“The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.”
— Britney Spears
When I was a little kid an uncle of mine gave me a globe. He taught me a game where I would spin the globe, close my eyes, wait for a second, and then put my finger on the globe to stop it. I’d then have to go look up the place that I found. Of course, 70% (not the actual number) of the time, I wound up in water and would have to try again, but in the remainder of the times, I had an opportunity to explore the world through reading about it. I was fortunate that my parents had a copy of the 1980 World Book (which must have cost them, a State Trooper and a teacher, a relative fortune) so that I could indulge my curiosity and discover that there was a bright, big world beyond small towns in Georgia.
When I was a little bit older, my parents decided that instead of throwing away the old copy of the
Bane of Trees Yellow Pages, they’d give it to me. I’m not sure why they thought it was necessary for an eleven year old to have a phone book, but there you have it. I was armed and dangerous. While I did my fair share of prank calling, I also used the phone for some investigative journalism. I wanted to know how much it would cost to actually get to some of the places in the globe that I’d discovered. I sold newspaper subscriptions door-to-door to the local rag, and was slowly accumulating a financial empire $50 at a time, and the money was burning a hole in my pocket.
I’d call up airlines and ask them if they flew to exotic locations like Dakar, Senegal. This was back in the days before the widespread use of interactive voice response units like the one I managed at Capital One which make it impossible without knowing the 38th-57th digits of pi, to reach a real human. So, I could get to a real live human and interrogate them about flights to Kinshasa or Quito. Bless their patient souls for indulging a little boy in his adventures. By the way, when I went to South Africa in 2008, the return flight had to stop in Dakar for refueling and to get sprayed. Even though we never deplaned, I was thrilled to be in Dakar, since it was always the first place I asked about when calling these airlines. The joy was short-lived, though, as we sat, motionless for two hours before taking back off.
Thus, the insatiable curiosity of a young child was the seed of what has been a lifestyle centered around travel and exploring the world. When I was at West Point, after dithering around in different majors, I finally landed on German as a major because, logically, the Army would want to use someone who spoke German in Germany, and I could get stationed overseas. I did get stationed in Germany, although there was almost zero correlation between the two – my first lesson in the lack of logic and reasoning in the way the Army worked.
When I lived in Germany, during the time I wasn’t deployed, I tried to travel around as much as possible. If it was a short weekend, I’d try to convince someone to go with me to go to some town or city we’d never been to before just to see what was there. I never quite did the backpacker lifestyle, although, in retrospect, I wish that I had, but I got to see a lot of Europe during three and four day weekends.
Thus, as a twentysomething, I took the easy way to get to see the world. I lived the cliché: join the Army, see the world. However, not every twentysomething with a serious case of wanderlust has either the desire or the physical capability of joining the military and being stationed overseas.
Such was the case of “eemusings” of the New Zealand Muse, who asked me when I’d written about balancing a safety net with wanderlust the question which led to the title of the blog post – what if you’re in your twenties and want to travel? How do you make the balance, then?
It’s not an easy question, since, unless you enjoy weekend road trips and sleeping in your car – terrible for your back and makes you stiff as a board, as I can attest – any geographically significant travel is going to eat up a greater portion of your overall income than doing so in, say, your forties might, assuming that, by then, your travel hedonic treadmill hasn’t gotten you to the point where you’re staying in 5 star hotels in St. Tropez and being schlepped there by a rent-a-yacht. If travel truly is important to you, then I’d recommend:
- Keep your possessions to a minimum. You saw several of your commenters who said that they couldn’t because of various possessions. Having a bunch of junk just clutters your life in many more ways than you imagine. It fills up both physical and psychological space. You have to move the crap. You have to store it. You worry about its condition while you’re away. It’s just not worth it, and the joy that you get from material possessions, by and large, is much less than the joy that you’ll get from accumulating experiences.
- Save like mad. Probably the rest of your commenters cited money as the limitation. It was also the limitation most cited in the Pack of Peanuts article I cited in my essay about the balance between wanderlust and safety nets. Money to travel doesn’t magically fall from trees, and while you can use rewards credit cards to get some free travel, there aren’t that many shortcuts to being able to afford travel if you’re not truly focused on it. You also don’t want to be stuck in some third world country when you run out of money.
- Look for ways to earn more money. Step back and behold as I demonstrate my stranglehold on the obvious: there are two ways to make more money. First, earn more. Do better in your job, get promoted, create value, earn bonuses, and the like. Or, start a side gig and get people to pay you for your brilliance, your widgets, the cute socks you make for Barbie dolls, whatever. The second way is to spend your money to buy things which earn you even more money. It can be real estate, mutual funds, whatever. Maybe you try to buy a rental property, and ¼ of the net profit (after expenses and reserve funds) goes towards your travel fund. I’m picking numbers here, but you get the idea. Tying what you really want (travel) with investments and their success can be a pretty darn strong motivator to get you to sand floors and paint walls and knock out drywall.
- Don’t try to fit it all into one trip. When we were in our twenties (and even our early thirties), my wife and I tried to do everything possible in the shortest time span imaginable. We did Barcelona in 16 hours. I joked that I felt like a whack-a-mole, popping up at subway stops to see something and then run back to the subway to go see something else. As a result, we’ve seen everything (just about) that is a major attraction in Barcelona, but we didn’t experience any of them. Instead of making it a recon trip to see if Barcelona was something we’d like to come back to later, when we had more time, we tried to cram it all in. Because of the experience, I don’t really know that there’s much to see in Barcelona if I went back, even though I really enjoyed it. I didn’t keep enough hidden to leave me wanting more, even though I have no true idea about the depth that it has to offer. It’s a strange conundrum brought about because of our hectic pace while there.
- Keep fit. If you’re having to stop every 100 feet to catch your breath because you’re 100 pounds overweight, you’re not going to have a very meaningful trip. Living an unhealthy lifestyle costs you more in your life, your travels, and your future. If you can’t walk everywhere or take public transportation, but, instead, have to buy a taxi every time you want to go more than fifty yards from your lodging, you’re going to rack up the bills in a hurry. Plus, if you’re unhealthy, you’re going to have to pay more for doctors’ visits, time off from work, etc. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to be fit and eat healthy, either.
- Learn to appreciate day trips and short overnight stays. Maybe you’re a fan of Napoleonic history and it’s your life desire to go to St. Helena to see where he was imprisoned. You’re going to have to save up for a few years to go there. In the meantime, exorcise the travel demons by taking day trips. Explore what’s around you. Find the nooks, crannies, and klatches which are a short distance from home. Treat these trips with the same sense of wonderment and discovery that you would for a trip halfway around the world. Travel, many times, is what you make of it.
- Host couchsurfers. Can’t go see the world? Bring the world to you! Host couchsurfers from other countries and grill them about their culture, their land, their history, and what makes them tick. It’ll be a good way to start building up your bucket list (and potentially crossing off some undesirable ones) without having to shell out the shekels to find out first-hand.
Travel in your twenties doesn’t have to be a pipe dream that you can only achieve if you win the lottery. While there are stories on the Internet of people who have successfully traveled around the world funding themselves through online enterprises, there are probably many more untold stories of people who have started off with such dreams only to find themselves far away from home and out of money. Don’t be that person. Travel within your budget and then work like crazy to expand your budget. You’ll get joy out of the experiences, enhance your mind, and motivate yourself even more to do it again!