The New Costs of Travel

In the summer of 2019, I redeemed some frequent flyer miles for a vacation to Scandinavia that I intended to take during the following spring. I postponed the trip to 2021, then again to 2022, taking the trip in late May to early June of this year. It’s one of two trips that I’m taking this year because I feel like I have to.

After a nine-hour wait for Delta’s iMessage-based chat support in 2020, Delta refunded my frequent flyer miles and voided my ticket. I had also prepaid for a week’s stay at a hotel in Copenhagen; that was refunded to me in the form of a gift card valid for one year. “Fortunately, it seems like 2021 will be the year we beat COVID-19,” wrote the hotel in April of that year, extending my gift card only until December 31. Their prediction did not come true, and they gave me one more extension, until June 30, 2022. With my hands tied, I booked a new plane ticket and redeemed my gift card, motivated as much by loss aversion as by a desire to see a new part of the world.

I spent a week in Copenhagen, taking a one-day side trip to the tiny Swedish island of Ven. Despite the weather being cool and damp, similar to Seattle’s at this time of year, I had a great time seeing the sights and doing a lot of biking on largely flat roads with remarkably rule-following locals. I have never seen so many bike riders refusing to take a right on red, illegal in Denmark, even when it appeared safe to do so. Copenhagen has beautiful castles, well-stocked museums, and plenty of attractions, and at the same time it’s less dependent on tourism than some European capitals, meaning that there aren’t costumed characters or con artists angling for tourists’ money. It’s not just tourists who get gouged; everything is expensive, even for locals, and that gave me an odd sense of comfort. I was paying high prices, but so too was everyone else. (A Norwegian colleague told me that his compatriots consider Copenhagen to be a cheap destination, which scared me.) I spent a long time taking Danish lessons on Duolingo, and they were a minor help on my vacation, but it was good to be able to fall back on the very high English fluency rate where I was staying.

Despite what I had read about European entry requirements, no one in any of the countries I visited (including France, where I had a connecting flight) asked to see any proof of vaccination or testing until I checked in for my flight home. Virus restrictions were eliminated in Denmark effective February 1 of this year, and case counts there have declined significantly since then. At the time I traveled, the U.S. required proof of a negative COVID-19 test to re-enter the country, irrespective of citizenship or vaccination status. The last publicly-run test site near my hotel closed during my vacation, so I booked a test at a small clinic that appeared to serve only people about to travel to the U.S. My test came back negative on Friday, the last full day of my trip. Confident that I’d be able to travel home on Saturday, I went without a face mask for virtually all of the rest of my stay and for almost the entire trip home, including public transit and flights. I tested positive for the virus the Wednesday after I arrived home, and then I had a second infection nearly three weeks later. I had a moderate fever and fatigue, but nothing more severe. I felt ashamed for having let my guard down.

I have another “use it or lose it” vacation coming up this fall, to the Retro Gaming Expo in Portland. I had booked train tickets to visit the show in 2020, and after a couple of years of postponements, Amtrak told me that I had to rebook my tickets or forfeit the cost. I caught a bad cold at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in 2009, although it wasn’t the swine flu that broke out there, and at PAX 2010, I applied hand sanitizer after touching any demo controller or shared surface. I look forward to the next Retro Gaming Expo with a mixture of excitement, caution, and personal protective equipment.

Taking time off work is important. After over two years spent largely in isolation, I have a new appreciation for the value of seeing friends and family and of experiencing new cultures. During 2020 and 2021, I took a few “stay-cations,” which helped me regroup and focus on personal betterment, but they weren’t substitutes for the values of companionship and place. I also feel like the COVID pandemic exposed the superficial nature of some travel. I traveled a very long distance, with negative consequences for the environment and for my health, to experience a similar climate and to do activities that I could have done closer to home. There are still many distant places I’d like to visit, but the pandemic has dented my enthusiasm for travel more than any other event in 20 years. As everyone continues to pursue paths past the pandemic, I don’t know what travel will look like for me in the years to come.