2020 was supposed to be a year of travel firsts for me: My first time in Portugal for my birthday. An October trip to India, fulfilling a dream I’ve had since childhood. And whatever other firsts I hadn’t yet planned that might come along. Needless to say, that’s not quite how it turned out.
As countries around the world closed their borders and states issued stay-at-home orders, I boarded a plane for exactly one trip in the summer of 2020 for a family emergency — and when I was home, I spent plenty of time alone in my apartment, started to frequent museums in New York City, and took more day trips to the edge of Long Island and upstate with my mother or a friend. I began to wonder why I hadn’t explored my own backyard more often. Why did the pull of “everywhere else” seem more important than the city I loved so much?
As someone who has filled up a couple of passports, that feeling of wonder I get when I explore someplace new will never wane. But over the past year and a half of keeping things closer to home, I realized that I could continue to explore and learn about new cultures and places, but perhaps I didn’t need to do it at the rate I used to. And even as the country forges ahead with “reopening,” I’ve continued to rethink what vacation means to me, so that I can approach it differently this time around. Here are five ways I’m reconsidering my experiences now.
Goal 1: Vacation for myself and not for social media.
There are reasons why many of the people traveling right now are going to the same places — and while these destinations are beautiful and often hold a lot of significance and memories, it’s worth unpacking how social media has affected travel for better and for worse. Beautiful Instagrams and dreamy TikToks can lead to a surge of tourism for places that just aren’t built to handle that many people, and traveling companions might spend more time composing the “perfect” photo than actually engaging in their new environment.
My personal travels began as an exercise in curiosity and pull to places I had always wanted to go. Sometimes that pushed me to the most touristy of spots like the Eiffel Tower, or lesser-frequented situations, such as staying at an ice hotel. I still wrestle with the idea of posting vacation photos on social media, but I have realized just how much the things you don’t photograph can change your entire travel experience. Even if a ton of people have been to the same places I’ve been to, personalizing how I spend time in any city, town, or country means that I will experience it differently and that I have a chance to see a place as authentically as possible if I make the effort.
Goal 2: Corporate action against the climate crisis is important, but individual care matters, too.
Carbon emissions fell slightly in 2020, according to Nature — a dip that aligns almost exactly with the COVID-related stay-at-home orders that curbed travel overall. There’s no single perfect way to showcase your climate activism, but the worsening climate crisis means it is worth rethinking how you travel, and how often. Reducing the number of times you fly is one way to be mindful, as is choosing to travel by train in instances where that’s possible.
For my part, I also choose to stay in spaces that are ecologically friendly. Businesses taking action in this way do make a difference, whether they’re incorporating plants and local farming into their design like h2hotel in Healdsburg, or if they’re allowing me to forgo daily in-room service to cut back on water usage for laundry and waste.
Goal 3: Mindfully give back to the communities where I place my feet.
Voluntourism has a shaky past, often filled with dubious “missionary” trips and endeavors that feed a narrative of negative savior tropes, especially where Black and brown children are involved. Voluntourism programs can often undercut local labor economies, as Konstantinos Tomazos and Samantha Murdy wrote in The Conversation. But I do think it’s a great idea to give back in a way that is helpful to the specific communities that you’re visiting, so long as you don’t attempt to assert your privilege where it doesn’t belong.
I now take time to do research about ways I can give back to the local community I’m visiting shortly after booking any trip. It’s a great way to get out, do something impactful, and I often leave with a full heart and spirit after I’m done. That can be as simple as signing up for an hour or two to pick up trash and shoreline debris on the beach (the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea teamed up with the Pacific Whale Foundation for such an endeavor). It’s also possible to do some local research before arriving to find out where you can help to plant trees or work on the land. Doing so might not be feasible for everyone, but it helps put my time in any destination into perspective.
Goal 4: Stay mindful of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effects on the communities I visit.
While many parts of the United States are rapidly reopening (that is, if they ever “closed” at all), much of the world is still in dire straits when it comes to COVID rates and vaccination supplies. This is ultimately yet another instance of privilege and exceptionalism, and it’s worth keeping that in mind when it comes to travel right now. (This privilege becomes even more layered and complex for Americans that belong to marginalized communities like me, as we live in a country that is as hostile to us as places abroad might be.)
But until vaccinations are further along in some parts of the world, it’s worth thinking twice about that trendy vacation destination — and to always follow proper social distancing protocols and wear plenty of masks. A “vacation” spot to you and me is a full-time home to someone else, and it’s always worth respecting those people and their cities and countries beyond their capacities as servers or hotel staff. As a result, I’ve decided to ease back into travel by simply traveling less, and holding more space for my own city and all the experiences it holds in the process.
Goal 4: Remember that a day can be enough if I do it right.
One thing that’s non-negotiable: you should absolutely be using every single hour of your paid time off if you have it. A 2019 study from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos found that more than 55 percent of American workers did not use all their allotted time off in 2018. And unless your employer allows you to roll some hours over, once they’re gone, they’re gone.
An easy way to chip away at that unused (and extremely valuable!) vacation time, is to book single days off for DIY long weekends. I used to think of vacations as week-long stretches of time spent somewhere completely different from my home. Now I realize that one solid day where I’m not checking my email or social media can feel incredibly restorative.
Last summer, a friend and I spent a night at Scribner’s Catskill Lodge — and between the delicious meals, amazing conversations, and some pool time, the trip was some of the best fun I’ve had in a long while. I’ve also had some other amazing, extremely quick trips over the last couple of years that involved me taking the train to states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Now when I plan my trips, I’m first thinking of any fun, more localized experiences that I can do, even if it’s just for a night or two. These trips actually require me to be more committed and mindful to disconnecting and resting, so my time away is restorative.
Goal 5: Honor how special my experiences are every time I travel.
In 2019, I stepped away from the company where I had worked for almost nine years, and onto an airplane. I was never in New York City for more than two weeks at a time, and while that felt very liberating, all that travel took a toll on my body and mind. I will always be grateful that I could travel when I did, but the constant movement left me feeling more jaded than not.
Over the last year, I’ve learned to really drink in each experience — even if it’s a day trip to Storm King Art Center during an ice-cold rainstorm. I went with my mom, and in a year of stillness, I’ll remember the brunch we got that afternoon forever. As I’ve learned firsthand, my heart is in it more when my vacations feel like a moment.