Recently, I found myself ripping into a perfectly good guidebook: neatly slicing its spine with a razor blade, discarding sections I don’t need, then stapling and taping it back together. This is my pre-trip, packing-light ritual anytime I go to Europe. And it felt very strange to be doing it again — both because it’s been so long since I last went to Europe, and because we’re still living through a pandemic.
After 686 days without setting foot in Europe, I’m finally getting ready to hit the road once again. When I tell people about my trip, some are excited for me. Others are quite the opposite: Their reactions suggest that I should be frightened, or even ashamed.
If overtourism was the travel trend for 2019, and 2020 was all about staycations, then 2021 is the year of travel shaming. And, as someone who tries to be a thoughtful traveler, I’ve lost a lot of sleep wondering whether it’s OK to go to Europe right now. But at the end of the day, I’ve decided to go. Here’s why.
Travel Shaming, Defiance, and a Third Option
Some people believe that it’s simply wrong to contemplate traveling internationally right now. These days, when you read travel articles — even fairly innocuous ones — a significant number of the comments express disappointment, anger, even ire. “How dare you travel at a time like this! You should be ashamed.”
Shaming has become our culture’s go-to move. That’s understandable: There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and it’s tempting to point fingers at the people and behaviors we believe are solely responsible. In the moment, shaming feels good. It’s cathartic. It comes with that delicious little hit of adrenaline…aaah!
Unfortunately, shaming is as counter-productive as it is gratifying. For instance, when it comes to engaging the vaccine-hesitant, experts are very clear on one point: Shaming does not work.
Shaming doesn’t work because the only meaningful reaction to being shamed is defiance — which also feels very good, and also comes with that adrenaline bump, and also is entirely non-constructive. It’s like we are all addicted to the same drug, and that drug is self-righteous disagreement.
Shaming implies that there’s just one correct answer to a problem. But problems are nuanced and complex, and so are solutions. The flipside of shame is empathy: trying to understand someone’s point of view, ideally to find some common ground as we navigate that complexity.
Whether you think it’s “OK” to travel right now is largely driven by how you view the value of travel. Some people see travel simply as a hedonistic pastime, a non-essential indulgence. And by that standard, sure — now may not be the time for casual tourism.
But for others, travel is a calling — something that brings us not just enjoyment, but meaning. For me, travel goes beyond mere “leisure.” Travel isn’t optional; it feeds my soul. I’ve devoted my career to travel not because it’s fun, but because it’s transformative.
Maybe you can relate. What’s the thing in your own life that sustains you? Hugging your grandchildren; being with friends or co-workers face-to-face; attending a live sporting event or music performance?
A recent study found that one major factor in COVID-19 spread during 2020 was family gatherings, and specifically children’s birthday parties. Interestingly, this was equally the case both for Democrats and for Republicans. It turns out, during our unprecedentedly polemicized times, one issue found strikingly bipartisan support: Nobody wants to tell their child that they can’t have a birthday party.
We all have those things we can only go for so long without — things we’re just not willing to give up. For you, it may be birthday parties, live theater, book group, poker night, or college football games. For me, it’s traveling in Europe.
So, in an effort to break the travel-shaming cycle, let’s talk about how people who travel during a pandemic can do so thoughtfully.
Please Pandemic Responsibly
These days, each one of us is making complicated, highly personal decisions about how we navigate the pandemic. Our lives are a series of tricky judgment calls on a sliding scale of risk: Is it OK to go out to eat, and if so, is it OK to sit indoors? Should the kids go back to school? Should you wear a mask indoors, even where it’s not required? Should you attend a live sporting event? Should you get on an airplane? Should you go to Europe?
While there’s plenty of science to help guide those choices, interpreting that science is complicated, highly idiosyncratic, and, very often, internally inconsistent. It sometimes feels like the USA has 330 million different individual approaches to the pandemic.
For me, pandemicking responsibly begins with getting vaccinated. And Europe agrees: Recently, the European Union recommended increasing restrictions on unvaccinated American travelers. Like it or not, if you’re unvaxxed, Europe does not want you, and they will make things hard on you. (That’s not shaming; it’s practical travel advice.)
For me, that question — whether a place wants me to visit — is critical. For example, the governor of Hawaii has discouraged tourists from visiting the islands for now. They are facing an acute crisis: When you’re running out of ICU beds, and the nearest capacity is a five-hour flight away, you can’t afford to take chances. And if a place is saying they don’t want me there, I’m not going.
In Europe’s case, the infection and vaccine rates in the countries I’m visiting are significantly better than in the United States. While they continue to face the slow, grinding crisis of the pandemic, they are currently handling it effectively. And the language of recent restrictions makes it clear that, for the sake of their tourism industry, most countries are comfortable welcoming travelers who are vaccinated and conscientious.
That’s because Europe’s tourism industry is struggling. Through COVID, I’ve been keeping in touch with European friends in the travel industry. And right now, most of them are desperate for income — in many cases, living off their savings and doing odd jobs to scrape by since early 2020. I keep hearing about favorite businesses that are closing up shop. I’m not sure Europe’s wonderful mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants can survive another winter. At some level, I feel OK about traveling — provided I’m doing it conscientiously — because I can do some good by spending money to tide them over until 2022.
One in ten people on this planet derives their income from the travel industry. And it’s not just tour guides, flight attendants, and hotel desk clerks. It’s the farmers who supply restaurants, the engineers who design and build airplanes, the Lyft and Uber drivers making some extra cash with airport transfers. At some point we will cross (or already have crossed) an imaginary line of “safe enough” to help these industries rebound. It may feel cynical to boil travel ethics down to euros and cents, but for people who need those euros and cents, that’s no small consideration.
When I began planning this trip a few months ago, it felt like we were charging toward normalcy. Since then, the rise of Delta has clouded things in uncertainty. In the end, I’ve decided to go to Europe, but with several caveats:
- I am fully vaccinated. There are no guarantees of safety, in life or in travel. But given my age and general health, I believe that the vaccine puts me at very low risk for severe disease. (If someone feels that their health, or the health of the people traveling with them, is too risky for the current conditions, they should stay home.)
- I intend to mask, distance, and do whatever else is asked of me, wherever I go. I recently stocked up on a new supply of hospital-grade N95 masks, for airplanes and other crowded situations. While I’m comfortable going maskless outdoors, I’ll continue to mask up inside, even when it’s not required.
- I am realistic that I’ll need to be flexible. Flights may be changed, cancelled, or rebooked. (In fact, one of mine already has been.) Museums or restaurants may be unexpectedly closed. This would not be a time to go to Europe with a long wish list of sights or a meticulously plotted-out itinerary; it’s a time to stay loose and roll with what comes.
- I accept the reality that there will be much more red tape than usual. For each country I enter, I’ll do my due diligence to fully understand the entry requirements, and I’ll fill out any required “passenger locator forms” (for example, this one for Italy and Slovenia). I will be prepared to prove my vaccination status on a regular basis. I assume that, at some point (or many), I’ll need to take a COVID test. And if I were to test positive — even asymptomatically — I am fully prepared to quarantine at my own expense.
The worst-case scenario, for me, would not be coming down with COVID and having to pay for a week in a quarantine hotel and an expensive new flight home. It would be unwittingly passing on the virus to someone who doesn’t have the same protection I do. If anything were to prevent me from traveling right now, that would be it.
On the road, I’ll do everything I can to prevent that from happening. I’ve chosen to visit mainly rural, out-of-the-way places where distancing will be easier, and I’ll cook for myself or dine outdoors whenever possible. (No crowded bars or clubs for me.) I will take a COVID test before I depart — even though my destination does not require me to — to ensure that I’m not bringing the virus along with me. I’m also packing some home antigen test kits, which I’ll use on the road as needed — in case I find out I’ve been exposed or I start having symptoms. And if at any point I test positive, my top priority will be to avoid exposing others.
Keep on Traveling
And I think this is the way of the future. Taking the long view, I agree with experts who now recognize that this pandemic will never really “end” — at least, not the way we might’ve hoped. COVID is gradually migrating from “pandemic” to “endemic”: Most likely, it will always be with us, floating around like common colds or the flu. The good news is that those miraculous vaccines have done exactly what they promised: For those who are vaccinated, they’ve turned COVID from a potential death sentence to a nuisance.
Over the years, I’ve been sick many, many times while on the road. I recall one visit to Spain where I got hit with a gastrointestinal bug and a ferocious head-and-chest cold on the same night. It took 10 days before I felt human again. Being sick while traveling is no fun. But, as kids get access to vaccines and all of us get our winter booster shots, COVID no longer has to mean that we call off travel altogether. It becomes just one more risk — one more potential headache — associated with an activity that already has more than its share of risks and headaches. As long as we’re willing to take that risk, and do our best to avoid passing it along to others, that may be all we can hope for.
I keep circling back to that old metaphor: COVID is the rain. The vaccine is a raincoat. Masking is an umbrella. I’m fine with getting a little mist on my glasses, provided I can stay mostly dry. But I’m not willing to stay inside until the rain stops, because that could be years, or it may never happen at all. Delta has turned a shower into a downpour. But by running from awning to awning, taking cover as necessary, I believe I can enjoy a fun yet responsible trip to Europe without getting soaked.
That’s why I’m heading to Europe soon (and why I’m optimistic for 2022 travels). I have no illusions that my trip is a 100% good idea; I may very well regret going. But these days, nothing is a sure thing. Sometimes you just have to make an educated choice. If you think that’s terrible, perhaps we can agree to disagree, and break that pointless, addictive cycle of shaming and defiance.
Either way, I’ll be posting about how my trip goes, so that anyone making this same decision — or those who are just curious — can have a complete picture of what pandemic travel looks like. I’m sure that, in some ways, returning to Europe will feel like being back home again. And in other ways, it’s a whole new world.
If you’re interested to hear what it’s like traveling in Europe right now, be sure to “Like” my Facebook page and sign up for email blog alerts. Lots of fresh insights are on the way — thanks for traveling along with me once again, after all this time.