More Than Passport Stamps, My Travel Life Is Also About Overcoming

Girl on a ATV Quad in Gold Coast Australia

  One of the biggest influences of life was my Nana, a member of the Greatest Generation, who before me grew up in America's Great Depression. Her outlook on hard work, aspiration and style have shaped my approach to finding symmetry in my personal and travel life. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Coming of age in America for me and my peers has been distinctly shaped by the Great Recession.  During our early 20s, we've worked hard, paid down student loan debt, navigated the catastrophic climate of the economic crisis that has meant fewer job opportunities and lower salaries. And despite stagnant wages, we somehow found ourselves thriving in our careers. We are an ambitious generation. The difference is - and one that we're constantly chastised for - is wanting to enjoy the fruits of our labor sooner than later. It's been a hard-fought victory, rife with uncertainty, the kind not seen since The Great Depression. And in as much as we've been able to "figure it out," there seems to be a resistance from the mainstream on defining our own identities and making our own rules. Despite the noise, however, we're doing our own pushing back. Is this behavior unique to Millennials? I think not. But I do see some very clear parallels between us and the generation that lived through the Great Depression, known as the Greatest Generation.

What Is Millennial travel, even?

So what does Millennial travel look like? From a birds-eye view, there are a few things we may be able to agree upon. Like the fact that our generation really enjoys its food, a well-crafted cocktail and the chance to connect with other like-minded men and women of our generation as evidenced in the rise of the sharing economy. We are looking to create roots (despite our affinity for by-gone eras, eg, Stranger Things, Dandy fashion, and speakeasies to name a few) while we desire to still expand our personal network and even social circles. From a travel industry perspective, major hotel chains have introduced brands to meet that need, such as IHG's Kimpton and Hotel Indigo hotels. While other brands are using influencers and cool art direction to try to sell a millennial persona. Some hit the mark, but much of it lacks authenticity, congruence with real life and most of all, diversity. The truth is, there is no cookie cutter "millennial traveler" although understanding how, when and why we travel is likely to bear a more fruitful picture.

Here's what I mean: I was recently on a flight to London from Los Angeles. In the bulkhead row, were four young adults - all millennials. There was me, traveling to France for work, a young man traveling to Lebanon for ministry work and a couple who was having their postponed honeymoon in London and Paris. We hung out, talked music and drank the free whiskey. This sounds like a typical night likely to be had at a happy hour in any cool urban metropolis, yet, here we were 30,000ft at cruising altitude, all of us going on our separate journeys but connecting in travel and in the excitement of our lives. I think in some ways sharing our personal wonderment that these are our lives at all.

Digging deeper, we all probably fall within different income brackets. We certainly all had different ethnic backgrounds. However, the common thread - I believe - is that we've all been shaped by The Great Recession, where regardless of any 'checked boxes,' many of us were left figuring out what to do with useless degrees, tons of debt and lack of work opportunities. We are already a mature generation despite our youth. But with youth on our side, we've been able to engineer new ways to enjoy our lives, despite the setbacks faced in our early adult years.

Taking stock of the "why" we all were traveling is important too. It ran the gamut of reasons. Beginning with me, a business traveler using the long haul flight to extend my trip to visit Estonia and Russia. My neighbor was a young many who was traveling to the Middle East on a 72-hour mission trip to write about the work his organization was doing there. And the couple in our row were finally embarking on their delayed honeymoon. You see why there is no prototypical cut-out of our generation. In our own ways, we're following the things that are personally important to us, but with respect to our financial abilities or at the very least, the opportunities that allow us to circumvent the restraints presented by them. Still, we go.

Lauren "Elle" Ball at T4 in London with Katy Perry in June 2010

Working Smarter Not Harder To Go Farther.

If you're finding me and this blog for the first time, I mentioned that I was the one whose travel trajectory is aligned with her job. In the past six years, 65 of the 67 countries I've visited have been precipitated by my career somehow. While in pursuit of a full-time career in music, I experienced a 'downsizing' when my department in a major bank was eliminated less than a year after I graduated from undergrad. Fortunately, I had accumulated a small severance  during my intern tenure (the irony!) before I became full time. I cashed out and set out to align my life with my passion for music. I struggled for several years through  late rent payments, car repossession, phone disconnection, buying meat from the clearance section. Traveling was always a part of the dream but it wasn't feasible in those years. Instead, I logged hundreds of city miles in my car each week en route to my many jobs (I had no less than three at a time). But I persevered. Until finally I landed my first job singing abroad. It was a two-month contract in Ethiopia in 2010. In May of that same year, I was hired by Katy Perry as her backup singer. And by the year's end, I had gone from knowing only North America to visiting every continent except for Antartica.

I doubt the "broke" musician in me will ever fully disappear and it informs everything thing that I do, including travel. When given the opportunity, I'll use whatever international destination I'm working in as a basis to travel to a newer destination, if only to take advantage of a long-haul flight that I didn't have to pay for. But it is my style. I think it baffles some, motivates others and almost always leads people to think I have a lot more money than I do. I just believe in working with what you have to get what you want. I don't fake like I'm some ballerific jetsetter. My budget is usually firm and my travel plans are strategic. My travel life happens to live somewhere in the middle of surreal and pretty normal, not unlike my day to day realities. I think this is the same for many budget conscious millennials who seek to experience life's full potential. If we can, we will.

Claiming My Identity By Connecting To My Past.

Girl at Graduation

And this brings me to the topic of perception. More specifically, the gap between perception and reality and the invisible bridge that connects them. To discuss it properly, I have to introduce my Nana: a resilient no-nonsense God-fearing woman from the South. Née, Elouise Butler in Arkansas 1920, Nana traveled to Los Angeles by way of Louisiana where she lived with extended family when her mother died. The forced moved also ended formal learning for her, and she lived 90 years on an eighth-grade education. As a young adult, she divorced an abusive and alcoholic first husband and left for California where she would work as the "help" in Beverly Hills for many years. Eventually, she owned her own child care company which she ran until Alzheimer's forced her to stop. There was no pretense in the woman who wore St. John knits bought from Neiman Marcus. Who drove to Rodeo Drive in her red Ford Tempo to pay her bill every week. She had no privileged epithet for why she kept her Carolina Herrera perfume in the refrigerator, except that such nice things needed to be preserved. She wasted nothing. Not even a corner of oatmeal at the breakfast table.

Rising from extremely humble beginnings, a limited education and a bad marriage, Nana owned both her business and home by the time she passed away. Though she may never have traveled outside of America, the determination that brought her from Arkansas to California is the same force that powers my own career ambitions and wanderlust. She also taught me about being resourceful and the true value of quality. She taught me about building a wardrobe over fast fashion. And that the choices you make, including what you put on your body, is a reflection of who you are as a woman in total. Because it's never about the label, it's about presentation. She taught me that it is no one's business how you got there, but who you are when you arrive. Overcoming many damning circumstances, Nana walked around like she had oil wells in her backyard. Not everyone always liked that about her but why should she bother about other people's perceptions of her. She knew who she was and where she came from. From what I've been told, I would get right behind her and imitate that walk when I was a little girl. I literally followed in her footsteps.

Despite being labeled as a selfish generation, what I think is most misunderstood about millennials, is the part of our DNA that keep us aspirational yet hard working. We show up. And when there's an opportunity we take it.  We truly understand the notion of scarcity. Not unlike the Greatest Generationers. We have had to find our footing in a world where the foundations of our economy were dismantled. And in that footing are the roots of our collective dignity. The perception is that we perhaps haven't been through enough to have developed a right to be respected, but the facts of modern American life say otherwise. I think choosing to travel as a young person, or to spend our money on anything related to quality-of-life, is often viewed as imprudent. But perhaps, it is an act of defiance by choosing not to conform to a failed society that offers little to no protections for us. It is about far more than accumulating passport stamps for me.

I may not have a trust fund or all of the money I'd hope for, but I've modeled my work ethic after Nana. Today, it's hard for me to imagine being the "help?" On my feet, taking care of another person's family, all the while making plans to have future where you can live on your own terms. Still it resonates with me. Partially because I know it under different terms. And, I don't think I'm the only one. Like the unexpected bonding of these four passengers jetting across the Atlantic, it is something unspoken yet understood through our a shared (but diverse) experiences.

Honoring Nana's Legacy With Every Mile


As an adult, my life's choices are now my own. My parents are constantly giving me side-eye for the way that I do things, but I eventually bring them around to my side. Truth is that it's hard to force yourself to live inside a box when much of my adult life, I've had to think outside of it. Still, there's a little girl inside of me who always wants to make my Nana proud of me.  The same year that my life of travel began, is the same year that I lost her to Alzheimers. I was working in London for the first time. We were scheduled to record a promo concert for the channel T4 in late June 2010 when my mom called with the news. I spent the remainder of that morning in bed curled up in the fetal position surrounded by the opulent furnishings of the Marylebone Hotel flushing out what seemed to be an inconsolable sea of tears. But when it came time to show up for lobby call, I dried my eyes and made a promise to her that I'd always follow in her footsteps.