Students find a new way to backpack across foreign nations

Tracy Ann Foley loves to travel, and she does it the old-fashioned way – backpacking. But her travel style – and those of other college-age youths today – is definitely cutting-edge.

Unlike the backpacking travelers of earlier generations, who stuck mostly to Western Europe, Foley ranges far afield. She has trekked through Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand – and so have many of her peers.

Visiting such nontraditional destinations is a growing phenomenon among today’s young travelers. Yes, they still love the old favorites – London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome – but then they reach beyond. They head for Eastern Europe, especially Croatia, say editors at the popular Let’s Go student travel guidebooks. They go to Africa and Asia, to South America and Oceania. Thanks to cheap fares, they’re as likely to jet around a continent as take the train. They book their trips online, not through a travel agency, and they keep in touch with home via text messages, not postcards.

“Not only are today’s youth more technologically savvy than most adults, they are also more likely to be willing to travel to places that may have intimidated older generations,” said Debbie Gibb, marketing director of the nonprofit Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA.)

“We’ve seen a large growth in nontraditional travel – adventure and volunteer travel,” said Kristen Celko, vice president of marketing for STA Travel, one of the largest youth-travel companies. “They go to Costa Rica for a conservation project, to Africa to help in orphanages, to China to work with pandas.”

The helping-others trend extends to spring break. “Today’s kids are more conservative than the 1990s partyers,” says Michael Palmer, executive director of SYTA. “There are fewer party trips, more educational and multipurpose trips. I have a 21-year-old daughter who went on spring break to New Orleans to do Katrina cleanup. There are more of those kinds of spring breaks, and both parents and kids want them.”

Altruism may motivate some youths, but whether it’s spring or summer, many travel for no other reason than to enjoy themselves and get some cultural exposure in the process.

That’s the point behind tours from Contiki, which takes more than 100,000 youths abroad annually to destinations that range as far away as Australia and as exotic as Egypt. But Europe is by far the most popular locale, says Frank Marini, Contiki’s president.

Contiki is different from most college-age programs in that its group tours take participants aged 18 to 35. “It’s about half and half older and younger, with the average age about 25,” said Marini. Packages include lodging, transportation, most meals and a lot of free time. A two-week European Discovery trip, which goes to London, Paris, Lucerne, Venice, Florence, Munich and Amsterdam, starts at $1,550 land only in the off season, Marini says.

Most youths aged 18-26, however, travel independently, says Palmer, executive director of SYTA. Many are like Foley, who has traveled with companions but doesn’t mind going it alone. “You can change plans whenever without disrupting others, you get to see things that a group doesn’t,” said Foley, who is 26 and lives in Canton, Mass. “You also learn to handle unexpected situations by yourself and you test your limits.”

Hostels are the lodging of choice for most backpackers, and they too have changed over the years. “Today’s hostels have Internet cafes and WiFi. Old barracks-type places are falling away; new hostels provide individual rooms or those that sleep four at most,” said Palmer.

Foley said she paid an average of about $20 a night in European hostels, much less in Asia. But she also splurged ($40) on one in Italy that was “nicer than a hotel.” Overall, she admits spending more than other backpackers, “about $50 to $60 a day. That’s pretty high.”

Most students visiting Europe travel by rail, but pricing has become more convoluted this year. Where once there was a single Eurailpass, now there are dozens of options, one of which is that the issuers may change prices during the year. In addition to the basic Eurailpass, most European countries now offer their own railpasses, so there are dozens of passes out there. Result: young travelers need to have a very good idea where they want to go before committing to a railpass.

Pass prices for 2007 have increased slightly from 2006, perhaps 1 or 2 percent. For youths planning to visit a few countries, the Eurail Select Youth Pass is a good option, as it offers travel between three to five bordering countries. Sample prices: one person riding trains to three bordering countries for five days within two months, $264; 10 days travel, $397. Prices higher for more countries, more days of travel.

Rail Europe’s Web site,, also lists special promotions and links to such sites as, where students can obtain the all-important student identity card ($22), which gets youths discounts to museums and other facilities, and to, where one can book hostels.

This kind of travel is best for college-age youths, as few kids under 18 go on independent trips anywhere. They travel in supervised groups, and their numbers also are on the rise.