Ask Kate: Is 18 Too Young To Travel Long-Term?

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Vang Vieng Tubing

At 18, you’re a legal adult.  But does that mean you’re old enough to travel the world on your own for a few months or longer?  This might seem outrageous to my American readers — but in other countries, Australia in particular, it’s not uncommon for 18-year-olds to backpack long-term.  This week’s question examines age and maturity.

Hi Kate!

I’m an 18 year old girl from Australia and I love your blog!

I’ve been wanting to travel the world ever since I remember, and I have just finished high school and finally have a chance to do it. I’m planning to do a shoestring trip, the thing is I’ll be going it alone, as none of my friends are really interested in it.

I’m kind of nervous, I know that I’m young but its something I’ve always wanted to do, so I was just wondering what your opinion on it was? Do you think 18 is too young? I’ve always been fairly independent and I think I have pretty good common sense but I’m a bit nervous, also.

I’ve met lots of 18-year-olds who are mature, ready, and would succeed at a long-term backpacking trip around the world.  At the same time, most of the 18-year-olds I’ve known are nowhere near ready for a trip of this undertaking.

How do you know if you’re ready?

When traveling long-term, it’s critically important that you are able to problem-solve and take responsibility independently of anyone else.  Here’s a good way to figure out if you’re ready:

  • When things go wrong, who fixes the problem?  Do you 1) take care of them on your own or 2) call your parents and have them bail you out?
  • Are you able to assert yourself in relationships, romantic and otherwise?  When you’re uncomfortable in a situation, do you 1) make your feelings clear or 2) let the other person take the lead, hoping they do what you want them to do?
  • Are you comfortable doing things alone?  If you want to see a movie or go to the beach and none of your friends want to join you, do you 1) go anyway on your own or 2) choose an activity that everyone wants to do?
  • Do you enjoy independent travel?  Have your previous travels been 1) planned and organized by tour groups or family members or 2) active, involved, and planned primarily by yourself?
  • Are you able to earn the money for this trip?  Putting graduation gift money toward a trip is fine, but do you plan to 1) earn enough to pay for the bulk of the trip on your own or 2) ask your family for the money, either as a gift or a loan?

I know it’s tempting to say that of course you would answer 1) for all of these, but you need to be honest with yourself or this trip is not going to work out.  If you did honestly answer 1), good for you.  Chances are you’re ready.

Floating Bar

Beyond that, there are two areas in which I think 18-year-olds are particularly vulnerable on the backpacker trail:

1. Alcohol.  Alcohol is undeniably a major part of the backpacker trail all over the world, whether you choose to backpack in Australia, Southeast Asia, Europe or anywhere else.  When you’re 18, you don’t have as much experience drinking, and you aren’t as aware of your tolerance.

Most of the problems I’ve seen happen to backpackers have stemmed from inebriation in some fashion: people drink too much and get drugged, robbed, or even assaulted by locals or other travelers.  At 18, without much drinking experience, it’s easy to get to that dangerous level of drunkenness.

2. Romance.  Hooking up with fellow travelers or locals is another major part of the backpacker trail.  The great thing about university is that it’s as much of a social education as an academic education — everyone is in the same boat at age 18 to 22, living away from home for the first time.  While these years will undoubtedly include some painful relationship experiences, you’re experiencing them on a relatively even playing field.

When you start traveling long-term at 18, before university, you haven’t yet had that chance.  On the backpacking trail, people tend to be in their twenties and older.

I say this with particular concern for 18-year-old women interested in men: when you’re less experienced with older men, it’s easier to be hurt, taken advantage of, or coerced into sex — or worse, unprotected sex.

Drinking throughout high school or having relationships in your teens does not prepare you for either of these — and to deny that is an immature move in itself.

A mature 18-year-old would begin traveling long-term with his or her eyes open and be particularly conscientious of knowing how to limit drinking and how to protect himself or herself physically and emotionally when it comes to hooking up.

Chris, Kate and Jon on the way to Vang Vieng

Should you wait a few years?

If you decide to postpone your long-term backpacking trip, it’s not the end of the world — in fact, for most of you, it’s probably a good thing.  You could take a short-term trip now, going somewhere in Europe or Central America for a few weeks.  In the meantime, travel a bit more and spend a semester or even a year studying abroad if you can.

I left to travel long-term at age 26 and I was a radically different person than I was at 20 when I studied abroad in Florence.  I was smarter, more mature, more patient, far more travel-savvy, far more responsible when it came to drinking, had a few romantic relationships under my belt, and had spent a few years earning a good salary.

For most people, I would recommend waiting until their early twenties to travel.  But for the smart, mature, conscientious and responsible 18-year-old, you could very well be ready.

How old do you think is a good age to travel?  Join in the comments here or on Facebook.

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