Get Lost. I’m serious. Get lost a lot. This is what did it for me. I’d get some tunes going on some headphones and venture out to explore a new city, town, beach, wherever I was. Usually with no clear destination, merely a direction. Be safe, of course, and aware of your surroundings, but just wander. You’ll find food on the way. You’ll find something to do on the way. Google Maps can help you make your way back. You’ll find amazing little shops off the beaten path, beautiful streets far from the tourist spots, and at every turn, something new. It’s delightful. From Venice to Tokyo to Fiji and London, there’s no activity I like better than exploring a new place.
Learn. You’re going to be learning a lot on your adventure. I’m not even talking about museums and cultures, but just being on the road is a learning experience when you’re open to it. Many areas offer classes for travelers of varying types.
Language lessons are always helpful. Study Travel is a place to start for some languages. Some hostels might have an employee who offers lessons, or has a friend who does.
You can look for classes to learn some new recipes, or in my case, learn to cook at all. Many locations, especially those known for their local cuisine, will have a local somewhere teaching people a few dishes using local ingredients. I took a class like this in China and while I still consider “didn’t poison anyone” my benchmark for cooking, I did get a better sense of the history of the dishes and what separates the good from the bad.
You can also use your trip as a chance to learn something very specific. Road Scholar, for instance, offers educational tours all around the world.
Give Back. It’s certainly a noble goal to want to travel somewhere and help the locals. However, approach this idea with great caution. It’s entirely possible to do more harm than good, especially for short term stays. For example, if you’re paying a lot of money to a company for the opportunity, how much of that goes to the community you’re visiting? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t consider it, just make sure you do extensive research before you book. Not just the company you’re considering, but the area you want to visit as well. Make sure you’re actually doing good and not just appearing to do so.
Consider, instead, something like Woofing, where you work on a farm open to unskilled travelers.
Drive. Several times in my life I needed to get away, and for me there are few things more mood changing and mood improving than an epic road trip. In the United States we have one of the best road networks in the world. Pick a direction and go. If you stick with the highways (which you don’t have to), there will generally be a gas station, food and lodging within a reasonable distance. I’ve driven across once each way, and once in a big circle, and there’s nothing better for clearing your mind and seeing how vast and varied this country can be.
Outside the U.S., there are lots of road trip possibilities with varying levels of challenge. From the Trans-Andean Highway to the mountains of Morocco, there are endless options. Old episodes of Top Gear or Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round can certainly give you some ideas. Personally I’m a huge fan of Scotland’s North Coast 500, which offers some truly miraculous, and often desolate, scenery, if you want something that’s like another world, but still reasonably close to a gas station that takes credit cards.
You can also go all out and drive anywhere. There are countless travel bloggers that have, or are, working their way around the world by car. The Road Chose Me and Expedition Earth are two.
Go on a Lightly Guided Tour. Perhaps you’re not a frequent traveler. Perhaps you’re getting your first passport for this very adventure. And perhaps you’re looking at all these ideas and the thought of dropping into a country where you don’t speak the language and can’t read the signs has you second guessing this whole crazy plan. Fear not (literally), as there’s an option well suited for beginner, and even intermediate, travelers. I call them “lightly guided tours.” They’re not as structured as traditional travel tours. Instead, a local guide shepherds you from location to location, but once there you’re given a variety of things to do… or not. You could also just wander. I did two of these with friends before I started my extended traveling, and one after.
There are several companies that have these kinds of tours. G Adventures is the one I’ve traveled with, and they have tours all around the world for all ages or some ages. Intrepid is another. These smaller tours are also a great way to meet people. On all three of the tours I went on, I still talk with and see several people from them regularly.