If you love to travel—but sometimes wish you had access to more in-depth information about your locations than a guidebook or perky tour guide can offer —you might want to consider what’s known as a “learning vacation.”
These trips combine U.S. or international travel with actual classes. Depending on the hosting organization and length of your trip, you can enjoy up to college-level-quality seminars in art, architecture, natural history, and more. You can also take skill-based classes such as photography, cooking, or horseback riding.
Some of the organizations that specialize in adult learning vacations include Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), The Smithsonian Institution, college alumni associations, and other private organizations.
Learning vacations include many different components you’ll want to explore before you book your trip. Here are some good questions to ask travel organizations—and yourself—before you make a down payment on an educational vacation.
How Do You Get Started?
Be honest with yourself: Choose a topic you’re passionate about, or the trip may feel too long or too expensive. If you’re unsure, ask yourself a few questions:
- What subjects or skills intrigued you when you were younger?
- What class do you regret not taking when you were in school?
- If you could have switched careers, what field might you have explored?
- What topics do you read about now, or tend to research online?
What’s the Physical Activity Level?
Many learning vacations aren’t your typical “get on a bus and be shuttled around” types of trips. You might have to climb stairs or navigate rocky terrain to get to a waterway. Be frank with yourself and the tour company about your fitness level. You don’t want to end up being miserable on your trip if it’s too physically challenging.
Fortunately, learning vacation companies are usually very clear about the physical requirements for their trips, especially for tours that tend to attract older adults. Also, some tours specifically accommodate travelers who use walkers or wheelchairs.
Who Are the Expert Guides?
Former actors and gifted storytellers can make great guides for fairly basic trips. However, when you’re taking a true learning vacation, you’ll want to get information from actual experts. As such, tour leaders may include former and current college professors or skilled practitioners in their particular fields of study. The tour companies you’re considering should provide background information on your guides and teachers.
Who Are Your Fellow Travelers?
How large are the participant groups? Just as with regular classes, being part of a smaller group (about 30 participants or fewer) often is better for a learning vacation. You’ll have more chances to ask questions and get personalized guidance.
What Kinds of Travelers Does the Tour Tend to Attract?
If the travel organization can tell you, for instance, something about the average educational level of clients (college educated?), it may give you an idea of how in-depth the learning trip will be.
Do They Offer Intergenerational Trips?
To be fair, you may not want to take trips with your adult children and/or grandchildren—or other travelers’ younger family members. However, if a family trip appeals to you, check into learning vacations that cater specially to grandparents and grandchildren.
Tour companies also may offer primarily adult trips that welcome children (usually ages six and older) with an accompanying adult. Ask the tour operator for details on how they cater the trip’s learning sessions to different age groups.
Every learning tour is a bit different in terms of what is included. Check to see if the trips that interest you include airfare, all meals (or just some), and entry fees to museums, galleries, etc. You might want to ask about “flex plans,” too. These plans allow you to eat most of your meals with the tour group, but also to get away and explore local eateries on your own.
What Kinds of Accommodations Are Available?
Hotels/rooms can vary widely from trip to trip. Many organizations tend to book guests in luxury hotels. However, some trips may include stays in college residence halls. If you’re traveling alone and like your privacy, ask about the option of booking a single room, or if you want to cut costs, request a double room with a roommate.
Speaking of Finances, What Will It Cost?
Learning trip prices can vary widely according to time of year, location, length of trip, accommodations, and activities included. For example:
- A nine-day trip hiking the Cinque Terre in Italy, through Road Scholar, starts at $1,199 plus airfare.
- An eight-day intergenerational family tour of the Italian region of Tuscany through Smithsonian Journeys starts at $3,175 plus airfare.
- Harvard University’s Alumni Association offers seven nights aboard a luxury sailboat for a tour around the Italian island of Sicily starting at $8,995 plus airfare.
Perhaps surprisingly, some organizations may offer scholarships or sliding price scales for people on limited incomes. This can be very helpful if you’re on a tight budget. It also can mean your trip may include a more economically diverse group of travelers.
What Emergency Measures Does the Tour Company Offer?
You may want to check with the travel organization about whether they include services like emergency medical transportation (such as airlift by helicopter). This could be particularly important if you’ll be traveling to a remote location. You can also check with your own health insurance provider to see what kind of emergency coverage you already have when you travel.
If you’re not comfortable with your options, consider buying your own travel insurance for your trip. Do an online search for “travel insurance” and look for sites that compare policy costs and benefits for multiple insurance companies.
How Positive Are the Program’s Reviews?
Whenever you travel, it’s smart to check review sites like TripAdvisor.com or Yelp.com to read what past participants say about their experiences. These reviews could give you honest insights about the quality of the learning vacation company’s teachers, the educational backgrounds of other travelers, and more.
Always be wary of overly glowing reviews that tour company representatives may have placed. If you read reviews carefully, you can usually tell the difference between an actual review and one that’s being used to market the tour company.
Whatever organization or program you choose, pursuing lifelong learning—combined with travel—can be a great way to make new friends and gain new knowledge.
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