The common perception of a backpacker is that of a late-teen or early twentysomething, free of life's traditional chains such as mortgages and families, seeing the world while traveling on a shoestring budget. Yet increasingly, if you look at the crowd chilling out in a youth hostel bar or milling around a seedy bus station, you're as likely to find a middle-aged couple as you are a group of bedraggled students.
While a generation ago anyone over the age of twenty five wandering the strange corners of the world with their rucksack would have been seen as an irresponsible drop-out, today a growing number of older travelers are realizing that they are in fact at the perfect stage of life to hit the road and see the world. Here are just a few reasons why older travelers might have a better experience than their younger counterparts:
You have money
As a student you have no safety net (unless your parents have very generously given you a credit card). You always need to find the cheapest accommodation and if you can score a free night somehow you'll go to great lengths to do it. And as for trying the finer aspects of the local cuisine, forget it. McDonald's and the supermarkets become your regular haunts (more on McDonald's and backpackers here).
An older traveler on the other hand is likely to have saved up some cash for their trip. If they want a break from sleeping in dorms and eating on a budget once in a while they can dip into their pockets and treat themselves.
Older is generally wiser
A generalization of course, but ask a common street thief or conman about their choice of an easy target and they might well choose the young, naive backpacker. Those always looking for the best bargains and a way of getting a bit of extra cash to extend their trip are more likely to fall prey to a seasoned criminal. With age comes an inevitable degree of cynicism and suspicion that can be extremely useful when traveling in unfamiliar countries.
Less risks of picking up a virus
Young backpackers do have a reputation and it's not without foundation. All-night parties and casual sexual encounters are part of the overall package. Older travelers are certainly not immune from the same risks, but most tend to travel as part of a couple. As a result they are more likely to pick up something from eating a suspect shrimp than from an ill-fated amorous liaison in the hostel broom closet.
As you get older you notice that shopkeepers, waiters and barmen are typically more deferential to you. If you complain -- and you tend to be more confident about doing this than when you're young -- people are less likely to fob you off and will often take your issue more seriously. This can make those uncomfortable travel moments a little easier to manage.
A reason to shop
While wandering among the carpet sellers of Marrakech might allow the young traveler to soak up the wonder of the souk, there's not much point shopping for stuff when you don't have a place to call home.
The mature traveler on the other hand, wanting something to throw on the floor of his heavily mortgaged home to remind him of his exotic holiday, is far more likely to be a customer to the charming salesmen of the market.
This list does of course generalize wildly -- although anyone who has traveled throughout their life might recognize some of these scenarios.
An equally valid list could also be produced of the advantages of traveling when young. What would you include on such a list? What is missing on this post in favor of the oldies?