14 Ways To Have More Meaningful Travel Experiences

While there’s nothing wrong with heading on a beach holiday and spending the whole time sipping Piña Coladas (they’re not tacky – they’re marvellous), you’ll get a lot more out of your next trip if you decide to make it more meaningful. What do I mean by this? Well, think about it this way – how can you use your travel time to enrich both your own life and, hopefully, the life of others, too?

I believe in the transformative power of travel, as research shows us again and again how it is beneficial to our mental wellbeing. For example, travel can make us better at problem solving and endows us with open-mindedness. I think we can maximise these benefits even more if we try to think of ways through which we can make our trips more meaningful.

Central to this blog is the idea that travel can help us to learn, heal, be inspired and connect with others. As such, I wanted to put together some ideas on things you can do to get the most out of your next trip – whether it’s a short weekend sojourn or a RTW adventure, you can hopefully find something here that you can try.

Most of the suggestions are things that I’ve done at one point or another, or things I’m hoping to try soon. They’re ideas that will hopefully push you out of your comfort zones, help you to connect with new people, broaden your perspective on a place, enable you to give something back to the community you’re visiting, and give you the opportunity for self-reflection, wherever you find yourself in the world.

Read books on your destination

Before you head somewhere new, look for novels that are set in your destination or nonfiction books that tell you about an aspect of the country, whether that be its history, its culture or its socioeconomic issues – the possibilities are endless. Not only will this bring the place that you’re about to visit to life, it will also educate you on some aspect of the country and make the experience of visiting far richer.

In the past, I’ve usually read relevant books after I’ve left a place, and I always regret not having read them before I had visited (one of the many cases in reference: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – I really should have read it before I went to India). So now I’m currently reading loads of books on Berlin before I head there in March, and it’s made me even more excited about being there.

Resources: A great place to start is Your Guide To Reading The World in which author Ann Morgan lists a piece of fiction from 196 countries. Goodreads’ Around The World In 80 Books group is another good resource for ideas. Alternatively, you can Google ‘best books set in XYZ place.’

Learn some of the local language

Learning a new language is no small feat, especially when you’re not planning on spending more than a week or so in a given destination. However, instead of expecting everyone to be able to speak pidgin English with you, why not learn to speak pidgin of whatever language is spoken in the place you’re visiting?

While I was doing a writer’s retreat in Skyros, Greece last August, I realised what a massive difference knowing the local language makes. I was able to communicate with everyone, from waiters in restaurants to people on the streets. I found myself having in-depth conversations with shop owners on how the economic crisis was affecting them and how it had changed things on the island. As a result, I left with a much more informed picture of the place that I had visited.

Yes, you won’t be able to hold in-depth discussions on philosophy or politics if you only know how to ask people where the nearest bank is, but I’ve found that locals always love it when visitors make the effort to talk in their language. This, in turn, may open up doors for more meaningful experiences; and even if it doesn’t, isn’t it great to see people smile while you mispronounce the Vietnamese word for banana?

Resources: I’ve recently started using Duolingo – a free online tool for learning languages – to learn some German before I move to Berlin. They have most of the popular ones covered – German, Spanish and French – and they’re adding beta versions of many others all the time. Memrise is another good option, and you can also download their app on your phone and learn while on the go.

Also, this post over on Nomadic Matt’s site is great – how to learn the basics of any language for your next trip.

Watch the sunrise

I’m a bit of an old romantic when it comes to watching the sunrise, as I think there’s something ethereally beautiful about seeing a new day being born. Getting up early means that you also get to see a place come to life, as well as an entirely different side to the city/town/village that you find yourself in.

My ex and I went to see the sunrise in Nha Trang, which is a seaside town in Vietnam (he wanted to photograph it, I just wanted to enjoy the moment). We genuinely thought we’d be the only people on the beach, so imagine our shock when we found that there were loads of locals there doing their morning exercise – there were groups of friends and families brisk walking on the shore and swimming in the sea. So not only did we get to enjoy the beauty of the sunrise, but we also got to see another side to the city, which gave us a really good sense of place. It’s one of those magical travel moments that will stay with me forever.

Resources: A simple Google of “sunrise in (your city)” will give you the exact time. Best to wake up 30 minutes before and head to your vantage point to enjoy the full thing in its glory.

Meet and spend time with locals

If you read a lot of travel blogs, you’ll notice that most advocate spending time with locals. And there’s plenty of merit in this; after all, how do you expect to really get to know a place unless you hang out with people and see how they live? I’ll be forever grateful that I got to experience India with my ex, for example, as I am sure I got to see a side to it that most visitors don’t see – like when I spent Diwali with his family.

And while it’s not humanly possible to have friends and family in every place that you visit, connecting with new people while travelling is easier than you think.

Resources: Couchsurfing may be better known for connecting people with locals who have a spare bed for the night (or several!), however, you can also use the service to meet people. With Locals enables you to eat, tour or take part in activities with locals and is another great resource.

Go on a yoga or meditation retreat

Meaningful travel also means taking time to reflect and look after your wellbeing and health. A great way to do this is to spend some time taking part in an activity that will invigorate both your mind and body. For me, that activity is yoga or meditation. Last year, I spent a whole month practising yoga every day in Ubud on my very own DIY yoga retreat. I ended the month with a stronger body and mind, and I’d love to replicate the experience again later this year if I can.

My yoga mat - the love of my life

My yoga mat – the love of my life

Self-care should be a priority for everyone, and a yoga retreat enables you to do just that.

Resources: Book Yoga Retreats is a great yoga retreat search engine where you can search by type of yoga, country etc. If you follow the link above you can see how I did my very own DIY yoga retreat and saved myself plenty of $$$ in the process. Yoga Nomads put together this great post on tips for choosing a yoga retreat, which is also definitely worth a look.

If you’re looking for meditation retreats, you may want to consider a Vipassana meditation retreat like the one Mostly Amelie did – not for the faint hearted (you’re basically sworn to silence for the duration), but I’m definitely interested in doing this in the future.

Enjoy a writing retreat

Before last year, I had never been on any kind of retreat, and having spent two weeks on a writing retreat in Skyros, I’ve been converted. If you need convincing, here’s the science behind why a writing retreat is good for you: writing can be therapeutic and it has been found to help war veterans, psychiatric prisoners and sex offenders deal with trauma, as well as aid in the recovery of people experiencing mental health issues.

The view from my apartment in Skyros

The view from my apartment in Skyros

Even if you’re not feeling in need of ‘therapy’ a writing retreat is a great way to get in touch with your inner creativity and learn a new skill. For example, I was dreading having to read my work out in a group, as I had never done that before; I ended up loving having the opportunity to share my ‘voice’ with everyone. It’s also a great way of meeting like-minded people – I left Skyros having made really good friends for life.

Resources: I cannot recommend Skyros enough – the two weeks I spent there were magical and life-changing in more ways than one. I’ve also heard great things about Arvon in the UK.

Focus on your self-development

No matter what your current style of travel is – long-term ‘nomad’ or full-time worker with a month’s worth of annual level – you can reap benefits if you tie your next trip in with some form of self-development. This could be anything from reading books on something you’d like to improve on or learn more about, to taking some form of a course while you’re away. For example, Skyros offers personal development courses, which cover everything from ‘New Beginnings’ to learning how to windsurf!

And even if you don’t want to take a course for the full duration of the time you’re away, you can still look up activities you can try, whether that be a photography walk, or joining a group writing session.

Resources: Meetup is a website that links you with people with common interests; they have everything from gardening to photography. It’s a great way of working on your skill set while meeting new people.

Travel slow

Franca and Dale, the nomadic couple who run Angloitalian – slow, vegan travel blog define slow travel as the following:

For us, maximising our travelling time means to choose experiences over sights – and more than anything else – quality over quantity. (…) Slow travel is about fully immersive experiences. It’s centred around a prolonged and in-depth experience, primarily with locals, but not always.

In short, instead of trying to pack loads and loads of things to see and do into your next itinerary, why not take the time to really see or experience single aspects of a place? Why not *shock, horror* bin your travel guide, head out to whichever place you find yourself in and discover your own ‘must-sees’ and ‘must-dos?’ Remove the pressure of trying to get from one attraction to the next and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you may find.

Resources: Check out Franca and Dave’s great Slow Travel Guides for more information on how to take it easy on your next trip.

Travel solo

As a travel blogger, I know loads of people who love to travel solo – when travel is your passion, you’ll never let anything stop you from seeing the world, so you just go for it. I know a lot of people away from the world of travel blogging, however, who hate the idea of travelling alone. This is both men and women, although the majority are women who still have the misconception that solo female travel is dangerous – I was of the same opinion four or so years back, so I understand.

However, I now also understand that solo travel (whether as a man or as a woman) is one of the most fulfilling things you’ll ever do (and no, it’s not dangerous if you use your common sense). Sure, there are plenty of challenges, such as not having someone to share the burden with and having to be extra vigilant about your security, however, the benefits outweigh all this. For one, when you’re alone you’re more likely to strike up conversations with new people who could lead you to your next great adventure. And even though it’s easy to make friends or meet people while on the road, you’ll also find yourself alone a lot of the time, which is great for self-reflection. Spending time alone is really good for you! Plus, you get to go exactly where you want to go, and do the things you want to do.

So why not take a solo trip? It doesn’t have to be a major expedition; start small by visiting a neighbouring city or town for the weekend, and build it up from there.

Resources: This LifeHack article lists what it calls the 10 best destinations for solo travel, so it’s a good place to get started. And here are 10 tips for staying safe as a solo female traveller. This New York Times article gives some great tips on how to meet people when travelling alone.

Go to the one place you’ve always wanted to visit

We all have at least one dream destination (or, let’s face it, several) – that one place that’s been lingering on your mind for years and years, and that makes you say things like “I really can’t wait to go to such and such place some day.” I’ll hazard a guess and say it’s the first place that came to mind when I started talking about this  – name it, write it down, and vow to go there this year if you can.

Happy New Year 🍶

A post shared by T a i t o (@taitknn) on

For me, that place is Japan. I can’t even remember when I first said I wanted to visit, so we’re talking years upon years of me saying “I can’t wait to go to Japan some day.” This is why I decided this year that enough is enough – 2016 is the year I’m going to Japan, even if it means cutting back on other potential trips.

Think about the last time you went to some place that you were really excited about going to and contrast it with a trip to a place that you were looking forward to visiting but that didn’t have the same mystical allure. If you’re anything like me, the first trip would have had a superior tinge to it. It’s like when I visited Bali; I had always wanted to go, so to finally be there made the whole thing so much more magical and beautiful to me.

Resources: None. Just write out the place that came to mind and tell yourself this is the year you’re going. Then start saving and planning for it.

Send postcards to express gratitude to your loved ones

“What’s so meaningful about this?” I hear you ask. Well, hear me out. I’m not suggesting you do the typical buy a generic postcard, write a generic ‘wish you were here’ message and then try to remember to find a post office before you head home. What I suggest is if you find yourself in a place that makes you think of someone back home, buy a postcard that depicts that place, and write a thoughtful note to the person you were thinking of. Let them know why this place reminded you of them, and if you’ve been meaning to express gratitude to them for something, do it. Not only will you feel good for doing so, it will put a massive smile on your loved one’s face when they receive it – I mean, how often do any of us get physical mail these days?

Resources: You can find postcards pretty much all over the globe (yes, duh!). Alternatively, for a more eco-friendly version, take a photo of said place, and send it to the person via email with a personal note. You could also send a video if you’re that way inclined.

Volunteer

This may seem like the obvious option, and while volunteering abroad is a great thing to do, I advise you do thorough research before you choose a project or cause – you’d be surprised at how many ventures aren’t actually very ethical.

Sadly, I have yet to volunteer while abroad, although I plan to in the near future. For now, I will direct you to this article by Shannon O’Donnell who wrote The Volunteer Handbook and is very clued up on the subject. This article from The Guardian on ethical volunteering is also good.

Keep a travel journal

Journaling has heaps of benefits for our mental wellbeing – it’s been shown to increase mindfulness, as well as reduce anxiety and depression. All this aside, memories fade – keeping a travel journal is a fantastic way to keep your trip alive once you’re back home. The self-reflection is also likely to make you feel so much more grateful for the experiences you’re enjoying.

Buy a lovely little notepad, preferably from your destination (I got the most beautiful notepad from Rishikesh in India that I use for journaling purposes, as seen in the photo above). Take out ten minutes of your day, preferably just before you go to sleep, and think about what you’ve done over the last 12 or so hours. What was the most memorable experience? Can you describe it – smells, sights, feelings? What didn’t you enjoy and how did you deal with it? What is the one thing that happened or that you experienced that you want to be able to recall ten years from today? Note it all down. Better still, collect things that you can stick into your journal and that will evoke memories – I, for example, keep a hold of things like tickets from sites I visit, napkins from restaurants I eat in. Any small tidbits that will remind me of something from my trip.

Resources: All you need is a pen, a notebook, and to make a promise to yourself that you’ll take ten minutes out of your day to write everything down. If you want to make notes and take pictures of things to write about as you go along, download Evernote – a great phone app for note-taking on the go.

Try one new dish a day

This may sound like an obvious one for many of you, but I also know a lot of people who are reluctant to try local foods while they’re away. Or, they find one or two dishes that they like and they stick to those for the duration of their trip. Travelling is all about experiencing something new; for me, food is a massive part of the equation. I still recall with fondness things I tried for the first time along the way – White Rose in Hoi An, kulfi falooda in India (well 99 per cent of things in India) etc. So while I invariably do find one or two dishes that I love, I also aim to try new things as much as I can – after all,  I tell myself I can ‘play it safe’ when I get back home.

Resources: Asking locals for advice on where to eat and what dishes to try is the best way to find out about must-try meals in the area – an easy example would be to ask your taxi driver, your homestay owner etc. Make sure to specifically ask them for recommendations of dishes other than those that are served for tourists, as they’re usually a watered-down version of the real deal.

For inspiration on how food can really give you a sense of place, check out Legal Nomads – a travel blog by  Jodi Ettenberg: a lawyer turned world traveller who now eats her way around the world. I love her recent guide on how to eat street food without getting sick.


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This is by no means a definitive list, but it’s hopefully enough for you to get started. Do you have any suggestions? What do you do to bring greater meaning to your trips?


  • Excellent post. I specially like the part about meeting the locals, travelling solo, slow, volunteering and trying a new dish per day. I can’t recall how important it is for travellers to get as much interaction with the locals as possible and make an effort to try new foods. Otherwise you are just another tourist and I don’t like to be just a tourist. Also travelling alone really adds to your self-development and you get to learn way more than any class will ever teach you so thanks again for the inspiration. Very nicely written. Agree with all your points.

    • Andrea

      Thank you so much, Carmen. Yes, I think interaction with locals is a must if you want to get a well-rounded sense of place. Otherwise you’re only seeing part of the picture – after all, people and their stories are what bring any city/town/village alive.

  • Love this Andrea. I’ve already had a look and there are several meditation retreats that seem interesting in Germany in the coming year. Not the best place for two people to hang out and chat, but sometimes it’s a little reassuring to walk into those places with someone you know 🙂

    • Andrea

      Thank you so much 🙂 I’m 100% interested in these retreats – let’s discuss when we’re in town! Plenty of time for chatting beforehand 😉

  • Vee Ric

    Hello Andrea

    How are you?

    Loved your post.

    I love Pina Colados…yummy.

    Great idea about reading books on the place one is travelling to – or perhaps reading things online?

    Learning the local language is also a good idea.. a bit tough?

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

    Regards.

    • Andrea

      Thank you – happy you liked it 🙂 Yes, reading the news of the country that you’re visiting is another great option.

      • Yes, liked it a lot. Regards.

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  • Okay you can probably tell that I’m playing catch up on your blog, but I LOVE this post! Everything you listed is so on point. I find meaningful travel through trying new foods and slow travel, which allows me to spend time on hobbies I enjoy and meet locals and experience a place through them instead of just hitting up tourist sites. I also recently tried solo travel for the first time and really really enjoyed it! Unfortunately, that was cut short but I really hope to get out there by myself again (sometime soon!).

    • Andrea

      Thank you! Sounds like we travel in a very similar way. And yes, I find solo travel is a whole other kettle of fish. You get different things out of solo and group travel, I find – one isn’t ‘better’ than the other, but I think it’s good to push ourselves out of our comfort zones as much as we can, and solo travel is a good way to do that.

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  • Loved reading this! I’m on my own journey for meaningful travel, and your blog was very inspiring.

    • Andrea

      Thank you 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it!