When you start planning your 2012 travels, consider a trip with a definite purpose. Having a specific goal is much more interesting than just checking the main mountains, temples and museums off the list and eating in the recommended restaurants.
Purpose travel can be either individual or in groups, and you have a wide range of alternatives.
Volunteer: United Planet has announced new short-term "Volunteer Quest" programs in the upper Amazon and Galapagos areas of Ecuador. These and other programs from United Planet can cover from one to 12 weeks; they include home stays with locals and area excursions, and may also include language study. United Planet (www.unitedplanet.org; 800-292-2316) is one of the largest such organizations, arranging for you to contribute to local areas throughout the world. All sorts of others offer similar opportunities, including universities, museums and churches. Have a good time while you do good.
Education: For years, Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org; 800-454-5768), has been the 800-pound gorilla of educational travel for seniors. The main focus of its program, now branded "Road Scholar," is a combination of education with local sightseeing. Its list of options is enormous, such as "Adventure Afloat" and "African American Studies," "Water sports" and "Winter sports." This year's program even includes baseball spring training.
The typical Elderhostel trip involves staying four or five days in budget hotels or college dormitories and attending classes, but some involve extended travel by land, sea and air. In my experience, Elderhostel trips tend to be very good values for domestic programs, with many under $600 per person; overseas trips are more expensive. But it has something for virtually any taste.
Culture: Other educational groups and tour operators from budget to luxury offer a wide variety of cultural tours. What's your interest? Literature? Music? Opera? Natural history? Native cultures? Spirituality? Cooking? Language? Options here run the gamut from low-cost walking tours in England's literature centers to expensive classical music or jazz cruises to three-week intensive courses in French or Italian cooking. If you ever attended a college or university, you probably get bombarded with tour and cruise promotions focused on some cultural theme and accompanied by leading professors in their fields.
Sports and hobbies: What avid golfer wouldn't like to try his or her skill at Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, or some other blockbuster course? You can sign up for an inclusive golf tour, where accommodations, prebooked tee times and course-to-course travel are included, or with a little foresight you can do it less expensively on your own. Ditto other sports interests, including diving, sailing, hiking, bicycling, climbing, fishing, photography, bird-watching or pottery. Name your interest -- and you can find an appropriate package tour or independent itinerary to fill the bill.
Roots: You may have seen that amusing TV commercial about the two Scandinavian-Americans who travel to Norway to check out their roots, only to find they're really Swedish. Tracking down family branches can be fascinating -- and, possibly, surprising. If you're lucky, you can run into some very interesting relatives you never knew you had.
Start with an inventory of your interests, hobbies and favorite activities. Next, consider where in the world you would like to explore one or two of them. Then, it's a simple matter to either locate an appropriate tour or cruise option or plot out a tour on your own. Either way, you'll probably have a lot more fun than if you just schlepped around somewhere in a tour bus.