Meaningful and Immersive Travel Experiences

There are a lot of problems with traveling: Social problems of escaping your own culture and exploiting others. Environmental problems of using carbon intense means of travel and putting pressure on wild landscapes for our recreational benefit. Financial problems of it being just so darn expensive and unsustainable. But if you really want to travel (as I usually do) at least do it in a meaningful and immersive way. Below are experiences I would suggest for a person on any budget to have the most rewarding travel experiences possible.

WWOOF and other work exchanges

If you are more about the rural flavor, check out World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Most countries in the world have WWOOF sites, where farmers take in volunteers and feed them in exchange for help on the farms. This is a great way to get to know a family, learn somethings about farming, and find places off the beaten path. But be certain to do your research. Different farms offer very different experiences. Some places are only looking for people seriously pursuing farming to stay on as interns for months while others are open to any travelers even for very short stays. Some farms you find yourself working very closely with and spending your free-time with your host, while others are more hands-off and you work and live more independently.  Do your research and know what you’re getting into including how many hours you are expected to work. I had two fantastic experiences WWOOFing in Spain. I was warmly welcomed into both of the families who hosted me.

If you’re more architectural than agricultural, try POOSHing. I don’t know what exactly the acronym stands for, but it is basically WWOOF but for natural building like straw bale and earth brick homes, instead of organic farms.

These are a few other sites that have been referred to me by friends. These will help you find ways to earn your stay and ways to engage with locals while traveling:

Here’s a list of other work exchange opportunities put together by another author. With all of these situations you need to be purposeful about the experiences you choose. Working in a hostel could be very fun, but you are going to spent more time with other foreigners than with locals, and you’re probably not going to get very much sleep. Another thing to be aware of is the odd hostel boss or farm owner that may take unfair advantage of the free labor offered in these programs. Make sure you are clear about what is expected of you, and that you feel safe and confident in the situation. Be prepared to work hard, but not so hard it’s unfair.


This one is for all you globe trotting permies out there. I have not personally used Numundo, but I heave heard very good things. This website is a resource to find top notch “transformational travel experiences.” These sites are like verified and more formal WWOOF, POOSH, and yoga retreat sites, and many of them offer not only work exchanges but also more structured programs like courses and internships. In addition to being a database for these opportunities, Numundo also provides what looks to be travel consulting, where they help you choose the perfect experience for you (for a fee, of course). The sites look amazing, but be aware you aren’t always working with locals for some of these permaculture demonstration sites and yoga centers. Often times foreigners will settle in these exotic and inspiring locations. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of. At many of these sites you may be learning lots of neat skills in wonderful environments, but with other foreigners in the distinct hippy culture of the site, not necessarily the mainstream culture of the country or area you are visiting.

Sofar Concerts IMG_6126

I am passionately in love with Sofar. Sofar stands for “Songs from a Room,” and it is an organization that seeks create intimate music experiences really focused on the music. It is all run by volunteers. A volunteer offers up their home or space, musicians volunteer to play, and volunteers organize the event. How it works is you sign up and you are notified of the concerts happening in 268 cities around the world, and you can sign up for anyone of them. Hopefully you get a spot, then the exact address of the concert is emailed to you 24 hours before the show, and you don’t know who is playing until you show up. It is an awesome way to discover local bands at home or abroad AND it’s pay what you can! Technically, the events are free, but they request a donation, and I think this organization has more than earned your spare change. I have been to several Sofar concerts around the world, and in my experience there is always at least one band at each show that really wow’s me.  Check it out:

Study Abroad with host stays

If you’re still in student mode try studying abroad. While nice packaged programs living at Universities may sounds appealing, I implore you to seek out opportunities that put you with host families and in local organizations. If all the locals you interact with are your fellow university students you are only interacting with a small elite section of society. Living in a dorm with other foreigners can be fun, but it’s a very different experience from living under the roof and rules of another family. There is so much to learn studying abroad outside of academia. Find a list of scholarships (mostly for American students) below to help facilitate your study abroad:

High school

NSLI for Youth

Youth Exchange and Study

Congress-Bundestag Exchange

Youth For Understanding Scholarships



Critical Language Scholarships


Slow Travel

Allowing more time in each place allows for much deeper understanding of the landscape and local culture, and maybe even the opportunity to start learning a new language. While a whirlwind week through Europe’s most famous cities will give you many photos to brag with, two months in one city visiting the obscure spots and nearby towns will allow for more relationship building and personal growth. Often you only start understanding a new culture after six months, after the mood swings of culture shocks have subsided. It may not sound so exciting, but allowing yourself to be bored in a new place can lead you to find really cool new opportunities and experiences you never would have planned on a short tightly scheduled trip.

If you want to hit all the spots, try moving between them more slowly with an alternative mode of transportation. If you choose through-hiking, sailing, biking or other non-fossil fuel modes of transport you are relieving some of the most significant sources environmental pressure in your travel. The Art of Free Travel by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman is very high on my to-read list. This family biked across Australia foraging for most of their food for 400 days! They inspire me. Even bus or train travel can be a less carbon intensive way of slowing your travel.

That is my list! It isn’t exhaustive by any means. There are so many ways to be more than just a tourist, and have better more fulfilling travel experiences. Feel free to comment with more suggestions!

You may have been surprised not to see a list item about volunteering abroad. I am personally very suspicious of programs that make you pay to volunteer abroad. Poverty tourism is becoming more and more popular, and while it can help bring money to poor populations it can also be very exploitative, even if you have the best intentions about learning about and helping those less fortunate than you. Realistically, you can not make a significant difference if your only visiting short term. Many organizations in developing countries are forced to put more resources into making foreign “volunteers” comfortable than actually supporting their target populations. You might end up doing more harm than good.  Of course, everyone should volunteer if they are able to, but consider a longer term program like the Peace Corps or finding an organization that needs help once you are in the country and understand the situation on the ground.

Clearly, I’ve caught the bug with this latest round of travel focused posts. But I argue it is all related. This is my Fulbright blog, and the whole objective of Fulbright is international education exchange, so there you go! If you feel you must travel, travel smart and learn while you do it. And expect a travel critical post in the future.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I really loved this! My first time hearing about Numundo and Sofar but will definitely check them out. And thanks for linking my post here 🙂


  2. Zander Pellegrino says:


    On Wed, Aug 24, 2016 at 11:32 PM, Starr and Jupiter, Strong and Free wrote:

    > starrbrainard posted: “There are a lot of problems with traveling: Social > problems of escaping your own culture and exploiting others. Environmental > problems of using carbon intense means of travel and putting pressure on > wild landscapes for our recreational benefit. Financial ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. paulazhang25 says:

    Hey! I’m a fellow NSLIY alum and I love your blog, especially this post. Thank you for calling out the ways that travel, especially voluntourism, can be exploitative and damaging to the environment. I feel like a lot of people i encounter are not really cognizant of these factors, so it’s really refreshing seeing you talk about it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! As a travel junkie and environmentalist I think about this often and am glad to hear at least one of my peers are on the same page. Hopefully I’ll find the time to write a longer post on this topic soon!

      Liked by 1 person

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