Eight Things I Learned as a Teenage Traveler (Part One)

Though I've been traveling for eight years (albeit very part-part-time), I did a lot of major travel during my teenage years, back when the barest glimmer of travel interest started to flicker in my mind. I'd always been intrigued by the idea of exploring the world (three-year-old Mrs. Nerd was an independent little terror), but it truly started to take hold around 13-14.

At fifteen, I got to travel, really travel, for the first time when my grandparents took me to England for eight days as part of an British literature/history field trip. At sixteen, I took my first solo flight to California and stayed in Fresno with some family friends for a week. At eighteen and nineteen, I took two more solo flights to Idaho and Seattle, respectively, where I met some lovely writing friends I'd only ever talked to online.

Each of these trips taught me something important about travel, about myself and my resourcefulness, and about the world. They fanned the embers of my passion for travel and helped them burst into flame.

A young Mrs. Nerd standing in front of some Keira Knightly posters in London

A young Mrs. Nerd standing in front of some Keira Knightly posters in London

I may be an adult now, full of wonder and an ever-growing thirst for travel, but those early trips were crucial to my development as a person, as part of my local community, and as a citizen of the world.

In part one of Eight Things I Learned as a Teenage Traveler, I'll discuss four (of eight) things I learned as a teenage traveler ... and four (of eight) reasons why every teenager should have the opportunity to travel at least once.

1. History is really, really cool

I know, I know. You're allowed to shake your head at this one.

Unfortunately, and to my deepest chagrin today, I'd been one of those teenagers who thought history was borrrrring! Who cared about what dead people did during their lives, I thought. This was my life, and we were living in the present, not the past!

My parents had me study up on American and British history in high school. I read several books and watched informational videos on history, but I never garnered any respect or interest for it.

...at least, not until I traveled!

The Tower of London in England

The Tower of London in England

On my trip to England, my grandparents took me to see Saint Paul's cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Churchill War Rooms, and Buckingham Palace. We visited art museums and went on ghost walks, and I ... was ... enthralled. Really, I hadn't understood the significance of world history until I walked into a place (London) that was hundreds upon hundreds of years old and housed some of the greatest minds in the world!

William Shakespeare, anyone?

What I eventually realized was that I loved reading books, but in order to truly appreciate something amazing and old, I needed to see it first hand. I needed to leave my comfortable home in Minnesota and go see the history in person—otherwise, it was only stories found in between the pages of stuffy school textbooks. Seeing history alive and in front of me completely changed my perspective. Maybe that's one of the reasons I love travel (and history) today!

2. The world is much older than I ever imagined

This ties into #1 a little bit.

As a person born and raised on American soil, I grew up subconsciously thinking that the world is a young(er) place. The oldest American settlement in the original thirteen colonies that made up the United States, Jamestown, Virginia, only goes back as far as 1607 ... and I thought that was old.

Of course, I'd read about ancient history and seen pictures of crumbling monuments and thousand-year-old tombs, but it never really sunk in that the world was just incredibly ancient and beautiful until my trip to England. We went to Cambridge and visited the Cambridge Round Church, the first church in Cambridge that dated to 1130 A.D. It was then that it hit me. The world is so old, so full of history, so rich, and somehow still standing ... and there's much much more to learn.

Cambridge Round Church in England

Cambridge Round Church in England

I think this realization jump-started my intense desire to travel all over the world, from Italy to China to South America. There's so much to see and discover, deep ancient secrets to unearth, monuments to look at and realize, whoa, this has been here for thousands of years before I was even born... It really gives you a healthy dose of perspective and thankfulness.

3. People are different than me—and that's awesome!

Okay, so you can probably chalk a lot of these reasons up to simple adolescent immaturity (being fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I couldn't have possibly understood the enormity of the world and the beauty of the people and places in it without seeing some of it), but when I was younger, it never really occurred to me that people all over the world live differently, work differently, and experience things differently than me.

I somehow figured (perhaps from simply not knowing) that we all wear different clothes and eat different food, but deep down, we really live the same sort of lives with the same sort of priorities. And while this may be true in certain situations, it wasn't until I traveled that I realized ... people in other countries and cultures are so unique, and in such an amazing way!

Some of these differences were lighthearted. The British man at a restaurant we'd stopped at in London spoke in a thick accent and brought out my eggs sunny side up (with some extra toast to sop up the overflow of egg yolk pooling around my sausages). The kid who punted us down the river Cam in Cambridge told us stories about the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209) and the students who had come and gone for centuries, which blew my mind (realizing that these buildings were all so old). The fishermen in the fish markets at Pike Place Market in Seattle shouted and sang and threw fish to each other, unperturbed by the damp seafood smell that punctured the air.

Other differences, though, were more serious and deep, those rooted in culture and lifestyle. Little girls with big round eyes and flowing skirts stood on busy street corners in England, watching carefully for a tourist to approach. British folk were friendly but reserved and didn't open up in conversation as often (which I later realized was a common difference between Americans and people who live in Europe).

There were others, too, but not ones I noticed for a long while. I wouldn't understand these deeper distinctions until I traveled more in my early twenties, but I saw glimpses of these distinctions—and those glimpses inspired me to read, research, and understand others in a better, broader way.

4. Travel taught me how to be independent and responsible

Before I traveled in 2008, I didn't take much responsibility for anything besides my household chores, my homework, and being home before curfew. I didn't make any big decisions (the biggest probably being what to eat for lunch), and I depended on my parents to help me manage my allowance, make dinner, do the laundry, track my school progress, and let me know when we had family events to attend.

It wasn't until I traveled to England that all of this changed. Sure, I'd always thought I was pretty independent for fifteen years old, but I had the comforts of home and the nearest adult to fall back on. Traveling abroad forced me to take control of my life and be responsible. I didn't have anyone to lean on but myself, and I quickly learned that floating through each day without paying much attention to anything, especially while traveling, wasn't a good idea.

On our trip to London, my grandparents threw me into the travel experience and let me stumble around on Bambi legs. From day one, I learned how to manage my spending money and keep it safely tucked away (along with other important documents) in a money belt under my jacket. When we went out to eat, I had to pay the right amount of change for my meal, which meant using mental math to figure out the conversion from US dollars to British pounds and remembering which coin was which.

I was also responsible for making sure I got back the correct amount of change for the thing I purchased and responsible for not spending too much on frivolous items. If I ran out of my daily spending allowance because I bought too many chocolate bars, books, or souvenirs, tough luck. I had to ration what money I had to make sure it would last through the entire eight day trip (which, looking back, was a great way to prepare me for eventual backpacking abroad).

I also got sick abroad a couple times as a teenager, including pink eye in England and allergies in California, so I had to figure out what I had, where the nearest store was, and what sort of medicine I needed to take. This responsibility forced me to read the medicine bottle carefully and take it at the correct times with the correct dosage. For the pink eye, I had to administer my own eye drops and take Advil twice a day until it cleared up ... not pleasant for a girl who hated swallowing pills and hated bodily discomfort. Taking care of my health was 100% on me, and it taught me to be proactive while at home and abroad.

Outside of learning about money and health, I took several solo flights across the United States while I was still in my mid-teenage years. I'd flown a few times before that, but never alone. The first time my parents dropped me off at the airport, I stood there, nervous and unsure what to do. But fear of missing my flight propelled me forward, and I learned how to manage my time in the airport, pay attention to flight boards and delays (one flight I took changed gates one time, and I almost missed the flight because I hadn't been listening to the announcements very carefully), and guard my belongings/keep track of my things. Not only did I learn how to manage myself, but I also lost my fear of traveling solo in airports, bus stations, train stations, and more.

All these lessons I've learned while abroad really helped me feel more comfortable and confident with travel ... and also taught me how to manage my time, take responsibility for myself and well being, and follow my dreams without depending on others to deliver them to me.

I can't imagine a better way than travel to learn such great life skills!

Ready for more teenage travel lessons? Check out part two, where I discuss four more important things I learned as a teenage traveler!