2 years of … all of this. A golden-age traveler looks back, and now forward

Mar 2, 2022

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We are all familiar with the commercial tagline, “What’s in your wallet?” Well, my travel wallet has been virtually empty for almost 2 1/2 years.

My love of travel has been essentially suspended by this pandemic. I am now in my 74th journey around this sun, and the law of averages says that my final orbit is undeniably getting closer and closer.

I used to think the good ol’ days were those halcyon years of the 1950s and ’60s. I still hold those happy memories dear, but I now also long for those more recent days when travel was fun, spontaneous and exciting.

You know what and when I am talking about: 2019 B.C. (before COVID-19).

We have all been on this roller coaster ride that I think of as a most unpleasant COVID-coaster for far too long.

Two full years, to be exact, but who’s counting anymore? We have lived with the unknowns, the questions, the concerns, the surges, the mandates, the quarantines and closures, the social distancing, the changing vaccine and booster shot guidance, the personal protective equipment and more for what feels like an eternity.

With so much remaining up in the air for the time being, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the past two years … and now, look forward once again.

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Missing the good ol’ days … of 2019

Those last few months B.C. were good representative samples of the travel patterns and tendencies my wife and I had enjoyed in our first decade of retirement. If we wanted to do something or see something (within reason), we just did it.

For example, during a three-week stretch in late September and early October of 2019, we embarked on a trip to Colorado to view the golden grandeur of the aspens in fall. It was a good, fun trip, but the leaves were not quite at their prime and our sensory receptors were left yearning for more.

So, while at breakfast in Las Vegas a week later (weren’t we the frequent budget travelers?), we decided to scratch that itch and head back to Colorado the following week when the aspen trees were in their full resplendent glory.

(Photos by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

We enjoyed having the flexibility and freedom to travel when we pleased so much that we were counting down the days to our very busy 2020 travel calendar we had planned.

There was a March 2020 bucket list trip to Alaska to see the northern lights; a summer trip to the Canadian Rockies in Banff and Calgary, Alberta; an autumnal leaf-peeping drive through the Shenandoah Valley; a concert at Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre in Denver; a return to Vegas; and a quick ski trip to a to-be-determined snowy destination.

But then, all of a sudden, our personal travel plans came to an unwanted and unexpected halt.

For us, 2020 became a lost year … and a year of loss.

If it were a movie, its Rotten Tomatoes score would be in the negative category. It was a bad, life-altering year. Even if you wanted to go somewhere or do something, it probably wasn’t open or available.

Then, 2021 came, bringing a renewed optimism as the vaccine rollout became a reality. We were among the first locally to secure our two-dose regimen. Because we were members of the most vulnerable age group, we were precautionary advocates for wearing two masks, avoiding crowds, washing hands, staying safe at home.

We had both been dedicated to a healthy lifestyle our entire lives and did not want to unnecessarily jeopardize or risk those extended efforts to an invisible viral villain. So, our behavior and approach to this pandemic have always tilted heavily in the direction of conservative caution and restraint.

Related: Maximizing credit cards during retirement

The brief reprieve

However, the case-level metrics by mid-spring of 2021 were so encouraging that we felt comfortable enough to take a family trip to the American West.

An astounding 606 days had passed since our last adventure. That’s 606 long and unsettling days. To say we were overdue for an outing away from home was a massive understatement.

The trip proved itself to be rewarding and inspiring.

The mighty Grand Tetons were still covered with snow, making for a great backdrop for the historical Mormon Row barns and homesteads. The rivers and lakes were healthy and alive with the thaws of late spring and early summer providing the source for runoff. The rolling, dynamic and richly fertile farmlands of southeast Idaho were a visual delight that awed us with their expansive, organic beauty topped with a multihued, patterned crop blanket.

The historical Montana mining communities of Virginia City and Nevada City offered a half-day of peeking behind the curtain of time for a glimpse at life as it once was.

Glacier National Park was rugged and energetic yet peaceful and calming. You could take a deep, blood pressure-lowering breath there as you absorbed the environment while also challenging yourself to heart-pumping activities like hikes around the park.

The multiple flights required to reach these spots were not full, masks were (for the most part) universally worn and outdoor dining options and activities were plentiful, providing a safe setting for a stress-free adventure.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

I felt confident enough after taking this trip and hearing the seemingly optimistic trajectory of the virus that I expected masks would no longer be required on airlines by September of that year.

However, only a few weeks after we deplaned from that trip, the situation took another dramatic turn.

Related: A family adventure: Rafting, horseback riding and hotel hopping 1,000 miles from Jackson Hole to Glacier

Grounded, once again

We mistakenly thought the light at the end of the tunnel might be the end of the pandemic abyss, but it turned out it was a runaway “delta variant locomotive” racing toward us with a load of contagion, concern and consternation.

In addition to the obvious health anxieties, the delta variant changed our thoughts on travel and significantly dampened our overall optimism. Our social interaction comfort levels were once again challenged and questioned, and by August, we quickly discovered that we were three steps back after taking two steps forward earlier in the year.

A message displayed on a church sign we saw perfectly described the scenario: “When you said life would get back to normal after June, Julyed.”

So, we saw the delta wave come and go, then omicron rise and before we knew it, the second half of last year once again became travel averse.

We watched our daughter schedule and cancel many trips during this time frame. Some succeeded, and some didn’t quite get off the ground. Even when luck was on her side and the trip happened, it frequently seemed like the pandemic-related difficulties incurred and the uncertainties faced led to the process being somewhat arduous, making it hard to truly enjoy the experience.

We didn’t want to take a trip that was intended to be carefree but would ultimately be spoiled or diminished by the uninvited guest pathogen hassles and stress. We didn’t want to fly and be suspicious of every nearby cough. We didn’t want to constantly worry about masks, vaccine cards and health protocols. We didn’t want to spend every moment looking over our shoulders and on edge.

(Photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

With the rise in incidents with unruly passengers on flights, we quickly found ourselves questioning whether it was worth the risk of a possible situation to get on an aircraft. And, if that wasn’t enough, there was the car rental dilemma sparked by a lack of inventory, which caused daily rates to skyrocket.

All of these headaches threatened to dampen our love of travel. So, we decided to ride out this part of the pandemic at home and hit pause on our adventures.

A new hope

Fast forward to the present day. It’s March again, but this time it is March of 2022. Once again, things are looking up on the pandemic front. Mask mandates are being relaxed, and travel restrictions are lessening.

Our personal metamorphosis from an apprehensive fear to an acceptance of relative safety has been an interesting process. It was gradual and imperceptible rather than calculated and thought out. We went from double-masking to sometimes forgetting to take a mask.

Gone were the days of loathing someone invading our space. Instead, we found ourselves hugging an old friend as if the past two years had not happened. It took us by surprise, but now we find ourselves wondering if COVID-19 is playing us again. Is the virus testing us? Is it leading us down a path of complacency and false hope before it springs yet another variant on us in a few months’ time? Maybe.

Or, is it the end of this phase and the beginning of the other side of the tunnel in a reality that is both safer and mentally relaxing than the last two years?

(Photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

Regardless, I believe societies and governments are learning to accept COVID-19’s long-term presence in a manner that provides an acceptable and tolerable coexistence.

Many have suffered far greater than us during these pandemic years as our loss has been less physical and more mental. Personally, I haven’t been laughing and smiling as much and have found myself far more stressed. Not to mention, I really miss traveling.

I yearn for the anticipation, the planning, the real and the imagined. I need to travel. It provides things to look forward to and then enjoy.

I’m optimistic that our tomorrows will more resemble the years before COVID-19 than those we’ve recently experienced. So, we’ve started planning trips again.

We have a hike to The Wave scheduled for mid-April, and our third attempt to visit Canada is on the calendar for early June.

(Photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

Our sanitized fingers will be thoroughly crossed, and our hopes will be high that these trips will serve as a sign, for us, that we can once again travel in a comfortable manner.

The last two years have created an unwanted and unrewarding scenario in our points and miles accounts. We’ve paid multiple credit card annual fees without cashing in any of the accrued points on actual travel. Not only are points sitting unused, but they are also accumulating monthly with card usage. Then there are the airline credits from canceled adventures that have piled up and collected dust.

On the plus side, we now have plenty of ammunition to use as we start picking and booking future travel targets.

Bottom line

If we could sue COVID-19 in court for loss endured, appropriate compensation may be all of us having 2020 and 2021 treated like a soccer match. You know, the part where “added time” to compensate for fouls, injuries, goal celebrations and more is tacked on after time has expired at the end of the game.

That “stoppage time” is what we all endured because of the pandemic. Now, if we could just get the “timekeeper in the sky” to add more sand to our hourglass to make up for opportunities lost to COVID-19, perhaps coming to terms with the past two years would be at least slightly possible. I think 18 months should be the minimal and appropriate adjustment.

(Photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

So far, we have not noticed any application of such warranted justice. The days on the calendar keep progressing just as they always have, and as senior citizens, our years are now like dog years. With no warranty extension yet granted, we are taking matters into our own hands and will try to get that lost time and those missed opportunities back by making each day, each month and each year more productive and fulfilling.

We’ll double down, aiming to tackle as much as we can without sacrificing the experience. Only time will tell if 2022 will be the year when we finally travel as we please again or if COVID-19 will throw yet another curveball our way.

Featured photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy.

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