"Your mum must be so worried!"
"I wish I had been as courageous at your age!"
"Shouldn't you be in school?"
"I thought you were about 25!"
These are all reactions I've had when I tell fellow travellers I'm 17 years old. I’ve been travelling Asia for the past 4 months, along with my boyfriend Ollie, 19, and by now I'm very much used to being the youngest in any group. It's always entertaining to see how shocked people are when they discover I'm travelling at 17!
Taking a Gap Year at 17 years old
Travelling has always been my dream and aged 16, in cold grey Devon, where I was weaning myself off anti-depressants, I decided that the time to travel was now. My mental health has always been drastically improved by a sunny day in the UK - so the thought of limitless sunshine, blue seas and adventure pulled me through my struggles.
I slaved away as a waitress and in an office fielding an airline’s complaints for nine months, working every hour under the sun to get myself on a flight. My mum was nothing but supportive of my plans, listening to me natter on and on about flights and visas and the suntan I'd come home with. She was worried about her youngest child venturing out into the world so young, but I have always been mature, confident and independent for my age - she says I live my life on fast forward, always being the first to do things.
My mum and I are incredibly close and I always keep her in the loop about my plans to save her some worries, as well as to get her excited about my trip. She even has a little map in her office on which she pins my current location and where I’m heading next.
Planning under-18 travel
When Ollie and I set about planning and booking our trip, it was clear that travelling is not generally something that is aimed at under-18s. I wasn't old enough for the majority of package tours or for some insurance policies, and I couldn't find any blogs or articles written by travellers my age. We therefore had to book everything for our trip independently, and travelled without tour groups. Our planning involved sitting down with books, maps and a laptop, researching every place we have ever wanted to go. We saved every penny we earned, and based the trip around a strict budget of $20 a day per person, prioritising the countries we were most excited for and trying to calculate a logical route with the guidance of travel bloggers, vloggers and any tips we could get.
Right from the start of our planning stages, I had the irrational fear that I'd just be stopped and told to turn around and go home because I'm technically not an adult. Booking my outbound flights to Goa in India, I worried to Ollie that I would be stopped at Heathrow. I stressed that hotels would have an 18+ age policy, that I'd be banned from activities like zip lining or the boat trips that I was so excited for. I thought that it would be harder to make friends as most people travel later in life.
Under-18 backpacking is no big deal
The reality is that nobody has batted an eyelid at my age. Despite my nerves at every airport, I've been allowed on every flight; I check myself into hotels without a hitch and, quite frankly, I could be younger and I’d still be allowed to do any activity I fancy. Sure, I've had the odd patronising comment from people I've met, but as I'm armed with the ability to roll my eyes and move on, a comment is nothing in the grand scheme of things. The very fact that I've been travelling for four months "with the adults", as someone once worded it, is proof that backpacking at 17 years old makes no difference to the experience.
People often ask me if my age has in any way been a setback or disadvantage during my trip. I've thought long and hard about this question and I genuinely cannot think of a single way in which my age has been an issue, other than my own worries. I think because of the fact that 17-year-olds rarely take a gap year, there are myths surrounding it which suggest that it isn't possible. These myths just aren't true, and really, I face the same stresses of anyone doing what we are doing. 'Which amazing place shall I venture to next? Which hotel do I choose? Will my money run out? I haven't got sunburn on my face again have I?' The list goes on, but, for me, has never included "am I too young for this?". The only real stress I have revolves around what I'll do when I get home - but it's safe to say that most people I meet out here are in the same boat.
By the time I get home I'll have motorbiked the whole way across Vietnam; learnt to dive in Bali; made friends with elephants in Thailand; recovered from dengue fever in Cambodia; managed not to get Delhi Belly in India and seen everything weird and wonderful in Japan - yet I still won't be able to legally drink a pint in the UK.
I encourage absolutely everyone who is lucky enough to be in a position to travel to take the plunge and explore the world, at whatever age you feel ready to. Whether you're retired and just realising your desire to explore the world, or you're 30 and giving up your job to do so, or if you're just a 'baby' like me, I can assure you, you'll never regret it.