The world has given the collective green light to travel again. “I’m definitely making up for lost time,” says Amy Short, director of sales and travel technology for AAA. She’s referring to her participation in what she calls the current “travel resurgence,” which follows more than two years of pandemic-related restrictions around the world—now mostly lifted—that put many vacation plans on pause.
Short, who monitors AAA Member vacation bookings and has worked in nearly every facet of travel for AAA during her 25-year tenure, is a reliable oracle on where people are taking their pent-up wanderlust. She's also a good judge of the less-obvious locales travelers should put on the must-visit list for 2023. Here are some of the destinations that excite her the most and may inspire your next vacation.
EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISES
The Rhine. The Rhone. The Danube. These legendary European rivers—which wind past centuries-old vineyards, ancient castles, and storybook towns— evoke a romance and elegance that woo American travelers. Bookings have surged for 2023, Short says. A big reason why: The convenience and luxury packed into these intimate vacations is unparalleled. Short compares the experience to sailing aboard a “floating boutique hotel” where you only need to unpack once. She also highlights the fact that you are sailing through diverse countries aboard a river cruise—and not simply to/from a specific port of call for only a few hours, as is the case with ocean cruises. “It’s a much more immersive vacation experience,” Short says.
River cruise lines have noted the demand. Finding themselves an integral part of the latest river cruise renaissance, many are expanding their offerings across Europe to include less-renowned rivers, such as the Douro River in Portugal. Others, such as Uniworld River Cruises, are pairing select European cruises with luxury rail journeys to further enrich the experience.
People taking a bath in river Guatapurí - Valledupar Colombia. Photo courtesy of cesarrosphoto/iStockc.com
Similar to how Disney’s “Frozen” elevated tourism to Norway, Colombia is riding a wave of increased popularity, thanks in part to “Encanto,” the popular Disney animated film set in Colombia. Along with the film-inspired notoriety, Short says increased travel opportunities are blossoming across Colombia and enticing travelers to experience its cities, jungles, mountains, and Caribbean coastline.
In fact, eight airlines now provide nonstop flights to Colombia from across the U.S., and a growing number of cruises are adding the Spanish colonial towns of Cartagena or Santa Marta to their itineraries, with AmaWaterways eyeing a launch of the first-ever river cruise on the Magdalena River in 2024. It's an impressive and positive evolution for a country whose tourism motto was once "The only risk is wanting to stay,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the country's checkered past. Short says now is the time to experience this up-and-coming South American destination while it’s still relatively uncrowded.
Iceland Rynisfjara Black Sand Lava Beach. Photo courtesy of Mlenny/iStock.com
ITALY, IRELAND & ICELAND
A strong U.S. dollar has made Europe the most affordable it’s been in nearly 25 years, and that’s spurred a noticeable increase in bookings to what Short calls “The Three I’s”—Italy, Ireland, and Iceland. While Italy and Ireland remain perennial favorites among AAA Members, Short says Iceland has emerged the “new little sister” in terms of popularity.
Iceland’s diverse landscapes—towering waterfalls, eerie lava-rock landscapes, massive icebergs, and black-sand beaches—enchant all who visit. In the past year, Iceland has added new offerings to further wow visitors: the opening of a Forest Lagoon, a geothermal spa tucked into the country’s northern woodlands and designed by the same architects as Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon; the expansion of accessibility in the less-traveled Westfjords, including a massive viewing platform that takes visitors to the edge of Balafjall mountain; and Iceland’s longest zipline in Hveragerði, which traverses one kilometer over the Svartagljúfur Canyon.
City wall of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Armando Oliveira/iStock.com
“It’s the next Italy,” Short says of Croatia. It’s grown in popularity with those who want an idyllic Mediterranean vacation but seek an alternative to Italy and Greece. “It’s a less-explored country,” says Short, adding that "Game of Thrones" and "House of Dragon"—popular television shows that use Croatia's walled city of Dubrovnik as a primary filming location—have elevated the profile of the country as a travel destination. It blends a blissful Mediterranean paradise with a multifaceted culture dating back some 14 centuries—where today you’ll find Venetian palaces, Roman columns, Slavic churches, Socialist-era monuments, and Napoleonic forts coexisting alongside each other.
It’s also home to 10 MICHELIN-Star restaurants plus world-renowned olive oil and wines. Short recommends a guided vacation in Croatia to truly experience the riches that come with both the coastline and the interior of the country. With more and more resorts increasing their amenities to accommodate sun-seeking travelers, and Croatia poised to adopt the euro as its national currency in 2023, it’s an exciting time for the country—making it an exciting time to go.
Herd of Buffalos grazing on green meadow in front of the Grand Teton. Photo courtesy of Mlenny/iStock.com
U.S. NATIONAL PARKS
National Parks have experienced a noticeable travel resurgence during the pandemic, as more people are opting to stay closer to home to explore America’s great outdoor spaces. While this rekindled love affair with settings such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Great Smoky Mountains is expected to continue, Short says there’s a unique twist emerging: You needn’t be an “outdoorsy person” to enjoy a national park vacation. Hotels and resorts close to some of the most popular parks are offering luxury accommodations and “glamping” setups that appeal to those who can’t (or simply don’t want to) rough it.
Also making these natural treasures more accessible: luxury train journeys that connect parks and take riders past settings that otherwise would warrant some serious hiking. Short points to Rocky Mountaineer and its recently launched “Rockies to the Red Rocks” itinerary. This three-day luxury train tour travels from Denver, Colorado—alongside rivers, mountain ranges, and ancient rock canyons—to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah with an overnight stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Luxor Temple located in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Anton Aleksenko/iStock.com
The legacy and mystery of Egypt lure travelers to its storied Sahara landscape punctuated with ancient pyramids and temples. While Egypt has long been a bucket-list destination, Short says it’s undergoing an even greater surge in popularity, thanks to more luxury tour options, especially when it comes to river cruises on the legendary Nile River.
Companies have launched vessels specifically designed for Nile navigation and with American travel tastes in mind, says Short. Among the most recent: Viking Osiris, an 82-passenger ship from Viking River Cruises, and AmaDahlia, a 72-passenger vessel from AmaWaterways. Also attracting buzz for 2023 is the highly anticipated opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which will house, display, and preserve some of the world’s greatest ancient Egyptian treasures, including King Tut’s entire burial treasure collection, all in the same place for the first time.
It’s now easier to visit our neighbor to the North. Canada removed all COVID-19 travel entry requirements in October, and this has inspired increased bookings into the country, says Short. She suggests one of the most awe-inspiring ways to experience Canada is by joining a Rocky Mountaineer train journey through the Canadian Rockies. The luxury, glass-domed train gives travelers spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes, and iceberg landscapes of Banff and Jasper National Parks, with overnight stops at some of the country’s top mountain resorts. Short says the border relaxation also makes it easier to pair an Alaska cruise or land-tour with a trip to Canada.
Murchison Falls national park in Uganda at sunset. Photo courtesy of Gunter Nuyts/iStock.com
RWANDA & UGANDA
Short is excited by a new collection of African countries muscling into the luxury safari monopoly long-held by South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya. Among the destinations in this emerging (and still somewhat underrated) group: Uganda and Rwanda. Both destinations have become more accessible to travelers in recent years.
Uganda, located at the meeting point of the eastern savannah and western jungle ecosystems, is a spectacular setting for a wide variety of safaris. Get up close to chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
As for Rwanda, it’s become a bucket-list destination for travelers eager to have a Dian Fossey-inspired experience in the land she loved, alongside the endangered mountain gorillas she so passionately sought to save from extinction. In Volcanoes National Park, test your endurance while navigating the winding, steamy-hot, high-altitude jungle paths with expert conservation guides, to track gorillas in the wild. The $1,500 per-person, per-day, permit makes this journey expensive and exclusive.
A significant amount of these tourist dollars, however, go back into conservation and community-building efforts in Rwanda, which today is home to the “Silicon Valley” of Africa and considered one of the safest countries to visit.