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.

36 thoughts on “Ask Kate: Is 18 Too Young To Travel Long-Term?”

  1. Good topic.
    I think 18 is just convenient for a lot of people that want to take a ‘sabatical’ between high school and college, but, from my own experience, I’d say do it after college, before you start working. Get out into the world to discover what you really want to do with your life.
    This doesn’t answer the maturity question, but that one is so person-dependant, I think

    1. Totally agree with this. I can see why some people do it between high school and college, but I think after college (if you’re going to college) is a much better time to do the ‘gap year’ – you probably have experience working and the chance to save up money, and if you screw up and get plastered on Jagerbombs you’re doing it a 15-minute walk from your dorm room instead of in a country on the other side of the world.

  2. I like the idea of the even playing field in university where it’s both social and academic education. It works well especially in America. However I’ve met very young backpackers, 18 & 19 year olds from Brazil and Germany while I was in New Zealand and Argentina, and I was amazed at the level of maturity they portrayed amongst their backpacker peers and even the much older travelers. They were very budget conscious, weren’t too crazy about drinking out all night because they knew it would cut into their budget, one even bought a car while living/working in New Zealand. Even the way they held conversations with others was impressive. I’m sure not all 18 & 19 year olds are like this, but a lot of young people make travel as a priority and make it work for themselves despite their surroundings and lack of comfort zone.

    1. Great point. I’m sure there are absolutely plenty of 18-year-olds who are mature and responsible like this — however, they constitute the minority, not the majority.

  3. I first moved abroad at 18. I was a junior in college and took a year off to spend a year in China, and that decision changed my life in countless ways.

    I would not be the person I am today — I’d still be a quiet, lonely shell of myself, I think — had I not made that leap and moved halfway across the world. I traveled, met new people, tried new foods, tested my limits, expanded my world view, even got my heart broken a couple times.

    And it has all been worth it. I say go now, while you’re still young and a bit naive, before your 20s makes you too jaded and scared and tied down to take that plunge. You’ll never regret going, but you will regret not going.

  4. I was going to comment on your Facebook post earlier, but you’ve summed up everything I would have said here anyway! Great post and great advice. I’m 27 and almost roll my eyes at my behaviour as a traveller when I was 17 or 21 compared to now. I much prefer the experiences I’m having now. I have a better idea of what I do and don’t like and overall, am having a better time travelling now than I would have at 18, largely because I’m more aware and appreciative of what I’m seeing and doing.

    Another thing regrading being 18 and drinking, is that being 18 isn’t legal age all over the world so you could miss out on a couple of experiences by being underage in certain countries. A minor point, but anyway.

  5. Unfortunately, when I was 18, I had quite a few friends with several years of experience with their tolerance to alcohol. Nevertheless, I think all your other points here are very well made and should be carefully considered. It’s unusual to meet an 18 year old while travelling who is clearly ready for it and is mature and responsible enough to make it the best experience possible for themselves, but we have met a few. Perhaps we’ve actually met more than we think, but since they did seem ‘ready’, we didn’t notice! There’s a new prejudice I’ve discovered I have.

  6. I like this post. Obviously you can’t generalize and some people ‘mature’ faster than others, but I do think it’s good to have a bit of short-term travel under the belt before you start doing the long-term gig. Just to get a feel of it, to know how you react to certain situations.
    I am 28 now and did a one month travel when I was 18, a year abroad when I was 21 and 7 months travel when I was 25. I do think you know more of what you want and like when you are older and ‘wiser’ … :).

  7. Great post! I believe 18 is a good age to start traveling! I started going to new places at that age. I think its best to travel at an early age because you grow the knowledge of the world and gain experience. A lot of people are too scared or don’t have the time. I have to travel, I cant stay in one place for too long ha ha 🙂
    -The Fashionista Tourist

  8. As I opened this post I was a little apprehensive that the answer would be a resounding yes. Not because I think you are ageist (!) but because young travellers definitely get a bad rep! Especially the typical gap yearer who has yet to go to Uni or work.
    However this post is great- you have presented some incredibly sensible advice and I think any 18 year old reading this will find it really helpful.
    I am now 22 but I set off for an 8 month trip when I was just 19 and it was the most amazing experience. It sounds cliched but I learnt a lot about myself and about the world and it completely changed me as a person. In fact I think it totally helped me be more prepared for Uni in terms of finances, looking after myself and interacting with strangers. So I definitely think it can work both ways, travelling can help you be prepared for higher education and higher education can prepare you for travelling.
    It does upset me to think that so many people see all young travellers as immature and reckless because like you’ve said it definitely isn’t true and sometimes people won’t even look past your age to see that you might be a mature and independent person.
    I would encourage anyone to travel at any age, all it takes is a little planning and I think this post is the perfect start to that!

  9. I think this is one of your most well-written and thoughtful posts yet. I wasn’t going to read this initially, as it doesn’t apply to me. However, as I’ve read basically everything else you’ve posted, I opened this one up out of habit and I am just so impressed! You cover every angle of the question in a very fair and direct way.

    Thanks for always writing posts that are equally personal and professional!

  10. Great Article Kate and an important subject to talk about. I left for my first gap year at the age of 16 before I went to College and it was the best decision I ever made. You really have to think on your feet and your independence grows from a young age. But it does come down to the type of character you are as a person. I had done a lot of scouting up to that point and was travelling around very safe areas mostly the Nordics (one of the reasons I was allowed to go as long as I checked in here and there). But travelling on your own from such a young age really boosts your confidence and its great having a break from long term education and then going back into it feeling more motivated. I say do it! 😀

  11. It’s such a tricky question when it comes to age! I’m 19 now and have been travelling since I was 18. I don’t regret going travelling so young at all, but I know now how intense it is when you’re learning so many of your important life skills in such extreme situations!

  12. Great questions to ask oneself! I was 19 when I left for my first round the world trip, and when I first started I had no idea what would come – it turned out to be way different from my previous one week party-holidays 😛

    Although I made some stupid mistakes then, I learned from them and also became more independent than I ever would have if I would have stayed at home for the next couple of years. Traveling really forces you to become independent!

  13. Great answer. As mentioned, age isn’t the only criteria. As you pointed out correctly maturity is the keyword. Not many 30 year olds are mature or adventurous enough to take up traveling for long periods of time. While there are many 18 year olds who can deal with problems and extreme situations with great care.

    I just started a travel blog. It is just 2 days old, but we are so excited that it is getting a lot of attention already – I would really appreciate if an experienced blogger like you would check our blog, comment/ provide recommendations, and re-blog (if you do so) the posts you like from my blog.

    Thanks and regards

  14. Such a tricky conundrum, but as someone who travelled at 18, I would say go for it. I maybe wasn’t 100% ready to travel but it was a case of sinking or swimming and I learnt fast! As long as you take the correct precautions and deal with the little hiccups along the way, you will (cliché alert) really mature and develop into a strong, confident person. I couldn’t recommend it enough, you will appreciate different aspects of travel at different ages so get out and explore! Great answer Kate, you considered both sides of the argument!

  15. It’s an interesting topic. Lots of students finish their A levels and take a gap year to travel and it can have its risks. I really like the questions you pose to young travellers, it’s important for young people to travel informed on the risks of the countries they intend to visit. It’s especially important if it’s a female traveller, I don’t know whether you’ve seen the sexual harassment and rape reports recently in Turkey and India, but it should be a concern for young female travellers. If anyone is interested, we’ve recently written a blog entry on the high level on rape in India:

  16. I don’t think I would have been ready to travel alone at 18, I definitely didn’t have enough life experience. Although I think if you were a mature 18 year old you would be fine traveling at such a young age, everyone is different

  17. I was this girl a few years ago.

    I left Australia just after I turned 19, two or three months after finishing high school. I spent the next year working/living/travelling overseas. There had never been any other option in my life than travelling.

    I tell everyone to travel as soon as they can. I can’t see any reason why not to – it can change your life and set you on a completely different path.

    Now I’m at uni studying international relations, but I’m not going to use this degree. I’m just waiting to finish so I can stop taking little trips and get back out there long term.

    I’d just hate to have waited and found something I’m so passionate about later in life.

  18. Traveling is what makes you more mature. Do it if you can.
    I haven’t traveled long term yet (my longest trip was 37 days long at 18, just now), but I’ve traveled a few times, my first solo trip having been to Montreal and New York when I was 16 (I’m from Belgium) and it completely changed me. It made me grow considerably. It’s definitely worth it (even necessary) to travel when you’re young, and I’m sure that goes for long-term traveling too.
    If you decide to go to college, I’m guessing you might not be able to do it afterwards. You never know if you get stuck because of a special someone or whatever.

  19. I’m 17, and I’m an adult. Legally, over here in Scotland, physically and mentally. I’m planning TONNES of travel, and have changed said plans loads of times, but I’m completely aware of all the aspects of the destinations I want to go to and the logistics involved – but I’m lacking the funds.
    By 18, I’ll probably have enough to do a few long trips, but with no flying (I’m intolerant to planes and allergic to jetlag 😉 ) involved, I’ll probably give my parents a heart attack.

  20. Also, I’ve ben on school trips involving lots of autonomy before, and with pretty decent language skills, I’ll get along fine, but lots of my classmates probably won’t.

  21. Hahahaha, it really depends. I’ve met 18 years old who are really mature for their age. Honestly I think solo travelling at a young age really puts you out of your own comfort zone. I love think of it as a hurdle I want to get over with it. I’ve already set my mind to travel solo since I was 17, and now I am 19 I would be going to Japan solo for a week 🙂 I really encourage to do it at least once 🙂

  22. I travelled for a few months on my own when I was 20, I had been to university for a year (dropped out) and worked for over a year, yet if I am being totally honest, back then I would have answered 2 to the majority (okay, all) of those questions.

    It was scary at times and threw me in the deep end but I got on with it and it definitely helped me grow as a person and become more independent. I remember coming back and suddenly feeling okay to go and have a coffe on my own, or go out for lunch on my own, actually preferring to do that at times! Isn’t that part of the point of travelling, to help you mature?

    For me it’s more a question of, “are you old enough to appreciate the experience” rather than “are you mature enough to be on your own and understand your limits”. Reasons to travel change with your age. When I was 20 I just wanted to party and have fun, now I want to go for the cultural experience, for incredible landscapes and amazing food. I think it is almost a wasted opportunity at that age, travelling should be seen as a privilege that you want to make the most of, not just to go and have a good time

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