Travel Tuesdays: How to start traveling when you’re young

Most people want to travel the world.

I mean, twelve years of American public school education is enough to make anyone want something more. But most young people have no idea where or how to start. So today I’m going to tell you.

First, let’s back up a bit though. Because I’ve been thinking for a while now about how we can give you, the reader, a deeper connection to what Outdoor Revival is all about. We don’t want just to be your average Facebook filler that pops through your news feed from time to time.

Old growth forest, massive trees
Just like you, me, and all living things, Outdoor Revival is constantly striving to become something greater than it was before.

Outdoor Revival is all about what it’s like to love the outdoors, what it’s like to explore the unknown, and how it feels to travel the country or the world. And we want you to experience it with us as we each grow into something greater than what we are today.

To me, that means we need to dig a little deeper into our own experience as authors, and share some real stories that we’ve picked up along the way. After all, for someone who doesn’t get the chance to stand on top of desert towers, hitchhike across international borders, or sleep under the northern lights, it can be pretty hard to put context to our content.

So that’s why we’re bringing you Travel Tuesdays. Travel Tuesdays are all about what life is like on the road. These aren’t going to be top ten posts, or quick tips you could find with a simple Google search. Instead, these are going to be nitty-gritty details, real-life stories, and hard-earned lessons about life on the road.

Hopefully, the stories we share won’t just hold lessons, but inspiration as well.
Hopefully, the stories we share won’t just hold lessons, but inspiration as well.

Some weeks, we’ll share terrifying, near-death experiences. Other weeks, we’ll have heart-warming tales of synchronicity and success. No matter the story, each will have a lesson that you might not want to, or be able to learn yourself. By sharing the lowest lows and the highest highs of life on the road, and off the beaten path, I hope we can bring you just a little closer to what Outdoor Revival is really all about.

So, I figured, that for the very first Travel Tuesday, it’s only fitting that I share my very first travel experience. Not only is this the story of the first time I traveled alone, but it’s also the story of one of the most common mistakes new travelers make, as well as the moment when I learned how to correct that error and turn travel from a vacation into a lifestyle.

So, without further ado, let’s talk travel.

My first time traveling solo

I was lucky, and I got the chance to travel when I was sixteen. I spent a month traveling around Guatemala and Belize with my high school. So, when I finally finished school, I knew the possibility was out there, just a plane flight away, somewhere hidden behind the horizon. Even with my eyes opened, though, I had no idea how to start. So naturally, I made a mistake.

I signed up to volunteer with an NGO in Guatemala. And although it was cheaper than a semester of college, it was not cheap. I paid $13,000 of the college fund I was privileged enough to have, in order to spend six months in Guatemala working as a teacher in a rural Mayan village.

antigua guatemala, arch, volcano
The famous Calle Del Arco in Antigua attracts tourists from around the world.

I would live in a home-stay in the city of Antigua where I would eat the local food, would speak the local language, and see just what world travel was all about. At least, that’s what I thought when I signed up for the program.

And hey, I did wind up spending six months as a fourth-grade teacher. It was absolutely life-changing. Some of the people I met on that trip are still close friends, and the lessons will be with me until the day I die.

travel tuesdays
Me, at age 19 in the small village of San Andreas Itzapa where I taught fourth grade.

So why was it a mistake? Well, it definitely didn’t teach me what world travel was all about. But hey, at least it got me out there. I could have done a lot worse. But in hindsight, I paid someone thousands of dollars so that I could work for them.

That’s a ridiculous arrangement, and it’s how a lot of young travelers get duped into thinking they’re making a difference. I didn’t know any better. I thought that was how you traveled.

travel tuesdays
Me painting the outside of our school with a new sign and phoenix, the logo of the volunteer program.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have lived for years and years in Guatemala on that much money. I could have bought a car and still had several years worth of money to spare. I could have even spent time teaching in any of a number of schools in rural Mayan villages and been paid for my time. The price of that program was ridiculous. And although I got an invaluable experience out of it, there is still a sour taste in my mouth almost ten years later.

What should I have done instead?

Well, it was my last week in Guatemala. I was done with my program and my home-stay. I was scheduled to fly out the following Sunday night. So, I decided to treat myself to a week-long stay at a really cool hostel up in the mountains above Antigua. Its name is Earth Lodge.

earth lodge antigua guatemala volcano
The front yard at Earth Lodge has quite the view.

Tree houses situated in an avocado farm coupled with deliciously healthy food, and amazing views were just some of the reasons I chose Earth Lodge to close out this cathartic chapter in my life.

Looking back now, I like to think there was some greater force at work. Some secret sound I was just lucky enough to catch wind of. Something was calling me there.  As I spent my final days reflecting on the past six months, I must say I was proud. I was a changed person. I was 19 years old. I had absolutely no idea what I would do when I went home, but I knew that I didn’t want to go to college yet, or maybe ever.

All I wanted to do was keep traveling, but I still didn’t know how. After all, there was no way I was going to save up another $13,000 to do this again.

travel tuesdays
Before you’ve climbed the mountain, it’s hard to see what’s all around you. From on top of Volcan Acatenango, all of Guatemala is visible, and it’s easy to see the path that led me here.

It was Saturday night at about midnight when my life changed forever. I was sitting on the back steps with one of the staff members, a cute girl from California. We had been drinking and chatting all night. Then, in the middle of the conversation she said “Ian, you should work here.” I nearly puked on her.

What did she say?

It had never occurred to me that I could do such a thing. But once I considered it, it seemed so obvious. The staff of such a place had to come from somewhere, after all. They had noticed that I had spent my week being helpful, clearing plates, cleaning up after others, and I spoke Spanish well. I didn’t know what to think. All I could say was “Yes, yes, a hundred times, yes.”

beer antigua guatemala puppy
The staff at a place like Earth Lodge come from all around the world.

The next morning, I Skyped with my mom. My flight was in less than 24 hours. “Mom, I’m not coming home tomorrow.” You see, I had spent the last six months paying someone else to work for them, but all around me were travelers who were actually being paid, or at the very least staying for free in exchange for their hard work. I felt like such a fool.

I spent one month when I was nineteen working at Earth Lodge at the end of my planned trip. It was the single most important decision I have ever made. I returned less than a year later and stayed for six months. Then I came back a year later with my girlfriend at the time and stayed for almost a year. I’m sitting in Earth Lodge right now, seven years after my first visit as I write this. The place is literally tattooed on my arm now.

travel tuesdays
Me working the late-night bar shift at Earth Lodge on New Year’s Eve, 2017.

Traveling isn’t as inaccessible as an American education makes it seem. I mean, no one even talks about it. Sure, there are study abroad programs offered by most colleges where you’ll have teachers holding your hand and telling you what you can and cannot do. You could go to Cabo with your family for a week-long vacation over the holidays. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need anyone to hold your hand or do it for you. All you need is an open mind, open heart, and the will to work hard.

So how do you start traveling when you’re young?

Well, there’s a couple of skills that will come in handy if world travel is on your mind. First and foremost, learning a second language is valuable, to the point of being invaluable. In most places, that alone is enough to get you a job on the road. It’s far more useful to learn a widely spoken language like Spanish, rather than one that is specific to only one country. However, speaking the local language is by no means necessary.

There are a wide range of skills that can earn you free lodging, food, and even a wage while you travel. Among the most common that I’ve seen are hotel, bar, and restaurant experience, yoga instruction, massage therapy, English teaching, carpentry or electrical work, tree pruning/planting, fruit picking, gardening, and even nannying.

travel tuesdays
I’ve spent lots of nights bar-tending in foreign countries, but I’ve also cooked, managed, guided, picked fruit, taught, sold art, and written to earn a living on the road.

Even just being an outdoorsy and rugged person is enough to get you a job with local tour operators in a lot of places. That’s not to mention the infinite ways that you can make money from your laptop. If you haven’t figured it out by now, there are nearly endless ways to make a living out of traveling. All it takes is determination, hard work, and the guts to go try.

For most young people, the only thing they need to get started traveling is a leap of faith.
For most young people, the only thing they need to get started traveling is a leap of faith.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do the study abroad program next semester, and I’m not saying that volunteering abroad is all lies. What I am saying is that there are nearly endless ways to travel the world. You can do it with ten thousand bucks in the bank, or you can do it with ten.

It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how much you’re ready to give.

travel tuesdays
The sun setting over northern Guatemala as seen from the top of Temple IV, Tikal.

If you’re curious to learn more about how to get into working while you travel, here’s another article I’ve written about how to start travel volunteering. It will go into more specifics about how you can get a job anywhere in the world, including at Earth Lodge, and how you can build the skills to become truly free.

If working from your computer is more your style, here’s an article about the basics of becoming a digital nomad.

Hopefully, this has helped dispel some myths and inspired your adventurous spirit. For most of us, there’s nothing stopping us from traveling but our own imaginations.

Tune in next Tuesday for another real-life story of travel and adventure. Until then, stay curious and never stop exploring.

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If you have a good story to tell or blog let us know about it on our FB page, we’re also happy for article or review submissions, we’d love to hear from you.

We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it. Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the Outdoors.


ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival