What I Learned Backpacking Overseas as a 17-Year-Old

Tori at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Tori Doman

By 

My advice for high school graduates about to head out on their gap year adventures. 

It was Saturday night in London and I was spending yet another night alone in the hostel, while my friends and fellow backpackers were out on the town seeing the sights and, frankly, getting pissed.

It might seem odd for a young backpacker to spend the night in, but I wasn’t missing out by choice—even though I’d been travelling for four months, I still couldn’t legally enter a bar.

I was only 17.

In 2018, three days after graduating from high school, I set off with my dreams and a bag full of far too many clothes for my planned trip to Mexico, the UK and Europe. My parents, albeit a bit surprised that I wanted to undertake such a huge trip by myself, were generally supportive of what they saw as an important exercise in gaining independence. I had never travelled alone and while I was stupidly excited, I knew that doing it while underage was not going to be easy.

Being 17 meant that my trip had a lot of ups and downs. Sure, sometimes I got free entry or discounts, but as a minor, I couldn’t even book accommodation for myself. I had to change my birthday on Airbnb and every time I checked into a hostel, I had to ensure someone over the age of 18 was with me. When flying from Mexico City to Cancún, I was questioned for an hour to make sure I wasn’t being trafficked. (The airline even called my parents in Australia to make sure they were aware I was on the flight.)

Sure, sometimes I got free entry or discounts, but as a minor, I couldn’t even book accommodation for myself.

More than once I asked myself what the hell was I doing. But in between the messed-up hostel reservations and the endless explanations to airport security of why I was travelling alone, my trip was 100 percent worth it.

In the few months before my 18th birthday, I was lucky enough to learn about the people and cultures of seven countries on a shoestring. I stayed in hostels, Airbnbs, houses of friends of friends and distant relatives. I caught seven planes, 23 trains, and two overnight ferries. I became fluent in another language; saw incredible, beautiful places; and grew a bit into myself.

If you’ve just graduated by high school and are about to set out on your own gap year adventure, here’s what I learned—and the advice I want to pass on to you.

Do your research and consider the realities of travel carefully

I was so eager to travel that I rushed a lot of important decisions. It’s remarkably easy for excitement to cloud your judgement.

Think long and hard about your itinerary. Changing your mind is expensive, and you’re likely to spend a considerable chunk of your budget before you even hop on a plane.

Is a city actually worth visiting or are you just going for the sake of it? How much is the average hostel? Would an Airbnb or hotel be cheaper? How good is the local public transport? Can you walk the majority of the time? By doing some basic digging before you head off, you can plan accordingly and save yourself time, money and grief.

If you’re a first-time backpacker, also think about whether or not you’re mentally prepared for your trip. It’s pretty embarrassing to be full-on sobbing in the middle of an airport because you can’t find which terminal you need to be in and there’s no one to help.

Being away from home and the things you are familiar with can be a shock to the system and the isolation can exacerbate stressful situations. You have to be able to take care of yourself and handle problems on your own.

Choose your travel pals wisely

While I did parts of my trip I did alone, my age meant that I depended on other people the majority of the time.

You don’t want to get stuck with a bunch of fitness freaks who would rather walk two hours than take a train, or a couple of best friends who you’ll be third-wheeling the entire time. Meanwhile, travelling with your best friend from high school seems like a great idea until you’re two weeks into your trip and you realize you were only really “best friends” because of proximity. Things can come quickly crashing down when you realize your ideas on budgeting or what sights are worth seeing are astronomically different.

Before you leave, make sure you’re on the same page with your travel companions, and that you understand each other’s budgets, must-see destinations, and physical or mental limitations.

Finally, try not to base your decision on convenience. Travelling with people who don’t “get” you will be a nightmare, so the better the company, the better the experience.

Sort out your finances 

Your money and how you access it will define your trip, no matter how hard you try to ignore it. You’ll be spending money every single day, so it’s worth checking out your options when it comes to accessing your savings while abroad. It’s easier (and safer) not to carry cash, but if you’re using a debit card, you’ll need one that doesn’t charge international transaction fees or has a strong global ATM network so you can avoid foreign ATM charges.

It can be a little overwhelming trying to wade through the financial jargon if you’ve never had to deal with banks before, but it’s worth doing your homework to find the option that works best for you.

Once your budget is in place, always make sure you’re getting the best deal—which doesn’t always necessarily mean the cheapest. In the case of accommodation, for example, it may be worth paying a bit more if it’s got an inclusive breakfast or is within walking distance of the major attractions.

Stay connected to stay safe

Some people will tell you that you should use your trip as an opportunity to disconnect and that buying an overseas SIM card isn’t worth it.

I wouldn’t have lasted a day without one. Not only did it allow me to stay connected with friends and family, I used it to make bookings, use translators and maps, and look up information without having to scour cities for free (aka unreliable) WiFi. It also gave me extra peace of mind knowing I was connected if anything went wrong.

Instead of relying on international roaming or buying an international SIM from your home country, wait until you’re overseas and buy a local SIM card. Most phone plans are pretty cheap, and often come with a “welcome” data bonus that will probably last you for your entire trip and save you from topping up.

Don’t leave things to the last minute

Sometimes winging it works, but you should never leave your transport or accommodation bookings too late.

Not only does it give you a better chance of getting a better price, but it’s also about availability. At one point, my plans changed last-minute and within the space of a 30-minute bus trip, all the ferries from Ireland to the UK had sold-out, which is how yours truly ended up on a 2am ferry crossing. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

I couldn't tell you the amount of times I approached people for help—and not once was anyone ever rude or reluctant to give me a hand. Ask for directions, ask which platform you need to be on to catch your train, ask if they can find you a cheaper bus ticket or a hostel room.

It never hurts to ask, and it saves you having to pull out your phone and use up your precious overseas data, or awkwardly hovering in a McDonald’s entrance to use their Internet. Besides, locals know best.

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Published in Budget Traveller
Tori Doman

Victoria Doman is a Mexican-Australian (aspiring) writer based in Canberra, Australia. After a year of travel and work, she is undertaking a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of International Relations at the Australian National University. She loves Fleabag, cinema and Victorian literature.

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