Pandemic travel
perspectives

How has the pandemic changed the way you travel? We asked that question to several well-known writers, journalists and explorers.

Illustration by petovarga/Shutterstock.com

Illustration by petovarga/Shutterstock.com

Illustration by petovarga/Shutterstock.com

How has the pandemic changed the way you travel? We asked that question to several well-known writers, journalists and explorers.

Here, they share how they now think differently about time spent away from home and, in some cases, their time spent at home. There are a few common threads — most are more aware of both their surroundings and their impact — but each response reflects a very personal perspective.

How has the pandemic changed the way people travel? There likely are as many answers as there are travelers.

—Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief

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Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux leans against a doorway. (Photo by Steve McCurry)

Paul Theroux leans against a doorway. (Photo by Steve McCurry)

Paul Theroux leans against a doorway. (Photo by Steve McCurry)

Prolific best-selling author Paul Theroux has written novels with a strong sense of place as well as nonfiction books, many of which have chronicled his travels. His most recent novel is “Under the Wave of Waimea” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).

We were all so bold before the pandemic: “The wife and I are going to Bangkok for the weekend.” “Our safari in Ngorongoro is all booked.” “We’ve got tickets to Wimbledon … the Olympics … Glyndebourne … Carnival in Rio … Taj Mahal.” How confident, how hubristic!

Then as the virus spread across the world, we were reminded of two things: how connected — how global — we are, and also how pathetically vulnerable. Those planes that liberated us also brought the virus and infected the planet. All the old certainties faded away and we became housebound, and many of us lost relatives and friends. A number of friends of mine died — in Mexico, the U.K., Africa and the U.S. 

Last summer, at the height of the pandemic, my wife and I made regular roadtrips from Cape Cod to the Maine coast. Being cautious: no restaurants, no socializing. On Thanksgiving, I hit the road alone. I drove from Boston to Los Angeles to deliver some of my papers to the Huntington Library, and I can say that it was one of the pleasantest and most enlightening trips of my life: light traffic on I-40, all motels empty, most restaurants shut (but I brought my own food to microwave in various Bates Motels) and constant encounters with virus deniers, virus paranoiacs, the masked in the Northeast, the unmasked in Tennessee and Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, window service at the In-N-Out Burger in Needles, Calif., sidewalk dining in Pasadena, Calif. This trip, a sort of Journey of the Plague Year, helped me take the temperature of the USA, and it was easy to see (this was while the presidential election was being disputed) that I was driving through a country without effective leadership, in a welter of misinformation. I got tested in LA and flew to Honolulu on a fairly empty plane.

That trip showed me that a roadtrip, wisely planned, is a happy alternative to flying to Central Africa or India. My cross-country drive reminded me of the delights of the American landscape, and I truly enjoyed engaging in conversations with people I met along the way, making notes each day on their wise observations or their cockamamie assertions. Now I’m thinking of driving to Canada, and meandering. I might also drive back to Mexico, as I did off and on for almost two years, when researching my book, “On the Plain of Snakes.” I’d like to visit London, to see my children and grandchildren — I haven’t seen any of them for almost three years — but I am reluctant, perhaps overcautious.

Henry David Thoreau said repeatedly that it wasn’t necessary to leave the USA to have a travel adventure; he never went very far (Maine, Cape Cod, NYC, Montreal). He was insistent in claiming there was plenty of wilderness and exoticism and strangeness right here. Yes, he was saying this over 150 years ago, but I think it’s still true.

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Jessica Nabongo 

Jessica Nabongo in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Elton Anderson)

Jessica Nabongo in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Elton Anderson)

Jessica Nabongo in Jaipur, India. (Photo by Elton Anderson)

Jessica Nabongo is the first Black woman to visit every country in the world. She is currently at work on a book about 100 of the places she has visited, to be published by National Geographic in May.

Because I’m so public facing, I have become incredibly conscious of what I’m sharing on social media and have scaled back. In December, I went to Senegal and didn’t share that. Same with Brazil, and not even when I traveled to Miami for my birthday last May. Even though only one person had tried to travel-shame me, early on, I’m very aware of the optics.

I’ve continued to write about the people I meet and the beauty in the mundane.

I spoke to the Washington Post last August about revenge travel. My idea was to go to places I would normally avoid because there were too many tourists. It’s exciting. I went to Venice in August; everything was open, but it wasn’t crowded. It was really, really nice.

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Peter Greenberg

Peter Greenberg in Mexico. (Photo by Hande Bayar)

Peter Greenberg in Mexico. (Photo by Hande Bayar)

Peter Greenberg in Mexico. (Photo by Hande Bayar)

Peter Greenberg is CBS News travel editor, host of the PBS series “The Travel Detective” and the weekly CBS radio show “Eye on Travel,” produces the occasional PBS series “The Royal Tour” and has written nine books on travel topics.

The pandemic didn’t change the way I travel, and it didn’t stop me from traveling.

But it did change my level of situational awareness in every destination and at every touch point of the travel experience. It focused me more on the process of travel versus the destination itself. When I board an airplane, check into a hotel, walk into a restaurant or embark on a cruise ship, I take nothing for granted anymore. I look at everything to determine if the travel or experience providers have done their due diligence in both short- and long-term sanitation, health protocols and social distancing.

And now, more than ever, as the world begins to slowly emerge from Covid, I’m very sensitive to those in the travel, tourism and hospitality business who may be using the pandemic as an excuse to permanently cut essential services, and I’m alerting my audience to this disturbing trend. 

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Tony Wheeler 

Tony Wheeler, en route to El Mirador, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Tony Wheeler)

Tony Wheeler, en route to El Mirador, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Tony Wheeler)

Tony Wheeler, en route to El Mirador, Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Tony Wheeler)

Tony Wheeler and his wife, Maureen, founded Lonely Planet, the first guidebook series written for backpackers exploring the off-the-beaten-path world, in 1972. Though the company was sold in 2007, Wheeler has — the pandemic notwithstanding — continued to explore.

The pandemic has certainly changed how I’ve traveled. I did not make a single overseas trip for over 12 months, when typically I’d visit 15 to 20 different countries in a year. A month ago, I finally escaped “Fortress Australia” but needed special permission from the government — a travel exemption — to be allowed out of the country. And there’s no guarantee I’ll be allowed back in when I want to return.

In the 42 days I’ve been away, Melbourne, home for me in Australia, has been locked down for 28 of them. There’s a nightly curfew — no leaving home apart from an hour of exercise and a single shopping trip — and no going farther than three miles from the front door. Yet London, where I am now, has a daily new case rate 50 times worse than Melbourne, and I’m off to a restaurant and the theatre tonight. It makes absolutely no sense.

But nothing makes any sense. I’m about to travel to Greece, and it’s a bureaucratic checklist of vaccination certificates, negative test proofs, Passenger Locator Forms — and that’s just going. There’ll be another checklist in the other direction.

I’ve just had lunch with a Hong Kong friend. He can’t visit Greece before heading back to Hong Kong because it’s just been elevated to a higher risk category. He can breeze into Hong Kong from certain countries, because not only will he have the negative test and the vaccination proof but also a Hong Kong antibody test certificate, which seems to prove that not only has he been vaccinated, but the vaccination appears to work. Belt and braces.

So, at the moment, who would travel anywhere? It’s like a circus acrobatic feat to travel. And will you be allowed back home after you get there?

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Lavinia Spalding

Lavinia Spalding in Lisbon. (Photo by Dan Prothero)

Lavinia Spalding in Lisbon. (Photo by Dan Prothero)

Lavinia Spalding in Lisbon. (Photo by Dan Prothero)

Award-winning travel writer Lavinia Spalding has edited six editions of “The Best Women’s Travel Writing,” co-hosts the podcast “There She Goes,” contributes to several media outlets and teaches writing workshops around the world.

When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, I was packing to leave for two weeks in Colombia with my best friend to celebrate our 50th birthdays. We canceled our flights, thinking we were merely postponing till fall. It was disappointing, but I had plenty of other exciting travel on the horizon — or so I thought.

One of my favorite ways to travel is by teaching writing workshops in far-flung places — I love helping students articulate foreign experiences — and in the past year and a half, I had three workshops scheduled, all of which were canceled: first, a monthlong memoir class in Paris (that one really hurt), then a two-week workshop in Yelapa, Mexico, (co-teaching with legendary travel writer Tim Cahill) and, finally, a 10-day meditation and writing course in Katmandu. (This one has been postponed to fall of 2022. Fingers crossed!) Meanwhile, I haven’t left the country in two and a half years, making this the longest stretch I’ve gone without using my passport in 25 years. It feels odd and a bit unsettling. Travel is a big part of my livelihood, but it’s also what has always kept me sane and centered. It’s a spiritual and intellectual pursuit; when I travel, I return home a better me.

So I’ve had to reconcile with my travels turning exclusively domestic. In June of 2020, my family and I spent five days driving from our home in New Orleans to our summer place on Cape Cod. Since we weren’t comfortable with hotels, we camped. And though it wasn’t Paris, we stayed one night in Oak Mountain State Park in Alabama, and the next morning we had a gorgeous, bright-blue lake all to ourselves. Another night we rented a spot through Hipcamp on a farm in Virginia, next to a burbling stream, where we roasted marshmallows and gazed out our tent window at hundreds of fireflies. It was totally magical. And this summer, my best friend visited me on Cape Cod. It wasn’t Colombia, but we hiked over sand dunes and hung out with a great blue heron in the tidal flats and toasted to our 50th birthdays over lobster rolls and fried whole belly clams. And just a few weeks ago (when we had to evacuate for Hurricane Ida), my family flew to the wilds of Utah, where my sisters live. It wasn’t Nepal, but in a tiny, remote, beautiful town called Boulder, we hiked up and down red rocks, searched for petrified wood, sang songs in a slot canyon and ate zucchini fritters and bison steak at my sisters’ amazing restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill. 

I stopped pitching international travel stories a year and a half ago, because even though I’m vaccinated, I’m still not ready to travel internationally. Instead, I accepted a job co-writing “Frommer’s EasyGuide to New Orleans 2022” — an assignment that’s reintroduced me to the city I live in, as it’s taken me to neighborhoods and businesses I never even noticed before. The conversations I’ve enjoyed with shopkeepers and museum docents and hoteliers have not only exponentially deepened my relationship to this city but have given me a meaningful travel experience. 

It’s weird to say, but I think somewhere along the way during the pandemic, I stopped dreaming of elsewhere. Instead, I craved connection, and these domestic trips have provided that in spades.

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Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer on a train in Varanasi, India. (Photo by Malek Hue)

Pico Iyer on a train in Varanasi, India. (Photo by Malek Hue)

Pico Iyer on a train in Varanasi, India. (Photo by Malek Hue)

Pico Iyer has published 15 books, including the travel classic “Video Night in Kathmandu” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), given four TED talks that have received more than 10 million views and frequently publishes in national and international media outlets.

I’ve been flying back and forth across the Pacific regularly throughout the pandemic, between my mother’s home here in California and my tiny apartment in Japan. Two weeks from now, I’ll be flying across the American West and then, four days later, back, gods willing, to Osaka. In a global neighborhood, family commitments and our jobs alone ensure that we have to stay in the air (and want to do so, too).

I know that the pandemic has lasted longer than almost any of us has expected, and I’m keenly aware that many will be wary when they step into a plane again. But can, or should, our longing to explore, to discover other cultures, to take ourselves (inwardly as well as outwardly) to places we’d never go otherwise come to an end? I don’t think so.

I feel there’s a moral urgency to getting to know our neighbors across the world, on whom our lives so constantly depend (as the virus has brought home with fresh force). But it’s also fun and imaginatively priceless to get to know what life looks like in Brazil and Jordan and Mississippi and even North Korea. Lockdown has afforded me a unique opportunity to explore the wonders close to home, in both California and Japan, with new delight and attentiveness. It’s forced me to think about the point — the cost — of travel, and what we need to do if we’re going to protect our beautiful environment. Most of all, it’s given me a fresh new list of places I’m eager to visit; I hope to be in Zanzibar and the Seychelles for the first time in March, and perhaps in Saudi Arabia before that.

The long Season of Lockdown has forced us to take nothing for granted, and that includes the beauty, the necessity and the fun of travel. I was thrilled, talking to the 88-year-old founder of Aman Resorts, Adrian Zecha, earlier this year, when I heard that he was busy setting up new hotels all the way through the pandemic and that, having experienced world wars and oil crises and so much else, he remained confident that travel would never die, any more than curiosity, humanity or adventure can die.

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Mario Rigby

Mario Rigby in the Azore Islands. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)

Mario Rigby in the Azore Islands. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)

Mario Rigby in the Azore Islands. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)

Mario Rigby is the first person known to have walked the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo. He has since planned several other expeditions, including kayaking the length of Lake Ontario.

Storytelling, education and adventure are the three overarching themes for my expeditions, and I focus on sustainability and indigenous people. I have had a ton of opportunities to travel recently, but I have a responsibility to travel responsibly.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had planned to go to Nunavut, Canada, to investigate how indigenous people view climate change but didn’t want to risk going where healthcare might not be readily available.

I had decided that as soon as they lifted restrictions for provincial travel, I would kayak the length of Lake Ontario. All the experiences you can have doing that had never been fully documented.

I’m now fully vaccinated and did go to Tofino on Vancouver Island, after being invited by the chief of indigenous people there, and it was an incredible experience. I went to Vancouver Island for a project on the importance of old-growth trees to the ecosystem, particularly in British Columbia.

And I flew to Turks and Caicos to scout for my next expedition, to traverse the entire length of the eight islands — on foot, swimming, by kayak and bike. The important thing for me is human-powered expeditions.

Overall, I’m more conscious about what I’m doing. There are more steps to go through to decide whether it’s a good idea. I think about the risk to the health of the people I visit. Before, I would just think, “This would be a great story.” I just can’t look at it that way anymore.

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Brian Kelly 

Brian Kelly, the Points Guy. (Photo courtesy Brian Kelly)

Brian Kelly, the Points Guy. (Photo courtesy Brian Kelly)

Brian Kelly, the Points Guy. (Photo courtesy Brian Kelly)

Brian Kelly founded “The Points Guy,” initially focused on how to maximize loyalty points and now one of the most popular travel websites in the world.

So much of how I travel has changed for the better.

Before Covid, I frequently took short trips about every other week, spending a lot of time in transit. I now take longer and more meaningful trips — two weeks to really interesting destinations like Rwanda and Kenya. I also believe, now more than ever, that we need to help the economies that depend on tourism. I’m more mindful of supporting local businesses and tipping extra.

I’m more intentional about travel and think a lot about the impact of my travel on the destination, even when traveling in the U.S. I think about where hospitals are under a lot of stress; I don’t want to be a burden on the local healthcare system should I get sick.

A few other small things have changed: I always bring comfortable masks and travel with headphones so on long flights I can put my mask around my headphones to avoid ear irritation. I also always travel with my own pen so I don’t have to borrow one and possibly spread germs when filling out forms. Overall, the pandemic has allowed me to savor more of travel. I’m not traveling for the sake of traveling. Each trip is meaningful.

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Erling Kagge 

Erling Kagge, on his solo trek to the South Pole. (Photo courtesy of Erling Kagge)

Erling Kagge, on his solo trek to the South Pole. (Photo courtesy of Erling Kagge)

Erling Kagge, on his solo trek to the South Pole. (Photo courtesy of Erling Kagge)

Erling Kagge was the first person to reach the South Pole, North Pole and to summit Mount Everest on foot. He has sailed across the Atlantic twice and from Cape Horn to Antarctica. He has also written eight books on exploration, philosophy and art collecting.

Thanks to the pandemic, I have been looking into the nights at home. I love to watch stars during dark nights. They teach me humility, they remind me that we are such a tiny, tiny part of the world, but also instill a feeling of greatness because we are a part of this vast, fantastic universe. 

The starry sky is, as the Norwegian polar explorer
Fridtjof Nansen wrote in 1895 after traveling farther north than any human had previously, “the truest friend in life. It is ever there. It gives peace, ever reminding you that your restlessness, your doubts, your pains are passing trivialities, and that the universe is, and will remain, unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, our sufferings are not so important and unique when all is said and done.”

And I will add: Eyes cannot gaze at themselves, but you can study them via the stars. What you see in them depends on who you are.

By looking into the night we are sharpening our ability to converse with ourselves. By turning your gaze upward, you also turn it inward, toward your inner silence and uncovered, forgotten sides, into that universe which, to me, is just as mysterious as outer space. One universe stretches outward, the other inward.

To me, the latter universe is of the greatest interest, and I needed a reminder of that. The pandemic provided it. As Emily Dickinson rightly concluded, “The brain — is wider than the sky.”

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