“American, eh?” The desk clerk said after I’d handed her my passport to check-in. The small town hotel in the Scottish Highlands wasn’t particularly extravagant. It was a modest, two-story affair with a restaurant, claustrophobic rooms, and views of the nearby loch. But after weeks of dorm rooms and hostel beds from Southern France to Amsterdam and London to Edinburgh, it was just what 20-year-old me was looking for.
“Just one night?” She asked. “Are you sure?”
I explained that I had plans to get farther north over the next few days, stopping to spend each afternoon to explore the area of wherever I ended up. After another week or so, I would turn around and head straight to London and use my return ticket to fly back to United States.
“That’s no way to travel,” she said, a sour look of admonishment on her face. “You’re not really seeing or experiencing anything. Just passing through.”
I gave her a shrug and took my room key. I had wanted to explain that I was anxious to keep moving, to see and visit as many places as I could, that there was a drive inside of me that was pushing me to keep going, to not stop for anything. I felt like I was desperately searching for something but didn’t know what; I just knew that I had to keep looking.
Just over a decade later, I was on a beach in southern Sweden, discussing with my fiancée at the time on what we wanted to do next. We could ride the bikes we’d borrowed for the day to another beach, hangout there some more, or head back to where we were staying.
“Let’s just chill here for a bit longer,” I said, looking out over the horizon. “We’re in no hurry.”
I was 31 years old and finally realized what that hotel desk clerk had been trying to explain to me. Maybe I could have listened and figured it out then, but I doubt it. Because it wasn’t until I hit my 30s that I truly discovered the awesomeness of travel.
There’s a perception that the best time to see the world and have major experiences abroad is between the ages of 20 and 29. It makes sense. According to clinical psychologist and author Dr. Meg Jay, the 20s are when people have the majority of their defining moments and the most pivotal time in their mental and emotional development as an adult.
And there are few experiences that impact your life more than visiting another country and interacting with people of different cultures and backgrounds. In fact, one academic who studies the mental effects of international travel told The Atlantic Monthly in 2015 that “foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.” In other words, travel boosts your creativity and ability to associate and connect abstract ideas. It’s also been shown to make your personality more “open” and increase the capacity for empathy.
But there’s nothing that says these benefits of traveling abroad are no longer possible after the age of 29…yet, we act like that’s the case.
Work, visiting family, or brief vacation to relax; these seem to be the three categories that people in their 30s defer their travel to, while the trips we all fantasize and dream about — the ones providing those defining and growing experiences — are really only associated with 20-somethings. If you were to hear of someone backpacking through South America or taking an impromptu solo trip to New Orleans, would you think they were 25 or 35?
According to a study of age and travel preferences from 2017, those in their early 20s are more likely to book adventurous trips to international destinations, while older millennial travelers and younger Generation X’ers (which covers those currently in their 30s) are turning more to the comfort of all-inclusive experiences and pricey hotels.
This split in travel preferences by age makes sense when you consider that when you hit your 30s, you generally see an uptick in responsibility, thanks to career advancement and family obligations. More American men and women are having more kids in their 30s, and a person’s mid-to-late 30s are often when major career moves happen. If you’re dealing with all that, why would you want to add on the extra hassles of traveling to another country?
It’s totally still worth it! And in today’s digital age, it’s easier than ever to negotiate work issues across long distances, research trips to avoid issues, and quickly deal with most problems that might arise on any trip. All it takes is a just little more effort and planning for any 30+ year old to fit traveling in their lives. And when they do, they’ll find that it’s a way better experience than traveling in their 20s. Because traveling in your 30s is amazing.
It’s also much more meaningful, at least for me. Unlike when I was in my 20s and visiting a foreign country or new city, I don’t feel that need to rush and see as much as I can while traveling. In my mid-30s, I now find myself wanting to take my time wherever I visit. Strolling through streets and soaking in the atmosphere. I use to try to see every single exhibit in a museum, now I only take in what I can and not worry if I’ll see everything; focusing more on the quality of the experiences and not quantity.
If you were to hear of someone backpacking through South America or taking an impromptu solo trip to New Orleans, would you think they were 25 or 35?
It’s a mindset that’s commonly associated with reaching your 30s, which is when many people begin finding balance and contentment in their lives (and possibly why so many older people list the 30s as the happiest age of their lives). As one psychologist noted in a survey where the majority of participants claimed they were not truly happy until the age of 33: “By this age, innocence has been lost, but our sense of reality is mixed with a strong sense of hope, a ‘can do’ spirit, and a healthy belief in our own talents and abilities.”
Oh, then there’s the fact that when you’re in your 30s, you have more money to travel. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American’s salary jumps up by more than 43% when they move from the 20-24 age bracket to 25-34, and again by another 25% when they cross into the 35-44 bracket.
Despite the midpoint of my 20s coinciding with the start of the Great Recession, I still managed to travel; but I brought the sickening stress of trying to stay within my shoestring budget wherever I went. Reaching a more comfortable place financially in my life was like an antidote, but it also allowed me to have a much more complete travel experience.
Say what you want about the adventurousness and flexibility of young travelers, but being a broke a 20-something seriously limits what you can experience while abroad. Instant ramen noodles in styrofoam cups and peanut butter sandwiches may have been the most cost-effective meals for me, but they weren’t part of the local cuisine. And skipping important museums or attraction because I couldn’t afford the admission fees didn’t help either.
All it takes is a just little more effort and planning for any 30+ year old to fit traveling in their lives.
Aside from the emotional balance and financial security that comes with hitting the big three-O, there’s one other trait the age adds to traveling (and it’s probably the most important): confident self-awareness.
On a recent trip to Berlin, I passed up the option for partying at a bar’s punk night for a quiet drink with friends and a relatively early end to the night. I don’t think I would have made that decision a decade before and would have likely spent the next day hungover, which wouldn’t have allowed me to spend the next day fully exploring and discovering the museum dedicated to the Stasi (the East German secret police) — a major highlight of the trip for me.
When you cross the line into your 30s, you’re less concerned than with what others think about you and you’ve experienced enough to know what you like and don’t like.
The result is the antithesis to the Albatross of being in your 20s, FOMO (fear of missing out). You can try something new that you’ll likely end up enjoying. If you want to do something touristy, you’ll do something touristy. You’re not afraid to seem like an outsider, but also not going out of your way to proclaim it.
I don’t regret my travel experiences in my 20s. Far from it. If I hadn’t made what I now see were travel missteps and mistakes, I wouldn’t be able to understand just how great it is to travel in my 30s. And if I had just written-off my 20s as the core part of my life for exciting travel experiences, I wouldn’t have taken what I consider to be the best trips of my life. So far, anyway.
Now, I can’t wait to experience travel in my 40s, 50s, and beyond. Maybe, like my 30s, each decade will bring its own benefits and joys. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I can’t wait to find out.