I’m 43, an avid traveller, and this is what I wish I knew about backpacking in my 20s

September 12, 2023

What’s the difference between a tiny, 900 euro apartment next to the Louvre and an equally small 2,900 euro pad next to the Musee d’Orsay?

Sadly, it’s my 43-year-old knees.

I’m not sure exactly when I passed this medical milestone but I’m now a backpacker with knees that really, really appreciate an elevator everywhere I go, including when I rent a Parisian apartment for a month-long sojourn. At some point, I made the leap from bumming around Europe on $35 a day to shelling out a small fortune to avoid six flights of stairs. Totally worth it.

Wimpy knees aside, there are a lot of incredible advantages to backpacking well beyond your twenties and into your forties. If I could do it all over again, this is what I’d like to tell my twenty-something self. If this is the stage you’re in, take this advice as you see fit.

It’s Ok To Suck At Bucket Lists

When I was in my twenties and backpacking on the world’s tightest budget, I could only afford free attractions. Thankfully, the world has a lot of unique galleries, museums, and public spaces that cost nothing. I also skipped a lot of things that most people would consider essential bucket list experiences just because I didn’t have the money. Who goes to Italy and doesn’t have wine? Or visits Switzerland but not its chocolate shops? This girl. That’s who.

In the last few decades, I’ve definitely made up for lost time when it comes to Italian wine and Swiss chocolates, but I’m still bad at bucket lists and tourist attractions. This time, it’s because I know myself well enough to know what I enjoy, value, and cherish. Just because something is on a top ten list or receives positive reviews doesn’t mean it’s time or money well spent for me. I still haven’t reached the top of the Eiffel Tower (and I have no excuse: it has an elevator!) and that’s ok. It’s ok if you can’t afford something and it’s ok if you want to skip something—even if it’s the most popular attraction in the region.

Just Keep Going

One thing I miss about my early backpacking years is the seemingly endless energy I had. I’d be up with the sunrise, keep going long after dark, and I didn’t mind stairs at all! Looking back, I’m amazed how much I saw and did during short trips, just because I was willing to walk an extra block or two.

If you’ve got a little extra gas in the tank, make the most of it. If you’re eager to call it a night when you’re struggling with jet lag, head out for just one more walk through the park. Want to grab a little extra sleep before your flight? Haul yourself out of bed to go to an early morning market or an art fair. You can sleep in your forties (and trust me, you will). I have a much more relaxed pace now, which brings its own rewards, but I’m still grateful for my energizer-bunny pace when I was younger.


Forget About Comfort Zones and Focus On Cozy Zones

Do you ever see those travel ads that say something like “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone,” inevitably accompanied by a photo of someone climbing Mount Everest? I’m here to say that it’s perfectly fine to ignore all advice about comfort zones. We are not all destined to climb mountains, jump out of planes, or eat escargot. There are plenty of super cool travel writers (*cough, cough*) whose idea of a wild ride is trying a new blend at the tea shop.

Instead of fretting about your comfort zone, pay attention to your cozy zone. A cozy zone is grounding and that makes you feel most like yourself. You can find your cozy zone no matter what you’re doing or where you are in the world, whether you’re in a tea shop or making tea at Everest’s base camp. This is how you reduce pressure and travel anxiety and actually enjoy your trip.

Connecting with my cozy zone has allowed me to make friends while staying in hostels by overcoming shyness to ask someone about their book. It kept me from feeling overwhelmed at huge museums when I spied some plucky seniors and decided to join their group. It’s been the basis for my most meaningful connections around the world.

The Money Will Sort Itself Out

I pride myself on being thrifty—perhaps sometimes to a fault. I’ve trekked long distances just to save $10 on taxis. I’ve gone to some truly bizarre attractions just to get the total value of a city pass. Turns out both have made for some pretty memorable travel moments! However, in remembering all my money woes, I wish I knew back then that the money would eventually sort itself out.

When I say that, I don’t mean that I wish I had lived a luxurious lifestyle beyond my means. But I wish I could magically go back in time and know that my ability to buy a house or save for retirement would not hinge on the five euros I saved skipping the Italian wine and the Swiss chocolate. Thankfully, one of the magical things about backpacking in my forties is that I have a more well-rounded perspective about myself, my money, and my future. If I want to splurge, I can afford to do so. If I opt for frugality, it’s in a mindful way (and not just for the sake of saving a few dollars).

It’s About The Journey, Not The Destination

Ugh, talk about a travel cliché, right? But in this case, it’s true. When you’re in your thirties, forties, or maybe even your eighties or nineties, your most potent travel memories aren’t going to be from when you saw a famous thing when you were 23. It’ll be about the journey, the context, the travel process, and the ups and downs that make you cry in airport bathrooms and laugh in the dorm room at night. The joy of connecting with new friends, developing your independence, and making your own way in the world is truly ageless.

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