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Next year, make a point to be more engaged with your surroundings when you travel by leaving your smartphone at home. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Four Travel Resolutions You Can Keep

I get it. We see New Year’s as a fresh start and all that. But, really, are those life-changing resolutions such a good idea? Many people say no, and point to the failure rate of such promises–particularly the more pie-in-the-sky ones (say, a resolution to cut out greasy food or to jog more and use social media less).

The tradition of New Year’s resolutions isn’t likely to go away, nor is it new. Babylonians did it, Romans did it, medieval knights did their sword-toasting “peacock vows” of eternal loyalty.

Fortunately for us, travel resolutions are easier to keep–if you’re realistic about them. And though they might not take care of those love handles, they’re sure to make the next year of your life on Earth a lot more enjoyable. 

Here are four I came up with to help get you started:

1. Use your dang vacation days.

This just in (especially directed to you Americans out there): you’re being silly. You have, on average, 14 days of vacation a year (according to the latest “vacation deprivation” study from Expedia), yet only use 10 of them. (French citizens, meanwhile, gets 30 days of vacation a year and more often than not use all of them. Sacre bleu!)

We see these kinds of stats every year–and apparently the number of unused days is rising. Still, at the same time nearly three of five Americans feel “vacation deprived.” So, let 2014 be the year we stop whining and start using the few days we have, even if it’s a random mid-week day off at home to see a part of your hometown you haven’t seen before.

Speaking of which…

2. See something new at home.

No more excuses: If you’ve lived in Dallas for 20 years and have never been to the Sixth Floor Museum, one of the most compelling museums in the U.S., well, you’re going in 2014. (I’ll be watching to make sure.)

Often the things we haven’t done at home rank high as essential things tourists want to do when they come to visit. Join them. Resolve to see that jazz festival, get in your car and take that fall-foliage drive, or go see the annual holiday extravaganza that everyone always talks about. Everyone but you.

Whenever I’m back to visit family and friends in Oklahoma, where I grew up, I make it a goal to see something new. Most recently, I homed in on McGehee’s, a legendary catfish shack overlooking the Red River on the Texas border, and each crisp bite lived up to the hype.

3. Put down the smartphone.

Think you can do it? Try. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Five times a week, sit in a public place, turn off the phone, and see if you can focus on what’s around you. For ten minutes. “Ha, guy’s got ‘conference voice’ on that al fresco business call; poor sap.” “There’s some tourists who don’t know which way to go.” “Hmm, hadn’t noticed that gold top on that building before.” “Trees sure look weird.”

Then take this new skill on vacation. Some resorts require you to surrender your cellphone on arrival, but you can do this on your own with enough willpower. I challenge you to spend a full day where you’re fully present and without any connection whatsoever.

To help, I travel with a Moleskine drawing pad and a handful of colored pencils to draw random scenes on trips. Creating works of fine art isn’t the point. Giving myself time to stop, disconnect, and really see something–even a weird tree in Namibia–is.

4. Travel like a travel writer.

Many people claim that their dream job is to be a travel writer. OK, so then start traveling like one. (To help you, here’s my handy guide to doing so.)

You can’t go just anywhere, either. Pick a place you don’t really want to visit. Travel writers do this (or are made to do this) all the time. And if there’s one thing you learned it’s that there is no boring, or miserable, or even unfriendly place. They just don’t exist. Where there’s people living and things happening, there’s always a way to have a worthwhile experience.

Take a detour or make a random stop en route to somewhere else–say a farming town in the flatlands that’s in the way of your road trip. Do a wee bit of research beforehand to find the intersection between that place and your interests, as writers often do.

A couple years ago, in the middle of a road trip to Niagara Falls, I made a stop in Dansville, New York, to see the birthplace of cereal–my favorite food. Another time, I had a few spare hours before a conference in Berlin, and ended up taking public transit to see where the “Red Elvis”–an expat Coloradan who’d gone Marxist and introduced rock to the communist world–had died (watch the video). This stuff interested me. And taking time to do it was great, great fun.

Bottom line: Try one of these, or make up your own. Be prepared, be open, and you simply cannot lose.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.

What’s your No. 1 travel resolution for 2014? Share it with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment and we just might feature you in a follow-up post.