Pandemic-era lockdowns ushered in the rise of “travel experiences” — or meaningful, purpose-driven activities that take a deeper, and often slower, dive into a destination.
It’s not enough to simply go to a place anymore; many want to learn about it and be mentally transformed along the way.
If that sounds like a tall order for a summer getaway, the luxury travel company Virtuoso asked 20,000 of its travel advisors to share their top experiences for 2024.
Here are the nine “must-have” experiences that topped the list.
1. Dark sky tourism
While traditional tourism focuses on filling the daylight hours with activities, dark-sky tourism is all about the nights.
The focus is on the wonders of the night sky — from stargazing to seeing the Northern Lights, although trips can include tours to see nocturnal animals too.
Virtuoso recommends trips to Norway, Iceland and Canada, while noting that travelers who like warmer weather can see the total solar eclipse on April 8 in Northern Mexico.
From Blanco, Texas to Albanya, Spain, travelers can also check out one of 200 places in 22 countries that have been designated as a “Dark Sky Place” by the non-profit organization DarkSky International.
2. ‘Slow’ safaris
Safaris top many travelers’ bucket lists, but they shouldn’t be too fixated on finding the “Big Five” — like the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and African buffalo.
“Slow safaris” focus on the full array of animal life and landscapes of Africa, “providing the ideal counterbalance to the more adrenaline-inducing wildebeest migration and lion hunts,” according to Virtuoso.
“Slow safaris offer the opportunity to enjoy some of the less stealthy wildlife of Africa and at a more relaxing pace,” said Misty Belles, the company’s vice president of global public relations. “From birdwatching to seeing what our guide deemed the ultimate spotting — an aardvark — successful safaris can extend beyond the Big Five.”
3. Wellness as a way of life
Wellness destinations are everywhere, but Virtuoso recommends escaping stress in “the happiest country in the world or the Land of Smiles” — respectively, Bhutan or Thailand.
Bhutan’s famous Gross National Happiness, or GNH, index measures the population’s collective happiness and well-being. Enacted in 2008, it is a major driving force behind the country’s tourism and economic policies.
It’s also less expensive to visit following the country’s temporary halving of its daily $200 Sustainable Development Fee.
As for Thailand, Virtuoso advisors recommend “well-known areas like Chiang Mai and Koh Samui” as well as more secluded spots.
The InterContinental Khao Yai Resort is one example. Located 2.5 hours from Bangkok, its spa and rooms are fashioned inside luxury upcycled railroad carriages near the UNESCO-designated Khao Yai National Park.
4. The seasons of Japan
Japan Rail Pass, the fastest-growing travel website in the United States, won’t help travelers explore North America — but it will get them around Japan by train.
The website had the largest increase in average monthly traffic (+239%) from 2022 to 2023 among American users, highlighting rising interest to visit among international visitors, according to the data analytics company, Similarweb.
Virtuoso notes the popularity of visiting Japan in the springtime, when the Sakura, or cherry blossoms, bloom in places like Kyoto and Kanazawa. But company advisors also ask that travelers consider a winter visit “when ski season is in full swing and Mount Fuji’s summit is blanketed in snow.”
5. Expedition cruises
Expedition cruises have been called the “breakout travel trend of the decade.”
They have the convenience of a cruise ship but operate on smaller vessels with fewer people.
Popular for places from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands, expedition cruises often have experts onboard, such as historians and geologists, and cater to people looking for an added element of adventure.
“People crave adventure … there is a certain amount of romanticism here which harks back to the time of great explorers like Hillary, Cousteau and Shackleton.”
6. Paris to Istanbul, via train
There are many ways to travel between the French capital of Paris and Istanbul in Turkey, which sits at the crossroads between Asia and Europe.
But perhaps none as luxurious — and pricey — as aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, A Belmond Train.
The train operates shorter trips, many lasting just one to two nights, in Europe, but only one journey per year take passengers from Paris to Istanbul.
Departing in August, Virtuoso recommends travelers first take in the Olympic Games before departing the city in style.
7. Passion travels
Hobbies may be associated with the home, but Virtuoso recommends taking your passions on the road.
A new company called Dinosaur Trips lets enthusiasts travel with paleontologist Brian Curtice to dig for bones and explore fossil sites across the United States.
“These trips are the stuff of a paleontology fan’s dreams,” said Curtice, adding that trips include an “astounding displays of dinosaurs, mammals, marine reptiles, pterosaurs, fish … a who’s who and what’s what of paleontological marvels.”
8. Escape to a private island
Charting a private island is the ultimate secluded holiday, says Virtuoso.
But you don’t have to book the entire isle to get a similar stay.
From Bawah Reserve in Indonesia’s remote Riau Islands to Panama’s The Resort at Isla Palenque, private island stays are for those who want to get away from it all, to a destination where sandy paths replace roads and private villas take the place of a traditional hotel.
9. Food festivals and private tours
Culinary tours aren’t new, yet they offer a window into a culture’s past and present.
Virtuoso recommends exploring Peruvian cuisine at the Mistura Food Festival, or checking out the street food of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Cooking classes and food tourism with guides like Mexico City’s The Curious Mexican, can directly support the local population too.