Having a Happy Birthday on the Road

In more than five years away from home, I recall getting vaguely homesick just three times: when I had a toothache, at Christmas, and on my birthday. Being far away from friends and family on your one special day of the year can make even the hardiest traveler a little homesick, and that might just spoil what could be a really fun day.

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I’ve got a few tips to show that with a little forethought and planning, your birthday abroad can be even happier than the ones back home.

Plan a Special Birthday Day Out

Look after yourself and don’t schedule an all-day bus trip on the day of your birthday. Especially if you’re traveling on a long-term basis, you have to take care of your mind as well as your body and not being kind to yourself on your birthday is not a good way to do it.

Instead, try to find something special you really think you’ll enjoy and plan that for your birthday. While I was living in Bratislava, my birthday fell on a day I had to teach a couple of classes, but in between I tried out a new (sadly short-lived) sushi restaurant and had dessert at my favourite hot chocolate cafe. In Japan, I let myself go all silly at Tokyo Disneyland. What are birthdays for if they’re not for having fun?

Candles on a Birthday Cake (closeup)
© Aih.

Don’t Keep Your Birthday a Secret

Have you ever spent time with someone on a certain day and then found out later it was their birthday? You feel guilty, right, even though it’s totally not your fault! That’s why I’m commanding you to mention your upcoming birthday to your fellow travelers. Not in the sense of “Hey, it’s my birthday tomorrow so please buy me a huge present,” but perhaps more along the lines of “I might need some extra cheering up tomorrow — it’s the first birthday I’ve spent away from home.” You don’t want to be hanging out with some new travel friends at an internet cafe and the first thing they see when they log on to Facebook is that they’ve just missed your birthday. And then they can be involved in your celebrations, too.

Birthday Girl, London © Scarleth White

Forget the Budget For a Day

Yes, I said forget the budget. Well, within reason. Long term travelers often need to be pretty tight with their money to be able to keep traveling, and that’s certainly been the case with me — I’d rather save money and stay at the cheapest hostel so I can keep traveling for longer. But you can certainly get a bit tired of sharing a bedroom with other noisy travelers or eating bread and cheese for dinner for the tenth night in a row. On your birthday, upgrade yourself to a better room or nicer accommodation, eat out at a proper restaurant, buy yourself a special treat — and don’t feel guilty about spending a bit more money than usual. It’s your birthday!

Buy Yourself a Birthday Present

One of the downsides to spending our birthday on the road is that you probably won’t be getting any presents from your parents, siblings or rich Uncle Jack. (And in my experience, people don’t “save up” your presents for when you get home — they just continue life as though your birthday never happened. Fair enough!). So it’s up to you — you’ve got to buy yourself a birthday present.

My suggestion is to find something that’s specific to the place you’re traveling in — artwork, clothing, jewelry, books, whatever suits you best — and again, don’t feel guilty about buying yourself something. Don’t even feel bad about the cost of posting it home if it’s something you don’t want to carry around with you on the rest of your travels. Need I say it again? — it’s your birthday!

Chat Session, Dubai © Zitona

Plan a Call or Skype Session

Before your birthday arrives, make the effort of emailing your family and close friends back home to set up a time to chat somehow on the day of your birthday — by phone, by Skype, however you think it’ll be easiest to communicate.

Too often, the mysteries of varying time zones mean that your family or friends can miss your birthday or not thinking of calling you until it’s too late. (Although my father did manage to call me at 3am my time on one of my birthdays abroad!) Don’t feel silly about doing it — it’s only natural to want to have a chat with the people you’re closest to when it’s your special day of the year. You might even find your family getting together back home for a marathon multi-person Skype session with you — a virtual party, so to speak.

Remember the Advantages of Being Away From Home

Before you start feeling too homesick on your birthday, remember there are advantages that go with it. For a start, you’d probably have to go to work back home if you were there for your birthday (remember, it’s the “real world”!). Instead, you can go out to some fascinating museum, go bungee jumping or whatever takes your fancy!

On top of that, there might be some obligatory birthday engagements if you were back home — cups of tea with relatives you only see once a year or a too-long meal with your parents (you can love everybody more when you’re thousands of miles away).

The way I look at it is that I can actually remember each of the birthdays I experienced while I was traveling, but the rest of them since have blurred into one long horror of getting older. I guess it’s time I planned another trip for my next birthday!

Your Most Memorable Birthday Abroad

I’d love to know about other memorable birthdays that you have spent on the road — so please share your experience in the comments below!

  1. I spent my first birthday abroad this last year, after more than three years in Spain. I was locked in a monastery with 190 strangers, working at a summer camp in rural Spain. My big 25th and spent it with camp food, people I didn’t know, and lovely views of sunflowers waiting the next morning. Not exciting, but a different way to do it. Great post!

  2. I turned 30 in Prague. My husband and I were stationed in Germany (Air Force) at the time, and I always wanted to go there. So he took me there for my birthday, since it fell on a weekend that year. My brother was also getting married on my birthday, so the rest of my family was in California for his wedding.

    I got a wake-up call at our hotel from my family (it was still the night before in California – they had just finished the rehearsal dinner). They sang happy birthday to me, which was such a great start to my day.

    After a day of sightseeing, my husband took me to a fantastic restaurant for dinner, and then we went to see a ballet performance (Giselle) at the National Theatre. Most amazing birthday of my life!

  3. Most memorable birthday abroad was my 21st Birthday and although it wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been if I had turned 21 in the US it was amazing. I had spent the day in Nice with my girlfriend and now wife and we went out to a nice pub called Pub Thor (also my last name) to celebrate. I got some free drinks and enjoyed the evening soaking up the French fun and making new friends in a foreign land.

  4. @ cat – yes, our Spanish monastery birthday might not have been exactly what you’d plan but you’ll never foget it!

    @ Karyn – that’s perfect, especially for a 30th! (I remember mine well – I visited the zoo in Stuttgart!). And how lovely that your family all called you too. Hope the wake-up call wasn’t too early though?!

  5. A Skype date with fam and friends is essential. And you’re completely right about no presents coming your way if you’re not around to receive them! I’m all for indulging a bit all in the name of my birthday! :)

  6. Great post!

    I was fortunate enough to be traveling in Australia 2 years ago with my boyfriend. We were WWOOFing in Tasmania when, just before my birthday, I got quite sick with a kidney infection. So I was on drugs for my birthday. Our hosts were super kind, though, and were able to get me an appointment with a doctor right away. Shortly after my birthday, we celebrated by going to the Bay of Fires in Tassie – it was awesome!

  7. Today is my birthday and i’m actually away from home and making the best of my day… Ultimately, everyday is a new adventure and I believe that’s just the mindset to have when traveling regardless! +_+

  8. I spent my 12th birthday in Auckland, New Zealand and my 16th birthday at Disney World. They were pretty amazing, because I usually don’t celebrate my birthday!

    In Auckland we just wandered, explored a farmer’s market and stuff, as it was also the last day of our trip. The way my (surprise!) birthday cake was acquired is also another story, and in Disney World we were at Epcot. We ate at the Nemo restaurant (the one that looks into the giant fish tank), so it was double awesome, as I love sea creatures. <3

  9. My best friend turned 21 in Hong Kong…although she was a little bummed at first to not be spending this important birthday in the only country it matters, she soon got over it. We brought her to LKF, a street filled with bars and clubs, expats and locals alike. She had an amazing time and says it’ll be the most memorable birthday of her life!

  10. Best birthday ever a couple of years ago at the Calakmul Mayan site.
    The site is amazing, 60 km inland in the middle of the jungle. We literally had the whole site for ourselves. It was absolutely magic!

  11. I took it upon myself to make friends – and celebrate – when I was traveling alone on my birthday. I was in Sri Lanka at an Ayurvedic retreat. At meals, I noticed 2 other single women at the retreat also sitting alone at dinner. I introduced myself to each of them and invited them to join my table. They were happy for the camaraderie and we became fast friends, sharing stories and talks between treatments.

    As my birthday was coming up, I negotiated with some locals to hire them and their boat for the day to take us to a nearby island with a lighthouse and an isolated beach. I treated my new friends to this excursion and they loved the view from the lighthouse, undisturbed sunbathing and celebrating my birthday with a different experience. Later that evening at dinner, I found orchids at my place at the table, and blushed as they sang happy birthday and presented some thoughtful retreat gifts. It made for a memorable, happy and not alone experience!

  12. Great advice and a very interesting article. I always make a point of spending my birthday travelling alone overseas – well I have for the past few years. I spent my 40th exploring Angkor Wat in Cambodia, my 41st at the Singapore Zoo (I love zoos!), my 42nd visiting the embalmed Lenin in Red Square, Moscow, my 43rd celebrating Buddha’s birthday on Lantau Island, Hong Kong and my most recent birthday with friends in Melbourne seeing a great Russian band Vulgargrad – followed by a week exploring Ubud and the island of Bali, Indonesia.
    Prior to my 40th, I would usually spend my birthday travelling somewhere domestically, whether it be a simple day trip or an interstate trip to see an art exhibition, visit wineries or similar.
    I always buy myself a beautiful little present from the country I’m visiting – something more expensive than the usual mementos I pick up and something I wouldn’t usually spend travel funds on. I always make sure I log in to facebook on my birthday, as there are plenty of birthday wishes from friends and family to read.
    I think the time spent travelling somewhere I want to be and doing something I really want to do makes my birthday more special and memorable than any I’d spend at home.

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