on it. I’m not sure where it’s leading, but it’s almost certainly somewhere which is not very cool. Or at least, not very cool in the eyes of my teenage niece. Rather hopefully I pleaded with her that I was still down with the kids,” and quicker than you could say ‘Hannah Montana’, she responded with a withering glance and a silent ‘L’ sign, formed by her thumb and index finger. At the time I had no idea what she meant. I do now. I’m inconsolable.

Momentarily setting aside the pangs of an arguably premature mid-life crisis, I decided to take definitive action. Wiping the thick layer of dust from my backpack I got myself an InterRail ticket (Eurail for you non-Europeans) and set off on a journey around Europe to recreate, as best I could, the free spirit of my youth. 75% of people who buy a Eurail pass are under 25, but it only took a few days on the tracks to realize that that maybe, just maybe, there were some advantages to traveling with a more mature head on one’s shoulders …

Hotels vs. hostels?


Obviously there is much to be said about the new friends one makes and the shared experiences to be enjoyed in dorm-style accommodation. Indeed, some of my best times have been spent in the bar or common room of a travelers hostel. However, age often brings the luxury of having a bit more money in one’s pockets and nowadays, given a choice, I’m of the view that nothing beats a private room with a nice firm double bed, a power-shower and perhaps a mini bar to call my own.

I actually stayed in a hotel in Budapest which had a trouser press in the room. A trouser press for heaven’s sake! Needless to say I opted to give Budapest’s famed nightlife a miss in favor of six miniature bottles of the best Hungarian vodka and an evening spent ironing a concertina of creases into my combats. Happy days!

Cultural activities vs. hangovers?


As a teenager, I took great satisfaction from drawing miniature penises all over the teachers’ stationery when they popped out of the classroom. Take that, society! However despite my sizeable contributions to the neo-nudism movement, it would have taken a lot more than wild horses to get the ‘phantom willy drawer’ to visit an art gallery at that age.

I preferred the idea of spending my evenings in foreign climes getting acquainted with unpalatable local tipples and spending the following day delicately nursing the mother of all headaches, certainly in no mood to get my head round all those post-impressionists in the Louvre in Paris or the head-splittingly vivid colors on show in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Now, not only can I ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ my way round galleries with the best of them, but I actually quite enjoy getting up early and making more of my day too.

Shared experiences with a life partner vs. gratuitous sex with strangers?


I’ve been in enough backpacker hostels to know that (even though I was never getting any!) there were like-minded solo travelers getting up to all sorts of mischief behind virtually every door. In fact when you are young, single and a million miles from home, I would have thought fornication of this sort would be practically mandatory: see Section 37(b)(ii) on your InterRail ‘Conditions of Travel’.

On the other hand and soppy though it may sound, there’s a great deal to be said about being able to share your travel experiences with a life partner. Casual relationships may last a few days or weeks but normally not much longer than a traveler’s return home. On the other hand, when you travel the world with a loved one, you can look forward to growing old together and boring your grandchildren into submission with tedious travel anecdotes.

Efficiency vs. spontaneity?


I arrived into Stazione di Roma knowing I had no more than 48 hours to see as much of Rome as possible. The spontaneity of youth is of course a great thing and takes you to unexpected places, but it also has its drawbacks. A younger version of me would no doubt have embarked on a bold lap of the city. Blistered feet and heavy backpack weighing me down, I would have settled for nothing less than the most inexpensive cockroach-infested hostel I could find. The Colosseum? No way, let’s check out that Museum of Cement, it must be good.

There’s no leaving it to chance nowadays though. Not only did sensible old me book his hotel room in advance, but I also arrived at the Eternal City with a street map and clear directions to the hotel. Add to that hours of nerdy research on Rome’s most interesting sights and finest eating establishments, and I am happy to say: I came, I saw, I conquered. Well, as much as one can conquer in 48 hours anyway.

Haute cuisine vs. street food?


As a youngster I used to place ‘eating’ in the same category as ‘form-filling’. It was a dull and inevitable part of my life which just seem to get in the way of my unquenchable desire to ‘part-ay’. I suppose when you add this to the limited budgets and less sophisticated palates of some younger travelers, it is safe to say that many will often miss out on the excellent dining experiences on offer in most European cities.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with street food. It’s cheap, it’s local, it’s often very tasty. However, with age one learns to seek out the finer restaurants, order the right bottle of wine and generally go the extra mile in search of that perfect dining experience, which sometimes just can’t be recreated from a street stall.

Savvy traveler vs. reckless youth?


I was reading a guide to Bratislava that discouraged first time visitors to the city from getting involved in ‘street gambling’. Street gambling? I mean, who in their right mind would see a group of dodgy-looking Slovakians exchanging sweaty bills on a street corner and think: I want a piece of that action. Then I thought about my own fearless naivety as a youngster and the compromising situations in which I inevitably found myself on my travels. In fact some of my most interesting travel stories involve scenarios which I would not think of negotiating my way into (and then out of) these days.

Although the recklessness of youth brings adventure, I am somewhat happier in the knowledge that my maturity and sensible demeanor make it less likely that I will become a victim of street crime or con artists. Certainly, I would ensure my passports and travelers cheques are safely locked away in my hotel safe before getting up to any monkey business.

Of course, there are the odd unanswerable pitfalls which befall travelers with a few grew hairs on their head. For example, although it was good news for Toby, my chiropractor’s son (who bought himself a gold-plated X-box as a result), a backpack seems to cause far more damage to my spine than it did as a teenager. I have also found ‘standards’ to be a somewhat limiting factor, since they stand in the way of my ability to find cheap accommodation or wear the same pair of underwear for three consecutive days.

Finally, I wonder what damage all this traveling does to one’s future career prospects. Backpacking is seen as an interesting, character-building addition to the CV of a 21 year old taking a gap year before entering employment. When you’re almost 30 it tends to make you look fidgety and unwilling to accept the grim reality that we must lead dull and dutiful lives now that our acne has cleared up.

Taking the above with the requisite pinch of salt, one may hazard to conclude that no-one is too old to don their back-pack full of dreams and set off into the unknown. It may just be that as we grow older and wiser we feel less inclined to partake in the proclivities of our footloose and fancy-free days. Certainly I am less willing to make the same sort of concessions I would have made without a thought in my starry-eyed youth.

But this is not to say that younger travelers have generally better or more enjoyable travel experiences, or that in my advanced age and infinite wisdom I somehow have the edge over all those back-pack-wearing Jonas Brothers look-a-likes. But it seems to be an undeniable, inescapable fact that as we grow older – for better or worse – our travel styles will too.

How has your travel style changed as you’ve aged? Do you prefer the travel style of your youth or the way you travel as an older adult? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by: sukianto, gyrts, ~FreeBirD~, Celine Massa, monojussiAlex E. Proimos


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Older comments on Backpacking Then vs. Now: Does Travel Wisdom Come with Age?

11 August 2010

You are only 29, but make yourself sound like a 40 year old. Go have some fun!!

Katie Hammel
11 August 2010

For my first international trip, as a spry 22-year old, I went to Dublin for just 4 nights. Because my flight left on the last morning at 7am, I didn’t want to spring for a hotel room that I’d end up leaving around 4am. So I decided to save myself $50 and planned to stay out all night. By midnight I was exhausted and miserable.

I gave up and went to the airport, where I slept on the floor for the next several hours. Never again.

Now that I am older, I still like to save money, but I’m also much more willing to spend a bit extra to ensure my comfort.

Kelly O'Laughlin
11 August 2010

This article is right up my alley. As I get older, my “backpacking” tendencies have changed immensely. I used to think sleeping on the floor of a bus station was “cool”, now the idea of a nice, clean hotel is like music ot my ears. I still like to stay in hostels, but def prefer the private room. I used to try to save every penny, now I am more than happy to spend a little money for a short flight that might save me many, many uncomfortable hours on a bus. However, I have to say I still prefer street food in most cases.

11 August 2010

Travel habits certainly do change over time but I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. It’s never either or in real situations.

As for me, I like to balance between the young whipper-snapper backpacker I used to be and the more mature, comfortable life-loving adult (I’m 29 as well) I’ve evolved into. Saving money’s great but I’m willing to shell out more if it means a good night’s rest.

It all depends on priorities as well. I have more money in my bank account now that I ever did but I quit my job 2 years ago and I’ve been traveling ever since and the value of money has changed for me. Sure I can blow a nice chunk of change at the bar on drinks, but if it means having less money in the long run to continue my travels for as long as possible, I’d rather have that extra day.

ACK! I’m rambling! Sorry!

12 August 2010

Thanks. It was a good read and I’m in the same kind of boat.

A Joker
14 August 2010

I don’t think you have to change as you get older; especially because 29 isn’t exactly old. I’m in my 30’s and still stay in cheap places and eat street food as much as I can. I am usually broke, but like an earlier poster said, the more you blow on expensive food and lodging, the shorter your trip will be.

Stephanie Pelser
15 August 2010

sorry, but you make yourself sound so very old. personally, I don’t know any young (i.e. late teens/early twenties) travelers that are/were that irresponsible. on the other hand, things like accommodation, transportation and food depend on your budget, and there there are 30-somethings who don’t have more money than somebody on a leap year (usually heavily subsidized by parents etc).

Heather Hapeta
17 August 2010

Oh my god! 29 old? old or young .. its just numbers and despite first running away from home at 50 I think I’m way younger than you … sorry! I have so many young people (ie under 25) saying ‘i want to be like you when i grow up’ Well so do I – I have the best life I know .. and, still travel with only an air ticket, no bookings, and have a ball! i rarely use dorms now but still stay in backpackers or youth hostels, mostly eat street food, and explore places.. not just a tick off list. MY next travels are to India and Borneo

Myra Needleman
17 August 2010

I LOVE the fact that you think 29 is old!!

19 August 2010

A calendar is nothing but simply a reminder that your days here are numbered….stop whining!!!!

19 August 2010

Comment to travel wisdom w age
I agree with Heather. I ‘ran away from home’ for the first time when I was 31. I am now 50 and just embarked on a year long trip thru SE Asia and then to Africa next year on a smaller budget than when I was in my 30’s. The difficult ‘age’ thing now is that I can’t go anywhere without my reading glasses – so I brought 4 pair! There is also the undeniable fact that you have less physical energy. Quite the downer, bc if anything my mental energy and desire to learn and experience new things has increased. What has changed with time is my focus and intentions. I now desire to make a meaningful contribution to my larger world community thru my photography and as a human being. In turn I meet people – of all ages – who are in synch with me. So perhaps that is what I would term “Travel wisdom with age”.

E. Deborah Bynan
26 September 2010

Oh Mr old 29! I guess I’m 29 also, approaching 68.Did the Zambezi when I was 61 -climbing out was harder than the rafting.Grand Canyon rafting two wks @ 59. Looking to go gorilla trekking Africa next yr. Love tent camping or hostels—-more trips for me!You just keep on trucking–you have MANY years to go! Love it & be grateful!