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How to Take a Virtual Vacation

by Kaz Weida
Explore different countries with a virtual vacation

Explore destinations like Japan from the comfort of your couch

Pandemics interfere with lots of things, including your coveted vacation plans. Mothballing that ambitious trek across South America or the all-inclusive beachside resort you booked may seem like a first-world problem, but vacations are crucial to mental health. If you’ve been feeling some serious cabin fever and are itching to go abroad, today’s technology means you can still do so safely. Vacationing virtually is an inexpensive and surprisingly fun way to spend a few days or even weeks when you’re stranded stateside.

When you hear virtual vacation, you probably conjure up visions of being isolated down in your dark basement, strapped to a VR headset. But vacationing virtually is a family-friendly activity that everyone can enjoy. Whether you’re simulating a luau complete with hula dancing or exploring the famous spiral staircase at New York City’s Guggenheim, the internet brings much of the world to your doorstep.

To prove that vacationing virtually really can provide a legitimate pandemic escape, I spent a three-day weekend in Japan with my family. We even brought the dog because when you’re on a virtual vacation, all things are possible. Here’s how our family immersed ourselves step by step into a destination nearly 5,000 miles away without ever leaving home.

Plan and Pack for Your Virtual Vacation

Plan a virtual vacation abroad
Scout out destination-themed decor and supplies in your house and set up a mock hotel room.

The key to any vacation, virtual or otherwise, is to do your homework. If you were actually traveling to Paris or Alaska, what stops would be on your must-see list? Spend a few hours hunting down the highlights of your virtual destination and investigating what the internet has to offer. Be careful to plan a variety of activities in addition to any time you spend parked in front of the TV so you’re not just seeing but also experiencing your virtual destination. 

One of the things we discovered in creating a virtual vacation was, unlike a real vacation, it’s okay to bite off more than you can chew. It doesn’t matter that your itinerary spans cities that are 250 miles apart in less than half an hour. This is the beauty of a virtual vacation. The internet allows you to bend the rules of time and space.

If you have little travelers, the preparation is where much of the fun comes in. Encourage kids to create mock passports and pack clothing according to the current weather conditions at your destination. Ours were ecstatic about the logistics of travel rather than the actual destination. So we staged a flight complete with typical plane snacks (peanuts anyone) and prepared a “hotel room” to stay in for the weekend.  Sometimes getting there really is half the fun.

Get in the Mood

Japanese lanterns set the mood for a virtual vacation
Japanese lanterns are an easy craft that require minimal supplies.
Japanese entertainment on your virtual vacation
Instructions for simple origami animals can be found online and you can cut your own origami-sized paper if you don’t have any handy.

Part of immersive experiences is to trick yourself into stepping out of your everyday. Decorate the house to align with your destination, whether that’s making murals to hang of London’s famous skyline (hello, Big Ben) or creating a mock Red Square in your living room. If you’ve got the wardrobe to pull off a location-themed costume, flaunt it. Dig out the berets, Hawaiian shirts, or kimonos because putting on the trappings can transport you into another world.

For our weekend jaunt to Japan, we used our in-flight time to design and hang a string of Japanese lanterns. We also managed to pull off some colorful carp fish streamers and adorable origami animals that later adorned placemats for meals. Most simple crafts you can make from the contents of the recycling bin, but scout out more sophisticated supplies you might need in advance of departing on your virtual vacation.

Speak the Language

Before you step off the plane and immerse yourself in a culture, take the time to learn the language. Get everyone involved in speaking the basics including greetings and helpful questions by using your Rosetta Stone Phrasebook. Kids of all ages will also enjoy activities like Seek and Speak, which commandeers your iPhone camera for vocabulary scavenger hunts around the house.

If you’d like to virtually vacation to several different destinations this year, it may be worthwhile to invest in an Unlimited Languages subscription. That way you’ll have access to 24+ languages for wherever your online travels take you this summer.

Look for VR Tours

Don’t have a full VR system? No worries. Most of us don’t. Google Cardboard is a pretty cheap and accessible solution if you don’t have VR, and it lets you take advantage of your mobile phone as a window into truly experiencing a destination. Search first for VR tours online that offer 360-degree views, but don’t neglect the wealth of travel-related content on YouTube that’s also worth a watch.

We were in luck because Japan produces some of the best VR tours and there are hours worth of them, from the flower tunnels of Kitakyushu to the streets of Tokyo. Perhaps one of the best is this short VR tour from the Japan National Tourism Organization, which takes you on a whirlwind tour of the Land of the Rising Sun. We can also recommend this YouTube tour of Tokyo’s famous Robot restaurant and this one of how to visit a Shinto shrine.

Explore the Cuisine

Japanese pancakes
Japanese pancakes are poured into molds to create tall towers of fluffy deliciousness.
Matcha flavored Japanese snowballs
Matcha is a green tea flavoring used in many Japanese treats that can be found at most grocery stores.
Mochi - a Japanese treat
Get a selection of mochi and try different flavors. These bits of ice cream wrapped in glutinous rice are sure to be a hit.

One of the best parts of vacation is always the food and there’s no reason to miss out on that experience. Or on gaining the five pounds you always manage to pack on during vacation. Sign up for cooking classes, order take-out from your favorite local place, and plan to stretch your culinary skills and experiment in the kitchen a bit with the treasure trove of traditional recipes online.

To get a taste of Japan, we ordered sushi from our favorite local Japanese sushi house, designed our own bento boxes, and tried to replicate those sky-high Japanese pancakes. I can also report that this mochi taste-testing spree was not for the lactose faint-of-heart.

Music, Movies, Books, Games and Much More

Explore Japanese culture with Manga
Reading manga is a fun way to introduce your kids to Japanese folktales and culture.

There are lots of ways to explore a destination and they don’t end when you switch off your TV. Download music from Spotify and explore playlists associated with your destination. Listen to themed podcasts that highlight the history, current events, or just interesting stories from your desired locale.

For small travelers, there are always children’s books that are perfect for read-aloud storytimes or games you can play outdoors or indoors that exemplify the culture. Our Japanese tours included developing a new passion for sumo wrestling matches and playing Japanese badminton. In case you’re wondering, it’s sort of like hacky sack with an intricately styled racket and a shuttlecock, and our kids spent a good hour making up their own rules.

Destination-themed movie marathons are perhaps one of the easiest ways to while away a few hours. We ended up doing several, including watching the award-winning Spirited Away and binging Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Netflix.

While it’s not the same as traveling, immersive virtual vacations can break up the monotony of a long, hot summer. And for those a bit light in the wallet lately, they’re affordable respites until the world opens back up again and you can quench your insatiable wanderlust.

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