Travel, the kind that sinks a person into a new landscape and wantonly shifts a once comfortable horizon, is guaranteed to be transformational. But let’s be clear — travel as a spiritual practice, a knee deep, wide eyed, excursion into the mist, is not to be confused with tourism.

Tourism is pleasurable and yes, it may expand awareness and be fun. But a vacation — an escape to far-away beach or mountain, is not the same as travel. And a tourist is not the same thing as a traveler.

How many times have you seen someone come back from a vacation loaded with photos that they then have to wade through in order to “see” where they just came from? It often happens that the vacationer was so busy taking pictures they failed to really see anything, let alone absorb the sense of place. A traveler, on the other hand, might have some photos, but they more than likely were so busy seeing and communing with the people and the place that pictures were secondary, and fewer. Travel as meditation. Take the time to see.

A traveler takes their time, and has purpose in their movement. Their reason is to immerse themselves in new places, revisit cherished places, and to respectfully learn and absorb different cultures and lands. It’s hard to be a traveler on the typical American’s two-week vacation schedule. But even on a short leash, an attitude shift and a sense of adventure can shift even a day trip into a transformational experience. Pilgrimage is a type of travel that has been around for centuries that had a religious purpose, but I am not talking about that either. It’s not a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, not a religious purpose — but a spiritually intended type of travel, where the destination does not have to be anything conventionally considered a holy spot or religious site. A traveler will be moved and changed by the sense of spirit and adventure whether the trip is to the Las Vegas or the ancient pathways of Jerusalem. All the world is infused with spirit, and all true travelers find it.

Start right here in Arizona — travel in Arizona can unlock vast natural wonders that inspire awe, as well as open up a sense of connection to history with jaunts that place the traveler in the Old West. Arizona has some very entertaining and very bizarre history to behold, after all. Whether it’s north to the Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu, Sedona or Navajo country on the one hand, or a southward trip to historic mining towns with bohemian charm like Bisbee, or travel to ghost towns sprinkled around the state that evoke the once wild, wild West, there’s plenty in Arizona to expand the perspective and feed the soul of a sensitive traveler.

Further afield, the world awaits. And in tough economic times there are a few ways to consider traveling that might be off the beaten path, far cheaper that traditional travel, and maybe even more fun.

Consider International Hostels. They’re not just for youth anymore. Both in the United States and in Europe, hostels are not only inexpensive, they offer opportunities to meet both locals and fellow travelers from around the world in a way that would never happen in a hotel. It’s a communal setting. In Chicago there is the H.I. Chicago that’s been around for 100 years right in the heart of the city. Beds start at $26 with free breakfast, luggage storage, wifi and volunteer-led outings in the city. There’s no age limit, 24/7 access, and even a self-service kitchen and laundry. Check out for a full view, including a video, of what a hostel can offer. For European hostels, will link you to hostels in virtually every country in Europe.

Another possibility for the adventuresome traveler is arranging for housesitting, also known as caretaking, or house swaps. And excellent site for finding reputable ads for this type of travel or exchange is The Caretaker Gazette, found online at This is a subscription based listing site and has an excellent reputation. The subscription base alone helps to screen the ads and differentiate drastically from ads on a non-professional site like Craigslist. The Caretaker Gazette offers listings for property caretaking that range from short term, such as seasonal, or long-term situations, where absentee owners need someone to look after their property. In exchange the caretaker individual or couple receives free housing and sometimes a stipend. Many people have made this a lifestyle, and have been able to experience living in different countries in very nice accommodations in exchange for the caretaking duties, which vary.

Along with caretaking opportunities in different countries or different parts of the U.S., are a number of ads for house exchanges. Someone in Paris, for example, might place an ad saying they want to offer a month in their home in exchange for a month in home in Malibu, California. It’s a great exchange if you have a house or apartment (or villa!) you are willing to trade in that way. Think of the movie The Holiday, with Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jude Law. The romantic comedy is based around a London/L.A. home exchange for the holidays. That’s a good depiction of a house exchange. You never know what might happen. You have to admit, lives were changed in this amusing film’s story!

Monasteries throughout the world provide an option for guest accommodations in settings that are contemplative, inexpensive, and often quite beautiful. Many monasteries are open to travelers, it’s an integral part of the monastic tradition — hospitality to the stranger. Most are open to travelers from any religious background or none at all, and have varying degrees of optional participation in the community. Longer stays may be arranged in exchange for work, for example. An online search will turn up a host of possibilities. This is true for Christian, Buddhist and other types of monasteries. A Google search for monasteries will turn up plenty of sites you can contact for information on guest stays.

Similar but not exactly the same as the monastery possibility is staying at a retreat center. With advance booking, personal, private retreats can be booked at many retreat centers in the U.S. for very reasonable fees, from one night to an extended stay. Again, retreat centers are often found in very beautiful, peaceful settings ranging from the mountains to the seaside to the desert. Arizona has a fair share of both monasteries and retreat centers. An excellent site to find retreat centers in any state is One thing to keep in mind is that the monastery and retreat center options may be restricted to adult travelers. Hostels, on the other hand, welcome children as long as they are in the company of an adult.

There are three books to recommend that do a beautiful job of illustrating travel as transformative. One is a New York Times best seller that has become a household word, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Part memoir, part travel writing — it is travel as a spiritual and life changing practice.

The second book I recommend is homegrown here in Arizona and was published the same year as Gilbert’s book. It is Jillian Robinson’s Change your life through travel: Inspiring Tales and Tips for Richer, Fuller, More Adventurous Living, (Footsteps Media, 2006). Jillian is an award winning travel documentary producer whose work has been seen extensively on PBS and the Discovery Channel. She’s also a photographer and brings to this particular book beautiful photography along with a literary travel path, visiting sites such as Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home. It’s a pilgrimage to significant places from the lives of writers who wandered. I happened to meet Jillian in Chicago when she was on her book tour and I was enchanted by her talk and couldn’t wait to read the book. I wasn’t disappointed, the book is a delight to read, and more than that, inspires others to get out there and travel in a way that will change their lives.

Jillian splits her time between Tucson and Scottsdale, and started a unique travel enterprise called Footsteps Adventures. Not only does she offer travel opportunities, but her website, is a place to build community and share the tales of transformative travel.

One other book that is both practical and inspiring is Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, by Rolf Potts, long time travel writer. He began travel writing years ago with another time honored method of engaging in some extended-stay travel — teaching English in a foreign country, the TESL travel ticket. Today English teachers roaming the globe range from young backpackers to retirees setting off with time, adventure, service and transformation on their minds.

If an enthusiastic push and a dash of courage are needed, curl up with any of these books and take a vicarious adventure with these writers. Throw in a staple like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and you’re well equipped for the armchair voyage. Then catch the energy, make some plans, pack a bag, and set off to change your life. Provence or Amsterdam, Chicago or Key West, Bangkok or Rio, Bisbee or Sedona — it will change your life. Your world will be forever touched, enlarged and deepened. Travel is spiritual, when done with intention.

Author's Bio: 

MaryEllen O'Brien is a freelance writer, professional clairvoyant, energy healer and spiritual teacher. She lives and plays in Monterey, California.