In early March, photographer Kathy Adams Clark was leading a tour group through Costa Rica, guiding students as they focused their cameras on volcanoes, rainbows, and turquoise-feathered birds. By the middle of the month, the frequent flyer arrived home in Houston, Texas, grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and not sure when she would ever travel again. She taught her first online class the next day.
Golden wildflowers blanket California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument in spring, drawing photographers to capture their beauty. Online photography courses can help you sharpen your skills now for better images on 2021 trips.
This hard stop to her country-hopping lifestyle came as a shock. But it taught Clark a lesson: There are plenty of travel skills you can master from home.
While helping students improve their technique by training their lenses on backyard dragonflies, Clark has been doing some studying herself. She’s read up on Medici family history and taught herself to make risotto in anticipation of her next journey to Italy. “I’ve got time to take a deep dive into a subject,” she says. Clark remains hopeful for 2021 adventures. “People are going to be so ready,” she says. “We’re not going to take travel for granted. We’re going to treat it as the treasure it is.”
There are many classes, apps, and activities you can try now that’ll give you a leg—or hiking boot—up on your next trip.
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Learn a new language
Travelers should always pack at least a couple foreign phrases, says Craig Childers, director of language courses for Washington, D.C.’s Goethe-Institut, a German cultural association with outposts around the world. “You can get by with English only [in Germany], especially in cities,” he says. “But if you know just a little German, you’ll be more confident and relaxed taking public transportation and ordering off menus.”
In response to the COVID-19 travel slowdown, the institute has launched new online classes and virtual cultural programming, including a tour inspired by the Netflix noir series Babylon Berlin and video seminars on art and architecture.
If you’re hoping to visit Tokyo next year then plan ahead with help from The Japanese Foundation Los Angeles, which offers free self-study courses and bilingual yoga classes on its Facebook page (you’ll learn that the word for inhale is “sutte”).
Craving conversation? Tandem is a free app that lets its 10 million users teach each other their native tongues via texts, voice memos, or—increasingly—video calls. Sign ups have soared since February, says co-founder Arnd Aschentrup, who recommends that would-be travelers use the “search by city” option to get grammar tips with a side of local intel.
Popular free app Duolingo, which saw a 101 percent boom in first-time users in March 2020, offers online tools for learning dozens of languages, including Finnish, which debuted in June.
Connect with other cultures
Discovering the traditions and perspectives of international places is the magic ingredient in many of Airbnb’s online experiences, which invite guests to learn to cook street tacos with a Mexico City chef or spend the day in Paris with a local.
On the “Follow a Plague Doctor through Prague” experience, participants “meet” their guide on the Czechia capital’s statue-lined Charles Bridge via a video that then winds along cobblestone streets to other landmarks. Because it was shot at night earlier this year, the video shows a far quieter and emptier Prague than most tourists have ever seen. The guide pops in—sometimes wearing a pointy-beaked doctor’s costume—to explain how diseased fleas shook the city some 300 years ago, interspersing the tour with historical photos and practical tips (theater recommendations, where to grab a microbrew, the best shopping streets).
Amazon’s still-in-beta-testing Explore platform features similar online jaunts, with sessions welcoming you to tour Hong Kong’s working-class Sham Shui Po neighborhood or virtually shop for traditional arts and crafts in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The big difference is that Amazon experiences are one-on-one; as the platform is still in development, participants require an invite to book an experience.
Explore your spirituality
Israel was back in lockdown at press time, but it’s no problem to visit through the Jewish National Fund’s weeklong virtual tours. They transport a “busload” of up to 23 passengers to landmarks such as Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and the Ramon Crater. Each day includes one hour of “sightseeing” via a combo of videos, photos, and maps followed by an hourlong Q&A, explains tour guide Jacob Shoshan, who’s led many interfaith groups dreaming of in-person trips. “It’s the Holy Land and it has sacred sites for so many people—Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and then Druze and Beha’i.” Most tours conclude with a “pre-Shabbat” experience to say goodbye—for now. A woman recently told Shoshan that this was her fifth virtual visit this year.
If you’re seeking spirituality to combat 2020 stresses, consider a virtual yoga or meditation retreat staycation. Eat Pray Move, which usually runs yoga trips to Italy and Morocco, ships participants of its online, week-long sessions goodies including tea and incense to get them in the mood for asanas. Insight Meditation Society, known for its multi-day silent Buddhist retreats in central Massachusetts, now offers at-home programming, including a pre-election workshop focused on breathing and mindfulness. These techniques can prep you for future in-person retreats or just make you a more centered traveler.
Search for your roots
Whether your ancestors hail from Nigeria or Norway, investigating your genealogy can prime you for future heritage travel. Many groups that normally gather in person to discuss archives and research strategies have shifted online, making it easier for out-of-towners to participate, says Adrienne Whaley, president of the African American Genealogy Group of Philadelphia. She recommends mining relatives for information via virtual family reunions or interviews with elders. The more you learn, the better equipped you’ll be to see your great-great-grandma’s stomping grounds.
(Related: How Ghana is helping Black American travelers explore their roots.)
Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery hosts “History Happy Hours” on Zoom, digging into topics such as floral symbolism on tombs. Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., has been posting its virtual tours on YouTube, so you can tag along with docents whenever you want. To track down a particular relative, Congressional Cemetery archivist Dayle Dooley recommends Find A Grave, a free website with an easily searchable, international archive. Questions? Put out a request on the site. “We’re a helpful community of weird people,” Dooley says.
Sharpen outdoor skills
The outdoors is in during the pandemic. Seek tips on camping, biking, paddling, and hiking at outdoor superstore REI’s recently restarted in-person workshops on topics such as outdoor survival skills, star gazing, and compass navigation. Now’s the time to set a high altitude or mileage hiking goal, recommends Sarah Maurer, a Colorado-based fitness coach. She preps clients for trekking and mountaineering vacations, such as up Pikes Peak or along Scotland’s 96-mile West Highland Way. “With months to work on it, you will improve in so many ways,” she says, noting that performing box step-ups during a Netflix binge is a great at-home conditioning move.
(Related: Want to try camping for the first time? Read our advice.)
Explore nature while you help preserve it by becoming a volunteer scientist. One organization that can get you started is Citizen Science Tahoe, which has users note what they see in Lake Tahoe: What color is the water? Is there algae? How about litter?
Collecting data helps researchers better understand how to protect the lake, so people can continue to use it for kayaking and other water sports. “We want to compare what our eyes see to what we’re measuring,” says Heather Segale, education director for the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, which developed the app. “That requires multiple people doing multiple observations.”
Wherever you are, keep an eye out for seasonal changes in plants and upload your notes to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Budburst website. It helps people learn more about the species in their neighborhoods and contribute to a useful data set, says director Emma Oschrin. The program particularly blooms for kids thanks to downloadable activity guides encouraging STEM skills. For instance, one exercise shows how to use a tape measure to figure out the age of a tree. “Families can look at plants together while navigating this remote learning environment,” says Oschrin. Plus, it’ll fire them up for leaf-peeping trips and botanical garden visits.
Focus on photography
Right now, your travel Instagram might be stuffed with shots of city parks or local sculpture gardens. But a slew of online photography tutorials and classes can ready you for your next safari or national park odyssey, whether you prefer to shoot on your smartphone or with high-tech gear.
Retired attorney Stuart Litoff, 68, of Washington, D.C., was supposed to travel to Spain and Sicily this year with photographers Tom and Cree Bol, who run small group tours that help budding shutterbugs shoot the wonders of the world. Instead, he’s taken several of their new online classes, covering topics like macro photography and speed lights. He misses the far-flung settings, but Litoff appreciates how the interactive, small-group Zoom lessons are boosting his creativity and technique. For homework, he’s misted strawberries with droplets of water to create dramatic close ups and darkened rooms to practice flash photography.
(Related: Want to improve your travel snapshots? Use these tips from a Nat Geo photographer.)
“So often we travel to these exotic places, and no matter where you point your camera, you have a great pic. Now, we’ve giving them tough challenges at home,” Tom Bol says.
Litoff hopes to test out his new skills with the next in-person tour he has scheduled with the Bols—to Santiago, Chile, and Easter Island in January 2021. “Shooting those giant carvings at sunrise or sunset, being there to photograph that would be so special,” he says.
Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy.