Travel + Leisure Editors Share the Trips That Changed Their Lives
It’s a new year, and the time to start thinking about what’s ahead (and planning for where you’ll go). Maybe you’re ready to discover a new place, maybe you want to revisit an old one.
Maybe you have travel resolutions to complete, a bucket list to cross off, or have no agenda whatsoever with your plans this year. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we’ve got an idea for you. The staff here at Travel + Leisure spends a lot of time reading about, discussing, plotting, and enjoying trips. Every story we print or publish, in the magazine and across our digital channels, is meant to inspire, inform, or assist the act of travel in some way.
For this particular piece, we looked inward, polling our team about the journeys that they remember as most transformative. There weren’t any rules or parameters: just name the one that made you think, act, or approach life differently, and to tell us about it.
The responses are as varied as our team: trips that set us on new, enriching paths; made us approach our everyday lives in a fresh way; experiences that put us entirely outside our comfort zones while inhabiting our own selves a little more completely. We made these discoveries traveling alone, in strange places, under strange circumstances, with our families—or right in the path of the seemingly ordinary.
Whether we were navigating the world by sea for several months, backpacking exotic locales, exiting our regular lives for an extended leave, or even just visiting friends for a long weekend, these trips altered us in wonderful, lasting ways. We hope your journeys do the same for you. Here’s to many more ahead.
Egypt, with Dad
My gift to my father on his 60th birthday was a trip anywhere in the world he wanted to go with me. He chose Egypt, where he'd lived for five months as a small boy, and visited again just before I was born. We went for his 61st birthday, without a set plan, and figured everything out at the Windsor Hotel, a cheap old colonial relic with a manually operated wooden carriage elevator and a lobby that used to be a British officer's club where we drank Scotch in the evenings. A few favorite memories: the sounds of prayer drifting in through the French doors in the mornings, little boys in the crumbling alleys near the Mohammed Ali Mosque flashing us thumbs-up and shouting "Obama!" (he'd just taken office), returning again and again to buy small things at the labyrinthine Khan el Khalili market, a traditional family meal in a Nubian village down the river from Aswan, eating fire-roasted camel meat on the banks of the Nile and waking at sunrise on the deck of our felucca boat, the majesty of the rock temples of Abu Simbel in the early morning light, the still-preserved colors on the ceilings of the temples in the Valley of the Kings, and of course all the hours of conversation navigating the crazy streets of Cairo with my dad. —Jesse Ashlock, features director
Backpacking through Southeast Asia
After I graduated college, my boyfriend and I decided to spend the summer backpacking through Southeast Asia to celebrate the “last” of our freedom. The trip changed my life enormously. Not only did it open up the portals to Asia—a continent that I’ve visited several times since—but it also exposed me to a completely unfamiliar culture, one that I now have grown to admire and love. I participated in paying homage to the Thai King in a movie theater, rode motorcycles through the jungle without care, and gave alms to monks in Luang Prabang. I got exactly what I was looking for on this trip, a taste of true freedom, and wound up falling in love with a whole new part of the world along the way. —Adeline Duff, editorial assistant
A Pioneering Trip to Cuba
I've always loved traveling alone—I took my first trip sans parents at 14, and have sought out every opportunity to do it again since. It's always helped me meet new people and interact more deeply with the place I'm exploring. In college, I studied abroad in Europe, and after graduation I went on a birthright trip to Israel. But I've always ended up, in some ways, traveling with or entangled in a group of like-minded peers. Not so when I went to Cuba in April 2015. I made arrangements to travel on a people-to-people license on the heels of the Obama administration's loosened travel restrictions. Most of the people in my group had half a century on me, except one woman—who was still ten years my senior. At first, I panicked. But as the days beneath the blistering hot sun ticked by, I realized it had been a blessing. I was moving more slowly than I wanted to, but it was forcing me to stop and chat with locals, to get lost in winding backstreets, to go for long morning runs along the esplanade and to stay out late learning Spanish from my pedicab driver. As I got to know my fellow travelers better, I was able to hear the stories of people who had lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to argue politics over mojitos and family-style plates of rice and beans. More importantly, I was able to visit a country at an incredibly exciting, pivotal moment in its history. I will never, ever forget that feeling—there are few places left where we can still feel like pioneers, and for me, Cuba may have been it. —Melanie Lieberman, associate digital editor
Taking 14 flights to Seven Countries—in a Month
It was the summer right before my sister headed to college, and the beginning of my dreaded SAT tests. My parents knew we needed a break from the impending anxiety, so when my dad was invited to work on an archeological underwater dig in Cyprus, we decided to tag along. The first stop was two weeks in Cyprus and two weeks in Europe, before heading to family in Austin, followed by my childhood home in the Bahamas. It was as busy of a summer as it sounds. From New York to Athens, we were off on the first of fourteen flights and seven countries in less than five weeks. It was a summer in which I fell in love with travel, culture, and art history. Exploring some of the beautiful ruins in Paphos, stepping into the magnificent Hagia Sophia, and climbing the Duomo in Florence solidified my decision to study art history in college. Along the trip I met amazing people and learned the importance of packing light (something I still struggle with today). It was an exhilarating experience and somehow through the frequent flight delays and questionable airlines, not one piece of luggage was lost! —Kira Turnbull, photo assistant
Summer in the Mediterranean
Last year I was in between jobs, so a friend and I decided to leave our worries behind us and take off to the Mediterranean for the summer. I had done quite a bit of traveling with my family as a child and even studied abroad for a semester in college, but this was the first time that I was able to travel on my own terms. We found that getting recommendations from locals our age is the best way to tread off the beaten path and discover things we normally would not have seen—like a hidden beach or a hole in the wall restaurant with the best ravioli we had ever tasted. This trip opened my eyes to how much more I still need to see in this big world, and that there are so many incredible people to meet along the way! —Katie Fish, fashion assistant
Living on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation
Last summer, I spent six weeks living on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota. My best friend and I lived and worked at the community center in the tiny town of La Plant, where the Lakota people live. There are very few resources there, no stores, no gas stations. I don’t know if it was the plywood barn that I slept in or the scorching sun, the unforgiving wind or the breathtaking expanse of stars every night, or the remarkable stories that I learned from the Lakota people, but that trip showed me a type of beauty I’d never seen before. What at first felt uncomfortable and foreign soon became familiar, and my curiosity about that community enveloped me in the way that sunlight swallowed the prairie every morning. My favorite part of the trip was when we took a group of teens to the Badlands—several of them had never even been off the reservation before. Ten of us piled into a van and drove for hours, halfway across the state, and as soon as we reach the jagged rock formations of the Badlands, everyone went quiet. It was epic. —Ellie Storck, digital editorial assistant
National Parks Road Trip
This past summer, I finally checked “road trip across the U.S.” in my circa–high school handwriting off my bucket list. When I initially wrote it down, I pictured whipping down the highway with my best friends in a convertible from city to city—the wind tossing our hair in a flattering way, music blasting. I did not picture sand whipping into my face after almost 700 feet of a calf-blasting, uphill climb to the top of High Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I did not picture fast-tracking it out of a narrow slot canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as the stream quickened beneath our feet after the first few drops of rain. I also didn't picture the way shadows and light could color in the vast amphitheater of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon or the way that wind, water, and time could mold rock into museum-worthy sculptures at Arches National Park. I did want to see the Grand Canyon, but I did not intend to actually go down into it, let alone hike from the North Rim to the South Rim. Never before have I done something that allowed me to feel so simultaneously big and small. Up to this point, for me, travel had been about observation and absorption. I immersed myself in the destination, but the most I'd really tested my own personal limits was trying my first ever cheeseburger in Berlin—yes, it's a sad but true story. Leaving your home doesn't always mean leaving your comfort zone, and this trip showed me how rewarding it can be to do both. (P.S. We brought a tiny cactus with us, and it has a blog.) —Richelle Szypulski, editorial operations assistant
Learning to Appreciate in the United Arab Emirates
Every trip I go on, regardless of its destination or length, shapes my perspective on life. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, I saw both the extravagance and the hard work behind the scenes. When I visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, I saw the cleaners scrubbing the floors, surrounded by extravagant architecture. And in Dubai, there were hundreds of workers constructing the next high-rise building next to the Burj Khalifa. The labor was intense, especially in extreme heat under the sun. The effort required to build the skylines of today is unimaginable. The trip influenced me to appreciate what I have in life more. –Sherry Hsieh, audience engagement manager
Visiting Grandmother’s Home in Norway
At 18 and fresh out of high school, my Grandma took me to her hometown of Stavanger, Norway, as a graduation gift. It was my first time abroad and I couldn’t wait to experience a culture outside of the United States. Not only was the country stunningly beautiful, but I was finally meeting family members that I had always heard about and seeing places that I had grown up only imagining. One morning, my Grandma woke me before the city was stirring, and we walked through Old Stavanger as she recounted her childhood. I will never forget the beauty of the old cobblestoned streets, the smell of the sea, and I will forever cherish being able to relive her favorite memories in the place she still refers to as home. —John Scarpinato, editorial assistant
Multi-Gen Family Trip to Hawaii
One Christmas, we took a three-generation family trip to Hawaii. It was one of the first vacations I've planned for my extended family—most of whom I see infrequently because they live abroad. Luckily, Hawaii has something for everyone: my cousins swam with dolphins, my brother ate all the spam he could get his hands on, my grandmother loved the big malls, and a highlight of the trip was our helicopter ride over the volcanoes of the Big Island. While the planning itself was stressful, it more than paid off when I realized how rare it is to have everyone's schedules align, even just for a week. —Stephanie Wu, senior editor
Self-Discovery in Southern France
My parents were so unfair: they wouldn’t let me have a TV in my room, be out past 8 p.m., or even chew gum as a teenager. So it was a shock when they agreed to send me to France—all by myself, at age 14—to stay with people we’d never even met. (I’d found the family’s son, also 14, in a French-language chat room on the still-nascent Internet.) I spent three weeks with those kind folks at their sprawling stone farmhouse in the Lot, a southwestern département known for its prehistoric cave paintings, postcard-perfect medieval villages, and super-fragrant melons. That trip was my first time on a plane alone, first trip to Europe, first modern-art museum (in a disused abattoir), first snails, first duck, first champagne, first kiss—first time realizing that there was a big, strange world beyond my TV-less bedroom. I chewed gum the entire flight home. —CB Owens, copy & research editor
Saying ‘Yes’ to Everything
When I was a kid, we did the same (highly anticipated!) two weeks of family vacation every summer: a week of beach camping in July, and a week of mountain camping in August. But one year after my much-older sister and brother aged out of family vacay, my parents ditched our usual plans and took me on an only-child road trip from South Carolina through North Carolina and Tennessee. We made almost no plans in advance and I was given on-the-road run-of-show. Can we stop to tour this animal sanctuary? Yes! Go horseback riding in Gatlinburg? Done! A day at Ghost Town in Maggie Valley? Ok! Whitewater rafting down the French Broad? Sure! Not the most exotic trip I've taken, but life-changing because it gave me my first taste of how amazingly fun spontaneous travel can be. More than 20 years later we still talk about that road trip, which my parents (lovingly) refer to as "that vacation where we said yes to everything." —Skye Senterfeit, associate photo editor
Getting Lost in Florence
While I was studying abroad my junior year of college, I saved up to take a weeklong solo trip to Florence. I’d traveled alone before, but always with a safety net—a place to be, a person waiting for me on the other end, a plan. It was the first time I was totally on my own. I was terrified. It was wonderful. I wandered the markets, ate my weight in gelato, wore through the soles on my cheap flats walking ten miles a day. On my last night, I got lost wandering the city. It was rainy and cold, and just when I was getting desperate I stumbled upon a cozy little trattoria packed with locals. I spent my last euros on a multi-course meal, and it remains one of the best I’ve ever had—delicate pappardelle, crusty bread dipped in oil, a barely seared steak, and entirely too much cheap Chianti. That trip taught me that the best experiences often lie on the other side of fear, and that last perfect evening helps me remember that sometimes, no amount of Googling or Yelping or TripAdvisor-ing can compare with the spontaneous discoveries you make when you let yourself get a little bit lost. —Lila Battis, associate editor
Pushing Yourself in the Andes
In 2010, I was shopping around for a “soft adventure” trip in Costa Rica, but all the ones I chose were sold out for my dates. Then one of the companies persuaded me to try a more demanding trip in Ecuador. I didn't think about Ecuador being high in the Andes, so hiking and biking were pretty tough—but it turns out, so am I! Patience and will power pulled me through. I had never considered myself athletic, but this changed my perception, and since then I've gone on a bike trip every year. The desire to make the most of them keeps me motivated to exercise for months ahead of time. —Kathy Roberson, copy and research chief
Backpacking Around India
When I was 18, three girlfriends and I set off around India for three months. I still can’t believe my parents let me go (this was the pre-cellphone, pre-email era, so all they got from me was a single postcard the entire time). I had $732 in traveler’s cheques, a backpack full of malaria pills, and a copy of Middlemarch. Needless to say, it was the time of my life. I took epic, days-long cross-country train journeys. I danced all night on the beach in Goa. I saw monuments that boggled my young, unworldly mind. I witnessed abject poverty and religious fervor and culture and food and music so exotic I never could have imagined them. I stayed with a village family in the Himalayas (who, nearly 18 years later, I revisited, to find they had filled the photo album we gave them with treasured family photos). I got violently, violently ill, and found myself in situations so risky I still shudder to recall them. I came back older, wiser, and filled with a love for India which eventually took me back to live there, some 15 years later. —Flora Stubbs, articles editor
Caring for Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I spent several weeks traveling around Thailand and Indonesia on my first trip to Asia. With temples that will leave you speechless, delicious dishes and a lively market, Chiang Mai, Thailand, was the highlight for me. I spent time taking care of rescued elephants in the countryside, bathing and feeding them, and playing with baby elephants, too. I learned so much and felt like I actually gave back as part of the experience. –Pam Russo, vice president / general manager
Living Abroad in Dubrovnik, Croatia
A little more than ten years before I studied abroad in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the country was devastated during its war for independence from Yugoslavia. Learning about Croatia’s past and the experiences that people faced only a few years before taught me to seek a deeper understanding of the circumstances that make a country’s people who they are. I will never forget the kind, resilient people I met. I lived above a market, and every morning I bought fresh fruit and vegetables from a woman who worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, rain or shine. She didn’t speak a word of English, and I spoke only a few conversational words of Croatian, but she often slipped free bananas into my bag, since she knew they were my favorite. A classmate and I also befriended an elderly, local fisherman in the harbor, who took us out on his little boat from time to time. He attempted to teach us how to fish, all the while serenading us with Croatian songs and telling us stories in broken English about his younger years and the trouble he would cause with his friends (including the time six of them tried to escape to Italy in a five meter row boat before getting caught halfway by the authorities). My time in Croatia taught me about a different kind of learning, a more hands-on, meaningful kind of learning that couldn’t be gleaned from books. It taught me that it’s not just a location, but the people and the spirit of a place that stay with you forever. –Anna McKerrow, associtate digital photo editor
Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone in Rural El Salvador
On the verge of graduating from college with no concrete plans for the following months, I decided to sign up for a two-week trip to Suchitoto, El Salvador, to volunteer at a community center for in-need children. I had never traveled to Latin America before and didn’t speak a single word of Spanish, so it was an opportunity to push myself beyond my comfort zone. I figured that a two-week trip was better than nothing, until another opportunity came up.
Just before leaving, I met with a former professor who was in the process of writing a book about the country, and I offered to extend my stay and assist with any research needs (selfishly capitalizing on a longer stay). I spent the summer traveling through rural El Salvador and southern Guatemala, eating delicious pupusas, living with locals, and practicing my (still) cringe-worthy Spanish. I had no idea when I hopped on the first of my three flights to San Salvador that it would be the start of my journalism career and obsession with travel. Nearly ten years later I’ve traveled through the majority of Latin America, with only Nicaragua and Panama to check off my list. This year I’m hoping to make that happen.—Sean Flynn, digital operations editor
Creating Family Memories in Turks and Caicos
I've always loved a beach vacation. Sitting in the sun, catching up on three books, and drinking rosé: sheer heaven. This summer, with the best of intentions, my husband and I took our one-year-old son, Bobby, to the beach: specifically, to the Grace Bay Club and Parrot Cay, two of the most romantic resorts in the Caribbean. Needless to say, it wasn't the trip of yesteryear—diaper changes on the beach and seaside dinners for two were out of the question. And we may have gotten into a fight (or two) over who had to change said diaper. But seeing our son's first dip in the ocean was something I'll never forget. –Jacqui Gifford, special projects editor
Embracing the Moment in the Galápagos Islands
For me, vacations had always been a crammed itinerary of "must see" locations and "you haven’t lived 'til you’ve tasted” restaurants. That was until this past winter, when my family decided to spend the holidays in the Galápagos. Immersed in an environment so untouched by the rest of the world, I finally unplugged. I swam with the sea turtles and whitetip reef sharks, shared my lounge chair with sea lions, and hiked volcanoes in the pouring rain. I stopped thinking about what was next and finally embraced the moment—my own little eat, pray, love. —Chelsea Schiff, senior designer
Adventuring in Southern Iceland
I don't go many days without talking about my spring trip to southern Iceland. This was the first time that I really pushed myself outside of my comfort zone to try new things—snorkeling, intense hiking, driving through the mountains in complete white-out conditions. It reminded me that there are always new things to be experienced, and a daily routine can be both a blessing and a constraint. I've already got another trip planned to check out one major thing I missed out on: hiking through the Crystal Caves. –Erika Owen, senior audience engagement editor