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Ready for an Adventure? First-Time Travel Tips From Travelers Who Stepped Out of Their Comfort Zones

Travelers dish on new experiences and creating memories

spinner image jimmy boylan scuba diving with his nine year old granddaughter rose
Jimmy Boylan, left, with his 9-year-old granddaughter, Rose.
Mike Papish/Care Dives, One Ocean Scuba/Courtesy Jimmy Boylan

As the pandemic wound down and the world reopened, many people sought new experiences. We gathered stories and tips from several older Americans who took on fresh adventures.

Scuba Diving

spinner image jimmy boylan of sterling heights michigan scuba diving to plant coral
Jimmy Boylan plants coral in the Florida Keys when he goes scuba diving.
Mike Papish/Care Dives, One Ocean Scuba/Courtesy Jimmy Boylan

Destination: Florida Keys

Traveler: Jimmy Boylan, 63, Sterling Heights, Michigan

I had thought at various times about scuba diving, but my wife thought it was dangerous. Then I learned about an organization called I.CARE, which uses recreational divers to plant coral to rebuild the reef in the Keys. My wife said, “Well, if you’re diving for something like this, I think we can go ahead with it.”

I worked with a local dive shop and began a 30-hour online course. It covers everything from safety steps to the sign language that divers use to talk to each other. Next was an open-water course — one day in a pool and two days in the ocean. I was amazed at the feeling of weightlessness as we swam a few feet over a reef. It’s a different world down there.

My first coral-planting dive was in February 2021. When I went in deeper water, it was a little unnerving to look down and see no bottom — just more water. But the satisfaction is immense. Once we start hammering and scraping and creating a disturbance, fish will often swim over to get any little worms that come out. On dives, I see goliath groupers, barracuda, eels, a variety of rays and a lot of grunts, as they’re called. Once a fish nipped at my hand as I worked.

It’s so fulfilling now to see coral that I planted and how much it’s grown. We may be a generation away from losing the Florida coral reef system, so I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing it for my kids and my grandkids. —As told to Ken Budd

First-timer tips

Get certified. In most circumstances, reputable dive businesses or organizations require certification, so check before you go and get the proper training. That training and practice is essential for first-timers. Look for certification programs from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors or Scuba Schools International.

Talk with your doctor. You need to be in good shape to dive. Start by getting a checkup.

Test your passion. Many dive shops offer half-day experiences in pools or shallow water, which is a great way to see if you enjoy diving. Look for dive shops that belong to PADI or SSI.

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Backcountry skiing

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Lorenzo Scala, left, went backcountry skiing in Norway.
Courtesy Lorenzo Scala

Destination: Norway

Traveler: Lorenzo Scala, 60, Ridgewood, New Jersey

I’m a good skier and have skied since I was 6. But I never skied backcountry before. There are no lifts or anything. I hiked up from our base for four to five hours to the summit of the mountain. I was immersed in nature. And then I skied down in untouched snow.

In Norway, we stayed in a small village, Lambhaug. It’s close to a big fjord. Every morning, we drove to a location and started backcountry skiing. Going down was harder than I thought, but it was exhilarating. My 19-year-old son, Luca, was the youngest in our group. He didn’t train for it, but he adjusted. I had trained for two months by hiking and running for 5 miles two or three times a week.

It’s something we will treasure together, a good bonding experience. I remember when I used to hike with my father in Italy. My father loved the mountains. And he would take us on these big hikes. I still have great memories of that. —As told to Michael Grant

First-timer tips

Practice snow safety. Being self-sufficient in every snow condition will help you navigate the terrain.

Choose an expert guide. It can make all the difference. Guides can help you find the best areas so you get the most out of your experience. They will also be skilled in avalanche awareness.

Traveling with a group

spinner image cathy council far left traveled with a group to buenos aires argentina
Cathy Council, far left, traveled with a group to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Luis Rizzatto/BRP Productora, Courtesy Cathy Council

Destination: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Traveler: Cathy Council, 51, White Plains, New York

I am not usually the type to go on vacation with people I don’t know. But last year, I completed the certification process to become a life and weight-loss coach. Six of us who were in an online cohort together decided to take a trip to Argentina as a graduation and meet-in-person gift to ourselves. One person lived in Argentina, and the rest of us came from various places in the United States.

In Buenos Aires, we had an 18-course meal. There wasn’t a menu; they just asked about allergies, presented each course with varying wines and explained the taste experience, from appetizers through to desserts. We also went to the spa and did a dinner show with authentic tango dancers.

From there, we flew to Mendoza, which is in wine country. We booked a modernized Airbnb with plenty of bedrooms, bathrooms and space, which made traveling with a group easier. The house was on a vineyard, and it came with a house manager who prestocked the fridge. He also came over every day with a chef to cook for us — absolutely amazing.

I feel changed by the trip. It was a great trust exercise to let someone create the experience for me. I ate and drank things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, we all might take another trip together next year. —As told to Maisy Fernandez

First-timer tips

Go for space. In the rental house, everyone had their own bedroom, and there were five bathrooms. “Everyone had the space to be alone if they needed it,” Council says.

Get charged up. A large group comes with a lot of devices, which can be a problem in more historic homes. “We made sure we would have outlets for all the things,” she says.

Put the phone down. “Be present with the group you’re with instead of continuously connecting with people at home,” Council says, adding that it enhanced her connection with her fellow travelers. “I wanted to be present and open to all the experiences that were available.”


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Vacationing by myself

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Sarah Grohmann traveled by herself to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Pietro Canali/Sime/eStock / PhotoDream Art Photography

Destination: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Traveler: Sarah Grohmann, 58, Surprise, Arizona

“Listen, Mom, all of us are OK. You need to start doing things that make you happy.” That was my kids after my husband died of pancreatic cancer in 2017 and I became a widow at 52. It took about three years, but I finally reached out to a travel agent and told her I’d like to go to an adults-only resort.

I’m an ocean person. You put me near the water, and I’m in my element. At the resort, every morning, I woke up to a view of the ocean. The best moments were sitting on the beach and feeling the waves crash on my feet. At the Marquis Los Cabos resort, I also ate good food, I relaxed, I went on a four-hour boat ride to the Arch of Cabo San Lucas — this unbelievable rock formation where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez.

And I met a lot of fun people. If I wanted to hang out with people, I’d go to the pool. Otherwise, I’d enjoy my room’s plunge pool and read.

This trip was exactly what I thought it would be — so serene and beautiful. I’ve started making a bucket list of all the places my husband and I wanted to go. I just recently got back from another trip at an all-inclusive resort in St. Lucia, and I went alone again. Now I’m planning a trip to Belize. One morning in Mexico I thought, I’m really proud of myself for getting outside of my comfort zone and living my life and not letting my loss control me. It was liberating. —K.B.

First-timer resort tips

Book early. Resorts generally take reservations up to a year in advance. The benefits of early booking may include more choices, lower rates and smaller deposits.

Ask about packages. Travel agents can often access land-air bundles that can help you save money.

Know what’s covered. “All-inclusive” isn’t necessarily so. Motorized watersports equipment and golf are usually extra. Some resorts also have additional charges for amenities such as cabanas and fitness classes.

Taking a two-week vacation

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Erika Wright, center right, went on a two-week vacation to Las Vegas, far left, and Whistler, British Columbia.
Courtesy Erika Wright, Kav Dadfar/SOPA/eStock, Christian Horan Photography

Destinations: British Columbia and Las Vegas

Traveler: Erika Wright, 51, Orlando, Florida

I’m a sports agent, and I work a lot. Leaving for a long time gives me anxiety. But for my son’s 21st birthday, we wanted to spend more time together. So we went with my 19-year-old daughter, my best friend and her daughter, and my son’s best friend for eight days in Whistler, British Columbia — my son is an avid skier — followed by seven days in Las Vegas.

Whistler is breathtakingly beautiful. I connected with nature; I connected with who I was. It was so peaceful. I had time to roast marshmallows with my kids. Normally, I’d be stressed out and trying to get work done.

In Las Vegas, we did the whole touristy thing, like going to see the different hotels. My kids loved speed racing; you rent cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis and drive them on a track. My son was, like, “That was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

We bonded as a family more on this trip. I felt less stressed because I didn’t feel rushed. You don’t have a clock running. Doing that together was special to me as a mom. —K.B.

First-timer tips

Don’t overschedule. You don’t want to need a vacation after your vacation.

Spend some time apart. Because time was plentiful, Wright and her family felt comfortable doing their own thing at times, then reconnecting as a group later.

Taking a long RV trip

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The campground in Burnet, Texas, where Sally and Joe Purchase spent two and a half months.
Robert Gomez / Courtesy Sally Purchase

Destination: Near Austin, Texas

Traveler: Sally Purchase, 59, Muskegon, Michigan

The recreational vehicle was my husband’s idea. His parents went RVing when they retired and loved it. So we bought a used, 36-foot-long fifth-wheel trailer in the summer of 2022 and a used Ford F-350 to tow it. The RV’s interior was brown. I’m an art teacher, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy living in a brown tube, so I got new furniture and painted the inside with a gray-blue-white color scheme. Once I spruced it up, I was happy.

We decided to visit Texas for our first trip, and we’d drive each day until we got tired. The first day we made it to southern Illinois. We parked overnight in a Walmart parking lot, but something was wrong with the propane, so there was no heat. We stayed in a hotel instead.

The next night we made it to Little Rock. Some of the roads in Arkansas were really bumpy. We hit a few potholes, and the wall over the axle on the inside and outside of the camper got cracked. We need to make that repair now that we’re home.

In Texas, we stayed for two and a half months in a campground in Burnet, about an hour outside of Austin. It had a great community of people and events: game nights, craft nights and a Super Bowl party.

What surprised me most was that living in such a small space wasn’t that difficult. I was worried that we would get on each other’s nerves, but it was fine. We spent a lot of time outside. I think one of the keys is not to bring too much stuff and to have a spot for everything, so you don’t live in chaos in such a tight space. But when we got back home, after so long in an RV, our house felt like a mansion. —K.B.

First-timer tips

Practice at home. To get a feel for the vehicle, Purchase and her husband drove the RV locally and on short trips before embarking on their multistate adventure. Backing up was the biggest challenge, so her husband practiced in a church parking lot.

Buy used. Purchase estimates that they saved roughly $40,000 by buying a used RV instead of a new one. But be cautious: Some campgrounds don’t allow RVs that have passed the 10-year mark.

Find a free spot. Many places — including a lot of Cracker Barrel restaurants and some Walmart stores — let you park overnight for free, but getting a spot can be competitive, so if possible, go early, Purchase advises.

In South America

spinner image a waterfall on the galapagos islands inset traveler amy shir
Amy Shir, left, traveled to the Galápagos Islands to see the blue-footed boobies.
Manfred Gottschalk/Getty Images, Courtesy Amy Shir

Destination: Galápagos Islands

Traveler: Amy Shir, 60, Louisville, Kentucky

When I was 6 or 7, I looked at a children’s book about Charles Darwin and the animals he saw on the Galápagos Islands. In the book were these photos of blue-footed boobies, which captured my imagination. It was the color of their feet, the mating dance and seeing something so unusual. For decades, I wanted to see these animals, and I also wanted to see the mating dance. I purposely did not watch the blue-footed boobies dance online because I wanted a fresh experience when I finally saw them in person.

I went to the Galápagos Islands on a tour with my husband, Kyung. We were married in December 2021, but I had planned this trip before I knew our wedding date. It just worked out that this ended up being our honeymoon.

It was the most expensive trip I’ve ever taken by far, and it was worth every penny. It was a very active tour where you hike, you kayak, you snorkel, and they have these naturalists who teach you so much about the animals and their habitats.

Not only did I see blue-footed boobies, I saw the mating dance! You watch the male circling, flapping its wings and dancing around the female. This is a close-up experience; we were within 6 feet. You stand around and wait until the female does her big squawk to say that she has chosen her mate. And everybody cheered when she did that because he worked really hard. —M.G.

First-timer tips

Be sun-smart. The sun’s rays are strong around the equator. So bring lightweight, breathable protective clothing. And don’t forget eco-friendly “reef-safe” sunscreen.

Go with a naturalist. This was a fun trip, but there was plenty to learn. A naturalist can teach you about the islands and the environment.

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