Free Travel Changed My Life

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Free Travel Changed My Life

add1sun, Flickr

What if you could win a dream trip that really did turn out to be the trip of a lifetime? We went on a journey of our own looking for stories of free travel that changed someone's life, and what we came up with is surprising.

For some lucky winners of travel contests, for example, finding some of the best snorkeling in the world off a remote Fiji island was all that mattered. But for others, winning that trip had far more lasting effects.

Kerri Hopkins, an energetic real estate appraiser in New York, was looking for a way to get on the Oprah show when a contest banner on that site sidelined her. Hopkins has always had a strange passion for names and uses her lifetime of collected name/personality observations, almost in horoscope fashion, to give readings to people about their lives. On that day she was looking for a way in as a featured guest on the show but ended up entering a contest for a three-day cruise down the eastern seaboard instead.

"I went on the ship with my girlfriend and ended up giving readings all over the place – mostly to couples as to why they were getting along or why they weren't. I found that I was having so much fun that I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing with my life," says Hopkins, who notes that not even Oprah, herself, could have scripted what happened next.

"I just stopped my job and left that life and started giving readings for a living," she says. "I've never looked back."

That was in 2008. Today, her site, NameZook, is a growing phenomenon and the money is coming in. "I learned from that trip that sometimes you just have to 'do it,' " she adds. "I think winning that trip and taking that cruise gave me the confidence."

In a not so direct way, Elizabeth Rodgers had a life-changing experience that was just as powerful – not only for her but for her best friend. Rodgers had won an all-expense paid trip to Lanai, Hawaii through the Los Angeles public radio station, KCRW. When she became a member the station automatically entered her name into the sweepstakes.

"Somehow I knew I was going to win and was even telling people about the trip I would be taking before the call came. I even invited my girlfriend to go with me before I was told I had won," says Rodgers.

If the trip felt like fate to her, what happened during the vacation was totally unexpected.
Rodgers' traveling companion appeared to be under the weather from the start and by mid-trip was hiding out in the room and refusing any activity.

"I was doing everything alone and had no idea what was wrong with her," Rodgers says. It was a masseuse that gave her the wake-up call.

"I learned over breakfast and begging her to talk to me, that my friend, whom I had been so close to since we were 14 years old, was a heroin addict and had been shooting up four times a day. The masseuse, who had worked on her before me, told me she was right in the middle of withdrawal and could die," she says.

Rodgers spent the rest of the trip tending to her friend, helping her get through the withdrawal and giving her as much support as she could. More than a decade has passed since that vacation with several set backs in their friendship and in her friend's addiction condition. But her friend has remained clean for the past few years, is now a mother, and their friendship has endured.

"I also learned from that experience how to recognize the toxic people in my life and stay away from them," says Rodgers. "I think the trip served me for much more than an eye-opening experience or a harrowing ordeal to go through with a close friend. It marked the moment when I grew up and became an adult, I think."

Maya Wasserman of Los Angeles won her trip to Hawaii on Twitter. The vacation was sponsored by Marriott and involved a week in Waikiki during which time her boyfriend proposed to her on a scenic beach on the north shore of Oahu.

"I knew we were probably heading toward marriage but never expected it would happen so quickly," says Wasserman. "We left three weeks after I heard and he somehow pulled the proposal together with the ring and all and really shocked me. And yes, you could say it changed my life!"

New York psychotherapist Sherry Amatenstein, agrees that such trips can levy a lot of impact on people's lives. "Travel is wonderful for taking you out of your self and your problems, broadening perspective and giving one's capacity for joy and wonder a much needed kick-start. And if said travel doesn't sting the wallet, the more the joy!"

And that is how Christine Wilkinson saw it when she learned she had won a trip through HomeAway.com, right after learning she was pregnant. The Denver, CO-based attorney was 39 and the late-age pregnancy had come on the heels of five miscarriages. She also had a four-year-old son at the time with a rare condition that required him to have 14 surgeries in three years.

"We had had it and we needed something good to happen," says Wilkinson. "So we decided to go to Paris."

The contest gave her $5,000 and allowed her to spend it on any offering on the HomeAway site. And for Wilkinson, this meant "que sera sera." Against the warnings of family and friends she ate her way through the trip, eating all sorts of unpasteurized cheeses, sipping wines, drinking café au lait and walking the streets of Paris for hours and days with her husband and son. Six months later, Liam was born, a healthy boy with no medical issues who will probably grow up with a passion for contraband cheese.

"It was the best thing I have ever done," Wilkinson says, admitting that she is a controlling person who usually saves each dime and makes sure every detail is in place.

"I just let everything go. I had to," she says. "That trip taught me to do this and just to trust that what's meant to be will be. And usually that means everything will be ok."
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