Why I Prioritized International Travel Over “Growing Up”
Or: changing my definition of what “grown up” means.
Last year, I went to Japan for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Or, at least, that’s what I thought.
My husband and I each took off two weeks from work to do it all — no expense spared. We drank locally brewed sake in Kyoto, stayed at an elegant inn with views of Mount Fuji, and bought shirts emblazoned with English phrases like “Swag Dude” in fashionable Harajuku. According to my spreadsheet of our expenses, we spent $700 on souvenirs alone.
It was supposed to be our last hurrah, but the new tickets I just bought to Tokyo say otherwise.
Rewind to 2016. John and I had been married for three years, which is long past the time when people begin asking you if that glow in your complexion is something other than newlywed bliss — in short, a pregnancy. There was also the matter of our tiny urban apartment, considering that by now, most of our married friends had already moved to the suburbs.
There are certain things Marrieds do. So why weren’t we getting a move on? Then one day it hit me: until I met my childhood goal of going to Japan, I wasn’t going to be able to move forward.
Ever since I was seven and my Brownie Girl Scout troop studied Japanese culture, I’ve dreamed of visiting Japan. This aspiration was one of the first things John and I bonded over when we first began dating in college. But life — and money — got in the way. After college, I went to graduate school and John started working. Then we got married, and we opted for a cheaper domestic honeymoon. All of a sudden, I was 28 and hadn’t even worked toward meeting my travel goal.
That’s when I decided enough was enough. I vowed to go to Japan before my 30th birthday. I began taking Japanese classes at the Japan-America Society of Washington DC, my struggle to differentiate シ and ツ made easier by my resolve to soon read them on Tokyo street signs.
Next, I learned to use the ITA Matrix Airfare Search to find inexpensive international flights. Along with a site called The Flight Deal that alerted me to upcoming price drops, I was able to get flights to Tokyo for $800 per person, rather than the usual going rate which, according to Kayak right now, is about $1,300. Combining airfare alerts with a willingness to gruelingly search the matrix for flights by price instead of date adds time, but saves a lot of money.
I’d planned my dream vacation, and there was nothing left to do but excitedly tell my friends and family, who were all thrilled for me. Finally, I could get this weird compulsion out of my system, and go back to achieving the more ordinary milestones of life.
But it wasn’t so simple. Rather than getting it out of my system, it was like opening the floodgates. You can read my breathless travel diary to confirm: Japan was all I could think about before my trip, and it was all I could think about afterward, too.
It’s been more than a year since that trip, and what have I done with myself? For one thing, I’ve doubled down my efforts to study Japanese, taking increasingly difficult classes — I’m at the 300 level now. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the flight matrix, so I could get reliable deals to jet across the globe for less than I’d pay to fly cross-country. It inspired me to start a new savings fund in my Capital One 360 account labeled, simply, “Japan.”
Instead of being a goal I fulfilled and set aside, my interest in Japan gave me something to aspire to. So when I found even cheaper tickets for 2018 using the flight matrix — for $700 a person this time — John and I knew we were ready to return. This time, we’re going back with a few of our friends who have also been learning Japanese. With four people, we’re planning to be more economical: opting for a Tokyo Airbnb instead of a hotel, or sticking to the tourist-friendly JR pass instead of using the subway. Even so, a trip to Japan is far pricier than, say, a trip to Disneyland. No matter your tax bracket, and even with the flight matrix, international travel is rarely a bargain vacation — and everyone knows it.
That’s why, this time, it’s been a lot harder to tell my friends and family about my trip. A once-in-a-lifetime trip to a foreign country is a laudable thing. A second is exorbitant, and perhaps selfish.
It doesn’t matter if I’m debt free — my friends and family know that the money I’m using to travel could be used for far more practical things. It’s a deliberate decision for short-term enjoyment and against long-term investments like real estate. It doesn’t seem smart, not for a couple who still lives in an old urban one-bedroom with no thermostat, and who is quickly running out of years in which they can have children.
This is what’s hard about telling people. They guess what you’ve probably already figured out: I don’t want to move to the suburbs, and I don’t want to have kids. International travel isn’t a means of delaying “growing up”—it’s how I’ve chosen to spend my time and money as an adult. Telling people about my second trip is the same as declaring that decision to the world.
Before my first trip to Japan, I saw myself as being in a holding pattern, knowing that I’d have to get my travel dreams out of the way before starting adulthood “for real.” But, at 30, it’s time to admit to myself that I’ve been grown up for a while. With this second trip, it’s not a last hurrah. It’s a declaration of who I’ve become.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.
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