Is It Finally Time to End the Travel-Shaming?
Right after I got vaccinated back in April 2021, I took two epic back-to-back trips: one to Kaua'i in Hawai'i, and the other to Santorini and Mykonos in Greece. The freedom I felt back then was exhilarating — we were finally vaxxed! Travel was back, baby! There were still various restrictions, of course, but the fear of getting and/or spreading Covid was largely gone. I happily dined indoors and posted all of the Instagrams without any "will I be travel shamed" second-guessing (IYKYK).
Fast forward to now, and things are…not as simple. The rise of the Delta and Omicron variants has made the return of travel a bit more tenuous, to put it mildly, and in recent months, I've found myself wondering: What's the right thing to do here? As a travel writer, I obviously want to be a good citizen of the world and do right by my global community — so what's the move as we look toward the future of travel? Should I be leaning even more into trip planning to support the destinations around the world that rely on tourism and therefore took a huge hit during the pandemic? Or should I be laying low at home when possible, to help minimize any potential spread?
There's no question that travel in the pandemic era has become a bit fraught, filled with lots of inner conflict and philosophical conundrums in addition to the logistical ones. According to a recent January 2022 survey, only 26% of millennials and Gen Z-ers say they are comfortable traveling, and 20% of all Americans say they don't think they'll be comfortable traveling until 2023 or later.
I quite literally travel for my job and I'm still wondering how to approach it in the best way — so I decided to call in the troops. I chatted with a slew of experts in the field to figure out the morality of it all, from how to think about travel to how to do it right. Consider these pointers your moral compass as you plan your trips for 2022.
First things first: Remember that for many people, travel isn't just about leisure — it's necessary for work and to see family.
It's easy for travel shamers to bash people who ever get on a plane. But keep in mind, we live in a global world — which means that silo-ing travel into the 'fun' category is a mistake in and of itself. "We've vilified people who travel, but the reality is that this pandemic is something we're going to live with. And for many of us who have global lifestyles, who have family in different parts of the world, travel isn't just about leisure — it's necessary for work and to maintain family ties," says travel journalist, Emmy Award-winning TV host, and influencer Oneika Raymond. "We may have dependents who are reliant on us in some way, which makes travel imperative — not a choice," she continues. Your move: Remember and respect the fact that not everyone traveling is headed to an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas — for some, travel is a necessary part of life.
It's not where you go, but how you go there.
"I always tell people that safety is in actions," Raymond continues. "Many of us don't have the privilege to live in bubbles, so it's really about taking the proper precautions wherever you are. After all, as soon as you leave your doorstep, you're traveling — you're interacting with people whether you want to or not. So to me, It's not the fact that you're traveling, but how you're traveling." In other words, as long as you're not immunocompromised or have any other condition that puts you at risk (in which case you should consult with your doctor about what's right for you), your best bet is to follow the rules. Get vaccinated and boosted, adhere to the testing and masking guidelines for the destination you're visiting, and sanitize often.
Psychologist Karen Stein, Ph.D., who has studied identity specifically through the lens of travel and wrote Getting Away From It All: Vacations and Identity, agrees. "To me, the most moral approach to travel right now is one that prioritizes the well-being of those who are being visited. This doesn't mean that travel needs to stop, but that people need to be careful," she continues.
Rafael Museri, CEO of Selina, a global digital nomad hotel brand that caters to millennials and Gen Z-ers, has a similar approach, too. "I like to remind people that we are not the decision-makers. Each country has its own restrictions based on the situation there, and they are the decision-makers," he explains. In other words, as long as you follow the guidelines of the destination you're visiting, there is no reason to feel "bad" about being on the road. If anything, he reminds us, travel can and likely will make you feel good. "If you respect the rules of the place you're visiting and enjoy your trip within that framework, it's an amazing opportunity to travel right now — especially if you have the ability to work remotely and can mix your job with travel," he continues.
Which brings us to the next crucial pointer: Consider the positive effect traveling has on your mental health, too.
It can be tempting to read about the various forms and documents and PCR tests you need to travel these days and think: No thanks, that reeks of effort, I'll stay put until travel opens back up again for real. Or maybe you simply don't feel comfortable traveling yet, which is 100% valid. But like Museri, many psychology experts are also quick to point out just how important travel is for your brain (if you do it safely and prioritize the health of others, of course).
"These days, people are incredibly stressed and lonely and disconnected, and while travel itself won't solve that, it can certainly help," explains psychologist Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D., author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations. She points to the positive mental health impact of trip planning in particular, as research shows that it's the anticipation that can really get you excited about life again — not just the trip itself.
"The cost of isolation and of boredom isn't as measurable as Covid cases themselves, but it's taking a toll on mental health across the board — which is why knowing that you have something on the horizon to get you through your day-to-day is extra helpful right now," she explains. It doesn't need to be a huge international trip, either — you can still get the mental-health boost by planning a local weekend getaway, or even putting a day trip to the town next door in your calendar. It's not about how far you go, but the fact that you're going somewhere.
Another bonus: Getting out of your routine is good for your brain health. "When you have to navigate a new place outside of your comfort zone, it's stimulating for the neuroplasticity of your brain," Kurtz continues. "Travel is a massive dose of that kind of stimulation, and even though you can get it in other ways, travel is one of the biggest."
Kurtz also told me about a new line of research known as "psychological richness" that resonated with me 10000%. Basically, it emphasizes the positive impact that having as many interesting and perspective-changing experiences as you can has on your well-being. "Historically speaking, people have always talked about two types of a good life: a happy life and a meaningful life. But in recent years, researchers have proposed a third type of good life — the psychologically-rich life — that points to a life filled with adventure," she explains. Not surprisingly, travel is one of the most typical ways to achieve that third kind of good life — so Kurtz is all for weaving it into your life as often as you can. "It's most often associated with personal growth and intense emotions, and it's what I missed most during the early days of the pandemic," she continues.
And finally, Stein, the psychologist who wrote the book on travel and identity, told me that she sees travel as a time for "voluntary identity changes," a very fancy-sounding term for when a lawyer can unearth his yogi side on a retreat or a busy mom can rediscover her love for friendship on a girls' trip. "Vacations are a time when some parts of your identity that may get shifted to the background in everyday life get shifted forward — even though they may be just as important to you," she explains. The best part? Travel then becomes a way to re-examine your priorities and devote your time and attention to identities that you may have put in the background in your daily life, even if unwillingly.
In fact, Stein also told me that burnout is often the result of overemphasizing one of your identities — say, your work identity or your identity as a parent — and not paying enough attention to the rest of them. "In this sense, travel is a great antidote to burnout because it allows you to engage with identities and aspects of self that you might not always prioritize," Stein concludes.
With all of that in mind, here are some additional tips for traveling safely in 2022 and beyond:
If you're trying to figure out where to go…
- Opt for the great outdoors. The math here is simple: The more nature, the less contact you have with other people. Raymond spent the summer road-tripping with her family through the American Southwest and national parks in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona — and she can't recommend that nature-filled approach enough. "We were outdoors the whole time and we hardly interacted with anybody," she explains. "If anything, we had far fewer interactions over there than we would have in NYC. If you travel to sparsely populated places, you're going to lessen that contact." Similarly, Sophie Friedman, Editor-in-Chief at Michelin Travel and self-designated "die-hard spreadsheeter" of her friend group, just returned from Grenada, where she rented an Airbnb with eight friends. "The house was next to the beach, with nothing around, so there were no restrictions," she explains. As a crew of New Yorkers, her friends are used to wearing masks into restaurants and showing vaccination cards — which is also standard in Grenada — but being pretty isolated by the beach meant that it was a nice break to be able to hang out without all of that.
- Think about going somewhere that could benefit from your tourism dollars. Most places around the world took a serious hit during the pandemic, but many destinations that rely on tourism took an extra blow. As such, if you're trying to think of travel as a way to give back or to support your beloved global community, consider going to places where your vacation money could help boost the economy. Many small island economies — like Jamaica and St. Lucia and the Seychelles, for example — rely on tourism quite heavily. And no matter where you end up, support local small businesses rather than bigger chains wherever and whenever you can.
- If you're traveling internationally, choose a place where you can afford to stay for longer if you test positive for Covid and can't come home as planned. As you know, the US requires a negative Covid test to come back into the country after traveling abroad. The risk here, of course, is that you test positive and have to extend your trip (not to mention the fact that you have Covid). So before booking, ask yourself: Can you afford to stay for a few more days if you do test positive? Make sure you have money set aside in case that happens, and pack enough supplies (contact lenses, medications, etc.) in case of such an emergency.
If you're traveling with a group of friends…
- Bring your own Covid tests to save time (and avoid extra hassle). Friedman told me that before she travels, she checks her future destination's tourism board or the US Embassy website to see how much tests cost and where you can get them wherever she's going. For her trip to Grenada, she ordered home tests for everyone so that they could take them before heading back to the US, thus taking away the stress of finding a testing spot — and maximizing their group hang time as a result. "They're affordable, easy, and quick, and having them means we didn't have to leave the pool to get the test required to return to the US," she said. "Instead. we all woke up, took the tests, and had our results in 15 minutes." Just be sure to check that your destination allows you to bring a test into the country — some countries have restrictions about which tests they approve.
- Try not to blame anyone if they do get Covid on the trip. Friedman says that she and her friends were all on the same page before their Grenada vacation: If anyone tests positive for Covid on the trip, there's no getting mad. "It can happen to anyone, anywhere, and time, and it's absolutely no one's fault." she says. "Traveling with my friends is incredibly rewarding and far outweighs any risk."
If you're traveling with young children…
- Practice mask wearing on and off the plane. Raymond and her husband and two-year-old Kira are currently living a nomadic lifestyle on the road — meaning they are on planes quite often. She says that she and her husband make a game out of mask wearing when they're not on the plane, to be sure that Kira's excited to wear it when they are on the plane. "When you make it fun and make it seem as though it's a choice, for young children who don't have the intellectual capacity to understand what's going on, it makes it a fun thing for them — they want to do it."
- Make sanitizing and hygiene part of your kid's daily routine, too. That way, no matter where you go, your kid is used to staying clean — so it's less likely to become an issue. "We always have wipes with us, and whenever Kira sits down, we hand one to her. We make a game of it as well. Children thrive on routine, so she knows she's going to get her wipe when she settles into her seat — and now she loves it," Raymond explains.
- Minimize the interaction that kids are going to have with other passengers on the plane (especially with flight attendants). This ultimately translates to making sure they are busy and well-fed. "Packing snacks is of paramount importance," Raymond explains. "We bring our own drinks so that we don't need anything from the flight attendants. If you can find a way to minimize interaction in your various modes of transit — both within your destination and while getting there — that's always good."
If you're traveling solo…
- Go to the places you're most excited about—and go now! "I've been a big fan of solo travel far before the pandemic, but I think in this post-quarantine world, solo travel has been a great reminder for me to do the things that I love the most without compromise," says travel lover Christine Amorose Merrill, who works in podcast ad sales and just returned from a solo trip to Kaua'i in Hawai'i. "Life is short, and in ways that I never considered pre-2020: the places you want to go aren't necessarily always available to you," she continues. She's tried to prioritize going to the places that have been on her list for a long time, since there are no guarantees — and she hasn't been too worried about trying to coordinate plans to work with other people. Her advice: Just go now, while you can!
- Seek out half-day or full-day group activities wherever you go. Merrill is a big fan of signing up for Airbnb Experiences when she's traveling solo, as it's a great way to meet new people and have some social interactions — while also experiencing a place more deeply. She loves walking food tours and cooking classes led by locals — especially because both support small businesses. "After a very strange couple of years for travel, I'm so happy to very directly support a small business that relies on tourism for their livelihood," she says.
- Consider a solo work-cation if you're able to work remotely. As Museri pointed out, combining work and travel is a great way to take advantage of the pandemic era's work-from-home policies — and Merrill says it can also help you ease into solo travel if you haven't done much of it in the past. "A work-cation lets you experience a new city in a laid-back way: you don't have to spend all day out and about, but you can try out a different coffee shop every morning, splurge on local specialities at a farmers market or fun grocery store, and perhaps squeeze in a museum visit one afternoon," she advises. Bonus: You don't have to take any PTO!
So! What's the conclusion here? What's the best way to think about travel in 2022? As ever in the pandemic era, it all comes down to your personal preference. As for me, I'm very much in the "go now" category — especially after checking in with all of these smart people. My plan is to continue to follow the rules, head to places that excite me (especially those filled with nature), and, perhaps most importantly, relish in the mental health boost and perspective shift travel so often provides.