Home Travel Advice Travel Goals: Defining Your Travel Bucket List

Travel Goals: Defining Your Travel Bucket List

by Bonnie

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Grant and I both have always loved to travel. If fact, our mutual love of travel is one thing that brought us together. As teachers, figuring out when to travel is easy. Quite simply, you will rarely find us at home over a school break. Deciding where to travel is not so easy. That’s why we set some travel goals for ourselves a few years ago.

If I’m being honest, the list of where we want to travel to is just about the entire world. Choosing where to visit from a seemingly endless list can be difficult, to say the least. By setting a few travel goals, we limited our choices and helped to focus our travels a bit.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone NP is one of our favorite places to visit.

When setting travel goals, many people think of a travel bucket list. A bucket list is your list of experiences that you want to have or accomplish in your lifetime. A travel bucket list would be a list of those places that are the highest priority for you to visit. If you’re not ready to make a complete bucket list yet, that’s fine. We’ll give you some tips to help you get started on your travel goals and, hopefully, set a bucket list when you’re ready.

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Setting Our Travel Goals

We’ve always been interested in visiting national parks. Indeed, our first big trip together was a summer road trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This quickly led to a goal to visit all 400+ units of the National Park System. We’ve been working on this goal pretty much the entire time we’ve been together, with most all of our trips including a visit to a national park.

We couldn't help but take a selfie at one of the overlooks while visiting Badlands National Park.
Selfie in Badlands National Park.

What we did NOT do was put any kind of time limit on this goal. Some of the national parks are quite difficult and/or expensive to get to. Since we really can only travel on school breaks, we chose to keep this an open-ended goal. Perhaps one day we’ll set a time goal but, for now, we’re happy just having the goal of visiting them all within our lifetime.

Of course, visiting national parks all over the country, took us to many different states. In 2017, we realized we had visited 41 states together. While we wanted to do some international travel, we figured this was a good opportunity to focus on sites closer to home. At that point, we set a goal of visiting all 50 states by our 10th anniversary in 2020. 

Belle Fourche, SD holds the monument of the Center of the Nation.
With the addition of Hawaii and Alaska, Belle Fourche,SD became the geographic center of the country.

At the time, this was a very attainable goal but not an altogether easy one. Our “missing” states were spread out and included four different regions of the US: Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. Hitting all of those areas would take a concerted effort.

Our Travel Goals: Current Status

As of March 2020, we have visited 245 of 423 units of the National Park System. While we are making good progress, it is a moving target. In fact, six units have been added to the park service just in the last few years. Still, we’ve visited more than half of the sites and are very pleased with our current status on this travel goal.

Our April 2019 visit to Cane Rive Creole NHP was the 200th site we've visited together.
Our April 2019 visit to Cane Rive Creole NHP was the 200th NPS site we’ve visited together.

In terms of visiting all 50 states, we ALMOST made it to our goal. At the end of 2017, we visited two of our nine “missing” states, then two more the next summer and an additional four in the summer of 2019.

By the start of 2020, we had just about everything booked for a five-week visit to Hawaii for our 50th state together. Of course, we all know that COVID-19 severely affected travel in 2020. As such, we canceled the Hawaii trip and, sadly, came up one state short of meeting our goal to visit all 50 states by our 10th anniversary.

The rocky shores of Apostle Islands.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, the 49th state we visited together.

Still, we know we would have visited them all, if not for COVID-19. We consider the fact that we had everything planned and booked a success. While we are, obviously, a little bitter about missing the trip and not reaching one of our travel goals, we’ve accepted it. 

We are still working to plan a trip to Hawaii. Our tentatively plan is to get there by the end of 2021 but we have not yet booked anything.

How to Choose Your Travel Goals

Technically, we are still working on reaching both of our current travel goals. That said, there’s only so much we can do about visiting Hawaii right now. And we know it will be a while before we reach the goal of getting to all of the national parks.

Still, it is time to update our travel goals. So, let’s talk about how to choose your travel goals and start thinking about your travel bucket list.

Start Small

I understand that visiting all 50 states may seem unrealistic for a lot of people. That’s ok. Your travel goals don’t have to be as big as ours.

Oak trees along a street in Savannah, GA
Savannah is practically covered in beautiful live oak trees. It makes for a very pleasant view and walk around every corner.

Think about one place that immediately comes to mind that you’ve always wanted to visit. Perhaps it’s just a weekend in Savannah, Georgia or a visit to Yosemite National Park. Maybe it’s a family trip to Disney World. Perhaps go a little bigger and think about a week-long cruise to Alaska. Or even bigger with a month-long visit to Italy or a road trip to some of the most popular national parks.

Florence skyline at dusk
Florence, Italy skyline at dusk.

The point here is to think about one relatively focused trip that you are really excited about and can make a priority. Then set yourself a time goal. Perhaps it’s to visit that dream city within a year. It’s ok to give yourself several years for a bigger trip that you’ll need time to plan and financially prepare for.

Be realistic about your travel goals, based on your time off from work and financial situation. But don’t set your timeframe so far out that you’ll put off making it a priority. 

Consider Your Interests and Hobbies

Since you’re reading our blog, chances are good that you enjoy National Parks. We know that visiting all 400+ units of the park system is a big goal. You could just focus on visiting all the park sites in your state or your region. Or you could just focus on the 63 designated National Parks.

The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park.
The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is the least visited of the designated National Parks outside of Alaska.

If you are a big fan of football, consider a goal of going to a game at all of the NFL stadiums. You could do the same with baseball, basketball, NASCAR or any other sport. 

A runner could choose to do a marathon in an epic location. Or any number of different states.

For those that prefer to sit on the beach, you could set a goal to see the top 10 beaches in the US, or just the best beaches in Florida, California or whatever state is closest to you.

General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.
General Buford commanded the Union cavalry at Gettysburg. It was his decisive action to hold against a force three times his size which allowed time for Union troops to occupy the high ground around Gettysburg. The cannon in the foreground fired the first shot of the battle.

A history buff could plan to visit all of the Civil War battlefields. 

The options are endless. My point is that your travel goals can coincide with other things you love. Why not see your state, the country or the world while also enjoying your favorite pastime?

Use a Travel Book

If you’re still having trouble coming up with any ideas, consider buying a book of travel suggestions. My sister is using the book 1,000 Places to See Before you Die in the US and Canada as her travel inspiration. 

Digging for Diamonds in Arkansas
Bonnie and her sister, Molly, digging for diamonds at Crater of Diamond State Park in Arkansas.

At first, it was fun to check off places she had already visited. Then, she started looking at new places to visit. We even enjoyed a family visit to Central Arkansas with my mom and sister to visit several places included in the book together. Yes, a list of a thousand things seems like a lot, even to me. But it’s something to give you some inspiration. And not everything requires a lengthy or expensive visit.

And, there are tons of other books. You could even use your favorite fiction book as inspiration. 

Check out the books we recommend to inspire your travels.

Make Your Bucket List

When you’re ready, dive in a write up your bucket list for your travel goals. Your travel bucket list should consist of your highest priority must-see or must-do experiences. These tend to be big goals that are a little harder to reach. This is not necessarily a complete list of all the places you want to go, just the biggest and most important destinations.

Denali National Park is nothing short of amazing.
Denali National Park is nothing short of amazing. We look forward to spending more time in Alaska in the future.

Many of the destinations on our bucket list are trips that will likely have to wait until we are retired and have more flexibility in when we can travel. Still, having a few big trips prioritized over “the entire world” does help us to make decisions on where to travel.

Here’s our travel bucket list, in no particular order:

  • See Northern Lights (or Southern Lights)
  • Sail through Panama Canal
  • Road trip to and through Alaska
  • Attend Oktoberfest in Germany
  • Cruise to Antarctica
  • Drive the South America portion of Pan American Highway
  • Visit Thailand
  • Road trip around Australia (and New Zealand)
  • Explore the Galapagos 
  • Go on an African Safari

Your bucket list might be longer or shorter. It could consist of smaller or bigger trips. And it doesn’t have to be all about travel. Your bucket list should be whatever YOU want it to be!

Set Your Parameters

If your travel goals involve some sort of checklist, such as all 50 states or every MLB stadium, determine ahead of time what you need to do to “check off” a location. For a state, does just driving through count? For a stadium, do you have to attend a game? 

Everyone is different in how they choose to count their travel experiences. Personally, we want our visits to be meaningful and not just something to check a box. After all, travel is about seeing new things and experiencing different cultures.

You can set whatever terms you feel good about. If you are working towards your travel goals with another person, just be sure you agree to your terms in advance!

Our Travel Guidelines

First, for a place to count we have to visit it together. I have actually been to all 50 states. But, we’re working on visiting all the states together, so I try to not rub it in too much. We actually have both been to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks but we haven’t been together so we don’t count them.

A California condor soaring at Navajo Bridge.
A California condor soaring at Navajo Bridge in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

When we visit a national park, we only count it if we do a hike a hike or tour. For example, we crossed through the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and even stopped at a visitor center, when driving from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park. We don’t count it, though, because we didn’t actually do anything there. It was still an amazing break along our drive and we saw several California Condors there!

In terms of visiting states, we have to do something significant and, ideally, sleep there. Basically, we didn’t count it if we just drove through. We first passed through Washington on a couple of layovers in Seattle. One of those was even an overnight layover. We left the airport, went straight to the hotel to sleep for a few hours and returned to the airport. Since we barely even saw daylight and certainly didn’t do anything, we didn’t count it.

The Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the country
The Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the country is located in Newport, RI.

We did count Rhode Island, though, since we spent a couple of days visiting national park sites even though we stayed in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Since we actually spent significant time visiting sites in the state, we counted it even though we didn’t actually spend the night.

Again, you can set whatever parameters you want.

Final Thoughts on Setting Travel Goals

We have enjoyed having a couple of travel goals to help focus our travels. It’s also fun to feel like you’re making progress towards something. I mean, who doesn’t like marking items off their “to-do” list? It’s especially helpful when you have a long list of travel dreams. I’ll be honest, it’s fun to tell people that I’ve been to all 50 states. 

So, what’s next for us? We’ll continue to visit the US National Parks. We’ve just about reached our goal of visiting all 50 states but there are still a lot of places we haven’t been to in those states! Plus, some of those National Parks are in US Territories, such as Guam, American Samoa and US Virgin Islands.

Selfie in Cesky Krumlov.
Selfie in Cesky Krumlov. We absolutely loved this small town in Czech Republic! We look forward to doing more international travel in the future.

Once the COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted, we plan to do a little more international travel. We definitely want to visit more national parks in other countries! Our newest travel goal is to visit five countries in the next five years. We haven’t made any priorities on which countries or what types of trips these might be. But, at least it gives us something to think about and plan for.

And, we’re looking at our bucket list and considering what trips could be done sooner versus later. We should be able to schedule a summer trip to Thailand anytime in the next few years. We’ll likely need to hold off on cruising through the Panama Canal until we have more time to travel in the shoulder seasons.

Whatever you set as your travel goals and however long or short your travel bucket list is, we hope that you will get out and explore the world!

Travel Resources

What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

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