Transformational travel. It sounds blissful, doesn’t it? The words conjure images of exotic, far-flung locales and experiences so transcendent that you’ll return forever changed; a better, more fulfilled person with a deeper understanding of the world and of life itself. Who wouldn’t pack their bags at the mere mention of “transformational travel”?

Perhaps that’s why the term has popped up with more and more regularity in the luxury travel industry over the last couple of years. Showing up in many high-end travel and lifestyle publications and websites, the idea of transformational travel has become quite in vogue. But is it a new travel concept or just slick packaging by the travel marketing industry? Is it even new? And more importantly, what is it anyway?

According to the Transformational Travel Council, a group formed in 2016 to help others experience this type of travel, transformational travel (TT) is “any travel experience that empowers people to make meaningful, lasting changes in their life”. They liken TT to a real life version of the archetypical Hero’s Journey plot structure where the protagonist (you) heeds the call to adventure, traveling into the unknown where you face challenging experiences that provide profound revelation and subsequent transformation, before returning home to resume everyday life – presumably as a changed person.

TT differs from experiential, immersion and bespoke travel – three other travel trends that have become fashionable over recent years. How you ask? Wikipedia describes experiential and immersion travel as the same thing, specifically a “form of tourism where people focus on a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture.” (Source: Wikipedia). This kind of travel is characterized by immersion in local traditions, food, history and nature – essentially experiencing as much of the native lifestyle of your chosen destination as possible rather than say booking into an all-inclusive hotel and never leaving. Bespoke travel on the other hand, takes immersion travel up a notch. While it also focuses on highly local experiences, it “refers to an upscale form of travel in which a trip is specifically designed for a client”. (Source: Wisegeek)

These other forms of travel are different to TT – which is often touted as an evolution of immersion and experiential travel – because they omit the transformation part. In other words, you do all of the same things, but you don’t necessarily come back changed. Or maybe you are changed (after all, every experience changes us in at least some small way, right?), but you don’t make any real life changes upon your return as a result of it.

One could argue that transformational travel is indeed nothing new. While it’s true that many tourists do not truly gain all that they could from their travel experiences, staying in their own cultural bubble as they merely see but don’t really experience a foreign place, true travelers have always been engaging in transformative travel. For many travelers, experiencing as much of the local life as possible or plunging themselves into the natural landscape is the entire point of going somewhere new. And while they might not really think of it as transformational, that change is happening whether they are fully aware of it or not, because observing and experiencing how other people live for even a few days inherently changes our perspective on things. It’s almost impossible for it not to.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to truly immerse oneself in another culture as a tourist. We’ve all met that one person (or more) who spent a week somewhere and are now the expert on what it means to live there. As if you can go to Fiji, drink some kava, hike in a jungle, snorkel a reef and know what it means to be Fijian, or even spend an extended period in Italy visiting museums and learning authentic Italian cooking and think you fully understand Italian culture.

Travel is about exposure to new places, new people, and new ways of thinking. How deep that exposure is or how transformative depends entirely on you. All travel is experiential and can be transformational – if you think about it, even a spa weekend can be transformative if you return refreshed and with a new perspective on your everyday life. But if you’re looking for life-changing travel ideas, here are some once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences that might just do the trick.

Natural Wonders

Discover the beauty of our planet and the diverse ecosystems and animals that inhabit it. From gorilla treks in Rwanda to a Serengeti safari, navigating the fjords of Norway to outback driving to Australia’s Uluru and everything in between, there are so many natural wonders to see. Trekking in Patagonia, exploring the Grand Canyon, watching the sunrise from the top of Mt Sinai: the list is endless.

Cultural Exploration

These types of trips are ideal for history buffs or those with a keen interest in a specific culture. From themed tours of historic war sites to a whirlwind of European art galleries to exotic adventure trips like touring the Amazon jungle to glimpse the remote village life of the Amazonian people, or experiencing life in an ashram with a yoga retreat in India, there is a huge range of cultural expeditions across the globe to be undertaken.

Volunteer

Combining philanthropy and the experience of a new country can have a profound impact on your life. Not only do you get to see firsthand how another culture lives, you get to help make their world a little better. You can help communities build schools and houses in places like Nepal, Costa Rica and Guatemala with programs such as Build Abroad, help with wild elephant conservation in Sri Lanka or sea turtle conservation in Bali with International Volunteer HQ or become a Peace Corp volunteer and choose from work across agriculture, health, community economic development, education and environment.

Culinary Odyssey

Taste your way around different regions of your chosen country or visit multiple countries to learn more about how they create their food. Learn the intricacies of dishes from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and the differences between them with a cooking tour. Visit a traditional olive mill in Greece or discover how Cava wine is grown and made only in Catalonia. Or simply head to the street markets of every city you visit and sample what’s on offer. Culinary tours can be much more than just cooking classes, especially when you team up with local tour guides and operators for truly local experiences.

Test Yourself

Whether it’s on land, underwater or flying through the air, there are a number of ways to test your limits and push yourself further physically. From trekking expeditions in the Himalayas to climbing Denali or Kilimanjaro, to heli-skiing in Canada or hiking the Inca Trail, to scuba diving or learning to surf in the South Pacific, there are so many ways to combine world exploration with personal challenge.

At the end of the day, there are many different reasons for travel. Some of us travel for cultural experiences, some travel to experience nature, some just to be somewhere different – to get away and enjoy some R&R. There’s a place for all kinds of travel, both of the transformational and non-transformational variety. Sometimes you just want to go to Las Vegas to eat some good food, take in a show and play black jack. Other times, you trek to Mt Everest base camp to experience self-growth. It doesn’t have to be an either or.

So how about we forget the labels and just go back to traveling.