Nicole’s Guide to Meaningful Travel
"Travel is more than the seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Explore ideas for how travel can impact your life positively as it has with mine.
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Along my journey to transition from tour-leading to travel advising, I discovered so many inspirational organizations already holding tourism to a higher accountability. I value transparency, so I will happily share some of the pioneers that guide my process, including the The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Transformational Travel Council, Future of Tourism Coalition, The Long Run and myriad tourism change makers affiliated with these groups. It was first with the Transformational Travel Council (“TTC”) where I found a cohort of like-minded, passionate voices spread across the tourism industry. Much of my travel planning process I’ll share with you below is directly inspired from a transformational travel design course I took with the TTC. Ever heard that adage “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? Oh boy, does that not only apply to travel, but also the process before and after—expounding upon WHY we travel and what we do with the wisdom it bestows upon us when we return home.
And not to cheapen any of this, but please let it also be understood that not every trip requires a profound, transformational experience! I get it... sometimes you literally just want to unplug and read a book on the beach. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just know that I’ll likely recommend a thoughtful eco lodge employing locals for you to do so. And when you are ready to make sure your money and time are well spent improving upon yourself and your chosen destination, I’ll be here ready to roll.
Lastly, these examples below are by no means exhaustive. I’m simply giving you a glimpse into my process of how we can collaborate to build transformational travel experiences together!
Part 1: Connecting with ourselves and better understanding our “why” for travel
If you’re entrusting me to collaborate on your journeys, let’s make sure we have compatible values and set clear expectations for the process together. We'll get to know each other through a series of casual interviews and questionnaires so I can best understand who you are, your preferred styles of travel and help you evaluate the “why” before we dig into the nitty-gritty of your trip. Video or phone chats are also hugely beneficial in understanding each other effectively!
We will define clear intentions and desired outcomes for your trip. I will help you discover outlets to become a more open-minded, grateful and resilient traveler. Explore traveling with H.E.A.R.T.
Tell me about a travel experience that felt transformational to you.
What motivates you to travel?
What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy actively learning about?
What educational resources do you most value when learning about a new destination? (Books, articles, documentaries, movies, TV shows, podcasts, blogs, etc.) Be as specific as you like.
How do you show gratitude while you travel?
Please include a photo of you in a place that is meaningful to you and tell me why!
Also include a photo of you with a meaningful meal or drink and the story behind it.
Write down your intention(s) or goal(s) before your trip and keep it somewhere safe with you while you travel.
Tell me about a time when you traveled with a preconceived notion and you were surprised to be wrong.
Here is a photo from my semester abroad in New Zealand in 2010—the catalyst I refer to as my “sliding door” or “fork in the road” experience. My time living in this stunning country has certainly shaped why I am here and why I believe travel can have profoundly lasting effects on our lives.
Experience reflection and continued introspection
With time and continued practice, we become better at self-reflection and learning more deeply about ourselves. We will brainstorm opportunities for self-reflection before, during and after your trip. We will discuss ways you are open to reflection and incorporate intentional time in your itinerary to do so.
We will discuss the level of planning and pace you’d like for your trip and where you would like to incorporate time for serendipitous experiences.
What concerns do you have when you travel and how can you overcome them?
How full of days would you like your days to be? How much time do you like to have to yourself each day and what times of day do you prefer it? (i.e. 2-3-hour afternoon naps, 1 hr morning walks / coffee, etc).
How do you find your zen or incorporate peace into your life?
“Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we wash the dishes, drive the car or take our morning shower.” Using this definition, whether you currently have a mindfulness practice or not, would you be willing to incorporate this concept into your trip?
Journal, app or game with daily insightful prompts
Catch a sunrise or sunset every day
Go for a quiet walk or have 1 quiet meal per day
Practice deep breathing. I recommend starting with 25 slow breaths and building up to 50 breaths. Honor that thoughts will arise (totally ok) and that thoughts will float away. Just focus on breathing.
Participate in a “digital detox”
Leave your phone and smart watch behind as often as possible. Accept that not every moment needs to be documented.
Temporarily remove all apps you find distracting (especially social media). Life will continue. Set an out-of-office email reply, then delete your email apps. Honor that you need the mental break away from work.
Try the “postcard project”. Buy a postcard from your destination or a souvenir you can write on. Write a story about how you felt during your time there and mail it to yourself or save it to read later.
I attend a Buddhist monastery where we eat every breakfast in silence. We practice these 5 contemplations while we chew slowly and mindfully. I’ve found it very easy to translate to my time at home out on my deck.
I love the 1 Second Everyday app. I use it to justify capturing short moments with my camera more intentionally. Either during or after your trip, it helps you create a video compilation of your favorite memories with custom captions. It also has a daily journal section where I would challenge you to write about why you chose these moments and how you felt at the time.
Part 2: Connecting with others
So you are best prepared to interact with the local culture respectfully, I will build you a thorough cultural guide (language, culture, people, land, food, spiritual practices, current events, photography and social media).
We will work together to incorporate experiences with a variety of cultures, ethnic groups, religious practices and indigenous communities to expose you to local insights, rituals and ceremonies.
I recommend traveling at a slower pace to facilitate genuine encounters, foster deeper understanding and more meaningful connections with the locals.
If participating in group travel, I will facilitate conversations with brands and ensure their local guides facilitate beneficial interactions with locals and your group. I will be asking for your feedback.
What would you like to learn more deeply about the local culture during your trip?
How are you most comfortable interacting with locals? Are you normally hesitant to interact? If so, why? Would you like to interact differently?
What communities or causes do you care about or currently support?
Are you open to volunteer opportunities during your trip? If so, what types? (I will provide recs.)
If traveling to a destination with a different language, do you learn some basic phrases? How do you learn?
I humbly ask you to watch one of my favorite TED Talks: 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation. Choose one of her points to improve upon throughout your trip and the remainder of your year. My personal favorite is to ask open-ended questions! It has made me a much better listener and conversationalist.
Ask your guides and locals what they love (and don’t love) about living there and how they want it to improve.
Ask locals about what organizations are working to improve their lives, what are their major challenges, and as travelers—how can we most effectively help.
If traveling with others, take turns asking daily “zinger” questions (i.e. What is your favorite musician and why?) Find authentic ways to get to know your fellow travelers more deeply. Whether at home or traveling, I recommend Table Topics or Storyworth Questions!
Try at least one day where you communicate using the local language only, even if using a translation app. Be open to communicating non-verbally, too! Charades, anyone?
As a tour leader, I would often encourage my groups to join a free tour of Temple Square while in Salt Lake City, Utah—the main hub for the Church of Latter-Day Saints (still often referred to outside the church as “Mormons”, but they are hoping to move away from this term). I encouraged curiosity but also respect, since some of their beliefs tend to make some folks uncomfortable. I had a private family group take the tour. One person directed their questions to the missionaries, starting with “You people”. We don’t want to exclude or make anyone feel like “others”. The family was quick to let her know it wasn’t respectful language. One of the points from the TED Talk above I greatly appreciate—keep an open mind as everyone knows something you don’t, and you won’t be disappointed!
Sustainability and Regenerative Tourism Practices
To avoid having that which nourishes it destroy it, the tourism industry has increasingly turned to sustainable tourism—an umbrella term that describes both responsible travel and sustainable practices by the tourism industry. And while the Global Sustainable Tourism Council notes that sustainable tourism “aims to minimize negative impact[s] and maximize the positive ones,’ restorative tourism goes beyond minimizing environmental harm: its goal is to preserve and regenerate the environment, support wildlife, and contribute to local communities.
I will partner with businesses who are affiliated with green tourism boards and certification programs.
I will encourage you to visit destinations during the slower or shoulder seasons to avoid “over tourism” and spread economic benefits throughout the year.
Spend longer periods in less destinations to lower carbon emissions and authentically get to know a place better.
We will use a carbon footprint calculator and figure out the best ways for you to get from point A to point B efficiently with less carbon emissions. I will align your values with a carbon-net-negative travel program of your choice.
Flying is still one of the most carbon-intensive ways to travel, so we will ideally find you direct flights or try a different method of travel.
We will choose sustainable and locally-owned accommodation like homesteads and eco lodges, preferably over bigger chains and all-inclusive resorts, unless they are managed responsibly and spread the economic benefits beyond the hotel. (Pro Tip: AirBNB’s are difficult to prove locally-owned and many travel advisors cannot receive any commissions from. If there is a local homestay you prefer, we will likely need to investigate other reliable platforms.)
I will include locally owned businesses (restaurants, stores, activity providers) that support the community and preferably have a philanthropic tie.
Would you be open to visiting lesser-known regions or areas that need economic revitalization? For example, please read about Carl Kay's Tokyo Way where he promotes travel to a Japanese region hit by the tsunami back open to tourism.
Since business class, first class, and premium economy take up more space on planes, those seats have larger carbon footprints when compared with economy. To create fewer carbon emissions when traveling by plane, are you open to sitting in economy class or offsetting your flight?
When possible, are you open to using public transportation, bikes, and less impactful ways to travel? We will discuss safety and make sure you’re comfortable with local options first.
Do you have any interest in traveling more extensively within your own home country? If so, where are regions / areas that are of interest to you?
Do you currently own a reusable water bottle or would you be open to buying one? I will recommend water purification methods and less waste products (preferably from a local zero-waste shop) to avoid single-use options.
Please humor me and read “What Responsible Travel Doesn’t Promote and Why”. I promise, no judgments here. Many of us have very likely participated in at least one of these ways to travel, and likely because we were simply not aware of the implications. (I admittedly rode an elephant before I knew the practice is detrimental). Please give me an example of how reading their explanations made you think differently about one of these experiences.
Check out this article on planning a Japan Trip with Sustainability Experts' Advice. Did any of these recommendations resonate with you?
If possible, try not to post anything on social media until you have returned home and you’ve reflected on what you believe to be most important to share, especially to benefit that local community. Consider sharing more personal experiences and the connections you've built. If you volunteered or want to support any businesses, be sure to tag them and consider donating or sending them word-of-mouth referrals.
Part 3: Connecting with deeper purpose
Challenges, Adventure & Nature
We will build in opportunities for challenges during your trip to expand your comfort zone and growth. We will discuss if you are open to surprises along your journey or me planning a trip to an unknown destination for you!
I will provide guiding practices for safe and conscious encounters with nature and wildlife, including localized Leave No Trace resources.
Citizen or community science is a collaboration between scientists and those of us who are curious or concerned and motivated to make a difference. These opportunities deepen your connection with nature and get you directly involved in the action! Are you open to participating in a citizen science expedition trip or project? For example, why just go whale-watching when you can be an active participant in their protection with an organization like the Pacific Whale Foundation?
Are there any new routines you’d like to challenge yourself with during this trip? (i.e. daily meditation, no caffeine, intermittent fasting, plant-based diet, running, yoga, etc.)
Are there any adventurous activities you would be open to trying? Are there any you will absolutely not try? (Hiking, skydiving, zip lining, bungee jumping, paragliding, kite surfing… you name it!)
Would you be open to a wilderness retreat? Overnight or multi-night backpacking trip?
Would you be open to volunteering with a local conservation project during your trip? For example, cleaning trash while kayaking a local river or helping maintain a trail.
Explain how you enjoy interacting with nature.
What type of landscape inspires you and why? Which ones do you tend to avoid and why?
Tell me about a time when you were challenged/out of your comfort zone while traveling and what your learned about yourself from that experience.
Tell me about a time in nature where you were truly awe-struck and why.
Food challenge! Try something unique, like a local staple or delicacy. And don’t be afraid to ask where your food was sustainably sourced. For example, please read on to see why we shouldn’t support shark fin soup. Let’s find you a local cooking class to learn some new recipes you could bring home!
Visiting a new national park or preserve? I challenge you to participate in a ranger or volunteer program.
One of my absolute favorite destinations for leading North American small-group tours was Monument Valley in the Dineh (Navajo) Nation on the border of UT and AZ. The Dineh live remotely with very little light pollution. It was one of the most awe-inspiring locations for star gazing and our indigenous guides would often tell us their origin story of the stars. It was a wonderful reminder of spiritualism and our minute size, contemplating the cosmos.
Returning home. What comes next?
To quote my fellow Transformational Travel Council ally, Todd Holcomb of Clearwater Trekking: “This is the whole point of the journey, to bring home the gift of new possibilities and live them out in service to our families and communities.”
Together, we will evaluate your experience with a post-trip interview and discuss areas of true growth and areas for how we can improve upon future travel. I will ask for thoughtful feedback on the overall destination, activity providers, accommodation, restaurants, etc. and encourage your firsthand positive reviews for suppliers you want to support and constructive feedback for those that can improve the guest experience.
We will work together to find meaningful ways to translate your experience into better habits and a deeper connection with others and self in your daily life. I will offer customized recommendations on how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle upon your return and outlets to further engage in your local community based on your passions and interests.
How did your trip change you?
Remember those intentions and goals you wrote down before your trip? Come back to them. Do you feel like they evolved or were fulfilled while you were there?
From your prior travels, have you already altered any of your daily lifestyle habits at home?
What are you grateful for from this trip overall? How did you show gratitude throughout your trip?
Would you be willing to check in with me and tell me if your trip has had any other lasting, positive affects in your life down the road?
Has this trip inspired you to explore your own backyard (neighborhood/community/state/region/country) in any new ways?
Remember those prompts to build in time for self-reflection? How will you incorporate these into your daily life at home?
Explore new ways to get involved in your local community. Are there other ways that you’d like to channel your passions into something productive at home?
Would you like to continue supporting any of the organizations you encountered on your trip by donating your time, money or other resources?
Did you enjoy a mindfulness practice during your trip? Would you like to keep the momentum going by joining a local meditation community? Feel free to peruse this global sangha directory.
When it comes to our food, we have long been disconnected. I currently work with a compost collection service, and there are many more services like these making it easier to dispose of our food waste responsibly. I love using litterless.com to find local compost collection options throughout the U.S. and investigating local farmers markets to buy fresh, seasonal food that directly supports our dedicated farmers.
After encountering heavy pollution in poverty-stricken countries, I returned home and started volunteering frequently with cleanup organizations in whatever towns I was visiting and this ultimately led to me manage United By Blue national waterway cleanups, who also partner with international cleanup organizations in the countries I had visited. I continue to volunteer and work with local environmental groups in Chicago and support single-use plastic ban legislation nationally.
Need to Know
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read through and contemplate what this process would be like for me. I hope to share in the making of lasting, meaningful travel experiences with you as a future client!
“Transformational travel is intentionally traveling to stretch, learn, and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”
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