Traveling during a pandemic: Why it may be more important than ever to put yourself first

Jul 21, 2020

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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We’ll be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

In the weeks and months leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, my travel plans revolved almost exclusively around other people.

When an incredible flight deal to Greece appeared at the beginning of the year, I knew I’d have to pass it up because those dates conflicted with a wedding I was attending in California. In April, I was trying to juggle my birthday trip around my parents’ schedule and a friend’s vacation days. By the time March arrived, everything I’d even attempted to plan was quickly crumbling, and I realized I hadn’t flown anywhere since December, largely to accommodate everyone else.

In fact, one of the only trips I’d taken was to a bar mitzvah in Virginia.

Being selfish about travel can be difficult when you’re trying to coordinate with friends, family members and loved ones. It gets more complex when you’re working around inflexible school calendars and work obligations. If your planner is filled with weddings and other can’t-miss milestone events, it may seem impossible to put your own travel desires first. But in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, being selfish about travel may be the only way forward.

We wondered, is it feasible to put yourself first while prioritizing the health and safety of your community — and the world? It’s a delicate balancing act, but it is possible.

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Putting yourself first

With health at the top of everyone’s mind, and each person forced to evaluate his or her own threshold for risk, it’s difficult not to be selfish about how, when and where you travel — and what trips you allow yourself to pass up. 

For some travelers, that means turning down special events such as weddings or baby showers — especially those requiring flights. These so-called “oblications” (trips you have to take to fulfill certain social obligations) can be expensive and time-consuming. Even in a good year, travelers may find their calendars revolving entirely around places they have to be, rather than where they want to go.

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
Weddings and other social events don’t have to dictate your travel calendar this year. (Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

In some surprising ways, the coronavirus pandemic has become a metaphorical “get out of jail free” free card — a better reason to say no to your uncle’s second-wedding or a family reunion at your grandmother’s house than some hackneyed excuse about time or money.

But saying no to events and other commitments has become necessary for many travelers — a global pandemic and economic downturn can certainly cast a bright light on your priorities. And, just maybe, risking your health and the health of your loved ones to attend an event that requires you to come bearing gifts isn’t a top concern right now.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, television contributor and writer based in Los Angeles, says that “what may seem selfish on the surface,” such as skipping social events or avoiding certain places or people, is really “[caution] reflective of the biological basis of survival, as well as the psychological awareness of how we impact each other as a community.”

So, our survival instincts may be driving some of us to decline that next invitation. And it helps that most big events and gatherings have been banned altogether. But these same forces may also compel you to only consider destinations with strong health care systems or to seek out areas with a lower risk for infection.

It’s why many travelers say they’re thinking of their new travel plans (or lack thereof) as simple “self-preservation.”

Indeed, many travelers — driven to put their health at the forefront or make leisure trips their priority — are flocking to places where there are few coronavirus cases and precautions are being taken more seriously. But it’s a double-edged sword that may keep you safe while putting others at risk.

Related: Are we there yet? 6 ways the classic road trip has changed — and stayed the same

Is it selfish to travel right now?

Betty Cranston lives in a small town near Olympic National Park. She says residents here are “just waiting to get slammed” by tourists who “aren’t wearing masks because it’s ‘clean’ here.” Just a few weeks ago, her town recorded its first community-transmitted infections.

“Tourist traffic is still light this year,” Cranston added, but says she just recently saw “cars from as far away as the East Coast.”

Many travelers, though, describe feeling as though the pandemic has made them less selfish than ever before. They’re thinking carefully about where and when they’re going to prioritize their health and the health of their friends and family members. Oftentimes, that does mean putting an indefinite pause on travel.

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
This time has allowed us to take stock of what’s most important and prioritize that above all else. (Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

“The pandemic has made me less selfish about travel,” said Julie Lee. “I know that I have been fortunate to even have had travel plans [to cancel] … I feel as if I’m doing my part by staying in if I don’t absolutely need to be out.”

Lee says she would “love to be traveling right now,” and considered a domestic road trip at once point. “But I’m not prioritizing my own needs and desires. I am prioritizing my concerns, though, for everyone.”

Travel may not be inherently selfish — plenty of people are finding ways to get out while lowering their risk of exposure or encountering others — though there are types of travel that could be perceived as such.

And there are certainly travelers putting themselves first without any regard to the health and well-being of the people around them.

In a private Facebook group, one Dallas-based traveler said he was looking to go somewhere for a week or two to relax, explaining he was looking for a destination where he didn’t have to “deal with much in the way of COVID compliance.”

Traveling during a global health crisis to escape the perceived hassle of coronavirus precautions, such as wearing masks, is the kind of recklessness that puts personal comfort ahead of public health and safety.

Related: TPG’s safe travel guide: How to minimize risk on your summer vacation

Making responsible decisions

Putting yourself first — avoiding risky situations, concentrating on your needs, seeing only the people who you need to see most — isn’t the same thing as putting others in harm’s way. You can prioritize your well-being and desires without jeopardizing the health of other people and communities.

(Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images)
Being sure to avoid unnecessarily risky situations is key. (Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images)

For many people, that means doing what they want without concern for the opinions of others, regardless of how it’s perceived.

Gloria Lee, for her part, says she’s “prioritizing travel to countries that have been seriously impacted by COVID and need our support” to get back to normal. Right now, she’s eyeing a three-week block in Italy in 2021.

It “wasn’t the ‘next stop’ on our travel punchcard originally,” she said, “but it sure is now.”

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Bottom line

As the global health crisis stretches on, travelers are looking for meaningful ways to get out and enjoy a change of scenery. And even medical professionals agree we need to find sustainable ways to travel, as there’s clearly no end in sight.

So, is it possible to put your needs, and the needs of your loved ones, first, while keeping others safe from harm?

Travelers should certainly feel empowered to say no to trips and activities that make them uncomfortable or could jeopardize their health. Tell your family you’re skipping the party, or that you’ll be Zooming in, rather than flying.

Personally? I’ve already said no to a baby shower this summer — I just didn’t feel comfortable making the trip. But even when the pandemic is squarely in the rearview, I’ll think long and hard before turning down a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for a distant cousin’s wedding or a holiday dinner.

Even if it feels selfish, it’s an important step in a year when self-care may be more important than ever before.

Featured photo by Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd./Getty Images.

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