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7 Ways to Travel the World From Home, Virtually

Use a VR device, PC, smartphone or tablet to explore locations across the globe

spinner image a woman with virtual reality glasses and the new york city skyline
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Getty Images(2))

Although a lot of people think that virtual reality (VR) is just for video games, the technology can provide older adults with ways to immerse themselves in destinations worldwide without leaving home or paying for an expensive vacation.

Think of it as National Geographic leaping off the page or a travel TV show where you decide what you want to look at.

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From the most remote corners of the Earth all the way to Mars, you can see and in some cases hear countless cities, nature preserves and national landmarks through immersive 360-degree views on your computer, smartphone, tablet or VR headset. While a virtual visit may not replicate physical reality entirely, it does provide an opportunity to explore destinations you haven’t visited yet or places where you’d rather not haul your suitcase.

The best part: Most of these experiences are free. Discover some of the destinations that await.

1. Experience America’s national parks

spinner image photo of the hawaiian volcano kilauea erupting as seen form above
Kilauea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the big island is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
COURTESY GOOGLE ARTS AND CULTURE

You don’t need to worry about the weather at these five national parks if you visit them through Google Arts & Culture.

An especially awe-inspiring tour features Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see videos of Kilauea erupting, go inside a lava tube and enjoy a 360-degree view of a rainforest, all guided by a park ranger. The series also explores the Dry Tortugas in Florida, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Yosemite in California.

2. Explore the mysteries of Stonehenge in England

spinner image screenshot of stonehenge virtual tour showing the sunrise in the distance and several of the standing stones
Stonehenge was built in six stages over more than 1,500 years, archaeologists say. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
COURTESY ENGLISH-HERITAGE.ORG

See the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, through a variety of lenses on this Skyscape site from English Heritage. There’s a representation of what the burial ground looked like before construction of Stonehenge began about 5,000 years ago and an account of its evolution through the millennia, as well as a skyscape that explains how the stones were aligned with the sun, moon and planets.

During the virtual tour, select the circular “hotspots” to watch a video about each tagged area. An interactive map provides an aerial view of the grounds, allowing you to learn the history of different locations from above.

You’ll also find lots of written information about this unique landmark.

3. Take a bite of the Big Apple

spinner image a skyline shot of the dumbo neighborhood in brooklyn
Brooklyn, New York’s Dumbo neighborhood, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, is one of more than two dozen 360-degree panoramics available to explore.
Getty Images

If wandering the streets of New York City sounds like a claustrophobic nightmare, you can experience loads of attractions through a screen. 

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ILoveNY360 is filled with iconic locations like the top deck of the Empire State Building and Times Square, as well as spots that mostly locals frequent, such as a community garden, convenience store and laundromat.

4. Walk through the Palace of Versailles in France

spinner image the hall of mirrors in the palace of versailles as seen from a virtual tour
You don’t have to strain your neck to look up at the ceiling frescos in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. When you check them out virtually, you can zoom in to see more detail than is available in person.
COURTESY GOOGLE ARTS AND CULTURE

Bring the home of Louis XIV into yours as you tour the Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera and royal residences at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. Navigate the same way you would another Google offering, Google Street View, using arrows to move around rooms and get closer to paintings, such as the 1683 ceiling fresco Figure of the Royal Magnificence, Immortality and Progress in the Fine Arts, by René-Antoine Houasse.

If you click on the info tags, you can learn more about each highlighted object. The controls are a little wonky, and you certainly don’t get the feeling of opulence and grandeur you’d get in person. But for housebound Francophiles, the tour is a nice next-best kind of visit.

5. Fly over the Taj Mahal in India

spinner image stunning overhead shot of the taj mahal in india showing the view from the northwest
AirPano received rare permission to use its helicopter, outfitted with a panoramic camera, to fly above the Taj Mahal.
COURTESY AIRPANO

Because of strict security measures, it took months of paperwork and pleading with Indian authorities before photographers affiliated with AirPano, a Moscow-based photography group, were allowed to capture these aerial images of the Taj Mahal. Only birds flying over the iconic mausoleum had witnessed these breathtaking views — until now.

Listen to Indian music while you use your cursor for a click-and-drag exploration of the massive structure. To move to a different bird’s-eye view, sift through the pictures on the right side of the screen or click through the circles on the bottom.

You can even find details about the photographers’ long quest for access to the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The AirPano site also has cool, relaxing videos of gorgeous spots like the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Tokyo, which is viewed from above at night.

6. Go around the world on educational tours

spinner image screenshot of a free road scholar webinar on the history of the vikings
The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Palatine Chapel, one of many in the Norman Palace in Palermo, Sicily, dates from the 12th century.
COURTESY ROAD SCHOLAR

These aren’t really virtual vacations, but they’re a taste of what you’d experience on a trip with Road Scholar, the nonprofit educational tour company for travelers 50 and older.

It offers a series of prerecorded and live online “virtual learning” sessions on Zoom focusing on different sites around the globe. Discussions have covered everything from the Italian Renaissance, with Elaine Ruffolo, an art historian, to Native American cuisine, with Lois Ellen Frank, a Santa Fe chef and Native American food historian.

The lecturers — the same experts travelers might hear on a Road Scholar trip to Italy or the American Southwest — take questions in a Q&A session following their talks, which are available to stream after the live event, too. Some are free; others are nearly $400 for multiple-day online programs.

7. Grab a VR headset for more immersion

These platforms offer tours optimized for VR headsets. However, some may require specific headsets or, alternatively, may be accessed via PC or mobile devices.

Brink Traveler. At $14.99, Brink Traveler takes users to 44 natural wonders in 28 locations from Iceland to South Korea in an ultra-realistic and fully immersive experience. It supports solo travel as well as exploration with friends or family members via its multiplayer option. For those without a VR headset, Brink Traveler provides an augmented reality experience for users with Apple or Android phones and tablets.

Google Earth VR. This free app allows users to explore freely or choose from curated tours of famous landmarks. Search for specific locations and even “take a stroll” down the street in more than 85 countries. If you don’t have a VR headset, stick with Google Earth for your virtual travels.

National Geographic VR. For $9.99, National Geographic VR allows you to kayak around icebergs in Antarctica or journey through Machu Picchu in Peru. This interactive experience is great for fans of history and photography. However, it is only available on Meta Quest VR headsets.

YouTube VR. Explore a variety of 180- and 360-degree videos on YouTube through its Virtual Reality channel. Here, you can find curated playlists that allow users to experience skydiving, explore popular travel destinations or even immerse themselves in a Mario Bros. video game. These features are supported on all devices that can stream YouTube.

This article, originally published April 7, 2020, has been updated with new information.

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