When my mom was in her early 20s, she took a few months to travel abroad with a few of her college friends. I wouldn't call it an around-the-world trip since they only visited a few regions, but I would call it amazing.
So amazing, in fact, that my mom shared numerous stories of her travels with me as I was growing up. I remember those stories well. At the time, it all sounded so exotic, so mysterious. To this day, she even has the letters she sent her parents from abroad, many of which share vivid details of what it was like to travel internationally some 45 years ago. My mom grew up poor — with seven kids in a two-bedroom household — so you can imagine how thrilling it must have been for her to fly overseas and experience other worlds.
Fast forward 30 years and I was intent on traveling much like my mother did. But then life happened. I spent my 20s busy with school and my social life and then, all of a sudden, I wound up married with a good job, a house, and more than enough responsibility. Kids followed shortly thereafter and, consequently, the thought of travel became the furthest thing from my mind.
Fitting travel into our 30s
But the travel bug still remained. And after our youngest turned one, we decided that it was time that we pick up where we left off. And since we could finally afford it, we started traveling here and there, alternating between trips in the U.S. and trips abroad.
But here's the thing. Now that we have kids, two businesses, and a home to take care of, our adventures are nothing like what my mom experienced. Instead of traveling for weeks and months on end, we have to force all of our travel plans into itineraries that are no longer than a week. And instead living in the moment, we often spend our trips worrying about the house, the kids, and the dog, only to return to a mountain of laundry and a pile of work that needs finishing.
Almost all of the time, I now find travel just as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
So here is my advice: If you can travel in your 20s, do it. Not only will it be immeasurably easier before you have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, but it will also be much simpler too. Let's explore why….
Why you should travel in your 20s
1. You can travel before you start your “real career.”
Once you start working toward your long-term career goals, it becomes nearly impossible to consider any serious travel. The average American gets only 16 days of paid leave, after all — and most often those days must be planned around co-worker vacations as well. Try fitting your international itinerary into 16 paid days without running into some sort of scheduling conflict. It won't be easy.
2. Travel is easier before you have kids.
Lots of people in their 20s obviously have kids already; but if you can fit in some travel before you have kids, you will be in good shape — because once you have kids, you either have to take them with you or find someone who is willing to watch them while you travel extensively. Neither situation is ideal at all.
3. It's easier to travel before you have big financial obligations.
Once you have a house and a partner, it can be a lot more difficult to set aside funds for a big, international trip. After all, you now have bigger, and often more important, responsibilities. If you are able to travel before you become established, you will be much better off and you won't feel as guilty.
4. You gain real-life experience that might be helpful in your future career.
Reading about foreign cultures isn't anything like experiencing them first-hand. And if you want to gain real-world experience, there is nothing more valuable than seeing the real world with your own eyes. And you never know — your future employer might see your experiences as a valuable asset one day.
5. It is cheaper to travel now than it will ever be.
No matter what, it will never be this cheap for you to travel again. By traveling now, you can do things the frugal and easy way. Save as much as you can on your trip by choosing low-cost hostels, sleeping on overnight trains, backpacking, and lugging around your own food. Trust me, sleeping in a hostel with 14 strangers and subsisting on ham sandwiches won't sound quite as appealing when you are in your 30s.
How to afford travel in your 20s
If only travel were free, right? Unfortunately, we all know that it takes more than gumption. International travel requires money. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make travel affordable in your 20s, and that is especially true if you are willing to think outside of the box. Even though my husband and I are now in our 30s (and on the downward slide toward 40), we are still intent on saving as much as we can, for obvious reasons. Here are the strategies we employ as we try to see the world at prices we can afford:
1. Rack up airline miles.
My husband and I flew to London and home from Paris for 80,000 American Airlines miles and $197 last year. This year, we are flying round-trip to Italy for 80,000 American miles and $109. If you are able to rack up airline miles, either through frequent flying or credit card sign-up bonuses, you can fly for a lot less than you ever imagined.
2. Earn hotel points.
The same advice rings true for both airfare and hotel stays. With hotel loyalty programs, you can often earn free hotel stays, upgrades, and more at destinations all over the world. In the last 12 months, we have used leveraged rewards for free stays in Jamaica, St. Maarten, Denver, New Orleans, London, and Paris.
3. Consider cheap lodging options.
If you don't want to go the credit card route, you can still save a ton on lodging by comparing lower cost options. Look for hostels that offer shared lodging, bed and breakfasts, and pensiones. And don't forget to shop for cheap apartment rentals on AirBNB.com and VRBO.com.
4. Utilize high-speed rail.
High-speed rail is a common way to travel overseas. Not only is it cheaper than flying, but it is also a whole lot more convenient. Once you fly to your destination, use high-speed rail or other public transportation to see as much of the region as possible.
5. Avoid foreign transaction fees.
Some credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee for purchases made overseas. Although that fee is generally only between 3 percent and 5 percent, those extra charges add up fast. To avoid paying this, make sure you shop around for a card with no foreign transaction fees before you go.
6. Shop around.
No matter what you are shopping for, shopping around is always your best bet. Fortunately, the Internet is a treasure trove for ways to save on travel in the U.S. and Canada and abroad. Whatever your plans are, compare all of your options online to find the best deal.
If you want to travel before life gets in the way, there is no better time than your 20s. So don't just dream about it — create a financial plan that can help you see the world before it is too late. Otherwise, years from now, you might look back and wish you had traveled when you could really enjoy it.
Are you planning to travel (or did you travel) in your 20s? Does it conflict with your other financial goals, or can you see how you could make your dreams a reality?
Author: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson is a credit card expert, award-winning writer, and mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to serving as contributing editor for The Simple Dollar and writing for publications such as Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report Travel, and Travel Pulse, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love.