For a budget traveler, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.
For one very frantic week, while the country woke up to the spread of coronavirus at home and began swiftly shutting down schools, sports competitions and festivals, travel deals flooded my inbox.
A week in the Azores islands for $699, including airfare from Boston.
The two trendy Arlo Hotels in Manhattan at 50 percent off, starting at $90 a night.
But almost as soon as these offers emerged, the reality of taking advantage of them began to evaporate. European travel was effectively suspended. Israel instituted a mandatory two-week quarantine for visitors. Argentina, among other countries, closed its borders. Viking and Princess Cruises stopped sailing until May; others postponed departures. Disneyland closed, and Disney World soon followed suit.
Events I was traveling for in March and April — my son’s baseball tournament in Florida, my friend’s Broadway opening in New York City and a conference in Switzerland — were canceled or postponed. I did my own canceling of flights, hotels, Airbnbs, rental cars and restaurant reservations.
As friends gathered at a brewery and stood drinking several feet apart, many declared they would continue with upcoming spring breaks. But I began to wonder if travel was ethical any longer. Would I — as a healthy person under 60 with no underlying health conditions — do harm by traveling?
I’ve always subscribed to the Mark Twain adage that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and I think the world needs travel now more than ever.
Still, vacations get a bad rap. They’re indulgent, we’re told. Nonessential. Mental wellness, I argue, is essential and essentially tied to stress reduction and what the scientists at the American Psychological Association call “life satisfaction,” both improved by time off.
Travel isn’t just about frolicking witless on a beach — and even if it is, so what? It supports the cabdriver and his family, the cook and her family, the hotel staffer and their orbit. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel accounts for one in 10 jobs globally, and the current shutdown threatens the livelihoods of 50 million people.
Take cruises: According to the Cruise Lines International Association, nearly 1.2 million people are employed in the cruise industry, which many travelers are warned to avoid.
Cruising’s economic footprint spreads far and wide where ships dock. Derek Duncan, who I met on Tortola while researching a story on the British Virgin Islands in January, is a fireman who supports a family of five by using his four days off a week to drive cruise ship guests in open-sided trucks to sites around the island. The cruise season, he said, typically dies in summer, so he has to make his money in high season, which is right now. And right now, sailings are being canceled.
“We were worried about the hurricane season coming up, but already here comes coronavirus,” he told me over the phone.
As the daughter of parents in their 80s, I am not deaf to the argument that my travel could endanger them. But frankly, my trip to Costco could endanger them. My father and I are already practicing social distancing, which is heartbreaking. My mother is in memory care where no visitors are allowed. I wonder when I will see her again. When the virus subsides? When there is a vaccine in a year? Does she have a year?
I am a traveler by trade, as well as temperament. I’m known to give a beach palapa about an hour before I’m off and exploring what else there is to do — what markets, what trails, what street art. Hassles and delays aside, I enjoy airports for their energy and the intersection of humanity streaming through them (for best people-watching, see Amsterdam’s Schiphol, Doha’s Hamad International or Singapore Changi).
Instead of seeking out those crossroads of race, class, culture and nationality that make human civilization so infinitely fascinating, the world is a little smaller today as the virus travels and we stay put. For now.
When flight prices initially dropped, I bought a $97 round-trip ticket to Denver from Chicago to do some backcountry skiing. That was before six-foot distancing became the social norm and Colorado shut down its ski areas. Like other skiers, I’m icing my ambitions and waiting for next year.
Meanwhile, the birds are traveling. Spring migration is underway — I saw a hooded merganser on Lake Michigan the other day — and I plan to witness it. And when I come inside, I’ll make plans for that safari that’s on sale. Next fall.
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