You may dub me the world’s worst parent, but I say yes! Mine did (are doing) at 15 and 16. No - not on an organised group trip or tour, and Yes – they survived!! Better still, they did have a heck of a good time and they thrived from it.
If your teen wants to go, I can only encourage you to say yes!
When the subject first comes up, it’s ok, and only natural, to worry – but that doesn’t mean your teen is not utterly capable of backpacking. To take a very broad perspective - there are plenty of kids in the world who are responsible for their entire family at this age, and plenty of others who have left home at this age.
Yes, you do have to consider what your teen is like? Near every kid has it in them – they just need the opportunity. However, if your child is rather gullible or very trusting you may need to give them some warning advice about trusting people with their gear or the like.
You also have to consider if they can be trusted around drugs and alcohol – they will likely come across these at hostels and the like but it doesn’t mean all hostels are a den of iniquity – and many of the ‘party hostels’ won’t take under 18’s for that very reason.
Kids can be resourceful. I once had my 15 year old end up stranded in Paris with my 7 year old. The 15 year old was supposed to fly to Rome with the younger one, where she was going to be met by my friends and leave the younger one with them while she went backpacking. Trouble was, the French authorities wouldn’t let a 15 year old take a 7 year old on the plane even though I had checked with the airline and they were ok with it. I got a call from the authorities at the airport telling me to come and get my children (not going to happen as I wasn’t in the country). Not long later my daughter called me. “Mum we couldn’t get on the plane, but it’s ok, I have booked a train to Rome but it’s going to take a couple of days because we have to go via Nice, so can you let them know not to meet us at the airport. And it’s ok I got some food and drink and colouring books for ‘younger one.” She didn’t speak French but she managed to sort that out. I’m sure most kids would have managed something similar in the same situation.
Here are my top tips to make sure the first travel adventure alone is successful (apart from not doing what I just mentioned above and leaving them stranded!)
10 tips for teens backpacking alone
1. The first trip doesn’t have to be a long trip – two or three weeks is great. It gives everyone confidence!
2. They will be capable, and if not they will soon learn to be. However, have they thought through what they need before they go – are they prepared? Have they saved enough money? Do they have travel insurance – and what does it cover in case of, most importantly, medical emergencies – does it allow to fly a parent to them if hospitalised? Do they need and have a passport, and have they checked the expiry date (make sure they have at least six months from the end of the trip)? Vaccinations and medical – do they need them?
3. Think through your expectations for when they are on the road carefully and make sure they are aware of these before they leave. Do you want to be their quick fix for every woe on the road? Do you want them calling for money because they blew too much of it? Do you want them to fend for themselves and sort their problems out before they ring you? What is their emergency plan? What constitutes an emergency? Check in on that with them. Make sure you know your rules of the game and they do too!
4. Remember - you have mobile phones, internet, and electronic money transfers if anything really goes wrong.
5. Ensure they have more than one ICE (in case of emergency) number in their phone, and another one for Mum, Dad, and / or Home. My advice is to leave phones unlocked. If they do get in an accident or leave their phone somewhere and one of the majority ‘good’ people in this world picks it up, then they can use the phone to call Mum, Dad, Home or the ICE number. If it is locked they can’t.
6. Unpleasant people – we all know they exist and although by far the minority, we hear far too much about them. Cover this off before they go – petty theft in backpackers, petty street crime, keeping money and documents safe. Keep records of all documents and bankcards at home in case of emergency. Remind them of what to watch out for and be aware of.
7. Pick your zone – try a country more like home where their local street smarts are relevant. If your teen grew up in the UK or Germany or the USA, you don’t need to say yes to backpacking in Asia or Africa straight up. I would have been worried if my teens had wanted to go, for example, to Indonesia alone simply because of the possibility of them being spotted as a good pick to plant drugs on – and the consequences there being so dire. So go with what you are comfortable with. For me this came easy for my eldest – we were living in the UK at the time and her first backpacking trip was around the Continent. For the next one, we were living in Australia and she made a few trips there and in NZ – easy and no stress. If you’re in North America there are a million and one backpacking trips to do in the USA and Canada, but if your teen speaks some Spanish already, then much of the rest of the Americas are a good option too – again pick your country if you are worried, but don’t count it out – the Americas are swarming with backpackers that come to no harm.
16 and likes riding - finds volunteer work with horses on trip to Sth Island NZ
8. Alcohol and drugs – lay down your expectations. Then trust they live within them! You know your child and this should temper where you let them start with. This is the most likely thing to create danger for your child so make sure they are aware and you feel comfortable that they will stick to the rules here.
9. Depending on where they are going, getting hostel accommodation can be harder – many backpackers do not take under 18’s. However, there is always somewhere and it’s just a case of finding them. For example, my daughter found Amsterdam a particularly hard place to get a bed but managed to find a Christian hostel that took under 18's. And yes they do check the passport!
f you want more control and certainty, book hostels for the first few days – but if it is all booked then they may as well be on a tour – if you say yes then let them have the freedom to get to a place and enjoy it and stay a while, or leave if they don’t like it, or change route if they hear about something they really want to see or do.
10. Get them to travel with a friend - mine have done both - friends can be a liability as well as an asset so choose well if you want to go down this path!
15 and 16 with and without a friend - Europe
As I said, you may think me the world’s worst parent – I have had plenty (masses even) of criticism over the years as to how I have brought my kids up – but I can tell you that they are all ok, not in jail, not on drugs, not homeless, and are in fact productive working (or schooling) members of society who are engaged in their lives. Travelling alone helped them become the resourceful people they are!
Comment below if you have experience letting your kids go alone - or ask a question.