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The definition of a dream vacation varies from person to person, but no matter how you define it, everyone deserves to go on a big, once-in-a-lifetime trip. But where to start and how to choose? Chances are the vacation you fantasize about in your 20s isn't what your 40-year-old self finds appealing — and with a world full of beautiful cultures, natural wonders, and historical sites, things can quickly become overwhelming. Do you book that ski trip to Japan or save up for an excursion through the Galápagos Islands?

A stunning sunset of the mountains behind Table mountain looking over Camps Bay. Lion's head in the distance over looking the bay
Credit: Getty Images

To get the ball rolling, we've curated some incredible experiences for every decade of your life. These trips take into account your wallet (here's to you, 20-somethings), mobility, and what sort of destinations tend to call to people in different phases of life. Ready to dive in? Here we go.

In your 20s: Costa Rica

Aerial view of sea in Costa Rica
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Costa Rica is far enough from the U.S. to feel like a true escape, yet close enough to make finding cheap flights totally doable. Plus, the relatively affordable cost of living will help ease any financial concerns. You can grab an Imperial (a popular, local beer) for just over $1, enjoy a sandwich and fries for around $10, and spend plenty of time lounging on the beach for free.

If you're traveling with friends, book a house near the ocean and spend your time near or in the water — surfing, snorkeling, fishing, and kitesurfing. When you're ready for more, a short trip inland will transport you to lush rain forests that house sloths, spider monkeys, exotic birds, and jaguars. For guaranteed animal sightings, head to Centro de Rescate y Santuario Las Pumas in southern Cañas, an animal sanctuary and rescue center. And if you're craving adventure, hike one of the country's many volcanoes or zip line through the clouds.

In your 30s: Japan

Osaka Tower and view of the neon advertisements in Shinsekai district at dusk, Osaka, Japan
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There's something for everyone in Japan, with its next-level cityscape, rugged mountains, natural hot springs (this one in particular), stunning beaches, and beautiful traditions. All you have to do is narrow things down — which is easier said than done.

In Tokyo, a city of lights and oddities, check out the zany teen fashion at Harajuku, make your way across Shibuya Crossing, and visit the maid cafes of Akihabara. For culture and history, head to Kyoto, where you'll find a plethora of Buddhist temples, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines, and perfectly manicured gardens.

Adventure lovers should visit in the winter, when skiing takes over the northern island of Hokkaido and the natural hot springs become a daily must. Alternatively, you can ski the Japanese Alps on the main island of Honshu, and make time to visit the hot spring-loving monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. If warm, sandy shores are more your style, head to the Okinawa Islands, where you'll find clear turquoise waters and white-sand beaches.

In your 40s: Machu Picchu, Peru

Inca Citadel Machu Picchu, Peru
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The sprawling agricultural terraces, mountain views, and intricate Incan citadels of Machu Picchu have captivated travelers for centuries. But sorting out the logistics takes time, and some of the best experiences involve strapping on a backpack and conquering the journey by foot. That's why this trip is perfect for adventurous travelers in their 40s who have the know-how, time, and resources to book the once-in-a-lifetime getaway.

Make time to enjoy Lima and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cusco, in addition to the trip's main draw: the arrival at Machu Picchu. Keep in mind many trips are fully customizable and you can hike, drive, or take the train. For a classic take on the trip, stick to the Inca Trail, but to avoid the crowds (at least the worst of them), you might want to book a trek that takes you around the Salkantay Mountain. There are also add-on excursions, including a visit to the Lares region. It's hard to go wrong.

In your 50s: Galápagos Islands

Sea turtle swimming through a school of fish over the coral reef at Darwin Island.
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The wonders of the Galápagos are no secret, but until you visit for yourself, it's hard to know just how special the place really is. Thanks to serious protection efforts by the Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Reserve, the islands and the animals that inhabit them are still relatively untouched. You'll spot blue-footed boobies locked in a mating dance, swim with sea lion pups, and watch marine iguanas sunning themselves next to Galápagos penguins.

To experience the islands, you'll need to book a tour and spend several days living off of a boat, which is why a small-scale luxury yacht with an onboard naturalist is well worth the extra cost. Check out the offerings from INCA (International Nature & Cultural Adventures), a well-respected travel company that keeps its group sizes small and trip quality high — from multicourse meals to luxe extras like onboard Wi-Fi and a rooftop hot tub.

In your 60s: France

Abbeye de Senanque Lavender Field Provence in Summer France
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If you do it right, a trip to France can include all the bells and whistles of a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Start in Paris, soaking up the wonders of the city — from picnics under the twinkling Eiffel Tower to afternoons spent exploring the Palace of Versailles to dinners at one of the city's notorious Michelin-starred restaurants.

From there, rent a car and head southwest to the coastal city of La Rochelle, where you'll nosh on freshly caught fish and explore the medieval and Renaissance architecture of the old town. A drive further down the coast puts you in Bordeaux, home to great food and even better wine. You'll want to make a pit stop in the charming surf town of Biarritz before cutting east toward the French Riviera. As you travel along the stunning Mediterranean coast, swing by cities like Marseille and Nice, glitzy communities like St. Tropez and Cannes, and under-the-radar towns like Cassis and Antibes. Before making your way north, back to Paris, make time to stroll the lavender fields of Provence, then dip among the jaw-dropping French Alps.

It's a trip that not only exposes you to the finer things in life — architecture, art, and French food and wine — but will open your mind to the distinctly French way of living, a mindset that is perfect for your 60s.

In your 70s and Beyond: South Africa

A stunning sunset of the mountains behind Table mountain looking over Camps Bay. Lion's head in the distance over looking the bay
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There's more to Africa than safaris — and this trip with smarTours proves it. In addition to visiting Kruger National Park, one of Africa's largest game reserves with a high density of animals (including the Big Five — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos), you'll get to explore the South African cities of Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, learn about the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and check out the countries of Eswatini and Zimbabwe (if you book the extension).

The trip is perfectly suited to travelers who are ready to get out and explore, but don't want the stress of booking every detail or committing to a ton of physical activity. With a little smart planning (and the help of smarTours), galavanting all over South Africa, seeing incredible animals, and visiting Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River are not only doable, they're easy.