My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Iceland Is Open. Should You Go?

For those of us addicted to international travel, March 18 brought some intriguing news: Iceland opened its borders to people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Suddenly, an overseas trip — to a steaming, insanely scenic, puffin-populated, near-Arctic island, no less — is a real possibility. Summer solstice in Reykjavík, anyone?

I love Iceland. Over the past few years, I’ve traveled there several times, researching, writing, and updating our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (in collaboration with Rick and our co-author, Ian Watson). I’m not vaccinated yet — I’m patiently waiting for my turn — but as soon as that happens, the temptation to head back to Iceland will become difficult to resist. Meanwhile, Continental Europe has hit a speed bump with its vaccine rollout, and they’re still sorting out who will be allowed in, and when. My fingers are crossed for returning to the Continent sometime in the latter half of 2021…but I’m not counting on it.

So, for antsy travelers-in-waiting, should Iceland be our first trip back overseas? Iceland’s tourist season is brief: The weather’s best, the midnight sun is shining, and the puffins are nesting from June through August. That gives us a little time to decide. Here are some considerations.

Is It the “Right Thing” to Do?

For me, the first question is an ethical one: Would I be doing more harm than good by visiting Iceland this summer?

In recent years, with Iceland’s meteoric rise in popularity, tourism has grown to about 40 percent of its revenue and 15 percent of its jobs. Iceland is reopening its borders because, economically, they need tourism to return.

But here’s the critical caveat: Iceland wants the right kind of tourists. That means, first of all, people who can prove they’ve been vaccinated. And more than that, Icelanders want visitors who are conscientious — ones who recognize that they’re invited guests and are willing to do their part to keep Iceland safe.

This winter, my wife and I spent some time in a place similar to Iceland — an isolated locale with relatively low COVID rates, hoping to keep it that way while opening up to visitors. We went there only because we were confident we could adhere to rigorous precautions (masking, social distancing, and so on). We didn’t want to get sick, sure. But even more important, we didn’t want to infect our hosts.

In the end, it went great. The unanimous sense we got from locals was that they genuinely appreciated visitors who buoyed their economy — provided those visitors respected the rules and shared their commitment to keep the community safe.

In short, if you feel a sense of entitlement to do whatever you like on vacation — if a “vacation” means a vacation from masking and social distancing — then stay home. Iceland doesn’t want you. But unselfish rule-followers are more than welcome.

Ring Road, Iceland

This ties into what I hope will be a trend in post-pandemic travel: Being a thoughtful guest. It’s easy to forget now, but 2019 — the last “normal” year of traveling — was a hard one. “Overtourism” was the big theme; popular places like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, and, yes, Iceland were overwhelmed with bigger (and unrulier) crowds than they could handle. “Instagram” became a dirty word because of the pileup of humanity that clogged a few influencer-endorsed photo op viewpoints, getting in the way of local life.

Talking to people in these “overtouristed” places, the unifying sentiment was clear: They don’t want zero tourists; they want the right number of tourists, and the right kind of tourists — those who are curious, respectful, and fun. As we get “back to normal” over the coming months (whether that begins in Iceland or not), this is something all travelers should keep front-of-mind: Being a good traveler means being a good guest.

Logistics

Iceland is user-friendly. English is widely spoken; the roads are well-maintained, well-marked, and (except during Reykjavík’s rush hour) uncrowded; and people are generally welcoming, if a bit shy, and have an inspiring can-do attitude. The downsides are the cold weather, even in summer (bundle up); and the high expense (but budget-minded visitors find ways to manage their costs).

The biggest logistical hurdle right now is that incoming visitors are required to show proof of vaccination with one of several approved jabs: Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, or AstraZeneca. Proof that you’ve recovered from COVID-19 is also accepted. Visitors also must preregister online. Iceland requests that visitors download and activate the national contact-tracing app. And, once there, visitors are expected to adhere to any COVID-related regulations, including masking, gathering, and social distancing policies similar to what you’ll find in more community-minded corners of the USA.

If you’re considering a visit, be certain to keep up-to-date on entry requirements, which could change at any time — the onus is on the traveler to be informed. The Icelandic government’s COVID-19 website is a good resource. (To get your head around all of this, here’s a recent first-person account of visiting Iceland right now.) And keep in mind that, for now, all passengers returning to the United States must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before their trip (so you’ll need to get a test in Iceland); it remains to be seen whether this requirement might be relaxed for vaccinated travelers.

The CDC is currently discouraging travel, even for the vaccinated. (This advice is being widely ignored, however.) Assuming you’re planning a summertime trip, keep an eye on evolving CDC guidance. Because it’s still not entirely clear whether vaccinated people can carry and spread COVID-19, masking at all times at airports, in flight, and in other indoor or enclosed situations remains the considerate thing to do; regardless, Icelandair (and other airlines serving Iceland) has a masking requirement, and Iceland requires masks in public, unless you’re outside and more than two meters from the nearest person.

To plan your trip, pick up our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook. The second edition was meticulously updated in late 2019; in fact, on my last trip to Europe before the world changed, I invested a week in writing up new chapters on Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords. Unfortunately, by the time that edition was printed, COVID-19 had already shut down travel. That second edition is as up-to-date as anything in print. Still, it’s too early to know how the pandemic might affect the book’s advice…so please be patient.

In general, anyone heading to Iceland (or anywhere) in the next several months should be realistic: You’re a pioneer, and you’ll need to remain flexible. As of this writing, bars, theaters, and swimming pools in Iceland remain closed, and restaurant space is strictly controlled. (For details and updates, see this government site.) Beyond that, things are unpredictable: New variants or problematic spikes could scrap your plans or send you home early. If you’re not up for that, sit tight until the situation is more established.

What to Do, Where to Go?

The 48- or 72-hour “layover” approach has always been popular for a quick Iceland getaway: home-basing in Reykjavík and spending most of your time side-tripping to the Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa, the attraction-studded Golden Circle loop, the dramatic scenery of the South Coast, and/or the off-the-beaten-path Westman Islands. (Here’s my detailed description of one such trip. And here are some more itinerary tips.)

Typically, people do these quickie stopovers because they’re adding Iceland on to a longer European journey. This summer, however, Europe seems likely to remain off-limits, or at least more complicated to visit. So if you’ve ever been tempted to settle in for a longer, stand-alone Icelandic trip — and you should — now may be the time.

Europe’s ultimate road trip is Iceland’s Ring Road: 800 stunning miles on Highway 1, looping around the perimeter of the island. It takes at least a full week at a speedy pace; adding a few more days lets you linger longer and break up a string of one-night stays. My Ring Road blog post outlines the basics of doing the drive on your own, and our Rick Steves Iceland book offers detailed, day-by-day, stop-by-stop instructions for a mind-blowing road trip.

If you have a little less time — or want to spend less of it in the car — you could still visit Reykjavík and environs, then add on a few days elsewhere. The Snæfellsnes peninsula is doable as a long day trip, but works better with at least one overnight. This combines well with a trip to the Westfjords, which gets you feeling very far from civilization, including the chance to visit some stunning waterfalls and one of the world’s best bird cliffs. Or spend a few nights in the Mývatn area (in Iceland’s North); this offers a taste of the Ring Road without committing to the entire loop.

Consider the efficiency of a one-way car rental (which may come with an extra fee): Drive from Reykjavík to a distant and scenic outpost, drop off your car, then zip back to the capital on a cheap, easy, and frequent flight (from Ísafjörður in the Westfjords, or from Akureyri near Mývatn).

Another advantage of this “get out of Reykjavík” approach is that it makes social distancing that much easier. The experience of driving through the Westfjords or hiking amidst steamy craters at Mývatn isn’t that much different today than it was during pre-COVID times; one of the great appeals of Iceland has always been that sensation of being all alone in the grandeur of nature. (The only ailment I’ve ever picked up in Iceland was a wicked case of athlete’s foot from a thermal swimming pool.)

Should you go to Iceland this summer? It would be reasonable to conclude that it’s too early — there’s plenty to see and do closer to home, and Iceland will still be waiting for you later on, when things are closer to “normal.” But if you’re just itching to get overseas, Iceland could be an ideal way to give it a scratch until Continental Europe opens up.

I’m still thinking about it, and keeping an eye on how those first few weeks’ worth of visitors are finding Iceland (and how Iceland is finding them). What about you? Tempted?

10 European Discoveries for 2021

On the horizon, there is light. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but it’s coming. Although it has never been more important (or harder) to continue staying home, limiting contact with others, wearing masks, and so on, it’s beginning to feel like 2021 may bring the “return to normal” — and the return to travel — that we all crave. It’s too early to begin planning trips, but it’s never too early to dream. So…where to?

The last several years, my New Year tradition has been to assemble a list of 10 European Discoveries. As we reach the end of a year of hardship, and face a new year of further uncertainty, I almost bailed on this idea. But we will return to Europe. It’s just a question of when. So I’ll keep with tradition — but with a new spin.

I believe that in the post-pandemic world, travelers will look for something different. Before COVID-19, we had gotten so busy, and so stressed by the crowds, that we forgot to slow down and hear the church bells — to savor those beautiful everyday moments of European life. (If I have a post-pandemic resolution, it’s to not make this mistake again.) Having renewed our appreciation for the incredible privilege of being able to go anywhere we want, we’ll seek opportunities to settle in, slow down, and be fully present in Europe. We’ll choose places just outside the mainstream, ones that reward patience and contemplation.

And that’s the theme of my 2021 European Discoveries: 10 places where you might want to settle in for a week, or a few, and really get to know a fascinating corner of our planet. I haven’t set foot in Europe in well over a year — with, I assume, several more months yet to go. It has afforded me ample opportunity to reflect on my 20-plus years of exploring Europe. And looking back on all of it, these are the places the burn brightest in my mind.

Where are you hoping to slow down and savor our world in 2021?

 

Soča Valley, Slovenia

I can think of few places I’ve missed more in 2020 than Slovenia. And for me, the most beautiful place in this incredibly beautiful country is the Soča Valley, where a turquoise river cuts a gorge deep into soaring alpine cliffs, just a few miles from the borders with Austria and Italy. Historians know the Soča Valley for its fierce mountaintop battles during World War I (this is where Ernest Hemingway was wounded while driving an ambulance). And contemporary travelers know it as an adventure-sports capital (whitewater rafting, canyoning, paragliding) and home to the restaurant of Ana Roš, the world’s best female chef. You can get a taste of the Soča Valley on a very busy one-day side-trip from Lake Bled or Ljubljana. But why not settle in for several days? Sleep at a tourist farm on a high-mountain pasture, wake up each day to the sun peeking over snowcapped mountains, and spend your breakfast (of farm-fresh eggs) deciding which breathtaking hike or scenic drive to do today.

 

The Markets of Provence

In September of 2019, my wife and I had a full week to unwind anywhere in Europe. Already exhausted from a packed and fast-paced year of travel, we opted for a quiet weeklong break in the South of France. Why? We wanted to savor the delightful market days (jours de marché) that hop from place to place around the bucolic Provençal countryside. In one week, we sampled seven different markets, each with its own personality. Yes, Provence is packed with other attractions: great sights and wine-tastings and gourmet meals and scenic hikes and hot-air balloon rides. But the markets are precisely the type of sensory super-experience we’re all desperate for after a 2020 spent very close to home. After living through a time when going to the corner grocery store feels like high adventure, imagine the thrill of strolling a lively town square, generously shaded by plane trees, as you choose a little wheel of cheese for your picnic from a mound of fragrant options, browse for just the right produce for a home-cooked Provençal feast, and bite into a strawberry that truly, intensely tastes like strawberry.

 

Budapest

I wrote the book on Budapest…literally. And yet, even after 20-some visits, I still can’t get enough of this grand city on the Danube. With each weeklong visit to update my guidebook, the list of things I’d still like to see and do gets longer, not shorter. The melting pot and de facto capital of Central Europe, Budapest’s unique urban culture mixes a respect for tradition with a cosmopolitan openness to creativity and innovation. It wins my vote for the hands-down best restaurant and nightlife scene in Europe. And yet it also has a stately elegance, with ornate turn-of-the-century buildings, inviting tree-lined plazas, and wooded hills ideal for nature hikes. (And don’t get me started on the thermal baths.) Last March, I had already booked my tickets for yet another visit to Budapest, and I couldn’t wait. That trip, of course, never happened. And by the time I finally get back there, the anticipation will be unbearable. I never know precisely what I’ll see, do, and learn in Budapest. But I know it’ll create lasting memories.

 

Iceland’s Ring Road

When we produced our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, we included a “how to” chapter on Europe’s ultimate road trip: driving 800 miles on Highway 1 around the perimeter of Iceland, connecting astonishing scenery, geothermal hotspots, glaciers and icebergs, charming fjordside settlements, and warm and wonderful Icelanders. We covered the Ring Road generously in our book, even though we figured very few people would devote the full week required to do this trip justice. But maybe we were wrong. The pandemic has made National Lampoon’s Vacation-style road trips all the rage again. There’s never been a better time to rack up some serious miles through cinematic landscapes and have an honest-to-goodness adventure. And Iceland is made to order for “social distancing” as we tiptoe into the post-pandemic future. My Ring Road post covers the basics; if the photos and places intrigue you, forget about that “48-hour Icelandic layover” you’ve been contemplating…go all-in on the full Ring Road.

 

North Wales

Recently I had the joyful experience of driving around North Wales (roughly the triangle formed by Conwy, Caernarfon, and Ruthin) for several days to update our Rick Steves Great Britain guidebook. I adore Europe’s plucky, off-the-beaten-path cultural eddies, and North Wales tops the list. Along with offering a fascinating crash course in Welsh culture and language, this region is studded with towering stone castles that make you feel like a kid again, a rugged landscape of craggy mountains and slate rooftops, and cheery red dragons laughing down from every flagpole. And it’s compact, making it easy to see a lot from any one of a number of charming home bases. While less known than the Scottish Highlands or Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, North Wales is every bit as fun, scenic, and culturally rich.

 

Maramureș, Romania

Years ago, my Dad and I went on a road trip through Romania, seeking traditional culture. When we came to Maramureș — ten long, potholed hours of driving north of Bucharest — we felt like anthropologists stumbling upon a place that time forgot. The rolling green hillsides are dotted with giant, tipsy haystacks. Rustic villages with mud roads — and more horse carts than cars — are lined with elaborate wooden churches and ceremonial gateways. Shepherds living in split-wood shacks make cheese like medieval peasants. And riverside settlements bustle with industry dating back to biblical times, from carpet-washers to fulling mills to to weaving looms to moonshine stills. This is not an “open-air folk museum” — it’s the real deal, Europe’s Amish Country. As our world changes at a dizzying pace — which only accelerated in 2020 — there’s no guarantee that Maramureș traditions will survive for much longer. (Teo Ivanciuc, an excellent local guide who helped us film our TV segment in Maramures, would love to show you around.)

 

Camino de Santiago, Spain

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked from all over Europe to venerate the bones of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, at the northwest corner of Iberia. This route — the Camino de Santiago — was largely forgotten over the centuries, only to be rediscovered in our own lifetime by travelers seeking an escape from modern life. After a year of deep soul-searching, there’s nothing like a four-week hike to clear the mind, synthesize all we’ve learned, and contemplate where to go from here. Begin in the green Pyrenees foothills of Basque Country, then walk across the arid plains of northern Spain, through villages and cities and across stone bridges from Roman times, before finally passing trough the wilds of lush, green, and rocky Galícia — all along the way, sleeping in rustic pilgrims’ hostels and following scallop shells through the wilderness. I’ve hiked bits of the Camino here and there (and I drove the entire route, end to end, to write a “how to” chapter in our Rick Steves Spain guidebook). But I’ve never been so tempted to do the full Camino the old-fashioned way.

 

Lofoten Islands, Norway

All my life, I’d seen this magical place in postcards and coffee-table books: soulful fjords with cut-glass mountains rising high above serene, deep waters, speckled with red cottages and almost no people. My wife and I decided we simply had to see this scene for ourselves. And when we finally made it to the Lofoten Islands — above the Arctic Circle and chilly even in August — we found it even more stunning than the photos. Getting to the Lofoten requires some effort (from Oslo, fly due north for an hour and a half), so you might as well settle in. The rugged Norwegians who’ve carved out a hardy life up here, hanging cod to dry on rickety wooden frames, are adept at introducing visitors to traditional lifestyles. Rent a rorbu (cheery cottage perched on stilts over the fjord) and spend a few days just tooling around, from the “capital city” village of Svolvær to the end-of-the-road cod-fishing settlement called Å. We home-based in Reine, perched on a flat rock in the middle of a fjord with the most stunning views in all of the Lofoten, and from there we ventured out to see everything the archipelago has to offer.

 

New Zealand

Sure, it’s not “European” in geographical terms. But for anyone who loves Europe, New Zealand feels strikingly familiar…yet excitingly different. (One afternoon, you’re punting the River Avon in Christchurch, as if you were in an English country garden; the next day, you’re swimming with dolphins at Kaikoura.) After years of hearing from our well-traveled friends about this seemingly too-good-to-be-true land, my wife and I finally spent a few weeks here in early 2019. And we fell instantly, hopelessly in love. Yes, the scenery is gobsmacking, and Lord of the Rings fans are in heaven. But New Zealand is so much more: a melding of Europe and Polynesia set amidst an entertaining landscape, where majestic glaciers rise high above steamy groves of ferns and palm trees. We loved sampling the local wine, craft beer, and third-wave coffee culture; learning about the indigenous Māori culture; and getting to know the wonderful Kiwis, who somehow manage to be well-organized and ceaselessly competent while remaining low-key and easygoing. Even before we came home, we’d already started Googling “How do I emigrate to New Zealand?” Now that the Kiwis (under the steady and compassionate leadership of Jacinda Ardern) have managed the pandemic better than anyone, this little island nation is sure to be flooded soon with more than its share of tourists…and transplants. Why not finally get down there soon,  ahead of the crowds? As soon as they open up to outsiders, New Zealand is at the top of our list of post-pandemic dreams.

 

Agriturismo Cretaiole, Tuscany

For years I’ve been singing the praises of a very special place to stay in the most beautiful corner of Tuscany. On a wooded ridge just outside Pienza, city mouse Isabella married country mouse Carlo and, together, they converted a traditional Tuscan farm into the best possible expression of an agriturismo — where visitors experience rural Italian culture and cuisine with modern comforts. With each visit, this place impresses me even more — and especially the vivid, perfectly orchestrated Tuscan experiences that Isabella creates for her guests: truffle hunts, pasta-rolling parties, olive oil appreciation classes, wine tastings, deeply meaningful nature hikes, and on and on. When I close my eyes and picture the one place I’d love to get back to as soon as I can, it’s spending a week — or more — at Cretaiole.

On my most recent visit to Tuscany, a few months before COVID-19 hit, Isabella showed me around her gorgeous new boutique hotel (La Moscadella), offering a similar Tuscan cultural experience with more luxury. But now that fine hotel, and the original farmhouse, sit mostly empty — one more tragedy in this year full of them. Whether it’s Cretaiole or some other perfect place you’ve discovered in your travels, small businesses are hurting right now. If you have the means to travel, as soon as it’s safe, consider booking a return visit. Helping to jump-start these businesses is the least we can do, considering all of the joy people like Isabella and Carlo have brought to our lives over the years.

I’m hoping that 2021 brings good fortune and a return to what we love, both for us travelers and for the people we meet on the road. Like all things, this too shall pass. And a year from now, if all goes well, we’ll be comparing notes about a whole new slew of discoveries for a new age of travel.

Thanksgiving in Tuscany: A Treasured Travel Memory

Eight months later, our world remains upside-down. And it’s becoming clear that nobody will (or should) be going anywhere this winter. If we ever want to “get back to normal” and travel again, it’s time to hunker down and relive favorite memories. For me, that means reminiscing about one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever…spent in beautiful Tuscany. I hope this little bit of armchair travel helps you get through another gloomy day, and reminds you of the fun that awaits us all on the other side of this pandemic.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Scenery-024

A few years ago at this time, I was getting ready to head to Tuscany for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. The trip created some of the most vivid travel memories of my life: rolling hills, pretty as a painting, tufted with sprigs of vivid-green winter wheat; stony hill towns, normally jammed with tourists, instead buzzing with bundled-up Italians; amazing meals — featuring chestnuts, mushrooms, and persimmons — that redefined my sense of seasonal Italian cuisine.

cameron-italy-tuscany-cretaiole-021

We stayed a full week at Agriturismo Cretaiole, perched on a ridge just outside of Pienza and wonderfully run by Isabella and Carlo. Isabella has a knack for understanding what her American clientele are looking for in a trip to Tuscany. So she set up three entirely different — and equally enjoyable — cooking classes: preparing a blowout feast in an Italian mama’s house; shadowing a Michelin chef in his restaurant’s kitchen; and rolling our own pasta back home at our agriturismo. (Meanwhile, Carlo’s dad, Luciano, kept us well-lubricated with nightly doses of grappa and Vin Santo.)

Montepulciano — my favorite Tuscan hill town — was quieter than usual, giving us a chance to linger over visits with  its colorful cast of craftsmen: Adamo, who’s evangelical about the local red wine; Cesare, a coppersmith who takes more joy these days in getting to know tourists than he does in creating pots and pans; and Guilio, whose steakhouse turns a chunk of beef into a work of art.

We also ventured into the autumnal countryside. Brown leaves crunching underfoot, we followed a talented dog as she sniffed out truffles. And then we had a truffle feast at a nearby restaurant. 

And, in general, we fully enjoyed being in the foodie paradise of Tuscany.

Finally, at the end of the week, we did a little “Black Friday” shopping in Tuscan hill towns, and enjoyed the first of Italy’s holiday lights.

The high point of our week was Thanksgiving dinner. When I tell people I was in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, their first question is — with a note of concern — “Did you have turkey?”

Americans love their Thanksgiving dinner. And many of us simply can’t fathom counting our blessings without an oversized portion of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Our agriturismo host, Isabella, understands this, so very early in the planning stages she reassured her nervous American guests: “And of course we will celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving meal — one with a Tuscan twist.” Well, phew!

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-001

In typically thoughtful fashion, Isabella had arranged a fantastic feast, which happened to be at one of my favorite restaurants in the region (Ristorante Daria, in the tiny hill town of Monticchiello). Months before, Isabella had conspired with the owner/chef, Daria, over a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And the gang at the restaurant had come up with a delicious mashup of American and Tuscan.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-003

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-004

The first two courses were the most Tuscan, but cleverly informed by “our” Thanksgiving ingredients: a delicate pumpkin soufflé, topped with creamy pecorino cheese sauce and fresh-grated truffle. And a dish of pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, gently nestled in a subtle citrus cream. Both dishes were, at once, explosively flavorful and intensely comforting. I would not mind seeing either of these on my Thanksgiving table for many years to come.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-006

Then it was time for the main event. The waitstaff loaded all of the turkey onto a tray and ceremonially paraded it through the restaurant, like proud hunters with their kill. Then they took it back into the kitchen and re-emerged with beautiful — and very traditional — plates of turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes…with, in a delicious Italian twist, a trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil.

cameron-italy-tuscany-Thanksgvng-007

They also brought out some fantastic gravy and surprisingly traditional cranberry sauce. Daria explained that she’d asked some American friends to ship her some cranberries, which are completely unknown in Italy. (Pretend for a moment you’re an acclaimed Italian chef. And imagine your shock — and maybe disgust — upon taking your first-ever bite into a raw cranberry: sour and astringent, wrapped in a tough little shell and infused with a blood-red dye. How on earth do Americans eat this stuff? The answer: Lots and lots and lots of sugar. Even on her first try, Daria nailed it.)

Things are different for the holidays this year. And they were different that year, too. But one thing I’ve learned from that Thanksgiving in Tuscany — and other holidays that found me in  unusual places — is that, while traditions have their place, the really memorable holidays are the ones that are different. We’re all exhausted from trying to find a positive spin on these trying times. But perhaps you can forge some new traditions and make some new memories this year. It might not be sweet potato gnocchi, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never forget it.

What are some of your favorite European memories to get through this long, dark winter?

Jams Are Fun: Making the Most of a Bad Situation

As we head into a long, dark winter, I find myself thinking about my travel motto: “Jams Are Fun.” That means making the most of a bad situation, rolling with the unexpected, and finding humor, joy, and meaning in the chaos. Here’s one example, from a recent trip to Croatia.

One time, in the scenic beach town of Rovinj, I parked my car at one of the big lots just outside the historic center. When I went to get my car a few days later,  the parking lot had become a huge outdoor market and carnival zone for the town’s big patron saint festival. The space where I’d left my car was home to a rickety tilt-a-whirl.

At the parking booth, I showed the attendant my ticket. He shuffled some papers around and asked for my license-plate number. Then he said, matter-of-factly, “OK, so we moved your car.”

“What?! But you don’t have my keys. Did you tow me?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head and wagging his finger. “Not tow. Not tow. We pick up your car… with…” And he pantomimed a crane lifting up my car and placing it gently on the back of a flatbed truck.

“Where is it now?” I asked. He pointed at the overflow lot, all the way across the bay. “Over there,” he said.

I protested that I had no idea there was a festival planned. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “You already pay for the parking. We just have to move your car. You can just go and get it, and drive away.”

I trudged 15 minutes along the grubby waterfront to the overflow lot — packed with hundreds of cars in town for the big festival — and started pressing the lock/unlock button on my key fob. Finally I heard my locks click. Sure enough, there was my car, none the worse for wear, just waiting for me… about a half-mile from where I’d parked it.

By the time I drove back into town to pick up my wife and our luggage, I was already chuckling about all of this. “What took so long?” she asked.

“Well, you know how it goes,” I said. I laughed and shook my head. “Jams are fun.”

My wife’s Great Aunt Mildred was a remarkable soul. She traveled far and wide, at time when such a thing was unheard of for a single woman. And after seeing more of the planet than everyone else in her small Ohio hometown combined, she penned a travelogue about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. What really stuck with Aunt Mildred wasn’t the castles and cathedrals; it wasn’t the museums and the monuments; it wasn’t the grand scenery and the fine meals. It was when trips went sideways — memorable snags in perfectly laid plans, which forced her to scramble for creative solutions.

When I encounter fellow travelers on the road, the ones who impress me the most are those who have this same “Jams Are Fun” approach to life. They come alive as they tell long, meandering stories about a missed connection or a canceled reservation or getting hopelessly lost. Athletes call this “playing loose” — being prepared, but willing to improvise and respond to the situation as it unfolds (or unravels). Problems aren’t problems. They’re opportunities to create vivid memories.

Thinking back on this — many months into a pandemic, and more than a year since I last set foot in Europe — it strikes me that “Jams Are Fun” isn’t just a good philosophy for travel. It’s a helpful attitude for dealing with whatever life throws at you, including and especially during a crisis. This doesn’t mean minimizing or trivializing real problems. It means looking for silver linings.

My personal challenge through all of the anxiety, sadness, and disappointment has been to find moments of peace and joy: making progress on those do-it-yourself projects; mastering some new recipes; finally writing that book. I find that I’m in better touch with faraway friends than ever before. And one of my favorite work-from-home perks is when my friend and his seven-year-old ride their bikes by my house every afternoon so we can hang out on the front steps.

We’re entering what experts agree will be an especially challenging phase of this pandemic. We’re all fatigued. We’ve had enough. Those fun little things we did early on — putting teddy bears in our windows and doing Zoom happy hours with co-workers — aren’t quite so fun anymore. But now more than ever, it’s important to stay the course, stay positive, and try to find the fun in the jams. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, we’re in this whether we like it or not. So we might as well make the most of it.

I’ve been collecting my own “Jams Are Fun” travel stories for the last few years on my blog. If you need a little inspiration (or just a few laughs at another traveler’s misfortune), check some of these out. And in the Comments, share your own favorite “Jams Are Fun” stories.

One time, in the North Atlantic waters around Norway, my cruise ship hit some incredibly rough seas. I lived to tell the tale.

On the back roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I got pulled over by a pair of corrupt cops and shaken down for a bribe.

Researching a guidebook on Italy’s Cinque Terre, I found myself embroiled in a community-wide dispute between rival gelato makers. I managed to escape, but the crossfire was delicious.

Finishing up a busy trip in Rome, and very ready to get to the airport and fly home, I discovered how hard it is to get a taxi when it rains.

When producing a TV episode in Bucharest, the Romanian Parliament told us that we could film inside. Then they changed their minds. And then…they changed their minds again.

In Salzburg, my guidebook research responsibilities required me to take two back-to-back Sound of Music sightseeing tours. Not one of my favorite things.

In a bizarre sequence of events, I made plans to meet up with an old friend at what we expected to be a quiet rural airport…only to find it was hosting a Europe-wide air show that very afternoon.

As a very light sleeper, I worry a lot about nighttime noise. So imagine my joy when I showed up at a hotel just as a wedding band was setting up in the lobby.

On Scotland’s remote North Coast, my fuel gauge dipped to “empty” just as I was pulling up at the only gas station for many, many miles in either direction…which had just closed for the day.

And, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily. (Pro tip: Just go numb.)

What about you? What are some of your favorite “Jams Are Fun” memories?

Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment

UPDATE as of November 23: In the nearly two months since I wrote this post, the situation has changed dramatically. While it’s still “relatively safe” to fly — assuming you wear a high-quality mask the entire time you’re in the airport and on the plane — it’s far from foolproof. And especially with the massive spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide, and the airport crowds around holiday travel, I would never set foot on an airplane under current circumstances. This decision involves two major considerations: Whether you’ll get sick from being on the plane (which is primarily what’s addressed in this post); and whether you may already be infected, but not yet symptomatic, and will be carrying a deadly disease to a new place — worsening a pandemic that is already stretching our heath care system to its limits.  For the trip described here, my wife and I traveled in the late summer, when cases were much lower, and we were careful to self-isolate for an extended period between landing and seeing our relatives. I would never make this trip today. Someone who flies cross-country, and immediately enters the home of a vulnerable loved one, is taking both of their lives in their hands. Please: Unless it’s an emergency, stay home. Safe and effective vaccines are right around the corner. Skip in-person Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, for just this one year, and have one hell of an Easter or Fourth of July reunion (depending on when your family is fully vaccinated.) The end is in sight. We’re almost there. Let’s stay safe and look out for each other!

I recently got on a plane for the first time in eight months. Leading up to the trip, I thought long and hard about whether air travel was advisable with a deadly pandemic still raging. We live in an age of high-stakes judgment calls, and this one felt especially tricky. Is it safe to fly during the coronavirus?

I am not a medical professional, nor am I qualified to give hard advice about what’s “safe.” What I can offer is one traveler’s decision-making process about whether to get on that plane. You may think I’m crazy for flying. Or you may think I’m crazy for overthinking this decision. You’re both right…for you. Here’s what was right for me. If you have a different (science-based) perspective…let me know in the Comments.

My wife and I were debating whether to make a cross-country trip to check in on close relatives we haven’t seen in many months. The first question was, simply: Is flying safe? So we did some homework.

At this point, it appears rare for travelers to become infected during a plane flight. There have been a few documented cases, but these were very early in the pandemic (February and March), before airlines and travelers began taking precautions. (Meanwhile, there are also reports of coughing, infected people who apparently caused no spread at all.) In fact, airlines claim that flight crews have lower rates of COVID-19 infection than the general population. You can parse that data in various ways, but I take it as an encouraging sign about the strict guidelines that now govern commercial flights. To be clear: This doesn’t mean that on-board transmission has not happened. But if it’s happening regularly, I’d imagine experts would have identified that pattern over the last six months.

Why is on-board infection seemingly so rare? The transmission of COVID-19 is primarily through respiratory droplets that can linger (and, quite possibly, recirculate) in the air. You may have heard about cases where one infected person in a café or on a bus has spread the virus to many others. But airplane air is filtered at a high rate, using HEPA filters to screen out 99.97% of airborne particulates, and fully replenishing the entire plane’s air supply every two to four minutes.

Considering the high air filtration standards, the biggest risk in commercial air travel seems to be the people in your immediate vicinity. You can’t socially distance on an airplane, and those early airplane outbreaks were traced to a small section of the plane. But wearing a good mask greatly reduces your risk, as do thoroughly washing your hands as often as you can, using sanitizer between hand-washings, and refraining from touching your face. Some models suggest that booking with a carrier that keeps middle seats open reduces your potential exposure to an infected seatmate.

This information gave us peace of mind about the risk of flying to us. But what about the risk we might introduce to others? The fact is, air travel spreads COVID — not necessarily by infecting people while they’re on the plane, but by transporting infected people to new areas. Through social distancing, wearing masks when appropriate, and self-isolating, my wife and I were fairly confident of reducing our exposure to others both at home and at our destination. (In fact, we self-isolated for a lengthy period on either end just to make sure.) If our daily lives required a higher degree of interaction, or had the purpose of our trip been a gathering — such as a family reunion or a wedding — we would not have taken that flight.

With a clear understanding of the risks, our next question was: Were we willing to take those risks? I find it helpful to consider these decisions in terms of “risk budgeting.” This begins with the idea that risk isn’t a binary condition. It’s a spectrum. We all take risks every day — some big, some small. The goal is to have a finite sense of how much risk you’re willing to take, overall, and then “spend” that risk thoughtfully. For example, several weeks ago, I went in for a long-overdue dental appointment. I knew I was exposing myself (and others) to more than my usual risk — so I was especially careful before and after that visit to reduce my contact with others. It’s human nature for one risky activity to embolden you to engage in another, then another. Risk budgeting helps keep you honest and responsible.

Obviously, different people have different risk budgets. Before making any of these decisions, each person ought to make an honest and realistic assessment of their own risk. I’m a generally healthy person in my mid-40s, with no major pre-existing conditions. I’m reasonably fit, but I’m hardly a decathlete. Statistically, if I contracted COVID-19, I would likely have a mild to moderate case. My odds of ending up in an ICU (or worse) are small, but they’re not zero. And any COVID case comes with a strong possibility of long-term damage. Knowing all of this makes me more cautious than careless. If I were 10 or 15 years older, and/or if I had underlying conditions that put me at higher risk, I’d have a much smaller risk budget to spend — and I would not have taken this flight, period. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, and an ultramarathon swimmer, I might have a little more risk budget to spend — but I’d do so mindful of the risk I’d pose to others.

Another consideration is to weigh the risks you’re taking against the benefits. For example, a few months into the pandemic, my wife and I desperately wanted to see my parents (who live a short and safe car ride away). We’d been very careful, and so had they, but there was still a possibility of exposing each other — and their age put them in a higher-risk group than us. I consulted with a family friend who’s also a trauma surgeon, and she suggested that the relatively small risk might be outweighed by the very large positive impact the visit would have on all of our mental health during such a troubled time. Because we were all being so careful, we chose to “expand our social bubble” to include each other…and have been glad we did.

And so, with all of this in mind, my wife and decided to get on that plane. We took several precautions to further reduce our risk (and read up on lots of advice, including from the CDC). We booked a direct flight (limiting our time in airports and exposure to fellow passengers) and took advantage of a deal that guaranteed us our own row to ourselves (expanding our ability to social distance on board). We chose a carrier — Alaska Airlines — with a particularly strict face-covering policy, which requires all passengers to wear masks at all times, no exceptions.

On the day of travel, we brought plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which we used liberally. And we wore masks from the moment we entered the airport at one end until the moment we exited the airport at the other end. And for good measure, since I was sitting on the aisle, I also wore a face shield on board. Sure, I looked a bit strange, and I was the only person I saw who was taking these “belt and suspenders” measures. But I didn’t feel silly. I felt safe. (Well, safer.) Vanity has no place in a pandemic.

Deciding how to get to the airport proved to be another exercise in risk budgeting — in this case, measured against actual budget. The free and easy option would be to ask a friend for a ride. But we realized that would mean being in a car with someone we’ve been careful to socially distance from — potentially exposing us or him. So that left two options: Uber or parking at the airport. While the Uber rides both ways would have been a bit cheaper, we chose to splurge on parking at the airport — to conserve our risk budget, to avoid potentially exposing yet another person to our germs (and vice-versa), and to buy a little more peace of mind.

We were definitely nervous leading up to the flight. But the reality was less scary than we expected. The airport was virtually empty. So was the airplane — fewer than half of the seats were occupied. Everyone wore masks, and on the rare occasion that a mask slipped under someone’s nose, the situation was quickly, politely, and firmly remedied.

The day after we arrived, we put on our masks and went for a walk in the neighborhood, where we saw scores of unmasked people eating and drinking in bars and restaurants. Knowing what I know now, personally, I’d rather spend a few careful hours on an airplane than eat inside at a restaurant. It’s that old “fear/risk” assessment — often the things that frighten us are less risky than we might think, and vice-versa. Understanding the science helps make those decisions clearer.

I want to stress that I’m not going to make a habit of flying for the time being. I will personally not fly to see family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s likely that I won’t see the inside of another airplane until 2021; I intend to strictly limit my long-distance travel until this pandemic is more under control (and, ideally, a safe and effective vaccine has been distributed). And I would not recommend flying to just anybody — someone in a higher risk category should think long and hard about engaging in any activity with a potential for exposure. But if I were in a pinch and felt I needed to fly, I have more confidence now than I did before this trip.

What about you? Have you taken any flights since the outbreak began — and how did it go? Also, how are you making these kinds of stressful decisions during the pandemic? Does the “risk budgeting” approach work for you — or is there another helpful way of thinking about it?

There may be no easy answers these days — but we travelers can learn from each other.