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15 life-changing trips

From volunteering in South America to getting inside Southeast Asian culture, 15 transformative vacations to take now.
Glacier National Park
Why go to Glacier National Park? Next year, America’s fourth-largest national park—more than 1 million acres running along the Canadian border—celebrates its 100th anniversary. But this milestone isn’t the only reason to head there now: it’s estimated that the park’s glaciers will vanish by 2030 because of climate change.iStock
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What’s your New Year’s resolution? Volunteering? Immersing yourself in another culture? Or simply getting outside more?

Whatever your focus, a vacation can be the perfect time to fulfill your promises to yourself. You won’t be alone: authentic experiences are becoming increasingly important to many travelers.

Whether it’s helping others, understanding local cultures, or exploring the natural splendor of a rich ecosystem, your next journey could be the life-changing experience you’ve been looking for. To help, we reached out to our network of trusted tour operators to create custom itineraries that promise to transform.

You’ll find one of these opportunities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, home to 20 percent of the city’s population—more than 1 million people. Voluntourism operator Hands Up Holidays offers travelers hands-on experiences in these overcrowded areas, teaching English or art or painting murals to brighten the neighborhood. But it’s not all work; the company balances the experience by offering walking and hiking expeditions along with accommodations in a boutique hotel.

Of course, life-changing experiences come in many forms—and getting inside a culture is one of them. We also tapped the pros at Asia Transpacific Journeys for a custom Travel + Leisure itinerary, and they came back with a tour to Vietnam that guarantees a heavy dose of cultural interaction.

On this journey, you’ll explore lesser-known hill-tribe villages and markets of the northern highlands, and you’ll meet with locals—including relatives of the former royal family. You’ll also attend cooking classes with local chefs and attend dinners in private homes.

For some, the dream includes getting in touch with nature. Fortunately, the adventure-travel pros at Austin-Lehman created a trip just for us. You’ll go with them on a six-day trip to Glacier National Park, a one-million-acre expanse that runs along Canada’s border. Not only will you spend your days hiking through the park—where there’s a good chance of spotting bighorn sheep, black bears, and moose—you’ll also have an opportunity to see the glaciers before they disappear. (Experts give them another 20 or so years.)

These 15 very different trips, are all full of transformational opportunities. Don’t wait for 2011; make 2010 the year that travel changes everything.