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20 Essential Travel Experiences to Do in Your 20s

On the eve of my 20th birthday, I felt an odd reluctance to leave my teenage years behind, as I liked the youthful label and didn’t feel ready to be a 20-year-old. My wise aunt challenged my glum expression and told me that my twenties would be the most fun decade of them all and that I had so much to look forward to. Ten years later, I’m now exactly 1 month away from my 30th birthday and wondering which motivational advice my aunt will give to get me over the ‘turning 30’ dread that virtually all my friends have experienced… Recently someone even phrased this existential moment as their ‘third-life-crisis’, along the lines of the quarter- or mid-life varieties. I seriously hope not, as my quarter-life-crisis feels like yesterday and I really don’t want another!

Acknowledging that I will most likely also fall foul of the ‘turning 30’ dread when the moment comes, I would like to point out that I don’t feel or act like I’m nearly 30! It’s also true that our generation isn’t acting in line with the stereotype of 30-somethings: we’re choosing to postpone the key milestones until much much later than the out-of-date 30 marker suggests. I’d argue that 35 should be the new 30, but then I would say that as my birthday approaches, wouldn’t I!

With the wisdom of nearly a decade as a 20-something, I’ve thought about what I’d say to my newly-minted-20-year-old, if I could travel back in time to that evening when my aunt reassured me about my twenties. What would I suggest younger-me do differently, or what key advice would I give her? What advice would you give to 10-year-younger you?

There are endless listicles on the internet about how to tackle your twenties, many of them emphasising intangible advice such as “become financially independent”, “start saving”, “learn what kind of job makes you happy” and “take risks”. The goals and lists that resonate most with me however are the really tangible, specific experiences that can be planned, achieved and recognised. So below I’ve compiled a list of the 20 trips and travel experiences that I feel are best suited to your 20s.

Many are based on experiences I’ve loved in my 20s, although there are a few that I haven’t yet done myself, and which I hope won’t be out-of-the-question in my 30s. But it is true that many of the longer commitment-free trips, multi-month backpacking journeys and holidays with big groups of friends are honestly just easier the younger you are, before people start settling down and getting pinned down to mortgages and careers. Not impossible, just harder!

20 Must-Do Travel Experiences in your 20s

So here are the 20 trips and experiences I’d recommend to my 10-year-younger self, and to anyone looking to make the most of the liberty of your twenties! How many of these have you done, or what would you add to this list?

1. Spend a week sailing with friends:

Skippered yacht holidays with a group of best friends, hopping between paradise islands, with companies like Medsailors or Yacht Week are immense! Read about our week in Greece with Medsailors for a taster.

2. Run a marathon abroad:

As it’s so much easier the younger you are! I ran the Athens Marathon a few years ago and the Jerusalem Half-Marathon this year, and there’s a fantastic atmosphere around travelling to a big race.

3. Study abroad:

Erasmus is the perfect option for one or two semesters while you’re at university, as you can receive grants and funding from the EU, and it gives you a brilliant network of friends from all over Europe. Find out more in my many blog posts on Erasmus here. If you missed an Erasmus semester while at university, you can still do language / cookery / sports / art courses abroad, and it’s a brilliant way to experience living abroad.

4. Go to a music festival abroad:

The most famous are Burning Man and Coachella in the US, Sonar in Barcelona and Tomorrowland in Belgium. After graduating I went to Benicassim with a bunch of friends and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best festival, the vibe and experience of camping and partying for days on end with best friends is irreplaceable. If you’re not so much into music like me, then there are plenty of other types of festivals. I’ve loved attending the Sarajevo Film Festival and I’ve long wanted to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

5. Work a ski season:

Best done before you settle into a proper job, treat yourself to a winter in the mountains to see what the seasonaire hype is all about. I loved my ski seasons in Italy and Chile ages 18, at an age when I didn’t mind working menial jobs as a chalet girl. If you’re slightly older or more experienced, look for better jobs as a receptionist, ski rep or ski guide – read my guide to working a ski season.

6. Party in Ibiza:

I will finally go to Ibiza this year to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I honestly cannot wait. It’s been on my travel wishlist for a long time, so I couldn’t write this lost without including it!

7. Spend an entire summer backpacking:

Easiest while you’re a student, when you can fit this in between academic years. Pick a region you’ve never visited (eg. my month in the Western Balkans) or a place you already adore and want to see all of (in my case, my 3 weeks in Sicily) and experience the wonders of travelling slowly and soaking up the culture on a longer trip. No whistle-stops allowed.

8. Take a sabbatical or quit your job to travel:

Travel isn’t solely for students, as more and more companies loosen their policies on unpaid leave and sabbaticals. Even if you’re mid-career, take a look at my article on how to request a sabbatical for more ideas on what you could do and how to go about it.

9. Volunteer in a developing country:

There are free programmes like government-sponsored International Citizen Service, which is how I spent 4 months volunteering in Nepal.  If your mother tongue is English, then you’ll certainly find opportunities to teach English in schools around the world, which is another excellent options. Both options are a great way to gain valuable skills as well as a better understanding of the issues facing the developing world.

10. Do a road trip with friends:

Stock up on petrol, food, playlists and podcasts, and hit the road! My road trips around Cuba, Norway and New Zealand are among my most memorable trips ever, and there are some really classic drives out there to be done: along the Californian or Australian coasts for example.

11. Try solo travel at least once:

Although it may not sound that appealing, travelling solo will give you boundless confidence in your own independence and freedom, and will teach you such valuable life lessons: such as learning to dine out alone and meet new people constantly. If you decide you don’t like it, then you never need to do it again, but at least you know!

12. Live with another family:

For cultural immersion and a valuable lesson in different lifestyles and the different ways that people interact and live together. I worked as an au pair near Rome and lived with a host family while volunteering in Nepal, but other good short-term option included choosing a homestay with a family while you’re taking a language course abroad.

13. Embrace the photoshoot mentality at least once, make a video montage of highlights from your travels, and keep a travel diary:

I’ve always loved cameras and prancing about in front of them, although I know that isn’t everyone’s bag! However, when you’re old and look fondly back on your youth, a visual reminder of the triumphant emotion you felt at the summit of a mountain you just hiked up, or even something more posed, you’ll be thankful you took the time to get the photos and videos right! We’re at our most beautiful and youthful-looking in our 20s, so it’s the perfect time to take all the photos and videos you can, as you may not wish to later on when wrinkles and receding hairlines set in… My friend Imy and I spent an afternoon in the Stockholm archipelago playing around with an amateur photoshoot, after we visited the wonderful Fotografiska Gallery in Stockholm and were taken by an urge to capture ourselves in the moment. I’m also a big fan of writing travel journals to record your every impression, remember the small details and encounters that you may forget with time.

14. Attend a big celebration like Oktoberfest, Carnival in Rio or a full moon party in Thailand:

Oktoberfest is a month-long event held annually in Munich and is heaven for Germanophiles and beer lovers. I haven’t been yet as I don’t like beer, but the atmosphere and sight of traditional lederhosen does sound incredible! Every February, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is flooded with scantily-clad dancers, enormous parade floats and party-goers and it’s certainly on my list at some point! And as messy as it may be, a full moon party has to be experienced once.

15. Travel somewhere long-term and far-flung with a boyfriend or girlfriend to get to know them inside-out:

Embarking on a 4-month trip around South-East Asia or South America will take you both out of your comfort zone, show you the worst sides of one another, and if you survive it intact, then you know you’ve found a good’un.

16. Visit all the cities you dream of maybe living in one day, to test if you should move there or not:

For me, these places currently include Brussels and Hong Kong, although a few other cities do occasionally make appearances on my dream-city list. Visiting the place makes the dream feel that much more do-able and helps you make the decision one way or another, instead of pondering it for so long that you miss your chance. On that note, if you’re a UK citizen going to Australia, New Zealand, Canada or Hong Kong then under-30s can take advantage of their working holiday visas.

17. Spend a New Year’s Eve abroad:

If possible, I’d do this every year for the rest of my life if I could! All of my most memorable New Year’s celebrations have been abroad and there’s good reason why: there’s never an anti-climactic or disappointing last-minute plan, and you are truly present with the people around you and appreciative of the moment, because you’re already excited to be on holiday somewhere outside of your ordinary routine.

18. Travel somewhere without internet, without constant electricity, without showers:

Go back to basics. Go camping, go to a rural part of developing country (such as Nepal for the real deal, or walking safaris in Africa for the deluxe version of this), remember how you can survive without these modern luxuries and get back to the essentials. A digital detox does wonders for stress levels, and really stripping out the modern comforts like electricity and hot water will give you a greater appreciation for the luxuries we take for granted in the West, which many millions don’t have.

19. Fall in love with someone from a different culture or country:

Overcoming cultural or linguistic differences will teach you about yourself, your identity and wider humanity, and let you see beyond borders the essential human qualities that bind us all, regardless of where we grew up. The tolerance and acceptance of others you gain by going so far as to fall in love, is as valuable as gold and will broaden your perspective on the world.

20. Challenge yourself to do something you’ll always feel proud of

Whether that’s to climb a mountain, hike a long trail, jump out of a plane, do a bungy jump, swim with great white sharks, learn a new language or learn to scuba dive: choose something with significance for you and hold onto that sweet sense of achievement.

I’m personally very proud of the total of 3.5 years of my twenties that I’ve dedicated to travel in some shape or form, and I’ve no regrets about it whatsoever. If anything, I’d have liked to spend more time abroad!

What else would you add to this list of travels to do in your 20s?

And now that I’m soon to be entering my 30s, what would you suggest I put on my list for the next decade?

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