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Ordinary vacations become extraordinary adventures with educational travel

SmarterTravel

In Abroad, a book on literary travel, author Paul Fussel makes a distinction between explorers, travelers, and tourists: “All three make journeys, but the explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity.” Most leisure travelers today are either tourists or travelers, depending on whether they stick to the well-trodden path of sightseeing or seek to learn more about the place and people they are visiting.

One way to grow from a tourist to a traveler is to seek out educational travel experiences. Education on the road is not composed of homework, boring lectures, or multiple-choice tests. It consists of delving into history, culture, and traditions while being immersed in a place and interacting with local people. There are so many different ways to accomplish educational travel that entire books and websites are devoted to it. We’ve tried to cut to the heart of the matter to give you the resources you need to create your own educational itinerary.

Why educational travel?

After months of working long hours, some people look forward to a beach vacation with plenty of rest and relaxation. But others are more interested in travel as an experience and want to get beyond the sights and attractions listed in the guidebook. Perhaps they want to learn a skill that originates in a certain part of the globe or perhaps they just want to discover more of the background of the sights they are seeing.

There are three main types of educational vacations. The first is the most obvious: traveling somewhere to take a class. Language classes are the most traditional types of education abroad, but nowadays curious vacationers are taking time off to study cooking in Europe or Asia, take dance or martial arts classes, practice yoga or meditation, or learn to paint and do other crafts projects. Others participate in archaeological digs or community service projects. These travelers are focusing on one subject, but in the process learning much about the place in which they’re spending time.

Educational tours are another way to learn while traveling. Many companies, such as Smithsonian Journeys and Elderhostel, lead tours to different regions and employ experts to share their knowledge with participants. These tours can focus on a specific subject such as the art or music of a city or just provide overall historical background. Instead of just staring in wonder at the Egyptian pyramids or the sights of Paris, travelers learn how and why these things came to be and how they have influenced life in these places today.

The third kind of educational travel is the do-it-yourself kind. Instead of booking a tour or a class, some travelers prefer to create an educational component themselves. This could be anything from reading and researching before departing to arranging homestays that will show you how locals live.

Professionals in the industry have many good explanations for why you should consider an educational vacation. George Deeb, CEO of iExplore, a company that creates custom travel experiences, says that experiential travel allows you to “come back different. It lets you open your eyes and see beyond your local neighborhood. It broadens horizons and creates a life-changing experience.” Amy Kotkin, director of Smithsonian Journeys, believes that “on an educational tour, you experience a real ‘aha’ moment. For example, instead of just loving Paris with its fine meals and shopping, you’ll begin to understand how Paris grew, why it looks the way it does.”

And Sherry Schwarz, Editor and Publisher of Transitions Abroad Magazine, touts immersion as a way to get the most out of your travel experience. “Educated people want to travel in a way that makes their time valuable. With the benefits of educational travel, you’ll get more for your money.”

Tips for booking classes and tours

If you do a Web search on “educational travel,” you’ll be amazed at the thousands of sites that come up. Planning an educational trip for the first time can be daunting if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Here are a few tips that will help you determine how to find a provider that will make your next trip memorable.

  • Choose a destination or subject area: The first thing to do is figure out what you want to get out of a trip. Are you interested in learning a specific skill, such as cooking, yoga, or how to speak a foreign language? Or are you excited about a certain city or region and want a more in-depth experience of that place? Decide whether you want to take a class or go on a tour.
  • Assess your comfort needs: Educational travel can range from budget-friendly stays in tents or standard hotels to luxury experiences. You should think both about what levels of comfort you need and what levels of comfort you can afford. You should also find out what amenities are included in the package price; for instance, some tours do not include airfare or airport transfers. You may be able to afford more or less luxury depending on how much extra you’ll need to pay. Fortunately, companies often offer programs that cater to a variety of budgets. For example, Smithsonian has three levels of trips, from high-end excursions to mid-range “Members Choice” trips and value-oriented “Travel Adventures.”
  • Determine if potential itineraries suit you: When you’re looking at itineraries from various providers, ask yourself whether the schedule is what you really want. Can the tour be customized to your interests? Is the itinerary well thought out? Do you have enough time in each place, or does the itinerary feel rushed? Will you be working closely and staying with locals, or will you just visit with locals and then return to tourist hotels?
  • Inquire about group leaders: If you’re paying for an educational experience, you should make sure that group leaders and lecturers are top-notch. Ask your provider if leaders are experts, professors, or certified guides. You can also check whether a company hand selects its guides or contracts out to another company. If you’re studying at an institution, find out how highly regarded it is.
  • Ask for testimonials: Testimonials are especially important if you’re considering taking a class or tour from a small or international provider. Websites can be misleading, and you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised when you arrive. Most companies should be able to put you in contact with other English speakers who have been past participants so you can ask questions about how good a program was or what the real experience was like. Also, if a program is new or has not been in a country for a long time, it may still be working out the kinks, as opposed to well-established programs that have built up expertise and good reviews.

As you research the various educational opportunities available to you, a few resources can be quite helpful. Transitions Abroad is a company devoted to experiential international travel. Both its magazine and website list providers, as well as feature articles about educational travel around the world. Schwarz says that authors are very happy to give advice to readers who are planning similar vacations and have questions.

The Shaw Guides also list providers for several types of educational vacations. And, Travel and Learn by Evelyn Kaye lists hundreds of learning vacations, complete with trip descriptions and some testimonials. There are not many other general resources, but once you have a better sense of what kind of travel experience you want, you can contact alumni travel organizations (even for universities you did not attend), affinity magazines or groups, or groups such as Elderhostel, which focus on senior travel but also have all-ages tours.

Tips for planning your own educational adventure

If you want the freedom of planning your own journey or don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for an organized tour, you can still have an educational experience on the road. You may have to trade spending time for spending money, but a little preplanning and research can go a long way to creating a memorable trip. Here are a few tips for a do-it-yourself educational vacation.

  • Do your research: You can educate yourself before you go, so you’ll have a deeper understanding of your destination when you finally arrive. You can find history books about an area, or if that’s too dry, pick up a novel that is set in the area you plan on visiting. Guidebooks not only tell you what attractions are in or near an area, but they often have history and culture sections that will give you a better sense of a place. Armchair travel books will let you in on other travelers’ experiences.
  • Arrange homestays: One way to get a crash course in another culture is to live with a family abroad or even in another U.S. city. You can look up homestay organizations in the area you wish to visit, or try Servas, whose mission is to work for peace by creating friendships.
  • Seek out living history: Experiencing history is often more fun and educational than falling asleep over a textbook. Many historical areas offer reenactments or living history attractions, such as those at Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation. Or, you can look for tours of old homes or mansions that often give a firsthand look at life in a certain place at a certain time.
  • Follow your interests: If you are interested in a particular subject, there’s a good chance you’ll find fellow enthusiasts all over the world. You can contact branches of clubs or affinity groups in the city you’re visiting and try to attend a meeting or get the inside scoop from people who share your interest. For example, Judith Waite Allee, coauthor of Educational Travel on a Shoestring is a member of Toastmasters, and she and her husband enjoy attending Toastmasters meetings in other cities. It’s an instant connection with locals who can then give you insider advice on where to go or what to do next.
  • Explore your personal history: A place will be more meaningful to you if you have some personal connection to it. If your family has roots in another country or city, you can plan an educational journey that takes you back to where your ancestors lived and worked. Just strolling down an old street can be an intense experience once you realize that you may be walking in your family members’ footsteps.

As long as you’re mindful about learning all that you can about a place and interacting with the local people and culture, you’re bound to have a trip that is both educational and memorable. And while you’re having fun immersing yourself in a destination, you’ll realize that you have blossomed from a run-of-the-mill tourist to a real traveler.

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