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First-hand experiences open the world to travelers

Now more than ever, travelers are relying on trips to help them disconnect from their devices and reconnect with the world around them, their loved ones and ultimately, themselves. “Your experience and perspective expands the more you travel. There’s no greater gift,” said New York-based Frank Albanese, an avid traveler who visited New Brunswick, Canada with his wife Kelly Patrick in 2018.

From up-close animal encounters and insider cultural experiences to deep dives into history and food, immersive travel around the globe is a specialty of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) and its active member companies. From small group journeys to bespoke individual trips, guests travel at a pace that’s comfortable for them and tailored to their unique interests. Here’s a look at recent trips these avid travelers embarked on to help you decide on your next destination.

Exhilarating experiences

Swimming beneath a massive whale shark, the world’s largest fish, is something Jessica Greenberg will never forget. “Of the whole trip, that experience stands out the most,” she said of the encounter off the coast in the Philippines, documented by a professional photographer. She and her husband Josh had plans to volunteer on a medical mission in the island nation, but they decided to engage USTOA-member SITA World Tours to plan their itinerary at the last minute, hoping to maximize the trip. Without the agency’s insider knowledge of local adventure opportunities, they might have missed it.

“We didn’t know about the whale shark diving,” Josh said of their 12-day trip, during which they visited the beaches of El Nido, paddled down an underground river in Princessa and toured Cebu. “They suggested and booked it, plus canyoneering and some island hopping. It was nice to have a plan and not worry about anything.”


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On their mother-and-son trip to the Cook Islands, Laurel and Jared Trimble encountered their own gentle giant: an enormous sea turtle their guide brought on board the private boat for a quick photo op during a bonefishing tour before returning it to its home. “To be there on that lagoon, whether its fishing or digging for crabs or swimming in the water, is my absolute favorite,” Laurel said of the crystal blue water as far as the eye could see. The pair flew halfway around the world on a custom six-day tour planned by Goway Travel, settling into Aitutaki, one of the pristine islands in the tiny South Pacific nation. Even in such a remote place, they had peace of mind from 24/7 support. “Our clients have the security of knowing they’ve got a company backed by USTOA who will have the clients’ back no matter what. Someone’s always looking out for them,” explained Bronwyn Hodge, Goway Travel’s general manager in charge of the region.

For travelers on Abercrombie & Kent’s Classical Japan tour, seeing sumo wrestlers battle it out in the dohyō ring was just one highlight of their whirlwind nine-day adventure which included stops in Tokyo, Hakone, Osaka and Kyoto. The physicality of the match was breathtaking, but learning the history behind Japan’s national sport — which began as a ritual to pray for a plentiful rice crop — was just as thrilling. “I didn’t have any background in Japan or Japanese history, so I’m learning everything new it seems,” said Chicago-based Janice Boehm, who shared the experience with her friend Madonna Carsello.

Insider knowledge 

Though New Brunswick was just one short time zone hop for Syracuse, N.Y.-based couple Albanese and Patrick, a trip to the picturesque Canadian Maritime province offered the opportunity to experience another world of nature along the Bay of Fundy, which boasts the world’s highest tides. Since their intimate Country Walkers group spent their days exploring the rugged coastline on foot, they experienced nuances like spotting some of the region’s migratory birds and bald eagles, walking inside sea caves carved by the 160 billion tons of water flowing in and out daily from the Atlantic Ocean, and learning about the diverse cultural landscape. The USTOA-member tour company, which creates tours around the world, prides itself on top-notch guides.

“Having knowledgeable local guides is amazing, because they’re able to bring an area alive,” said Jamen Yeaton-Masi, vice president of product and operations for Country Walkers, who’s Bay of Fundy tour included visits to Campobello Island, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt once vacationed; St. Martins and the Fundy Trail Parkway; and St. Andrews by-the-Sea, one of the oldest seaside resort towns in Canada’s Maritimes. At each stop, surprise elements such as private performances by folk musicians and fresh seafood from boutique purveyors made it even more special for the 15 tour guests, who hailed from around the United States.

In Japan, where language and cultural differences could have been a stumbling block, experienced tour directors made sure every detail was seamless and easy, from reservations at five-star hotels and an exclusive ryokan (traditional inn) to a traditional kaiseki banquet with entertainment by a geisha and visits to ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. “You do things with them that you wouldn’t be able to do on your own,” said Boehm, who had been on several previous Abercrombie & Kent tours. That kind of cultural access is by design, said Beth Sherer, product manager for the brand, which has been leading high-end tours since 1962. “Our resident tour directors have lived for decades, if not their entire lives, in the places that we visit,” she said. “They’re able to open the doors to different experiences and people that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to anywhere else.”

Peaceful moments 

Even on the most adventurous getaway, there should be moments that feel like a true vacation. Whether spending a day on a beach with gentle waves lapping the shore in the Cook Islands or watching the sun sink below the horizon on the beautiful Bay of Fundy, this collection of travelers found the peace that seems so elusive in their busy day-to-day lives at home.

Part of the formula for such a relaxing trip is working with a trustworthy tour operator. “We work with experienced and sophisticated travelers who are looking for the local flavor, without sacrificing the comfort they’re accustomed to. It’s about trying to meet and exceed their expectations at every turn,” explained Laudie Hanou, vice president of SITA World Tours, which has been a member for nearly two decades.

Having the USTOA seal of approval means each company adheres to the highest standards of business and tourism ethics and participate in a $1 million traveler’s assistance program to protect consumers. “When you’re booking a trip yourself and something goes wrong there’s no one to call,” said Laurel, adding that working with a professional “is just reassuring.”

Plan your own trip

No matter the destination, when working with an experienced travel company these travelers could rely on a trusted USTOA tour operator member to provide first-hand knowledge and expertise. Are you ready to explore? To search itineraries from the 160+ brands of the United States Tour Operators Association that provide trips to all seven continents — from budget to luxury, escorted group tours to private journeys, couple-focused to family-friendly and more — visit USTOA online.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA Today Network were not involved in the creation of this content.

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