With 2015 fast approaching, many of us are itching to go on a new adventure. Whether you want to eat your way through a foodie mecca, immerse yourself in a new culture or explore remote trails in untamed frontiers, the New Year is the best time to set new goals and take action. So, it probably comes as no surprise that at the start of each year, Americans resolve to travel more. Yet according to The Travel Effect, a study released by the U.S. Travel Association, more than 4 out of 10 U.S. employees ended 2013 with unused time off — an average of more than three paid days forfeited per worker.  

So, why are U.S. workers depriving themselves the chance to experience somewhere new? "A lot of Americans would love the concept of traveling, but they never made the time for it," explained Joe Diaz, co-founder of AFAR, a multiplatform media company that includes the travel magazine AFAR and AFAR.com. With a mission to inspire people to have meaningful travel experiences across the globe, AFAR also encourages (and grants a $2,000 annual travel stipend for) its employees to go to a new country each year. According to Diaz, stepping out of your comfort zone to visit a new place is critical, regardless of whether you're a seasoned globetrotter or a rookie traveler. "Travel is a great way to open your mind, open your heart and broaden your perspective."

With this in mind, U.S. News spoke with Diaz to chart the top five reasons to travel in 2015, along with some savvy ways to maximize those vacation days for your most enriching trip yet.

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To give underprivileged students the opportunity to embrace experiential travel, AFAR established the nonprofit foundation Learning AFAR, which organizes and sponsors trips for high school students. Trips can include everything from constructing a school library in Peru to ziplining through cloud-covered rainforests and spotting sea turtle hatchlings in Costa Rica. "I think Learning AFAR speaks to the heart," Diaz said. "If you can get young people out in the world, it completely changes their lives and the lives of people around them." But this doesn't only apply to America's youth. Sure, vacations can make us happier and more productive employees, but it's not just about recharging our batteries. Traveling can have a profound impact on your work will stay with you long after your trip, he added.

Travel doesn't only inspire cultural interconnectivity. As Diaz put it, travel "creates a culture of conversation," adding that people who have had the opportunity to travel tend to have a broader global perspective. After visiting somewhere unfamiliar, "you have this realization that 99 percent of people in this world are there to help you, not hurt you." Diaz recommends staying open-minded throughout your trip, and being willing to strike up a conversation with everyone from your taxi driver to your waiter to your bartender. That heightened understanding of a culture's people and their way of life will stay with you long after your trip, he added.

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Traveling somewhere exotic allows you to disconnect from the stresses of everyday life and engage with your surroundings. And stepping outside your comfort zone helps raise cultural awareness and trigger self-discovery. Diaz advised asking yourself "What am I passionate about?" and using those passions to spark new curiosities and interests. "Don't bother taking the map. Just walk. Allow yourself to get a little bit lost," he said. By abandoning your fixed routine and schedule, you'll allow for spontaneity and experience a destination in a new light, explained Diaz. "It's the best form of education. When you can understand something in a fuller way, and make a more informed decision about things, that's what's going to make the world better," he said.

For the inexperienced traveler, planning a meaningful trip when you only have a limited number of days off may seem like a daunting task. But you don't have to carve out a week or a few weeks to reap the benefits of travel. "We always have to keep in mind that it's all relative," emphasized Diaz. "For one person, getting on a cruise ship might be the biggest trip of their life." Ask yourself, "What can I take? What can I afford?" and let spontaneity be your guide, he advised. By allotting yourself a few days to explore something that you're passionate about, you'll challenge yourself. Even if you're a novice traveler or a bit apprehensive, attempting something new and embracing a positive attitude throughout the process will enable you to "stretch yourself further," Diaz added.

Why are we inspired to travel? Travel exposes us to diverse cultures, perspectives and passions; and, ultimately, helps us become more engaged and enlightened citizens. "If you can walk out your front door in a curious, open-minded way, you're just going to live a more fulfilling life," Diaz said. Embracing the same inquisitive approach applied to traveling somewhere unfamiliar can trigger a greater awareness about different cultures and ourselves. As Diaz summed up, "Travel is not something that you do; travel is a state of being."

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About the author: Liz Weiss is an editor for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google+ or email her at eweiss@usnews.com

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of experience covering the travel industry, Liz has covered a diverse set of topics to help readers make smarter travel decisions and plan better trips. In her current role, she edits a range of consumer-facing topics, including personal finance, retirement, health, wellness and education. Previously, Liz was the Travel Editor for Consumer Advice, where she wrote and edited features and slideshows and managed the En Route travel blog. She graduated with a bachelor's degree from George Washington University. You can follow Liz on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at eweiss@usnews.com.

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