Should You Quit School to Travel the World?

About once a week, I get a question from someone via email that usually goes something like this:

I'm a [insert year] in college and even though I know school is important, all I want to do is travel the world. I haven't told my parents yet, because [insert reason here, usually having to do with the fact that they're afraid their parents won't support them]. Should I wait until I finish school, or should I just take the leap and go now?

These emails are always really difficult for me to answer.

On the one hand, I like to encourage people to follow their own dreams — not the dreams of their parents or teachers or overall culture, but their OWN. For that reason, you might assume that I would tell these college kids to “go for it!” Because, after all, life is short.

BUT. But. On the other hand, I think getting an education is really important.

In the words of Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Yes, travel in and of itself is a fantastic way to learn about yourself and the wider world. But, in today's day and age, a university education is seen as more “legitimate” — and therefore is equally (if not more) important, especially if you don't plan to be a nomad for the rest of your life.

Education quote

So I usually tell these question-askers that I think they should finish school. And here's why:

You will need a way to make money

As much as we all hate it, money makes the world go 'round. You'll need a way to fund your travels — and, chances are, if you want to travel for a long time, you'll need to find a way to make money WHILE you're traveling, too. (And no, starting a travel blog before your trip with the intention of making money from it right away is not really the best plan.)

If you finish your degree and perhaps work for a year or two, you'll be able to save up some money AND have a profession to fall back on later. If you want to get a degree that will help you find work on the road, consider a teaching degree with an ESL or TEFL certification so you can teach English abroad. Or learn some skills like web design, programming, or app development that could lead to remote work later.

You may discover you don't love traveling

I hate to break it to you, but the “permanent nomad” lifestyle isn't for everyone. Traveling IS awesome. But living out of a backpack and moving from place to place frequently gets tiring. After a while, you may find yourself longing for the comforts of home. It happens more often than you probably think — MANY long-term travelers start slowing down and/or living in one place for months at a time rather than being constantly on the road.

What happens if you drop out of school, leave for your epic trip, and then decide a month or two in that “being a traveler” isn't really the right profession for you after all?

You can go to school AND travel

It doesn't have to be an either-or situation. You can finish your degree AND still take some cool trips. As a student, you actually have great opportunities to travel — and the time to do it. Think about it: you get all summer off from school, usually a month around Christmas, and another week or so for spring break. That's A LOT of opportunity for travel.

And, while you're in school, there are usually tons of student discounts you can get. Check out STA Travel for all sorts of student travel deals, and get yourself an International Student ID Card — it will get you student discounts all over the world. Also, see if there are any groups/organizations on campus you can join that take trips abroad (for example, I joined marching band in college because they went on international performance tours — I went to Italy for a week and China for a week, and paid about $1000 total for each trip).

Great Wall

Here's me on the Great Wall of China with my college marching band!

So, instead of quitting school to travel, consider these alternatives instead:

Study abroad

One of the easiest ways for you to finish your degree AND travel is to study abroad. Many universities have “sister” schools abroad, or direct exchange programs that don't cost any more than a semester/year at your home school. Make a visit to your college's Study Abroad office to find out what kind of options you have.

Take a “gap year”

In many countries (like Australia, the UK, and many places in Europe), it's common to take a “gap year” — basically a year off in between school and getting a “real job.” We don't really value the gap year much in the U.S., but that doesn't mean you can't take one.

Planning for a gap year once you finish school is actually great — it gives you some time to save up money for said trip, AND it gives you a goal to work towards.

Teach abroad

I already mentioned it above, but if you want to work and live abroad, consider getting a teaching degree and then an ESL/TEFL license. You can then go teach somewhere exotic like Thailand or China or South Korea (all places that pay English teachers well and have a low cost of living) for a year or two, and travel as much as you can during your time off. Living and working abroad still introduces you to a new culture and gives you plenty of travel opportunities — you just don't have to worry as much about money.

So what's your take? Do you think quitting school to travel is a good idea?

 

44 Comments

  • Rob says:

    i always annoy my friends by telling their kids to take a year off either before or during college and travel. Travel in your 20s is awesomely intense and cheaper than it’ll be at any other time in your life. Once you’ve done that you can (re)direct your studies to suit any new goals you may develop.

    • Amanda says:

      Unfortunately, many students who leave school for an extended period of time don’t go back. I would suggest studying abroad as a much better alternative. (And, most people graduate college at 22 or 23… still PLENTY of 20s left in which to travel. 😉 )

      • Lou says:

        Amanda, this comment almost finally made me decide to go travelling next year instead of going to university. The argument “many students who leave school for an extended period of time don’t go back” is unfortunately one used very often. It was used by my own parents and made me stay at a college for 2 more than necessary, miserable years. You don’t seem to understand that a person sees it’s very own interest higher than anything else. If the person doesn’t go back to college after a gap year, that means he doesn’t want to go back, so have no interest in going back. They realize that: COST OF GOING TO UNI > BENEFITS OF GOING TO UNI.

        • Amanda says:

          It’s a very personal decision, Lou, and if you decide that college isn’t right for you, then that’s your decision! I DO totally understand that. BUT, the stats are there – students who quit school aren’t likely to go back, whatever the reason. So if college IS something you want to pursue, that’s something to think about.

  • Priya says:

    I kind wish I didn’t go to college right away and did travel. Or at least did a semester abroad or used the summers to travel.
    Priya recently posted..Confession: Long-Term Travel Is Not For Me

    • Amanda says:

      There’s certainly more than one option – I did a semester abroad and took school-sponsored trips during my undergrad years, and then took advantage of summer/holiday breaks during graduate school to travel even more. I’m glad I finished my degree(s), though – I found ways to finish school AND feed my travel bug!

  • Shannon says:

    I sincerely wish I took more time to travel while I was in college and I especially wish I decided to begin traveling BEFORE going for my master’s. My debt now is insane. I do believe an education is important and a university degree is sadly necessary in today’s world, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. In this case, I would agree that they should finish school if they’ve already started. I would suggest summer travel when possible or a semester abroad and if they’re not already in school, I would highly suggest a gap year (whether to travel or do something else) because during that year, they’ll learn so much about themselves and what they really want, that they won’t spend most of their college years struggling to figure out who they are. They’ll be more focused and do a lot better in their classes.
    Shannon recently posted..The “Right” Way to Travel. Is there one?

    • Amanda says:

      Yup, a degree is definitely (sadly) necessary for most professions these days. And, let’s be honest – very few people can travel forever (meaning most people will need that degree eventually). I would definitely agree though that this advice only applies if you’ve already started school. Because many students who quit (for whatever reason) never go back. Taking a gap year in between high school and college would be ideal, but I think traveling while you’re in school (i.e. studying abroad) is a good option, too, especially if you have parents who really want you to go to college right away.

  • Erika says:

    I really love that you emphasize that you can be in school and travel too. I studied abroad in high school and in college and it’s totally possible and a lot of fun. The experiences I got there were different from my time abroad after school — I’m so glad I had both AND have a couple of degrees as well. It’s all possible — it doesn’t have to be an either/or! 🙂

    • Amanda says:

      YES. Nothing has to be either/or, and that goes for traveling and going to school, too. Studying abroad for me didn’t cost me any extra (well, unless you count the plane tickets and in-country travel expenses that I racked up!), and it was such a great experience! I actually think studying abroad should be required in college!

  • There are many ways to find oneself and lots of ways to get an education. Unfortunately, some are just valued more than others in our society.
    Kerry at The Insightful Wanderer recently posted..Water Is…

    • Amanda says:

      This is very true. Traveling has taught me so much about the world and about myself. But unfortunately most employers (and especially those in the US) won’t accept travel on a resume in lieu of a college degree. 🙁

  • Grainne says:

    I completely agree with you. I had a massive urge to go travelling but I knew that I would find it really difficult to go back to college afterwards. I spent my summers backpacking in Thailand and doing a work and travel program in America and then once I finished my masters I went travelling and have been teaching English ever since. It’s a job I could never have gotten without my degree and I know that this summer when I move to America my masters will be so useful to me (these days it doesn’t even matter what you studied in college…as long as you went!)

    I always recommend college first!

  • Corinne says:

    Amanda, Sound advice on all levels. I think money is always an issue. If you a student has his/her college paid for whether it be by parents, scholarships, etc. I suggest they never give that up. Go ahead finish your degree first, then go traipsing about the world. However, if an opportunity arises, one that is hard to turn down, then don’t. You can always go back to school. As you’ve said, difficult decision…but I would have to say, this is one to make with your mind, not your heart. You can follow your heart when that four short years is over.
    Corinne recently posted..Marrakesh, a Magical Intro to Morocco!

    • Amanda says:

      Very good advice, Corinne! And yes, especially when things like scholarships or help from parents are involved (or even loans! if you quit school you’ll have to start paying on those right away), you don’t want to give that up just for a trip.

  • Anne-Laure says:

    This is such a great article! You’re so right an education is as important as travel. It teaches you different things, it empowers you in different ways. Sadly being an adult is all about compromise, don’t get me wrong I didn’t say give up your dreams but it does take some adaptation.
    I am currently studying abroad, I’m a French student in Germany and in Europe we’re “sponsorised” by the EU to study abroad! Yes, it’s A LOT of paperwork but it’s so worth it! In France, it’s not particularly popular to study abroad or to take a gap year. But here I’m 22 finishing my master degree and the truth is I really needed to go abroad and see what it feels like “away from home” to figure out whatever I want to do with my life! (This is quite achieved yet but that’s not the point 😉 )
    For now, it feels like the best of both world to me right now, university and travel!
    Have a lovely day Amanda!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Doing a work term or internship abroad is another good option! I spent 8 months in Montreal and 8 months in the Netherlands doing internships in 4 month chunks. It’s a great way to gain valuable work experience and it was great! Unfortunately, places in Europe generally don’t seem to pay well, or at all, so I was lucky that I received a grant from my university to work abroad.

    • Amanda says:

      Good point, Elizabeth! That would also be a great option! I looked into some internships abroad when I was in school, but ultimately decided to study abroad instead.

  • Wynne says:

    My gut reaction to the headline was, “YES!” But you give good, sound advice here. And studying abroad is a near-perfect solution, one that I wish was “in vogue” when I was in school.

    I just found your blog and am looking forward to reading through it. I, too, am from OH (Hudson) and now live in NYC – partially due to its proximity to JFK and Europe!

    • Amanda says:

      I wish studying abroad was suggested a lot more in the US – it’s such a valuable experience!

      And how funny – I live in Twinsburg right now, right up the street from Hudson! Small world. Welcome to my blog!

      • Wynne says:

        Twinsburg – home of Dairy Queen on Rt. 91, when I was a kid.

        When are you next heading out? Or perhaps that’ll be revealed once I start reading. I’m heading to Italy (5th time) for Oct./Nov. – can’t wait!

  • Polly says:

    This is such good advice – especially the part about working for a couple years after college, which a lot of people don’t mention. I tried to go straight into freelancing directly out of school and I honestly feel this decision still affects my earning potential, over ten years later. Get a serious job or two on your resume and save up! While still in school, study abroad, try to schedule some travel time during your breaks if possible, and take a TEFL course if your school offers it. As I learned the hard way, it’s so nice to have options!
    Polly recently posted..Ten Reasons Qatar 2022 is a Horrible Idea

    • Amanda says:

      YES, having options is something you’ll definitely appreciate later on. I studied abroad during school, worked for about two years, went back to school for my master’s degree (and traveled a lot during breaks), and THEN decided to try working for myself. If I change my mind sometime down the line, I have a lot of school and work experience to fall back on.

  • This is such a hard question- that I spent years asking myself. However I think something really great here is that you CAN travel SO MUCH while you are a student. I traveled overseas all my summers as a student, and studied abroad twice so I got to live in France and Nepal while getting an education. This was sometimes super hard when my abroad time was over and I had to come back and deal with regular school again- all I wanted was to be out there traveling. But since my school covers my student expenses it’s been an incredible chance for me to save up a lot of money, and now that I am 2 weeks from my degree I am very happy I stuck it out. Plus I am leaving college with a degree, money, and tons of travel experience already. Not that I have any plans to put that degree to use seeking a career at the moment. I am just going to keep moving, but I love what I studied and having a background in kids and education gives me knowledge which other people don’t have. I like my brain-power. So take advantage of the travel you can do in school!! and don’t worry about a career or money, worry about putting your brain to good use and learning because learning really can be fun. People tend to consider college just a path to a career but it’s a chance to learn about awesome things that interest you (also take this time to learn another language- or two like me! helpful for travel). At least that’s how I feel about it now. If you had asked me 1 year ago when I still had a year of school left I might have been singing another tune but looking back I think I did things just right.
    Alexis Kensey recently posted..Traveling to Nepal: What you should bring

    • Amanda says:

      It sounds like you definitely found a good balance, Alexis! And I’m happy to hear you’re glad you stuck it out – years from now you’ll probably be even more glad that you finished that degree!

  • Adam says:

    Tough call to make … if they have the ability to halt their program for a year, then yeah. If not, finishing school is probably the best option … the world will be there when you’re done!
    Adam recently posted..Most relaxing experiences in the Mediterranean

  • rebecca says:

    Tough decision. It really does come down to the personal path doesn’t it. But some great advice Amanda
    rebecca recently posted..I Saw the Loch Ness Monster

  • Kelly says:

    I completely agree! When I was in college, I was absolutely obsessed with traveling–I was dying to just take a break from school and go, and “get it out of my system.” I’m glad that I didn’t end up going this route for a number of reasons, but most importantly a) I was still financially dependent on my parents. They helped with rent, tuition, and things like that. If I left school, they probably would have ended that support, so I’d have to pay for travel + funding the rest of my education after that, and b) Now that I’ve graduated, I have a job (thankfully one that includes a lot of flexibility in working days/hours) so I can actually fund my own travels without having to worry about going broke.
    Kelly recently posted..The Verdict: Is Koh Phi Phi a Ruined Island?

  • Aaron says:

    There is also a lot of opportunities to study remotely these days. Many education institutions offer online courses etc where all you need is a laptop and an internet connection.

  • Solomon says:

    I would not advise anyone to quit school to travel. Much as travel can be turned into a profession, it will only be very enjoyable if one is one goal(education) is completed. Moreover, school presents a lot of travel opportunities especially study abroad and school trips. If one is too much into traveling, they may as well enroll for a tourism and travel related course as they usually offer numerous travel opportunities

    • Amanda says:

      That’s a good point, Solomon! I did my Master’s degree in hospitality/tourism, so when I asked if it was okay to go on a few trips that would cause me to miss class, my professors were perfectly fine with it.

  • Vira says:

    as much as I think school isn’t the only way to success, I agree with you. especially when you’re already in college and you (or your parents) can actually afford it, might as well finish it and have more options in life later.
    Vira recently posted..On Traveling with Indonesian Instagramers

  • Carl says:

    Isn’t learning a kind of travel? So, quitting or not, walking or sitting at a desk, you are actually traveling!

    • Amanda says:

      Definitely a good way to look at it! However while travel is definitely a kind of learning, I wouldn’t necessarily equate all learning with travel. I never enjoyed my statistic classes as much as exploring a new destination. 😉

  • Flora says:

    After high school I completed one year of university because that is what I thought I should be doing. I didn’t really enjoy it (or do well). I went to Europe for 2 months and ended up staying for 13 months with family and when I returned, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do. Yes, I did end up wasting a bit of money on that year but I am so much happier now in my current field. But I agree, if you are almost done your education that it makes sense to finish it!

    • Amanda says:

      Glad that it worked out for you, Flora, and that taking some time to travel helped you focus on what you wanted to do! Definitely a success story there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge