A decade is a long time.
Ten years ago, the Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai. The eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland wrought havoc on air travel across Europe. Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. Barack Obama entered the second year of his presidency. Major earthquakes rocked Chile, Haiti, and New Zealand. The Arab Spring was just around the corner. M and I went on our first date.
Those events seem like eons ago.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the travels I took in my early 20’s, roughly a decade ago. It was a time of passionate, uninhibited exploration. I was working a summer job as a tour director in Alaska, which allowed me both the professional flexibility and financial freedom to spend the offseason traveling. I volunteered in Peru and Haiti, embarking on multi-month backpacking trips in South America and Southeast Asia, and took a two-month road trip across the United States with one of my best friends. It was more than I could have ever hoped for as a kid growing up in wonderful but rural and homogeneous central Pennsylvania.
Life looks a lot different now, but travel is still one of my great joys. Recently, though, I realized just how much differently I travel today than I did in the past. Today, I thought it might be fun to look back at what has and hasn’t changed and share how my thoughts (and my pride) have shifted.
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7 Ways I Travel Differently Now Than I Did in My Early 20’s
1.) I’m less of a travel snob.
Ugh. This one hurts to admit, but it’s true. In my early 20’s, I was a bit of a travel snob. I thought that I had the secret to what it meant to travel correctly. It involved traveling for long periods of time without set plans, not paying a lot of money for things like nice hotels and fancy meals, traveling to places like South America and Southeast Asia instead of Europe, and, weirdly, not bringing a lot of luggage. (I distinctly remember judging an older couple in Luang Prabang, Laos, because they were pulling big suitcases behind them.)
Somehow, I thought that all this meant I was having a more authentic experience than someone who traveled in the opposite way. Although I would never say it out loud, I was deeply prideful about the fact that I was a traveler, not a tourist.
Go ahead, you can say it. What a jerk!
Thankfully, I soon realized that I was being completely ridiculous. Apart from being conscientious and respectful of the people and places you encounter, there is no right way to travel. It looks different for different people. Also, the whole traveler vs. tourist thing is utter nonsense. In the end, no matter how long you’ve spent on the road, you’re still a tourist if you’re visiting somewhere that’s not home.
2.) My trips are shorter and more intentional.
When I first started traveling in earnest, I didn’t have many responsibilities. Sure, I had my job, which was challenging and exhausting in its own right. But life is a lot different now that we have a mortgage, a house to maintain, a weekly schedule, and a child to raise. M gets a specific amount of time off per year, so we don’t have the flexibility to jet off whenever we want or for long periods of time. Additionally, as much as we love to travel, we also have other goals and areas where we want to invest our time and resources.
Thus, travel looks a lot different now than it did in my early 20’s. Back then, I set off on a three-month backpacking trip to South America with nothing more than a flight to Quito, a flight home, and a list of places I thought might be cool to visit. Now, because our time is limited, I am much more intentional. We book many of our hotels and activities in advance, and I usually have a rough idea of what to do each day.
Although we still leave room for spontaneity and unexpected finds, I’m much less laissez-faire in my approach to travel planning. I’m also much more grateful for the small pockets of time that we get to go on trips.
3.) I’m less concerned with counting countries.
“How many countries have you visited?”
For many travelers, this question is really important. The answer is a way of determining how much of the world you’ve seen, and, for many people, how “good” of a traveler you are. I certainly fell into that trap in my early 20’s. I marveled at people with high numbers of countries visited and got excited each time I could add a new one to my list. It felt like moving up in the travel ranks.
Over the years, however, I’ve learned that the number of countries, states, continents, etc. that someone has checked off a list doesn’t always correlate to how “good” or “experienced” of a traveler they are. What really matters is the length and depth of the experience you had in any given place. Can you really say that someone who moved to Zambia and lived there for a year has had less international experience than someone who spent a week touring three countries in Europe? Is the woman who managed to visit every sovereign country on earth in eighteen months significantly more well-traveled than someone who took a year and a half to explore six or seven countries in Southeast Asia?
I don’t think that a simple statistic can definitively say.
We also all have different criteria for how we keep count, anyway. I, for example, base my number purely on whether a new place I visit is a member state of the United Nations. This means that Scotland and Northern Ireland count as one country (the United Kingdom), and many Caribbean islands don’t count toward my total at all. (For example, I didn’t think it was fair to say that I had visited France and the Netherlands after spending a day on St. Maarten.)
My friend Max, however, bases his country count on whether a place has its own unique government, cultural identity, currency, and/or language, even if it’s technically a part of somewhere else. Accordingly, he includes Scotland, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Greenland, French Guayana, and other similar “countries” in his personal (and impressively high) count.
Now, while I still know exactly how many countries, continents, and states I’ve visited (and will probably always keep a list, because I love a good list), I’m much more interested in gathering experiences. The idea of slow travel appeals to me; spending time getting to know a place deeply rather than rushing to hit all the major sights. I didn’t say I was good at it – I will always be tempted to milk every moment of a trip for everything it’s worth like we did in Iceland – but it’s something I want to do more.
4.) I see the value in taking a vacation.
Believe it or not, in my early 20’s I thought that a lot of beach- and resort-focused destinations were a waste of time. Why would you spend all that money to go somewhere, stay in one place, and not do anything? It seemed like such a missed opportunity to visit somewhere with lots of culture, famous landmarks, and exciting things to do.
And then I got a year-round, 9-to-5 job.
And then I had a kid.
And now I very much relish the thought of jetting off to someplace beautiful and warm and having someone hand me fruity drinks every hour on the hour while no one expects me to do anything.
Somewhere in my late 20’s and early 30’s I came to the realization that there is a difference between going on vacation and going on a trip. Previously, I had been going on trips. I traveled with the intention of filling my time with fun activities and adventure in a brand new place.
Vacation is different. Vacation is slower, more languid, more relaxing; it’s for escaping your everyday life and refreshing yourself. I had experienced slices of vacation in the middle of some of my trips – the Thai islands come to mind – but had never traveled with the intention of purely relaxing. My first experience with taking a true vacation didn’t come until M and I took a long weekend trip to the Dominican Republic to celebrate my 30th birthday. The goal was to do nothing but enjoy spending time together at a beautiful tropical resort. We passed the time lounging on the beach with books and drinks in hand, taking walks along the water, and just relaxing.
And it was great.
Now, I recognize that there is a time and a place for both. I no longer look down my nose at someone who wants to buy a plane ticket, splurge on a fancy resort, sleep late, and bask in the sun. Admittedly, M and I returned from the DR agreeing that all-inclusive resorts aren’t our favorite way to travel and that a long weekend was the perfect amount of time for us to spend in such a place. Even so, I still find myself occasionally pulling up the resort website and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice…?”
5.) I stay in hotels instead of hostels and cheap guesthouses.
When I first started traveling on my own, I stayed in the cheapest places I could find. My only requirements were that my room was safe and clean, and even that last one was negotiable to a certain extent. I didn’t have high expectations and I certainly didn’t have a big budget. Thus, I stayed in a lot of hostels and cheap guesthouses.
On the whole, most of them were perfectly lovely or, at the very least, completely adequate for my needs. They might not have been the most flashy or fashionable places, but for the most part, they were clean, passingly comfortable, and gave me a safe place to rest for a few hours between days of sightseeing.
Of course, not every place was a traveler’s dream. I shared my mattress in Cuenca, Ecuador, with a contingent of bedbugs. I had eleven roommates in our small hostel dorm room in Ipanema, Brazil. Our friends’ room next door was robbed in Pak Beng, Laos, during our slowboat cruise down the Mekong. I had frigid showers, rock-hard mattresses, broken air-conditioners, noisy late-night trysts in nearby hostel bunks, early-morning roosters, giant bathroom spiders, dirty sheets, rude roommates, and one window with a bullet hole.
Now, I’m in a place in my life where I both prefer and can afford to stay in private rooms at mid-range hotels. Although paying more for a room doesn’t always guarantee a better experience, overall I’m very grateful to have moved up a couple of stars over the years. We still look for reasonable prices and good value, but it’s nice not to be scraping the bottom of the accommodations barrel. Plus, I’ve wised up to the fact that a nice hotel room can really add a lot to your travel experience. It can be fun to splurge on a great place once in a while!
6.) I eat better.
This one is very similar to my accommodations upgrade above. In my early 20’s, my budget didn’t allow much room to be picky about food. During my backpacking trips, we ate in a lot of low-end restaurants, street stalls, and dives. For the most part, I didn’t mind. We ate a lot of fantastic meals. On the other hand, we also ate in some dodgy places, made some riskier choices food-safety-wise, and had a few terrible or disgusting dishes. We also probably missed out on some great food experiences because we didn’t want to pay for them.
Now, it’s nice to have some more flexibility around dining. I’m eating a lot better when I travel, in terms of both the quality and the healthfulness of my meals.
This doesn’t mean that I’m always on the lookout for Michelin-starred dishes or high-end restaurants. Some of the best cuisine you’ll find in any given place is often the cheap eats enjoyed by locals, and I’m still a sucker for street food. It’s just that I now base our dining decisions on what looks good rather than what will cost me the bare minimum amount of money. It’s worth it to pay a couple more dollars for something we’ll enjoy rather than whatever is the cheapest way to get some calories.
One place that I regret being on a strict food budget was Argentina, a country known for its amazing steaks and world-class wines. I ate pretty well, considering, but I know we didn’t remotely scratch the surface of what that country has to offer. In those days, steak seemed like such an extravagance that we only ate it a couple of times, and never the tastiest cuts. (It was a lot of milanesa napolitana, a cheap cut of thin steak that is breaded, fried, and topped with a slice of ham, tomato sauce, and melted cheese.) When I return, I plan to take better advantage of what Argentinian cuisine has to offer.
7.) Traveling with my husband is different than living the backpacker lifestyle.
When I was in my early 20’s, I thought there was nothing better than meeting people on the road. I loved that backpacker culture involved fast friendships formed in hostel bars or guided sightseeing tours. I adored that feeling when you ran into someone on the street whom you’d thought you’d said a final goodbye to in another city. And it was so fun to travel with a new group of people for a while if you happened to be going in the same direction. Each night when the sightseeing was done, we typically defaulted to finding a bar or club to meet people and have fun.
Now, most of my recent traveling has been with my husband, and there’s something different about traveling with your spouse in your early 30’s. Although we have had great conversations with people we’ve met in restaurants, on tours, or in our hotels, we’re not actively looking to meet people and add them to our travel posse. Travel is an important time for us to connect as a couple, and we really enjoy exploring new places as a duo. To be frank, when I’m traveling with M, I really don’t care about meeting anyone else. I just want to grow closer as a couple, invest our marriage, and continue to make great memories together.
Even on my girls’ trips to Belize and Puerto Rico with my mom and sister, the emphasis has been more on deepening our connection than meeting new people. Maybe outgrowing the backpacker lifestyle is a sign of maturity; maybe I’ve just gotten old and boring and sentimental. Either way, I’m happy to be traveling a bit differently – and more meaningfully – now.
Well, there they are: the seven ways that travel looks a lot different for me now than it did in my early 20’s. It’s pretty amazing to think about how far the past ten years have brought me. I couldn’t be more thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to experience some of what this world has to offer. I’m also grateful for faith and friends who have grounded me and helped me see where my pride and ignorance were getting in my way. I can only hope that I am a better traveler now than I ever was, and that I’ll be an even better global citizen in the future.
Along those lines, it’s also exciting to ponder where I’ll be after the next decade. I wonder how differently I’ll travel at 43 than I do now? No doubt there will be a lot of learnings as M and I navigate the new frontier of family travel, and I can’t wait to witness E (and any siblings who might come along) exploring this big, beautiful world for himself. I hope I have a chance to find out.
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This list of ways I travel differently now was originally published on September 29, 2020, and last updated on October 23, 2021.
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