Should you let your teen backpack through Europe?

Apr 15, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. ET

High school graduation is the end of years of hard work — and the start of a new, more adult life for most teens. Many teens want to take on Europe after they graduate, touring with friends and staying in hostels.

Teens backpacking in France

As a parent you may be concerned about her safety. What do you need to know to make a confident decision?

Traveling to Europe with not much more than a backpack and a rail pass has long been considered a rite of passage for graduating high school seniors. What would you say if your teen wanted to go? We spoke with one dad who said yes — and a mom who says no way.

Three-month adventure

Trip to Europe

Jeff Metz had hitchhiked across the U.S. and Europe when he was younger, so when his daughter Elana asked to travel through Europe with her friend he had a hard time saying no. The girls backpacked and rented campers for three months during the fall of 2011, as they toured Europe and shared incredible experiences.

While Elana had previously traveled out of the country with organized programs (to Thailand, Peru and Israel) this would be her first trip on her own, without the guidance of a tour leader.

We asked Jeff if it was difficult to let his daughter travel so far from home on her own. “Having done the same when I was younger I had a difficult time saying no, but that certainly did not make me any less nervous,” Jeff shares. “We had many conversations about traveling, strangers, who to trust and how to protect herself and her money and passport, but the main message was never leave each other’s side,” he says. “Elana is bright and mature but was young and a woman and so I was nervous — but not too nervous to not let her go. I had faith in her, just not so much in everyone she would meet,” he adds.

Elana’s experience

Elana Metz

We wondered if Elana sensed any trepidation on her parents’ part in letting her travel so far from home. “Not really. I could tell that they were a bit nervous, but I have always been self-assured and passionate about traveling so it felt natural,” she remembers.

For many teens who take on an overseas trip like Elana did, this becomes a turning point in their lives. The added responsibility and maturity required to navigate, make decisions, communicate and take care of details makes even an already confident teen even more so. “I definitely feel that my experience on the trip was life-changing,” shares Elana. “I learned how to plan ahead and be prepared, but also how to figure things out and stay calm when unexpected or challenging situations come up. It was both an amazing and scary feeling for me and my friend to be making all the decisions and judgment calls during the trip on our own,” she remembers. We really learned how to talk situations through and think about different options and their potential outcomes. Every day was an incredible learning experience.”

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Another perspective

Anne has reservations about letting her kids travel on their own as teens. “We're from Denmark, and when I traveled around with my friends, Europe was familiar to us,” she shares.

“And it was different back then, much safer. We were also close to home, in the same time zone and a short flight away. I don't think my parents would have let us go to America though,” she says.

“I would let my son travel in the U.S. when he’s 18 years old, but not in Europe. Everything is different and a challenge. I'd go with my kids for the first time and then let them loose,” she adds. “It's probably more about me being nervous than him being mature and able. I'm sure he would be fine, so the more I think about it the more I realize it's about me not being ready,” she says. “The difference between 18 and 21 is huge I think. I just don't think kids are ready for Europe alone when they are fresh out of high school.”

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Tips for teen travelers

We asked Jeff and his daughter Elana for some tips for teens — and their parents — who might be thinking about traveling to Europe.

  • Have a plan ahead of time for where you want to go and what you want to do. You can always change it as you go along, but it’s safer — and more practical — to have a basic plan.
  • Set up a budget plan for your entire trip. Knowing ahead of time how much you can spend helps you plan everything from your outings to your meals, without any surprises. “That was definitely one of the more challenging things to keep track of, especially when so many other things are going on,” shares Elana.
  • Agree ahead of time to check in at certain intervals, like when you travel from one area to the next or every weekend, for example.
  • Make copies of your passports. Keep one set at home and one set in a separate piece of luggage from your real passport.
  • Use a money belt for your passport and credit cards/cash. Wear it hidden on your body and keep it with you at all times.
  • Make sure you have international capabilities on your phone, for emergencies.
  • Take a self-defense class. “You will probably never use it, but it is incredibly empowering just knowing a few valuable moves just in case you get into an uncomfortable situation,” shares Elana.

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