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11 People on Why It's Never Too Late to Start Traveling

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 2018-09-12 Mark Ellwood

a view of a large mountain in the background: Elizabeth Ramm finally fulfilled a secret dream in her 60s: to see the Himalayas.

Elizabeth Ramm finally fulfilled a secret dream in her 60s: to see the Himalayas.
© Getty

The first time you travel abroad can be daunting, thrilling, overwhelming, and life-changing—no matter what age you are. We asked a few Americans to share stories of their first overseas trips, from a 20 year old venturing to Italy as a nanny to a 60-something fulfilling her lifelong dream of seeing the Himalayas. These are their stories.

20s

At 24, Utah-born Lila Emmer was living and studying in New York when she saw a sign for Olympic Airways from the bus, and jumped off to book a trip to Greece. That was almost 50 years ago.

I was taking courses toward my BS at Columbia, and had veered into Greek mythology via a course in biblical history. I wanted to go to Greece but had already signed up for a professor’s summer class—when I told him, he said, ‘My dear, go to Greece!’ So I spent two and a half months in Mykonos. I had a sense of complete freedom. I could do as I wished, when I wished. There were about eight or ten of us [on the trip]: Australians, Brits, Greeks, Americans, South Africans. We lived separately but were together constantly: having breakfast at the harbor taverna, sunning and napping on the beach, and watching the fisherman come in from night-time fishing. Oh, and dancing all night until closing at the Three Muses. That first trip overseas was the beginning of my love of wandering with minimal plans. Since then I’ve been to Tuscany, New Zealand, and northern Vietnam. Next summer I’m returning to Iceland to ride the horses there again.

Miami-born Philtrina Farquharson, 23, took her first trip abroad a year ago, to Thailand.

I had never been out of the country, let alone out of the city of Miami—I’d never cared to because I was afraid of the unknown. But after I graduated from college in New York, I had a new perspective on life: I went in a timid, antisocial student and four years later, came out open-minded, outgoing, and full of knowledge. I’d heard that Thailand was incredibly cheap, and I’m in love with animals, so I researched their elephant sanctuary. When my sister and I visited, I got a chance to bathe and feed the elephants and go on a night safari, where you drive through animals’ natural habitats. They would walk [right] up to you. It changed my life. [Since that trip] I've been to Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and soon, I’m headed to Europe for two weeks.

Janine Knighton lives in Provo, Utah and runs the blog Putting a Pin In It. She was 20 when she spent several months abroad for the first time, working as a nanny in Florence, Italy in 2001.

[While studying Italian at college] I decided to put all my teenage babysitting skills to the test and get a job in Italy. I signed up with an au pair agency, and after a few false starts, was matched with a family that lived in Florence. I would work as their au pair for four months, taking care of their two-year-old daughter. Nothing prepared me for those first few weeks. I was lucky to be placed with a great family, but there’s no denying that being a nanny is hard. You are intimately connected with the family and yet, at the end, you are a paid worker. I had a hard time finding my place, and it took awhile to bond with my girl and create a solid relationship with the parents.

And yet, I was in Italy. I remember the first time we drove past the Duomo. It was at night, and the whole building was lit up. I felt like my heart was going to explode from the beauty and wonder of it. Unlike most first-time international travelers, who only have a few days or weeks to see the sites, I had the luxury of exploring the city in depth. I loved watching the street performers that would come out after the sun went down, or grabbing gelato and passing the siesta hour in the park, feeling like a “real” Italian.

On one of those afternoons, I opened my eyes and saw a young man standing cautiously above me. His name was Abderahim, but in Florence he went by Gino—he was from Morocco and had been living in Italy for a few years. [Our first date] was magical—two foreigners in a strange land finding a connection far from home. We stayed together for a whole year, and though the romance didn’t last, my love affair with Florence endured. I’ve been back several times to visit the family I nannied for. I even saw them last summer, when I was able to share the news that I was pregnant with my own child.

California-based Trang Pham-Nguyen first left the U.S. at 22, in the summer of 2012.

It was a hot and humid summer of 2011 when I met a Spaniard and two Brits studying abroad at my college in Virginia. Later, as I said goodbye to my new friends, I promised that one day I’d visit them—and I don't break promises. One year later, after working two retail/hospitality jobs at near minimum wage, I saved up for what I hoped would be enough money for a three-month trip around Europe. I flew into London because that was the cheapest flight I could find, and from there I took a mix of buses, trains, and planes, going as far west as Portugal and as far east as Bulgaria. In Spain I got extremely lost and wound up in a city that I wasn’t planning to be in, and a fellow passenger on the train, who spoke no English, helped me get a hotel for the night. It was a little moment that really showed me there are good people out there in the world. Now when I meet other first-time travelers on the road, I notice they have this little twinkle or spark in their eye. A certain type of energy. It’s kind of exciting to see how they see the same place you're in, but from a different point of view.

30s

Sherry Smith grew up in the Midwest, but now lives in New York. Fourteen years ago, she took her first trip abroad, when she was 33.

I grew up in the Midwest and my mother didn’t quite encourage my desire to spread my wings, so I didn’t make my way across the Atlantic until I was 33. I forgot to sign my passport, and the guy who checked it [in the airport] laughed when he opened it—it was so brand spankin’ new it made a creaking sound. It was a quick trip—Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris—and it was in Paris that I became determined to figure out a way to move to Europe. Not necessarily forever (I had a rent stabilized apartment in New York that I didn’t want to lose) but way longer than a vacation, for sure. I applied to grad school, got accepted, and [one year after my first trip], moved into my apartment across the street from the Louvre.

Melissa Smuzynski was 31 when she first left the country. She lives in Oklahoma City and now works as a full-time travel blogger with Parenthood and Passports.

In 2013, my husband and I had just gotten married and decided to take a trip to Europe. We both spent our 20s building our careers and working extremely hard, meaning we didn’t travel much. My husband had always wanted to visit Switzerland and I’d always dreamed of traveling to Italy, so that's where we went. Although we didn't know many people who traveled overseas, we set off with our backpacks and our curiosity. The sights, the sounds, and even the smells were captivating. We got lost repeatedly as we clumsily attempted to navigate the European rail system, and with every wrong turn and new train platform we fell more in love with travel. After we had our daughter, Avery, people said our traveling days were over. They weren't. In fact, we traveled to 13 countries in the first three years of our daughter's life (her first trip was to Costa Rica). Our goal is to visit all seven continents—yes, including Antarctica—as a family before she turns ten. We’ve already visited four.

50s

At 51, Shelly King decided to leave the U.S. for the first time, flying from her home in Kansas City to Nepal with tour company AdventureWomen.

We moved a lot when I was a kid, but my parents weren’t travelers. Our vacations consisted mostly of hunting, camping, and fishing, and as a young adult I didn’t think that much about travel because my life was fairly adventuresome already—I spent a few months in Alaska when I was 18, and lived in Jackson, Wyoming for four years in my twenties, hiking, skiing, and rafting to keep myself busy. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more interested in other cultures. When my 50th birthday came around, I decided it was time to do something big for myself. The mountains were my initial attraction to Nepal, and seeing them in real life was beyond description. We rose early each morning to get the best view of Annapurna, and I’ll never forget the misty fog rolling in and out of the valleys.

Chicago-based attorney John Rauch took his first trip overseas at age 55, and has been back to Europe twice a year ever since.

The obstacle for me was my wife, Coleen, and our dogs. We had no good place to board them, and she had no real interest in traveling; later in life, she developed claustrophobia. But I really wanted to travel, especially to Europe, and my wife really loved to walk, so putting two and two together I came up with idea of hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. History and Europe for me, hiking and the outdoors for her. Her interest was sparked, and she was curious.

But then she died from breast cancer in December 2015. That was rough. A few months later, I saw Neil Young was going to headline a music festival in Madrid—it was like a voice from heaven. I had to go. Making my way on the Madrid Metro, all in Spanish, to get to my concert venue, was a big deal. I planned the route carefully, where to get on the train, where to get off; I asked for help at the customer service counter at the Sol station to confirm my plans; I double, triple and quadruple checked the signs and the map and the app on my phone… and on the train I realized that the stop to get out for the Neil Young concert was the one where all the other balding, pot-bellied old geezers in black concert t-shirts got out, too. It was just like going to a Cubs game in Chicago.

My wife was a huge Neil Young fan, too, so that trip was in large part a memorial to her and another friend, Brenda, who had also died. Before I went, I had photos of them both laminated and at the concert venue, I tied the photos to a structure where I was standing—part of a walkway through the crowd. Having them, or at least their photos, there with me made it feel like I was sharing the concert with them. I learned that traveling alone is nothing to be afraid of. My wife and I did pretty much everything together when she was alive, and I wasn’t sure how being alone for an extended time would be. I did get lonely a few times, but I learned that in Madrid or Sevilla, you just need to find an outdoor café, get busy people-watching, and order a vino tinto or cerveza and a plate of tapas to start forgetting your problems.

Myra Oldham is a retired English professor whose first overseas trip was to China at age 54 in 2002.

I had begun to travel around the U.S. several years prior, because my son was a pilot for a major airline and I got free travel—it was then that the “travel bug” bit me. Later, I heard an adoption agency owner from Lexington speak about an upcoming group trip to China to visit orphanages, and without hesitation, I signed up.

Things I wish I had known before that trip: wear compression socks/stockings (my legs were so swollen when I arrived in China and stayed that way for weeks); travel-sized peanut butter is a lifesaver, as are energy bars and other healthy, quick foods; pack light and pack quick-drying clothes; only take “tried-and-true” shoes to save your feet.

After that, I took a three-week Christian educational trip with a group to Mongolia, and during that time I signed a contract to return a few months later and teach English at a technological institute. So, at age 62, I packed up my home, gave away my dog, kissed my kids and grandkids goodbye and went to live in Mongolia—with total confidence that I could learn to function in a country where I didn’t know the language. I returned to the U.S. in 2009, but Mongolia was one of my life’s highlights. Many friendships have come as a result of my living there, and I love traveling to countries that have a culture entirely different from the U.S. It’s way more challenging and eye opening for me.

Ruth Griggs, who lives in Boise, Idaho, traveled with Road Scholar for her first trip to Europe when she was 50, along with her mom and her sister.

My mother is an avid traveler, and when I was about to turn 50, she said: “Every mother should get to introduce her daughter to Paris.” She raised me to have a great appreciation for art, and one of my so-called “bucket list” list items was to see the Louvre. The pure wonder of being there was unforgettable. Traveling abroad changes you forever—you never see the world quite the same ever again. After that Paris trip I knew I wanted to go everywhere and see everything I could. We’ve started a tradition of deciding on the flight home what our next trip would be—if I don’t have a trip in my future now, I’m not happy—and next up is a Road Scholar trip in October to Montreal and Quebec City. Strangely enough, I’ve never been to Canada, and I know about as much about Canadian history as most Americans, which is embarrassingly little. I think I should know more about our neighbor.

60s

Retired Montessori teacher Elizabeth Ramm grew up in Bothell, Washington. She took her first trip overseas eight years ago, when she was 63.

My husband and I raised five children, which sort of took everything, and setting up travel had always seemed daunting. But then my husband and I decided to travel to Kathmandu, Nepal to visit one of our sons who was stationed there as an embassy guard with the Marine Corps. We had no idea how to organize getting to Nepal, so we turned to a local travel agent for help. It worked out perfectly.

We had to stop somewhere [en route] so we decided on Hong Kong, and I was in awe of the view of all the ships off the coast of Hong Kong as we got closer to land—I love to watch the maps on the seatback monitors and look out the window as we fly, even when it’s just ocean for hours. Once we were in Kathmandu, we took a local plane ride to see the Himalayas (a secret dream that I never expected to fulfill) and explored the countryside, too. Since that first adventure, we’ve worked with our travel agent to develop trips to Italy, Austria, Germany, South Africa, and Namibia. Our next trip begins in a week: We’ll be driving across the U.S. for seven weeks, checking out landscape, history, quirky places, and seeing friends and relatives.

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