Updated: Feb 25, 2020
A note from Jaime: Kim and I met at Reveller's Hostel in Belgrade, Serbia. She had such a unique and beautiful accent and one that I couldn't quite identify. Come to find out, she's South African but has spent nearly a decade living in NYC. The night we met we chatted and laughed our asses off until 2am from our hostel beds. I am so grateful for not only Kim's friendship but this inspiring article she has generously contributed that highlights the beauty of backpacking in your 30s.
Backpacking in Your 30s
Written by Kim
Someone once asked me: How old is too old to go backpacking? My answer: How old is too old to live the life you desire?
I had my first proper solo hostel experience at 32 years old. Little did I know that it would completely change the way I traveled going forward, as well as igniting my dream of traveling longer term.
I wanted to share my insight and experience of staying in hostels in your 30s and above. Of course being a backpacker doesn’t mean you need to stay in hostels, however, I truly believe that staying in hostels made me get the best possible experience out of my travels. From the people you meet there, to the hostel experience and hostel staff. Now, before I continue, I want to point out that the hostel culture has completely transformed over the last decade. It’s no longer a seedy place with bed bugs, just to get a cheap bed. Hostels have become a culture and a choice amongst travelers of all ages. With so much competition along the backpacker routes, you’d be amazed at some of these hostels, which in my opinion, could rival service at 4 and even 5 star hotels.
I was planning a trip to Prague. I spent hours and hours combing through reviews, making sure the age groups reviewing had a bit more diversity than 18-23 year olds. I decided on what’s known as a “party hostel”, however, the reviews consistently pointed out that there’s no pressure if you don’t want to party every night and the hostel creates a wonderful, inclusive family atmosphere. I told myself if it was absolutely awful in terms of drunken 18 year olds, I could always leave and find a hotel.
As I checked in, I was greeted with a warm welcome by an American girl who was studying art in Prague and volunteering at the hostel. She took out a giant map of Prague and proceeded to give me a run down of the entire city, the best attractions to visit including some “off the beaten track” options, as well as places to eat and drink. I was shown to my (bunk) bed and guess what? One of my male roommates was 30! We ended up grabbing dinner that night and ended up having a little holiday romance, but that’s a story for another time. ;-)
This particular hostel was fantastic with the activities they offered, such as nightly family dinners, which was a great way of bringing everyone together. And being over Thanksgiving, they had prepared a full Thanksgiving menu with all the trimmings - I was super impressed! Then there’s the evening activities, which generally include a bar and then later a club, if you’re up for it. Or a pub quiz night and the likes of. Again, there’s really no pressure to partake in any of the activities. Day time activities included a walking tour arranged by the hostel and a boat cruise. I spent 4 days at this hostel, met the most wonderful people and leaving honestly felt like I was saying goodbye to family. Safe to say I was hooked on the hostel culture!
So what’s backpacking in your 30’s like? For me, it’s not about the party anymore but more about taking everything in and enjoying it at a good pace, I don’t feel the need to tick boxes and countries off my list. Sure, I like a party here and there, but I feel like if I was in my 20s traveling this way, I’d want to be at the bars every night. Now I’m just as happy to be watching a Netflix episode in my bunk bed. I don’t feel pressured to join other people on excursions if I don’t want to, because I’m comfortable in my own skin and with my own company. I’m happy to explore things on my own as well.
I continued to book all my trips in hostels and kept meeting wonderful and inspiring people. I stayed in the most incredible places. Another bonus about traveling in your 30’s is you generally have a higher disposable income, so I was staying in the boutique style hostels, which offered more comfort and facilities. Staying in a bunk bed is something I got used to very quickly, as long as they were comfortable then it was no issue for me. Sharing a bathroom perhaps took a bit more getting used to, but as long as they were clean and well-designed, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make in order to enjoy the hostel culture. Sharing a room with random people? Well, these “random people” could end up being your life-long friends (looking at you, Jaime!). And as for noise and distractions when sleeping, it’s usually nothing that ear-plugs and a sleeping mask can’t fix.
But as much as I loved my vacations, I yearned for a bigger adventure and to perhaps break out of the 9-5 routine that was killing my soul. I met many people along my travels who had been traveling for months on end and I kept asking myself, why can’t that be me? Fast forward a couple of years and I finally plucked up the courage to break from my safety net, resign from my corporate job and take time off to travel. This wasn’t an easy decision - my head was bombarded with continuous questions and set-backs...”Kim, you have a career, bills to pay, you’re not 21 anymore! I have an apartment. What would I do with all my stuff and what about when I got back?” I spent all this time building up my career, being used to a certain lifestyle and my comforts of living, as well as having the security of an income and even a future. In the beginning it felt like a dream too big, something I needed to let go of because I’m too old now and should have done it in my 20s. But each year that passed, I knew in my heart that if I didn’t do this now, I’d have major regrets 10 years from now. I started writing down my goal and steps to get there, and once I started looking at the picture in smaller steps, the big dream didn’t seem so scary and unattainable after all.
I booked a 1 way ticket to Europe and planned to be away for around 3 months. I was now stepping out into the world onto a complete blank canvas, a completely new world, at 35! It seemed pretty crazy. But all the thoughts and doubts in my mind had quietened, I didn’t let them in anymore. I had to trust myself and my decision and thankfully, I had a lot of support from friends and family. Of course I was scared, but I felt at peace with my decision and my future.
I started in the UK and made my way down to the Balkans, focusing most of my time in that area. Most of it going without a plan, meeting people along the way whom I traveled a portion with, and exploring places I’d never known about until I met a traveler who recommended it. I’ve done everything from hiking to music festivals, hung out with people from the ages of 20-80, from all around the world. I’ve had romances and made amazing connections with people whom I know will be in my life for a very long time. Of course there are some down times too: the goodbyes, the long travel days, the lack of privacy, the constant effort of making new friends (it does get exhausting), climbing to the top bunk, the bathroom being full when you really need it, messy backpacks, messy roommates and the list can go on. But these are all nuances and you learn to adapt and tolerate. In my 30’s I realized that being out of your comfort zone is where growth happens, so I became very adaptable with every experience and realized that I don’t need as many things as I thought I did. You just learn to adapt! I wouldn’t switch it for anything, as this trip has sent me on a personal journey that I never expected and I’m so incredibly grateful for.
Well now, my 3 months has turned into 7 months. Here’s another finding about backpacking solo that I wasn’t expecting. It turned out to be an amazing transformational journey into my self and self-development. And I think being in my 30’s made it even more so. I decided I wasn’t done yet and neither was my budget, so I’ve continued to travel. After Europe I went to Africa, now I’m in Asia, and who knows where to next! What I do know is that I’m not the same person that stepped onto that plane at the beginning of my journey and that backpacking solo has truly changed my life.
My personal opinion is that you’re never too old to go backpacking, if it’s what you want to do. Backpacking is about adventure, trusting and learning about yourself, meeting people from all over the world, exploring new places, immersing yourself in local culture. Sure, I’m usually one of the oldest people in the hostels, but life is about choosing your own adventure and I refuse to let my age define what my adventure means to me.