Whatever happened to the teenage backpacker?

In a hostel, NorwayFor my 16th birthday I got a racer (a normal bike with curly handlebars for those not of that age). For my 17th my present was half a second-hand snooker table (I saved up enough to pay for the rest; half a table would have looked ridiculous of course). By the time I was 18 I had sold them both and bought my first Inter-rail ticket. The insatiable curiosity that I’d build up in my childhood years of staring at maps and globes needed an outlet. I was off to explore Europe without too much thought about how I would pay my way.

Sleeping on trains or in stations, eating bread and water with an occasional McDonald’s treat and hitch-hiking once my rail pass expired, I was able to stay on the road for nearly two months before my money ran out. In those days comfort was an irrelevance. A sleepless night in a station where I saved on the cost of a hostel bed was seen as a victory; a day where I ate my way through nothing more than a baguette and six triangles of soft cheese became a badge of honour.

A skeleton hitch-hikerEven when I met my wife-to-be at the tender age of 20, she enthusiastically adopted my travel style. We regularly hitch-hiked from Bradford to visit her mum in London, always leaving her house as if heading to the bus station. To this day she doesn’t know.

Fast forward 20+ years and in some ways I barely recognise the person I’ve just described. For a start I can’t stand plastic cheese; give me an extra mature crumbly cheddar or better still a roquefort. I’ve got fussy with accommodation too. I’ve never been one for dorms; socialising with fellow guests is great but there’s also a time for privacy and I don’t like to sacrifice it for the sake of saving a bit of cash.

I’ve been lucky to sample some of the finest delights of the high-falutin lifestyle to which so many of us aspire, both as a result of travelling on business and of the occasional splurge. It’s taught me that I feel uncomfortable in 5 star hotels and Michelin star restaurants and would prefer a humble alternative given the choice, but I could happily turn left on a plane every time.

The world of travel has changed since the 1980s, but I suspect my own getting older has had a bigger impact on my travel behaviour than any wider cultural evolution. And yet strip away the minor details of finding an agreeable place to sleep and maintaining a balanced diet while travelling and it’s good to know that one thing hasn’t changed. I still look at the map of the world just as much as I did all those years ago; I still have a curiosity to see as much of the world as I can; and best of all I still lie awake with excitement as the next big trip approaches and count down the days until I can head off with my backpack for another adventure.

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9 Responses to “Whatever happened to the teenage backpacker?”

  1. This is just plain brilliant, Andy — I salute you! Disagree that the behaviour you describe is part of old age though; I am 28 and in many ways relate to what you wrote.

    I have never been one for hostels myself, my least favourite part decidedly being the clashing schedules. For an early bird, nothing is more intolerable than a pack of late night drinkers waddling into a dorm in the middle of the night. As for socialising, there is only this much a human can take before wanting to shut that door.

    Having said that, 5-star hotels are impersonal and unnecessarily overpriced, so are best spared for business trips.

    August 18, 2011 at 10:45 am
  2. Ted #

    Not sure it’s you. Think the wider cultural evolution has changed travel forever. Sit in any hostel common room in 2011 and there is an eerie silence as everyone writes blogs or emails family on their notebooks. Try turning up at a popular destination and getting a bed these days like ‘the good old days’ is almost impossible as everyone has reserved them on no deposit (or 10% cancellation fee) websites. The tour or at best the ‘Flashpacker’ now rules… Though I don’t lament the passing of my 30 in a dorm nights…

    August 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm
  3. Andy

    Yes..reminds me of a few things as well..

    1. 80’s interrail trip – that was my first travelling adventure as well. I made the most of the overnight trains and saved as much cash as possible for seeing stuff and partying. Will never forget waking up to the site of a hand gun a few inches from my face. We had just crossed the border into Italy and it was in the holster (fortunately) of an Italian policeman.
    – Food – I remember we ate luncheon meat out of a tin in a beautiful park in Vienna. The sight of people looking down at my mate and I put us off the place, and we hopped on the first train out of there. I don’t think I ever ate luncheon meat before that day and certainly have not eaten it since.

    2. Hitchhiking – I used to hitch hike everywhere, great times as you meet so many interesting people. Hitchhiking out of London was a challenge and in the end closed down that chapter. I remember doing London Heathrow – Portsmouth. It took me hours to get out of Heathrow and the drivers in that area were unforgiving.

    3. Dorms – I have never been a fan of them and have always avoided them if possible. If I had a mate with me we would try and bag a twin room. I will never forget my first dorm experience at a Christian hostel in Amsterdam. Couldn’t stand it.
    – A number of years later I travelled North America. Despite the fact I had a larger budget, I still had to stay in dorms now and again.
    – Those days are so, so over now. Never again.

    Like yourself I’ve had the opportunity now to stay in every kind of accommodation. A luxury suite at the Palazzo in Vegas was particularly memorable, and I’ve stayed in many upmarket hotels.

    To be honest I’m more happy in a beach shack. What more do you need apart from the basics – bed, fan, shower, toilet, wash basin and somewhere to store your clothes and pack. Of course, providing it’s got a balcony so you can drift off to sleep listening to the sound of the waves, whilst gently swinging in your hammock 😉

    August 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm
  4. Thanks to all for sharing great memories and perspectives. Anjči, I agree that the things that make most 5 star hotels uninspiring for a holiday make them perfect when you’re on business. Glad that my traits are shared with a 28 year old; makes me feel less old 🙂

    Ted, a great point about the shifts in our culture. The obsession with getting online at every opportunity has made meeting places (whether hostels, cafes or bars) often more about communicating with someone on the other side of the world than sparking a conversation with the guy at the next table.

    Some great memories there Chris – worthy of a post of its own. Luncheon meat – yes, a backpacker’s diet was grim at times (I got a lift with a Polish family for several days across Spain and ate nothing else). London was always hard to hitch from, although going north wasn’t so bad as you had Scratchwood services at the start of the M1 which were easy to reach and where lifts were plentiful.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:53 am
  5. Andy, great post!

    Surprised that there’s been no mention of safety. Whether or not the world’s a more dangerous place for the lone backpacker/hitchhiker we could debate all day. Perhaps it’s just represented as more dangerous? Do young women still feel as safe as they did before?

    I raise this as my wife remembers hitchhiking between towns as a teenager, and it was a very normal thing to do in Germany at that time. I also remember there being many more people on motorway slipways holding that hopeful piece of cardboard…

    As for the excitement of travel; it never fades. But as for 5-star hotels; they only work after a week living in a tent – especially when you role up at night, covered in dust, looking like an extra from a Sergio Leone movie.

    (I got a room, and the complementary buffet kept me stocked up for the next few days!)

    August 19, 2011 at 9:36 am
  6. I completely agree about everybody wanting to be on line the whole time.
    I am not so old but when i first went travelling i met a girl and we wrote each other letters for a while. When i tell that to some people they look at me like i am talking about something out of a Jane Austin novel.

    August 19, 2011 at 1:01 pm
  7. On early trips round India, I discovered a rhythm that worked of night on a train, night in a tourist bungalow or cheapy for about 10 days, then book into a posher hotel (with hot water) for a good sleep and laundry break for 2 nights. Luxury! Never one for spam, but did always travel with my own pot of Marmite and nearly got mobbed once over breakfast in Jaisalmer by overenthusiastic Brits desperate to get away from curry. It goes well with chapatis, hard-boiled eggs and bananas for a healthy diet for those times when you can’t face any other food.
    These days – sorry if I am going against the grain but I love 5-star hotels. But I also love the occasional backpacking trip I still do. My one concession is that the backpack has been replaced by a wheelie bag. Far easier!

    August 19, 2011 at 3:01 pm
  8. Great post… I think travel has changed, sure – people can and are so much better connected now, through blogs, Facebook and the like. They can rely on blogs to sniff out great new places to explore, get inspired to eat strange new foods before they’ve even boarded the plane: it’s not all bad.

    I don’t think the InterRail generation has gone away, but there are so many more opportunities to get out there. There’s really no continent on earth that an 18-year old couldn’t visit if they put their mind to it. As long as it’s done responsibly, that’s a great thing 🙂

    August 22, 2011 at 10:44 am
  9. Great post!

    I’m 16 right now and I am planning to do something similar to you when I turn 18. I’m going on a RTW trip during my Gap Year and I’m saving up so hopefully my conditions will be a little better than urs, but i will probably blow my budget anyway and hav to do what u did 🙂

    My parents wouldn’t be too happy if I was sleeping in a station.

    September 12, 2011 at 11:49 am