Travel is addictive, and I never really realized why until my most recent trip to Southeast Asia. While exploring Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I had time to reflect on what it is about traveling that is so inspiring to me, and why it has kept me on a travel binge nearly my entire young adult life.
I travel for two reasons — the first is to immerse myself in all aspects of a destination: the sights, the culture, the food, and the people who live there. The second reason, which I’ve found to be growing more important to me the more that I travel, is to meet other travelers, people like me and people not like me, and learn about their stories and where they come from. The reasons people travel change over time, and at this time in my life I travel to see a new country but also to meet others from around the world. I’m slowly discovering why so many people around the world are compelled to travel for long periods of time, to give up their comforts in order to lead a nomadic, ever-changing, and oftentimes-lonely lifestyle.
When I returned to New York I continued reflecting on my experience. I realized that one of my fondest memories of my travels was meeting other backpackers from around the world. I kept coming back to the many conversations I had with people about my place in the backpacker community as a female American traveling for a long period of time, and why I seemed to them to be a rare sight amongst the other nationalities people encountered. I’ve discovered that are very distinct reasons why Americans aren’t part of the long-term travel, backpackers landscape in the way their European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts are.
Whom did I meet in just six short weeks in Southeast Asia? There was an English masseuse who planned to travel until her money ran out, so far four months into her journey. A Brazilian man who’s lived in Australia the past seven years and who works with a sole purpose of traveling around the world. My scuba diving partner from Canada is just…traveling; his end date remained a mystery even to him. An Italian man from Napoli who won the award for smallest backpack. His bag, smaller than my own, will be by his side for a worldwide adventure totaling a year and a half. There was an Australian man from Tasmania who worked six years without a break so that he could travel with his 50-liter backpack for the next ten years, and with the goal of working in Canada and England for a year or so in between. A man from London whose travels will total one and a half years, abiding by one single rule: not to take an airplane. Starting and finishing in London, he had already taken a transatlantic cargo boat, and when we had met he was planning to cross the Pacific Ocean via a 14-day trip on another cargo boat. There was 29-year-old German man from Berlin who quit working for Boston Consulting Group after a year to travel for at least nine months. A 19-year-old woman from Alberta, Canada who after high school had begun her travels and plans to become a certified yoga teacher along the way. There was a 30-year-old woman from Belgium who was the co-founder of a successful beer startup, and who left the business to travel indefinitely. A chef from Amsterdam who just plain quit his job and is exploring the world, so far nine months in. A French couple from Normandy who quit their jobs and are planning to travel for six months, or when their money runs out, whichever comes first. There were two 20 year-old German men who are planning to travel 13 months before going back to finish university. A born and raised New Yorker, who since September of last year has been traveling and will only return when he has to start to medical school in June. A group of American NYU MBA candidates spending their seven-week break abroad together. Two American girls spending ten short days on vacation from work. A finally a 23-year-old from New Hampshire. He just got up and left, and has no plans to return anytime soon.
These are just a handful of the many people I met. It was so refreshing to have conversations with people that don’t revolve around what you do, as in your typical introductory exchange in New York City. It’s where you’re from and where you’ve been, how long you’ll travel for, your favorite destinations so far. It’s a conversation around places and cultures, around experiences. Rarely does the conversation escalate to what your old job was or what you plan to do in the future. It’s just the now. And although for most of us it’s hard to connect with the now, traveling forces us to be present.
But are twenty to thirty something Americans traveling in this way?
Here are some startling facts: the average age of American leisure travelers is 47.5 years old. Twenty percent are between the ages of 25-34 and only eight percent are 18-24 years old (Source). Only 30% of Americans have passports, compared with 60% of Canadians and 75% of people from the UK (Source). Furthermore, nearly half the global market of 15-29 year old travelers comes from Europe, with some 93 million outbound trips in 2011, according to IPK International’s European Travel Monitor. Germany (17 million outbound trips), France (7.9m), and the UK (7.3m) are the largest three markets in Europe (Source).
Sadly, so few of the people I met who were traveling over long periods of time were Americans. And my new found friends would ask me, why don’t more Americans travel? Or when they do, why for only ten days to two weeks at a time? I believe that answer has three parts to it. The first is a reflection of the discouraging higher education system that we have in the United States, where a private university costs 30 to 60 thousand dollars a year. If anyone wants to have a “good job” these days, they need to get their undergraduate at a “good” school (not to mention think about heading straight to a graduate program). This in turn leads to a tremendous amount of debt. Students need to pay off their loans quickly, because the government charges interest after six months to a year depending on the loan. Graduates are forced to get a job to pay off those debts, and there goes that gap year that they were planning to take.
The second reason is that the United States remains the only developed country in the world without legal minimum vacation days. Meaning we are entitled as employees of any company to zero vacation days. More than a quarter of working Americans currently do not have vacation time. The average American worker is entitled to 16 days of paid leave (keep in mind this is after a few years in the work force. If you’re an entry-level employee, that number is closer to seven). But the length of the average vacation lasts just over four days! Only 25 percent of workers say they take all the time off that’s due them (Source). In fact, 15 percent of Americans report taking no time off (Source).
These numbers are disturbing, particularly when you compare to other countries around the world, where the average vacation days plus paid holidays total 28 in Australia, 33 in Croatia, 34 in Germany, 38 in France, and finally the winner, Brazil, with 41 days (Source & Source).
The final reason, which I feel is the most difficult to overcome, is that American culture in general does not value independent, backpacker travel. Speaking here in generalities, American families and the institutions they attend in higher education instill this sort of mandate that you should be seeking an internship or a paid job immediately upon graduation in order stay ahead in the workforce. Particularly in finance, where some students intern at investment banking firms even during their summers in college, these graduates are primed to head straight to work. And the working hours are long and hard. Many young people feel that this type of lifestyle will pay off because they can retire at a young age, and then enjoy their free time.
But what our family, friends, professors, and employers have trouble understanding is how profoundly traveling as a young adult shapes the rest of your life. It develops strength of character. Without any exaggeration, it makes you who you are. And I’m witnessing it when I travel, not only within myself but in the other people I meet along the way. You learn to be not only independent but also you are humbled, becoming supremely aware that you are only but a small part of this very complex world. Traveling reminds you that your nine-to-five desk job is not what defines you. You learn that not everyone is like you, and you experience that first-hand.
Perhaps one day the young backpacker community will be filled with Americans, but for now, we have a long way to go. In the meanwhile, I encourage young women and men not to wait, but to do what may be a little different than what others around them are doing. Don’t take a vacation. Instead, travel.
This post also appears on Women’s iLab to inspire the next generation of female leaders.