You’ve seen the think pieces, the random social media posts, the over involved aunts and uncles of the world shaming traveling during a pandemic all over the place lately.
In fact, I’m willing to bet a sizable chunk of people who read the title of this post have already skipped down to the comments to tell me how irresponsible I am for getting on a plane in 2020.
To the rest of you, thank you for reading so far. If you do end up trashing me, I’m glad it will be for the actual content of my post.
I struggled with what to do regarding travel this year. Even more, what should I do about promoting travel this year? Sharing blog articles or social media posts of me in far off places feels like encouraging other people to hit the road.
Virtual travel was an option to explore some unknown destinations. But I also had a home and family far away. After a while of wrestling with the question, looking up scientific articles and hearing medical advice, I decided I would be boarding a plane after all in 2020.
A Travel Blogger Without Travel
I ruled against flying unnecessarily for leisure travel, even though plenty of people I know have made that decision as well. But my family was in Greece, my other home is in Greece, and many work opportunities I needed to pursue and explore were in Greece. That was one flight I felt I absolutely had to take in 2020.
To be even more honest, it wasn’t solely about family and work.
When I flew from Los Angeles to Greece in August, the pandemic in LA was out of control. LA was averaging an absurd amount of new cases per day. We could technically dine outdoors but even that felt risky with such high case numbers. The pandemic, political situation, and raging California fires had led to bouts of anxiety, depression, and stress amongst almost everyone I knew.
The atmosphere in LA felt, both literally and metaphorically, choked.
I had a lot of good reasons to go to Greece. But most of all, I knew my mental health would suffer where I was, and I knew I had another option. Greece had a relatively low case load (though as I write, it has gotten worse with the expected fall wave). My friends’ and family members’ accounts pointed to a much more relaxed and healthy life in Greece.
So I got on a plane and left.
What It Was Like Taking A Flight
I flew through New York, where I stopped and quarantined for ten days to see my mother. Departing from JFK Airport, an experience I’d had dozens of times before, felt eerie. The international departure terminal was empty.
It felt like I was walking through an airport right after some kind of zombie plague. Devoid of the usual early birds casually stopping to pick up food and drinks for the three hours they had before boarding, the business travelers glued to their phone, the panicked passengers rushing to their flights, the terminal seemed cavernous and spacious and…empty. There were four people in the whole security line. 90% of the duty free shops were closed.
I flew through Paris, and on the first flight, I was alone with just two other couples in the entire business class section. With the EU banning entry for US travelers, only those with EU passports (I’m a dual citizen) and essential workers were allowed to fly. Meaning many US-EU flights were getting cancelled, and those that went ahead were mostly empty.
Honestly, I felt very safe. I flew with Delta, which was one of the few US airlines keeping every other seat empty. The seat and plane were spotless, perhaps the first time that’s happened to me on a flight. Attendants had clearly disinfected every inch of the cabin.
The flight attendant was incredibly happy to talk to me (A PERSON, YAY!), and asked how and why I was heading to Europe anyway. When I told her I was going to stay in Athens, the city I spent a few years of my childhood in, she got misty-eyed. “Oh….” she said dreamily, “that sounds so nice. Please have fun for me”.
Be Prepared for Total Travel Confusion
I had trouble checking-in before my flight, and was told to call Delta to check in over the phone. Apparently, the problem was that I didn’t have a negative COVID test taken within three days prior to departure. This was something the French government had officially started requiring just a few days ago.
Frequent rule and regulation changes regarding COVID-19 safety measures are par for the course. Each country, region, and city will also have its own different set of rules. Travelers need to stay updated when traveling during a pandemic.
I explained I was only transiting through Paris, and had not been informed I needed this test. Then, I further explained that though I had taken a test in NY a week ago, I still didn’t have the result. New York was averaging 7-10 days to return COVID results.
I was sure I didn’t have COVID, as I had been quarantining at home with no contact with the outside world besides a drive-through test site. The Delta service operator told me I might not need a test if I only have a layover in Paris.
“Might?” I needed a more definite answer.
“Yeah. I’m honestly not sure. Call the French embassy, they’ll know”.
I struggled to get even simple contact information from the French embassy’s website, and then finally connected with a heavily-accented woman. On the phone, I repeated my dilemma to her and asked if the negative COVID test was required during transit.
“I’m…not sure. Call the airline”.
“I did!”, I replied, exasperated and five hours from departure. “They said to call you.”
“Oh. We don’t think so.”
So with this half-hearted confirmation, I went to the airport. I boarded the plane fully prepared for the possibility that a haughty border officer in Paris would turn me right back around to the US.
With the ever-changing COVID regulations for each country, expect this level of confusion about pretty much everything.
Onboard, the flight attendant handed me a form to complete for disembarkation in Paris. I asked if I still needed to fill out the form if I was only transiting through Paris. She leaned in a little closer and whispered, “Honestly, I have no idea, they just started giving this one out. Fill it out just in case.”
The Science: Is Flying During COVID Really That Dangerous?
The thing is about traveling during a pandemic, for all the fear surrounding flying, studies and experiments have repeatedly shown that planes aren’t as risky as people think. In fact, to date, there have been no super spreader events traced back to planes after COVID regulations have been put in place.
United Airlines recently conducted military-grade tests on their flights to see how safe flying is in terms of virus spread. They found that almost 100% of particles were filtered out within six minutes, even on a full flight.
More importantly, only 0.003% of infected particles crossed into a passenger’s breathing zone.
The only two case studies that found significant COVID transmission in planes focused on two flights in early March, before current sanitation procedures, mask mandates, and spacing within cabins was adopted.
One of the most recent studies involving COVID transmission on flights found that “the risk of contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train.”
The reason I bring up these studies is because:
1) I believe we should base our decisions regarding COVID on science, in addition to personal considerations.
2) A lot of people who engage in local activities that have been shown to be higher-risk than flying are still quick to shame others for getting on a plane. I think this is mostly due to misinformation, and the idea that getting on a plane is inherently a high-risk activity. I’m not encouraging everyone to travel, nor saying everyone should jump on a plane right now, but if you’re someone who’s, say, comfortable dining outdoors in a pretty full restaurant in 2020, flying doesn’t seem to carry all that different a risk.
How Did I Feel About My Travel in 2020?
Coming to Greece might have been one of the healthiest things I did this year. Not that there’s a lot of competition for “healthiest moments” in 2020. Those who started cracking open beers at noon at some point know what I’m talking about.
I was extremely careful while traveling during a pandemic. Right before boarding the plane, I received my negative test result from my NY test. I got tested again at the airport in Greece, as the algorithm not-so-randomly selected my US self for testing. Until confirming I was negative, I quarantined for a day. And for the next few days, though I left my house, I was extra cautious about mask wearing and keeping distances. Ask my cousin who saw me leap 6 feet back as he approached for a hug.
I then RE-tested six days after my arrival to make sure I hadn’t picked up anything on the plane. Negative again.
And then…I relaxed. I can’t describe how different life felt in Greece from everything I had experienced in LA.
Life in Greece in the summer months is always outdoors anyway. When I arrived, masks were not required outdoors due to the low caseload. There were days when I never needed to wear a mask, as I spent most of my time outside, and at a good distance from people.
Most of all, the lack of political crisis in Greece and the fact that most people had generally been unaffected by the pandemic personally made all the difference in the world.
Between LA and NY, I knew of over 50 positive COVID cases. Many of them personal friends and acquaintances. A few who ended up hospitalized for weeks. A few who never got to the hospital, but were still experiencing symptoms months later. A couple of friends’ relatives who died.
I didn’t realize how much I had relaxed mentally until I started catching up again with my friends in the States. I felt a lot of stress and anxiety coming up in our conversations. When I brought it up to my Greek friends, they all smirked and said the same thing.
“Jo, when we were talking to you in LA, that was you too.”
Remember, People Are Not Traveling Just For Fun
This pandemic will not end soon. Even if, in the best case scenario, a vaccine comes out in spring or summer of 2021, administering it to the entire global population will take time.
A lot of people want to travel to take a break, to take care of their mental health, to feel less trapped. However, many “travel shamers” fail to consider something else.
Many people who have traveled so far in 2020 have done so to see their family. To reunite with their partner. To be present for a friend or loved one who is falling deep into a mental health crisis. To take a job after they lost their last one. Let’s not jump automatically to shame people, simply for traveling.
You can criticize people who travel irresponsibly. Or people who travel and disregard the rules of their destination.
One example that comes to mind is when a group of US travelers threatened to sue the country of Antigua and Barbuda because they didn’t want to abide by the island’s protocols. Many did not follow mandatory quarantine orders after testing positive, and others argued officials had no right to give them a nose swab test.
To the rest of the world; we really aren’t all like this. There’s just a few Americans who really want to live up to the worst stereotypes the world has of them.
Should YOU Travel During COVID?
If you have done your research, personally assessed your risk, feel comfortable, and are willing to comply with local regulations regarding COVID once you arrive, I personally believe you can exercise the option for traveling during a pandemic.
After all, some countries opened up their borders because they took into account their low caseload, put necessary regulations in place to filter out most cases, and realized the tourism dollars that would keep their people and businesses afloat were worth a few possible extra COVID cases.
They made that decision, so there’s no reason for a traveler respectfully visiting any of those countries to feel ashamed about their choice.
Travel Guilt in 2020
But you still might feel a little guilty, and that’s to be expected. I actually felt pretty guilty when I came to Greece from the US.
I consider both countries my homes; I have citizenship in both. And yet it felt like I was fleeing LA at the worst possible time, and I felt guilty for having the escape hatch of dual citizenship, when most people didn’t.
Realistically, I don’t know that it would have helped in any way to stay in the US when I left. I had arranged an absentee ballot, I had donated and continued to donate to the causes I supported…what else could I have done by staying?
Sunk into hopelessness about the political issues in our country? Increased my risk of catching COVID by being in a city with such a high caseload? Kept my windows shut for weeks on end in solidarity with my neighbors, to prevent ash and smoke from the dozens of fires burning all over California from seeping in? Continue to miss my family and other home?
I realized that my feelings of guilt weren’t that rational, but they were still there. However, this trip was more than worth it in the long run.
Have you traveled at all since the COVID-19 outbreak? Are you planning to?