Bucket-list experiences: 11 things you should do now we can travel again

What have we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic? That state rivalries are real? That toilet paper supplies are finite? That social media is a sewer of misinformation and anger?

Yes, all of those things. But for travellers there has been an even more important lesson, something we should probably have known all along: our time here is finite. Our opportunities to see the world are limited. And it's a mistake to put off today what you might never get the chance to do tomorrow.

I think a lot of people would have that in mind when booking travel from now on. Every trip you take is important. This is the time to do all those things you've long had on your list. Now is the moment.

With that in mind, I thought I would list my absolute favourite travel experiences that this world has to offer. We have no more time to waste. Next trip, if you want to do something incredible, something life-changing, the best of the best, I would recommend one of these.

Go on a safari

Elephant spraying zebras with water to keep them away from waterhole iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. tra19-online-safari Ben Groundwater safari column

Photo: iStock

It almost doesn't matter where you do this, in the Serengeti or the Okavango, in Etosha or Kruger. The attraction and the thrill are pretty much the same. Camping out in the bush, waking before dawn, hitting the dirt tracks in a safari vehicle with no idea what you will see today, what sort of wonder nature will throw up for you. The Big Five, the Little Five, everything in between. Do this on a budget, in a simple tent on a self-drive trip. Do this in luxury, with expert guides and mod-cons. Whatever – just do it.

Spend a week in each of these cities

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo: iStock

Put aside at least a week to spend in each of Europe's greatest cities: Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Paris and London. Yes, these are obvious destinations that are super-popular with tourists, but they're super-popular for a reason. They're amazing. A week will give you the chance to take things easy, to get to know at least a small part of the city, to see sights, to eat at great restaurants, to soak up history and culture, to wander and get lost and glory in the magnificence of these places.

Visit Antarctica

Penguin with Antarctic Landscape satnov23cover
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Photo: iStock


Again, it doesn't matter how you do this, whether it's on a budget – those cruises do exist – or in extreme luxury. The attraction here is the world's coldest continent, its most isolated continent, its driest continent, its most untouched continent. The wildlife experiences here are incredible, the scenery is amazing, the silence is otherworldly, and the camaraderie of a group of people tackling an extreme adventure is something that will stay with you the rest of your life. Read more here.

Ride a scooter around Vietnam

Ha Giang, north extreme loop, North Vietnam, the northern loop, with rice fields, beautuful scenery, villages, and full of motorbikes iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

You get the best of so many worlds when you tackle Vietnam on a scooter: you get the unadulterated glory of one of the world's great destinations, Vietnam in all its wild beauty; you get some of the best food on the planet; you get the thrill of the open road, and the joy of absolute freedom; and you get the experience of seeing a country in the same way pretty much all of its residents do. Take your own protective gear, buy a local SIM to use GoogleMaps, use a decent agency to hire your bike and check your travel insurance cover. And have fun.

Stay in a Japanese ryokan

Japanese women welcoming four backpackers with luggage, opening door, ushering them inside the building iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

There are so, so many experiences you could (and should) have in Japan, though most of them I assume you will take care of on top of this one: staying in a ryokan. To the uninitiated this is just a place to spend the night, a boutique hotel that probably costs a lot of money. But a ryokan is far more. It's an immersion into Japanese culture. It's a traditional inn, usually a country house with a private garden and onsen, where you'll wear a yukata and slippers, sleep on a futon on tatami-mat floors, spend timing bathing and contemplating nature, and be treated to set-menu breakfasts and dinners that will blow your mind. There's nothing in the world quite like this.

Take a North American road trip

State of awe: Monument Valley in Utah.

Monument Valley in Utah. Photo: iStock

To be honest, I couldn't decide where in North America to recommend going, what to experience – it's just so vast and varied and amazing. The one thing I can say, however, is that you should do it by road. Canada and the US both have some amazing cities and world-beating attractions, but with a road trip you get to see all the bits that connect them too, which are often just as amazing and surprising and memorable. Drive through Utah and Colorado. Explore British Columbia and Alberta. Head to the Deep South. Motor through the Pacific North-West. And that's not even the half of it.

Travel by train in India

Gwalior, India - November 15, 2017 : Passengers in Indian railway train SatJul27Essay - Train Travel Essay - text Ben Groundwater
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

It really is the journey in some of these recommendations, not the destination – and this is another example. You haven't lived until you've travelled by train in India. You haven't seen everything humanity can throw at you. An Indian train is a microcosm of a continent, a diorama of a world. It's what's outside, for sure, but more importantly it's what's inside. It's all the people you meet, all the food you eat, all the coffee you drink, all the conversations you have, all the behaviours you observe. It's everything. And it takes you somewhere new.

Go to Bolivia

Fun perspective photos at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia sunaug25cover
ben groundwater joke story
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Playing with perspective at the the Uyuni salt flat. Photo: iStock

That's it. That's the advice. Just go to Bolivia. If you want to experience Latin America, if you want to understand its Indigenous cultures, if you want to witness incredible landscapes, if you want to see all the chaos and colour and beauty of this part of the world wrapped up in one relatively small package, then go to Bolivia. Visit La Paz, go to the Uyuni salt flat, see Cochabamba, experience Amazonian lowlands, Andean highlands, rivers, lakes, forests and everything in between. Read more here.

Go to Iran

TEHRAN, IRAN - MAY 22, 2017: People walking at the Shah Mosque, also known as the Imam Khomeini Mosque is a mosque in the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, Iran. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Iran for tra18-online-iran

Imam Khomeini Mosque in Tehran, Iran. Photo: iStock

Here's another simple piece of advice. Iran will change your life. Its people will change your ideas about the world. You will experience the warmest welcome you have ever been given (well, mostly likely, anyway). You will be immersed in history and culture, see incredible architecture, eat extremely good food, and be embraced every second you do it. Of course, the destination is not without its risks (and, right now, the Australian government's Smart Traveller site has a "Do Not Travel" warning for the country, partly due to its handling of COVID-19). Read more about Iran here.

Do the Big Lap

World Heritage listed Uluru in Australia's Northern Territory.
26th December 2012.
Photo: Steven Siewert

Photo: Steven Siewert

Of course there are experiences to be had in Australia too, and why not do pretty much all of them by buying a campervan or a 4WD with a trailer, giving yourself a good 12 months and doing the Big Lap? Don't just stick to the coast, either, because every Australian should visit Uluru once in their lives.

See also: One vehicle, 40,000 km: How to do Australia's 'Big Lap'

Live somewhere else

Woman sitting on crowded street at bar or restaurant outdoors in Bologna city. Concept of Italian lifestyle and gastronomy iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

Here's my final highlight, my last piece of advice. Maybe you won't do it now, maybe not even in the next decade. But sometime in your life, plan to live in another country. For a year, at least. Properly experience another way of life. Come to understand a different culture. Get to know a destination in a way that is impossible for a short-term visitor. You will never regret doing it.

What's top of your list now that we can travel overseas again? What have been your favourite experiences from your travels, experiences you would tell other people they have to have? Is there anything you would tell people to avoid?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: Twelve incredible sites that are too dangerous to visit

See also: Why I quit my dream journalism job to travel the world

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