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!