Yeah… I was 26 in this photo (paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal)
Over the past six years of writing this blog, I’ve received a lot of emails and messages asking for advice about certain topics (usually related to travel, though there have been a few wild cards). A lot of them ask very, very general questions – things like, “Hi, I just found your blog today and see that you’ve been to India. I want to go to India, so can you please give me tips on where to go/where to stay/what to eat/how much money to bring/what to wear/etc?” These emails are, for obvious reasons, not exactly my favourites to receive, though I always point the person in the right direction (i.e. another blog, hah) and wish them the best. Over the years, while the average reader of this blog is in their 20s or 30s, I’ve also received a lot of emails from teenagers and/or students who have questions about travelling, mainly how to get started or how to decide where to go.
I like to spend a bit more time on these emails. Almost all of the teenagers who have written to me are passionate, considerate, and articulate. They ask thoughtful and mature questions. They share their worries and their fears, their hopes and their dreams. A lot of them ask how they can live a life like I have, one that has been filled with travel and adventure. And that’s where I struggle with my answer.
Looking down in Peru
Because, firstly, I’m literally twice the age of some of these teenagers (yikes). Of course I’ve had more experience in the world – I’ve had the time to. Secondly, I always feel the need to acknowledge my privilege and my background. While I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I’ve paid for the majority of my travels (save family trips), I was born into a middle-class family in a developed country, and growing up I always had a roof over my head and food on the table. More than that, I grew up in a very loving and open-minded household, one that encouraged me to dream big. My parents never once laughed at my wanderlust-fuelled thoughts, always treating my life plans of seeing the world with respect, sincerity, and support. I’m well aware how lucky that makes me, and perhaps how unique it makes me, too.
So while I can’t possibly know where every teenager who writes to me is coming from, I can offer just a little bit of advice for the positive steps I took in order to fulfil my travel dreams when I was younger. As I was growing up I was unwittingly preparing for a lifetime of travel, and years later I am very thankful that I was so determined from such a young age. Here are a few things you might be able to do if you’re a teenager who wants to travel the world after finishing school (or really, if you’re someone of any age who wants to travel).
Start to research countries you want to visit. I used to do this all the time as a teenager. I first became obsessed with geography around age 10, when I memorised the countries of the world (to put this in perspective, people still talked about “the USSR”. Forget iPhones and tablets, this gadget was my lifeblood). Even without computers I was always reading old National Geographic magazines (I had a subscription from ages 12 to 18) and checking out encyclopaedias in the library. I had an unhealthy obsession with Europe, and knew that that region would be the first to explore whenever I had the chance. I always think it’s important to know the basics of a country before you arrive, so if you start your research as a teenager you’ll practically be an expert by the time you get to visit.
Today it’s incredibly easy to research the places you want to see. Even far-flung or relatively isolated countries like Bhutan or Tajikistan are written about more and more these days. All you need is an internet connection to find maps, articles, photos, and just about anything else you’d like to read up on of a country, not to mention all of the travel blogs that can help you get a sense of what it’s like to travel to the places you’re dreaming of. There are also dozens of travel magazines (your library should stock some) and thousands upon thousands of books about travelling (I’ve listed a few of my favourites here). Whether you’re after practical information, history, or just personal stories of travellers, you’ll easily be able to find it either online or in print material.
Glasses = smart = research. That’s why I used this photo. I know, it’s a far reach (at Blogstock)
Get a job. Do I sound like your parent or guardian right now? I’m sorry. The truth is, though, getting a job when I was a teenager was one of the best things I did for my travelling plans. I started babysitting from age 12 for kids in the neighbourhood, and then, at 15, got a job at the mall. I was extremely fortunate in the fact that my parents were able to provide me with a warm house and plenty of food, which meant that I could essentially choose where to spend everything I was earning. In my experience, that was the only time in my life that my money wasn’t used toward anything like bills, rent, or other necessities, meaning I could put 100% of that into savings. With that money I was able to pay half of a school trip to France (my parents generously paid the other half) and still have a few thousand dollars saved up before university.
Again, I’m not going to lie and say that I struggled with student debt – I didn’t. With scholarships and help from my parents, I personally did not pay for my university education in Canada, which obviously helped a great deal. On top of a full-time degree, however, I was also working a few hours shy of full-time, holding down two jobs through my degree in order to pay bills and save up for a backpacking trip. The summer I went home, at 19, I landed a job working with Miramax as they filmed a movie in my hometown, and they paid me ridiculous money, at least half of which I was able to put directly into savings. By the time I had graduated, eight years after getting that job at the mall, I had saved over $20,000. I left for Europe less than a week after my final exam.
Trust me, I didn’t want to work when I was younger. I wanted to focus on school and extracurricular activities and hanging out with my friends. But I also knew that even working a few hours a week would slowly but surely add to my savings and one day allow me to fulfil my dream. Working from such a young age also taught me a lot of life skills, but that post for another day. While you might not want to or might not be able to get a job in retail or the food industry, there are lots of ways to make money even in your own neighbourhood: babysitting, dog walking, raking leaves, etc. If you’re artistic or good at knitting/jewellery making/painting/etc., you could even try your hand at selling things on Etsy.
With some current coworkers at my job in London
Open a savings account. I opened a savings account when I was very, very young – my parents encouraged me to do it, even if I could only deposit the $10 my auntie gave me at Christmas. I would suggest getting a savings account as soon as you can, and possibly getting an account that isn’t connected to a debit card. It can be all too tempting to spend the money you’ve earned when it’s only a swipe of a card away. To this day I have an account in Canada that I have absolutely no access to unless I actually speak to someone on the phone about it or go in person to my bank to withdraw the money. Speak to your bank about the best rates and account for your needs, and try to slowly add money to that account whenever you can… and then leave it alone. Be as responsible as you possibly can with this account; this will help your credit in the future, so make sure to never go into overdraft (i.e. withdraw more money that you have).
Get a driver’s license. OK, so things might have really changed since I was in high school, but when I was there, the school arranged for willing students to take driving lessons. They weren’t free, but it was both easy and fun to stay after class with my friends and learn how to drive. While having a driver’s license isn’t crucial to travelling, I found it helpful on many road trips around the world (it’s fun to be the passenger sometimes, but not all the time). As it’s much easier to do when in high school, I recommend getting it when you can instead of having to devote time to it later on in life. It not only makes you feel badass when you’re 16, it’s a great life skill.
Oh so studious at Traverse 2015
Talk to your family and friends about your dreams. As I said in the beginning, I was very lucky that my family was so supportive of my travel plans. I spoke at length about those plans with my parents and my sister (and later my brother, when he was older). In university I talked to my friends about wanting to travel all the time, and soon met some kindred spirits who wanted to do the same thing… so who knows, you might even find a travel buddy. The bottom line is, whoever you’re talking to, it does indeed feel good to open up and say your plans out loud. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your family or friends, try to find forums and/or blogs online where you feel comfortable commenting, or write a blog or journal to work out your thoughts.
I occasionally get an email from a teenager who comes from a very protective family, or one who does not want him or her to travel. To be honest, I don’t really know what to say in response, but I would recommend as much communication with your family as possible. If you have any experience dealing with this issue I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Graduating with my master’s degree last week
Sign up for class trips and/or study abroad programs. Not all schools offer this, of course, but if you’re able to do so financially, I recommend class trips. My first time to Europe was with my family at age 13 to the UK, but that same summer I went back to England for a class trip. It was my first experience backpacking, staying in hostels, and seeing a totally different country (and seeing it through independent eyes). A few years later I went to France with my school, and that was the trip that really lit a flame under my wanderlust, so to speak.
Not all trips have to be international; see if your school offers trips throughout your province, state, or county, or get involved in an activity that allows you to travel. I was in a school band and we would often go to other locations around Manitoba to play, and once we even flew to Toronto for an event (for your information, yes I went to band camp… and yes I played the flute). Sports teams often travel to play other schools, too. All of these little trips will make you feel more confident about travelling.
Take advantage of family holidays. I was very fortunate to come from a family that valued travel; every year we took at least a couple of vacations together, usually to America. Over the years we also visited the Caribbean, Mexico, England, and Ireland together. If your family/guardian is able and willing to travel, try to take advantage of this time in a new place: research where you’re going beforehand, take lots of photos, try new foods, and participate in new activities like hiking or cooking classes. While I usually advise people to talk to locals… well, you’re a teenager, and I feel like I’m creepily advising you to talk to strangers or something. Still, you can safely chat to people at your hotel (such as a concierge) and/or try to make friends with other people your age on holiday with their families. This will boost your confidence when it comes to making friends while travelling.
I will use any excuse I can to put this photo on my blog… sorry family (circa 1995, before any of us knew how horrible Sea World really is)
Volunteer with immigrants. When I was in high school I volunteered with kids and with animals, but in university I decided to volunteer with new immigrants to Canada who wanted to practice their English. Twice a week, in between classes and work, I’d go to the library to talk to a Russian woman named Yulia for a couple of hours.
Trust me, I have no idea how I had the energy to do this (until recently I was doing a full-time master’s degree and working part-time, and even that felt overwhelming) but it was a great experience. I learned a lot about her perspective of the world and a lot about Russia; perhaps this is what inspired me to live in Russia the summer after I backpacked around Europe. Nearly every city has some sort of program that helps new immigrants to your country, so look into how you might be able to help out. It will make a huge difference in their lives and in yours, and it’s a great way to learn about the world while still in your hometown.
Learn a new language. Your brain is like a sponge, apparently – soak it all up! Learning other languages will definitely help you when you travel, even if you don’t visit the country where the language is spoken; you might meet tourists or immigrants who speak that language, for example, and I’m pretty sure that being bilingual makes it a lot easier to eventually become multilingual. If I could be fluent in any language other than English, I’d choose Spanish.
With my homestay family in Lake Titicaca, who only spoke Spanish
Learn a valuable skill. Again, when you’re younger you often retain things better (or so they say). A great way to be able to travel abroad is to work abroad, and so learning skills you can take with you is a good start. Things like graphic design or computer programming can help you land an online job that would allow you to work remotely, while more practical skills like cooking or carpentry might lead to an interesting job, too. Another option is to hone a talent like singing or dancing so that you can possibly travel with an act or even work on a cruise ship.
Be patient. I still advise everyone to finish high school and wait until the right time to go travelling long-term or permanently. Another question I’m asked a lot is whether or not to put off a university education to go travelling; only you can answer that for yourself, but, in my case, I wanted to finish university first before I took off. I did this because a) I wanted a degree, knowing that might help me to land a job abroad (it did) b) I wanted to save as much money as possible before taking off and c) I value education as much as (OK, nearly as much as) travelling.
The bottom line is, even if all you can think about is travelling long-term, it’s better to wait until you’re emotionally and financially ready to do so. I wrote an article about knowing when you’re ready for long-term travel that might help.
In high school with two of my best friends
Allow yourself to dream of travelling. I really want to emphasise this point most of all. You’re a kid. You should have huge dreams. Some of them might feel impossible, or some of them might not feel like they measure up to other people’s dreams, but they’re yours. I used to lie in bed at night and think about travelling so much that I thought I might be able to will myself on an airplane.
We all know that saying about high school being the best years of your life, or that being a teenager means being free from responsibility. Don’t get me wrong – those years can be very fun, and I didn’t really have any bills to worry about (or back problems. Or knee problems. What the eff, ageing process). But I would never be so patronising to say that being a teenager is easy. When I was in my teens, I worked really hard in school to make sure I was on the honour roll; I often worried about my grades as I wanted to get into a good university and get scholarships. I worked a part-time job. I was involved in multiple extra-curricular activities, including volunteering. I was responsible for many chores at home. I had the usual high school drama of boys and gossip and the occasional fight with my mum because she just didn’t understand me (for the record, my mum and I are now best friends). I was constantly worried about things like if I’d pass my driving test or what I should wear to my graduation dance or any number of seemingly menial things that are actually very important and defining in a young person’s life.
Today, fourteen years after I graduated high school (oh my God), I think that kids have even more stress to deal with. The economy isn’t great, so jobs are harder to find. University education is more expensive. And you don’t know how often I thank my lucky stars that I grew up without social media and all of the pressures that stem from it as a young woman. You might feel pressure to get into the best university ever, or become a doctor just like your mother, or fit in with all of the most popular girls at school. But you’re not going to be a teenager for very long – trust me, those years go quickly – which means that any of the problems you’re dealing with will probably change in only a few years. So what I’m saying to you now is this: if you think you might want to travel, allow yourself to dream. Try to shed those pressures as best you can, when you can, and just let your imagination run wild. Dream of going to new places, of seeing new things. Dream of walking on quiet beaches or hiking tall mountains or riding a motorbike on a busy city street. Dream of meeting people from around the world. Dream of being independent and of making your own decisions, of spending your own hard-earned money on something you truly love.
Those dreams will help shape your future and mould the person you really want to be. Dreams don’t necessarily always come true, of course, but they’re a damn good place to start.
In Bhutan (in my thirties)
Are you a teenager who wants to travel the world? If you’re a bit… ahem… older, did you dream of travelling when you were young?