“I’m going to unfollow you,” a friend griped in response to our social media posts. “No, but really, how are you possibly travelling now?” another asked incredulously. In a global pandemic, with most of the world fluctuating in and out of lockdowns, it was a fair question.
Having stepped down from our jobs at the end of 2020 to take a sabbatical, my wife and I have been travelling for nearly eight months, leaving Bangalore, India at the end of November to visit family in Seattle, explore three Hawaiian islands, and then continue to island hop in the Caribbean from the Bahamas to Aruba to Curaçao. We then made our way to East Africa, trekking to see primates in Uganda and whale sharks off the coast of Tanzania. After that, it was back to India for several weeks of downtime, and then off again, starting with a road trip across the US South, exploring Mayan ruins and coral reefs in Belize, and finally a public-transport themed meandering across astonishing Alaska.
It was photos of these adventures that aroused jealous encouragement from some and genuine bafflement from others. Many people cannot or should not travel right now. But many others can -vacation days also accrue in a pandemic, and remote work can be very remote work, if you wanted. For those of you itching to travel, here are the design principles we laid out at the beginning of our journey to minimize our risks and navigate the complexities of Covid-era travel:
- Choose Judiciously. We only visited destinations without mandatory quarantine. No point wasting precious days locked up in a hotel. Most countries have this information clearly laid out on their Department of Tourism websites. We also actively sought out places where nearly all activities were in nature and not populous cities.
- Expect Swabbing. We accepted the reality and the expense of doing Covid tests. In eight months, I’ve done more than 20 PCR tests in eight different countries. Most places we visited have very efficient testing regimes in place (easily available information online, and results in 5-6 hours). Aruba, for instance, had seamless testing on arrival – no need to do it beforehand. In India, you can be tested and cleared without even leaving home. Tanzania was the most complicated, but not impossible. Some tests were free (especially in the US), but the majority cost between $70 and $150 per test. Even after being vaccinated, this is still largely the case.
- Travel Light. We only took carry-on luggage for all eight months (albeit with the chance to replenish at home half-way through). Thus, we prioritized destinations with relatively warm weather near the sea (bathing suits and t-shirts being easier to hand-carry than sweaters and pants). Nearly all our clothing was multi-functional – if an item wasn’t usable across several types of activities, it wasn’t packed.
- Manage Sleeping and Eating. For accommodations, we preferred Airbnb to hotels. This allowed greater social distancing, as well as the option of cooking the majority of our meals (good for both health and wallet). When we did eat out, we nearly always ate at restaurants with outdoor dining.
- Drive Yourself. We rented cars in most places so we could get around easily without public transport, thus avoiding close contact in confined spaces. This also gave us greater freedom to avoid crowds and explore off-the-beaten-path.
- Embrace Uncertainty. This mindset was particularly valuable throughout our journey. We often didn’t know which country we were going to until two weeks before we got there. We had to change travel plans frequently as new Covid restrictions popped up, such as when Kauai locked down 10 days before our arrival and, on the other extreme, when we realized that the national parks in America were too crowded this summer to be enjoyable.
These principles worked. We got to see colossal humpback whales leaping into the air, swim alongside whale sharks and dolphins and giant manta rays and more turtles than we could count, hike near an active volcano, witness giant glaciers calve into the water, and trek after gorillas and chimpanzees. Each of those is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And yet they were just the icing on top of all the spectacular vistas of vibrant coral reefs, lush rainforests, colorful birds, forested mountains, and endless beaches. These are memories we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.
We also gained some perspective along the way:
1. De-risking Covid
Let’s name the bat-flu in the room. Yes, Coronavirus is truly awful. I’ve lost a classmate, a student, and at least two friends’ parents to it. But we live in a huge Indian city, and our other ‘home base’ is the United States – the two countries topping the Covid charts. Our risk of getting Covid was likely much less when we travelled than if we’d stayed at home.
Global health data showed us that the risk of Covid exposure on airplanes is minimal, but that’s less true for airports. So we often wore face shields in addition to masks in some airports (India and the US in particular).
You might argue that we were lucky. That if we’d gotten a bad case of Covid on a remote island, we’d have been in a pickle. That’s the fear that prevents most people from even contemplating travel. But of course your chances of getting Covid on a remote island are also, well, remote. I won’t tempt fate by claiming we weren’t lucky. But you can decrease your risk.
2. Packing Smart
Though we emphasized packing light, some well-chosen purchases enabled us to save money, do more, and reduce our risk of exposure. We got our own snorkels for $8 in India, water shoes for even less, and a dry bag for $2. Rash guards protected us from both winter ocean temperatures and the sun. Carrying our own water bottles came in handy more than once – and reduced plastic usage. Aloe gel was like gold dust against all the insect bites we suffered – sand flies are pure evil! We carried our own yoga mat rather than use ones our accommodations had. And a Kindle/e-reader goes without saying (this is the only “packing light” commandment my wife fails at by refusing to give up physical books, but even her resolve wavered during this trip).
Other things that came in handy were a small hiking backpack, electrolyte sachets for those days with too much sun, and protein bars for when food wasn’t easily available. Most airlines gave us PPE materials in large ziplock bags, which we saved and re-used for many other packing needs (I will never travel again without a stash of ziplocks).
What turned out unnecessary to carry were hand sanitizers and facemasks. Nearly every accommodation or restaurant/activity had copious amounts of hand sanitizer available. And airlines will give you more masks than you need, or you can buy locally handcrafted ones along the way.
3. The Benefits of Travelling Now
Once you’ve overcome your fear and are on the road, a few benefits reveal themselves. Firstly, a lot of incredible destinations were nearly empty, especially prior to the vaccines becoming available. In the Bahamas, we visited mile-long beaches without a soul in sight (daytime skinny dipping!), snorkeled in Curaçaoan bays all by ourselves, and had our own private guide for a half-day with chimpanzees in Uganda.
More prosaically, prices were down in many spots – discounts on accommodation, food and activity tours seemed the norm. Another benefit was the flexibility of both airlines and hotels to allow no-fee cancellations and date changes (though this likely won’t last much longer).
4. The Importance of Travelling Now
I’ll close with another insight that moved us. We all know, intellectually, that the pandemic has devastated the travel industry. On this trip, we saw firsthand all the businesses that are struggling to make ends meet. While climate change activists discourage travel in order to reduce carbon emissions, as nature-lovers we also know that travel remains vital to support local communities in conserving their natural ecosystems. There’s very little chance for wildlife conservation otherwise. The rangers who took us into rainforests to find gorillas and chimpanzees confessed, sometimes choking up with both worry and gratitude, that without travelers they may not be able to keep protecting these magnificent primates. In several countries, our Airbnb hosts genuinely thanked us for coming, as they’d also had a tough year.
By sharing our experiences, we hope to demystify travel in the time of Covid. Talking to friends and family, we’re noticing a persistent fear of travelling even amongst the vaccinated. If you are lucky enough to afford to travel or work remotely, then do it. Go to places where your money can support other people’s livelihoods and contribute to protecting wildlife. Tip well, to the extent you can. Be conscious of your travel footprint (here’s some good tips to reduce it) but don’t let that stop you from setting out. Like us, you may return more re-assured and confident in the possibilities of travel than you were before.