How did you research and plan a trip during COVID-19? Did you take any additional travel safety measures or change your behaviors? What's it like to travel now? In this article we address focusing on the stuff in our control while minding the health and safety of others. The lessons apply not only to travel but also to daily life, during COVID-19 and beyond. We touch on decision-making, logistics, managing risk, flexibility, adapting to new information, managing expectations and satisfaction.
If you’ve followed our social media activity lately you’ll know that we recently returned from a trip to Italy to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. It was our first trip outside of our adopted home Berlin and its surroundings in nearly seven months.
Sure, we had plenty of reservations. We questioned whether we ought to travel at all. Given the pandemic, we were not only concerned about our own enjoyment and safety, but also more attuned to the safety of others and the impact of our visit. Our decision-making process while planning and taking this trip was more deliberate and careful than usual. We considered all potential impacts — good and bad — as we researched, planned and executed the trip.
As we responded to questions from friends, family and readers, it occurred to us that it might be useful to turn our travel planning and on-the-road process during COVID-19 inside-out here.
- We understand Italy does not reflect travel realities across the rest of the world. Each destination is different. However, we believe many of the travel planning, safety tips and recommendations that follow will resonate and apply on some level no matter where you live and where you wish to travel.
- To be clear, we are not advocating that everyone travel right now. COVID-19 rates are again on the rise in many areas around the world, especially in the Northern Hemisphere as temperatures fall and people retreat inside (see our COVID-19 Travel Resource Guide for more details on relevant data and considerations). However, people will continue to travel now and in the future. Our suggestions are aimed to help travelers plan and execute travel more seamlessly and manage risks for themselves and the host communities they visit.
Mindful Traveler Oath Basics
First, consider the following basic elements of the as-yet-unspoken Uncornered Market Mindful Traveler Oath:
- Keep ourselves and others safe. And not necessarily in that order.
- Act mindfully and responsibly, for positive (or to minimize potential negative) impact on the people and places we visit.
- Enjoy ourselves.
We did our best on this trip to accomplish all three.
“Good Grief, What a Headache” Caveat to the Mindful Traveler Oath
Some of our suggestions may elicit a response of, “Oh Dan and Audrey, what a headache. I just want to travel.”
In turn, we offer the following perspective: “What do we most remember about the trip?”
In this case, we recall the phenomenal hiking, dazzling food, beautiful towns, pleasant people, and lovely interactions. Also expressing disbelief, usually over a glass of the local vintage or beer, that we’d been married to one another for 20 years.
Last on the list of our memories: any inconvenience from having to mind the impact of our actions on the health and safety of others.
Now to the list.
Travel Research and Planning
1. Do your COVID-19 & travel restriction research
Prior to setting off, we took our own COVID travel advice. Our goal: to make sure the places we wanted to visit weren’t identified as COVID-19 hotspots and that we wouldn’t be required to quarantine upon arrival or encounter problems upon our return home to Germany.
This is in addition to all the usual travel logistics and destination planning we do.
How it played out: Although our goal was to hike the Dolomites in northern Italy, we identified several alternative destinations in case COVID-19 rates or travel restrictions increased there. We also regularly checked official government (German and Italian) websites to ensure we had the latest information before making any decisions.
2. Plan. Remain flexible. Adapt. Expect to cancel.
I’m with Dwight Eisenhower on this one. “…[plans] are of no particular value, but [planning] is indispensable.” Eisenhower was quoting a military officer speaking about managing peace after World War II, but the premise applies also to the winds of change of travel.
Plan, yet remain flexible. Accept that you may be forced to change plans or cancel at any moment, either while planning or on the road. Adapt your expectations and decisions to the discovery of new information. Preparation opens the mind to possible outcomes; the resulting flexibility helps maximize satisfaction. The less surprised you are as scenarios arise, the more equipped you will be to respond. And the more resilient you'll become.
If you happen to be a fan of the saying, “It’s all about the journey, not the destination,” this ought to resonate.
How it played out: We postponed our trip once. The possibility of last-minute cancellation hovered over us right up to the time of our departure. We deliberately chose to travel by train rather than fly to Italy, since it featured fewer bureaucratic hassles and was less expensive, particularly if we had to cancel. We also chose a rental car option with flexible cancellation and refund policies and were willing to pay a little more for that flexibility.
Note: If terms and conditions (e.g,. cancellation) aren’t clearly articulated, do not hesitate to inquire before booking so as to avoid surprises.
Changeable weather is a key factor, especially during the shoulder season. It determined where we stayed each night and from which Dolomite trailhead we set off each morning. We checked weather multiple times a day (Wunderground and various mountain forecast sites were our favorites) for various cities and towns within the region. We adjusted our route accordingly and often headed to an area which promised the most sunshine and the lowest chance of precipitation the following day. Weather and forecast variation was remarkable, even between towns no more than an hour or two from one another.
The planned order of our Dolomites experience: uncertain. The actual order: Paganella/Adadmello Brenta, Tre Cime, Fanes, and Vigo di Fasso.
3. Take advantage of the shoulder and off-seasons
We’ve always been fans of traveling in the shoulder and off-seasons not only because of fewer crowds, but also because it benefits local businesses by helping to extend their season. Prices and availability of accommodation and transport tend to be better, too. With social distancing and crowd avoidance concerns, this approach makes even more sense.
How it played out: Although we considered taking this trip for a while, including possibly during the summer when weather is more reliable, we ended up blocking out the end of September and early October for it. This was not only in light of watching COVID-19 rates, but also in line with the idea that there we would encounter fewer travelers after the traditional high season. This worked out well in terms of fewer people on the trails and better prices at hotels and guest houses.
4. Lifelines: Ask a friend to send you important updates
For the sake of joy, sanity and time management, we cut off our attention from most news during the trip. After a few days, however, we realized our disengagement and wondered whether we'd miss a news item which might affect our trip. We asked a friend in Berlin to alert us of developments like border restrictions or closures that might impact our trip or return home.
How it played out: The day before our return, our lifeline (you know who you are), sent a Whatsapp message with COVID-19 rate increases across Central Europe. The following day, as we traveled by train from Italy to Germany, slow and tense border crossings caused us to miss our connecting train. While we weren't particularly happy about that, at least we weren't caught off guard.
Had such information arrived at the start of our trip, we may have opted to cut the trip short.
5. Be OK following the rules.
When you travel, you are essentially a guest in someone's else home. Accept that you’ll be expected to comply with the requirements of the destinations you visit. That’s as true now with COVID as it's ever been, only the stakes are higher.
If you aren’t willing to comply with local laws and requirements -– either as they are, or how they may develop in response to circumstances — don’t go. This also applies to any possible quarantine and testing rules back home. Otherwise, you'll make yourself and others miserable.
How it played out. We followed the rules and did what was asked of us. It felt good to do so and contributed to the feeling that we're all responsible and have a role to play in everyone’s well-being.
Choosing activities and destinations
6. Get Out(side)!
Outdoor activities are considered a much lower risk for COVID-19 exposure. We enjoy hiking, so it was an easy decision to make hitting the trails and spending as much time outside in nature a key focus of our trip.
To mitigate the risk of encountering crowds, we chose to hike at the end of the season. We also chose longer, more difficult hikes that were not as popular or well-known. As a result, we often shared the trail with very few people, or even had some entirely to ourselves. Social distancing was not an issue. Even in popular regions it’s possible to choose less trafficked trails and destinations.
How it played out: At Tre Cime Nature Park, home to the iconic and popular Tre Cime (Three Peaks), we chose the Comici Refuge trail, a longer, more challenging day hike passing the back side of these heavily Instagrammed peaks. While we encountered only a handful of others on the trail during our ascent (whose views were the best we'd see all day), we observed a line of people on the traditional trail headed for us at one of the mountain hut panoramas. We took a requisite photo or two of the actual Tre Cime, but then quickly continued on our path less-taken.
7. Go off the path, find the alternatives.
COVID-19 underscores this essential and timeless piece of travel advice.
Whatever you think the ultimate goal or crown jewel of the place you are visiting ought to be, there is always something else. Alternatives are out there; do your research to uncover them. You'll typically find that the alternatives are just as good if not better than the snaps splashed all over Instagram and in travel magazines.
How it played out: The Sexten-Brixen corridor of the Dolomites was our original goal. However, at the start of our trip, it was raining there. Weather forced us to expand our view. We discovered some mind-blowing hikes in the Dolomiti Paganella area, including the challenging Piz Galin (Galin Peak) trail outside of the town of Andalo. It turned out to be one of our favorite hikes of the trip.
8. Visit secondary cities and destinations.
We chose smaller towns or secondary cities to overnight in the mountains. The idea: avoid busy streets full of people bumping into each other. There’s plenty of surprising beauty in the less visited.
How it played out: Most of the small towns and villages we overnighted in had very few visitors. Streets were relatively quiet, humming with the pace of everyday local life. This allowed us to explore freely without having to dodge crowds. One exception to this was San Marino whose city center was surprisingly full. We outwalked the crowds to find more space.
9. Wear a mask on all public or shared transport.
Masks are typically a requirement on public or shared transport (e.g., flights, trains, buses, etc.). It makes sense since you are sharing the same confined space with others. When everyone wears a mask properly (yes, that means above the nose) it makes for a safer, less anxious ride for everyone.
How it played out: We had to wear a mask for the entire 9-10 hour train journey from Berlin, Germany to Bolzano, Italy. Was this a delight? No. For collective health and safety, were we willing to wear a mask and grateful that most everyone else wore one properly, too? You bet.
10. Integrate private transport.
Our readers know that we sing the praises of public transportation. Especially now, it's a lifeline for many. However, private transportation (e.g., a rental car) makes some destinations more accessible. In COVID-19 times, having our own car also reduces repeated exposure to groups of other people in shared transportation.
How it played out: We picked up a rental car in Bolzano, Italy. We appreciated having our own transport across the Dolomites and down to The Marche and San Marino. It not only provided us the flexibility to make plans on the fly as we responded to changing weather, but it also saved us from spending many hours on local buses.
Accommodation and Small Businesses
11. Choose locally-owned accommodation and shops.
Keeping your money local when you travel isn’t anything new, but it takes on increased importance now. Many communities have suffered from the loss of tourism business this year. And small, family-run businesses with limited resources have often been hit the hardest.
If possible, seek out businesses that align with your values regarding sustainability — caring for the environment, local community and economy. This could be efforts to reduce water and energy usage or a commitment to source food from local farmers.
How it played out: We deliberately looked for small, local B&Bs, restaurants and shops to ensure our money remained local to the benefit of the community. This also contributed to a more unique experience since we interacted with families in a more personal setting.
12. Book directly to keep your money local.
Online booking sites are convenient. We use them often, but we're also aware they take a sizable commission from local providers. This is understandable. Booking sites offer a valuable service which requires resources to operate. However, given that many local tourism businesses are really struggling right now — and we need them to be around in whatever post-COVID-19 equilibrium emerges — you can support them even more now by booking directly with them.
How it played out: As often as we could, we booked our accommodation directly either through the hotel’s own website or at their front door. Local accommodation providers were able to keep the entire amount of the booking, and we often received the same or lower prices and upgrades by negotiating directly. (Note to hotels: make it easy for travelers like us to book online through your website with a credit card!).
Restaurants and Dining
13. Eat outside.
Our preferred mode of restaurant dining these days is outdoors, even if it’s a bit chilly. As the weather turns colder in the Northern Hemisphere, many restaurants and shops now offer outdoor heaters or blankets. Take advantage of that.
How it played out: When a restaurant offered outdoor seating, we took it and came prepared with jackets and hats if needed.
14. Choose off hours.
If the outdoors aren’t possible and you must eat inside, choose odd hours (e.g., when restaurants first open for lunch or dinner). Although eating in an empty restaurant sometimes feels odd, restaurant owners and staff are happy for the business. We still enjoyed wonderful food and interaction with them. In the time of COVID-19, this approach also helps to avoid crowds of people confined indoors.
How it played out: Because we had early mornings and long days of hiking in the mountains, we were often the first people at restaurants when they opened in the evenings. The food tasted just as delicious and we sometimes got extra attention.
Hygiene and Health Safety
15. Focus on behaviors that limit close human contact.
Science tells us that COVID-19 is transmitted mainly through human contact and interaction, airborne droplets and human concentration indoors, rather than through transmission via surfaces. Mask-wearing and controlling traffic or crowds is what matters most when it comes to COVID-19 travel safety.
How it played out: We appreciated the constant signs and reminders at local accommodation and shops for travelers to wear their masks indoors, as well as behavioral cues and notices about maintaining distancing, minding elevator restrictions, and complying with limited seating. Signs aligned with behaviors not only help inform our immediate behavior, but they reinforce that we're in this together for the collective good.
16. Put hygiene theater in its place.
A lot of attention has been given to new COVID-19 hygiene measures, including the use of powerful disinfectants and the deployment of rigorous cleaning regimes. The urge to focus on what we feel is in our control — the cleanliness and disinfection of surfaces — is understandable. It makes us somehow feel safer, even if the science tells us that its effect may be marginal.
Cleanliness is crucial, but don’t get lulled into thinking that new COVID-19 hygiene certifications alone will protect you. Note: If you are unfamiliar with the term hygiene theater, check out this article from The Atlantic.
How it played out: To assess our potential risk of exposure in any establishment, we focused our attention more on how an establishment managed customer flow, numbers and crowds rather than how intensely or often it disinfected tables and surfaces after each customer.
17. As a default, wear a mask.
If you think that maybe you should wear a mask, then just do it. Even when it's not legally or technically required, err on the side of yes. This is especially true anytime you are talking to or engaging with someone who is not in your immediate or family circle. One of the safety campaigns said it best: “Für dich, für mich, für uns” (“For you, for me, for us”). We're in this together, all of us.
This includes keeping your mask on when you order and pay in a restaurant. Although we were typically allowed to take our masks off after being seated at a table, it occurred to us that we remained in close proximity to wait staff when ordering food or settling the bill. So we did as many others did in Italy, and kept our masks on (or put them back on) during these transactions.
How it played out: We always carried our masks with us. We put them on anytime we entered busy streets, walked outdoor fresh markets, entered into mountain huts, and, of course, anytime we were inside a shop, hotel or restaurant. Easy.
18. Self-Quarantine when you return.
As a courtesy and for the safety and health of your own community, self-quarantine when you return home from a trip. Travel and the movement of people are one of the ways that COVID-19 spreads quickly from place to place. Since asymptomatic carriers can still be contagious and unknowingly spread the virus to others, the most effective way (outside of a COVID-19 test) to try to protect your home community from infection is to quarantine for two weeks to eliminate person-to-person interactions.
How it played out: Since Italy was not a hot spot at the time, German regulations did not require us to either quarantine or get a COVID-19 test upon our return. However, since we'd traveled to several locations and encountered people as we ate inside restaurants and traveled by shared transport, we opted to self-quarantine for two weeks upon our return. We did so because we wanted to protect our friends and to minimize any risk to our neighborhood and community.
Mindset: Expectations and Satisfaction
19. Manage your expectations.
None of us is entitled to circumstances which make happiness seem the easier choice. Nor are we guaranteed conditions so that our photos match those of our social media heroes.
Understand that the best laid plans can all go to shit. Then, manage accordingly.
How it played out: Our expectations were half to all rain, and to be on the run from the Dolomites to southern Italy. Everything else, gravy. Though there was a bit of rain here and there in the Dolomites, the trip was generally incredible in the mountains as we navigated weather conditions and made choices in line with everything we mentioned above. Only when a wall of rain moved in, did we head south to Urbino in The Marche. It even rained a bit in the town of Urbino. Perhaps the rain is what made the town so dramatic and charming?
20. And if it turns to shit?
If things turn to shit, that’s all the more reason to be super-thrilled about the pre-shit moments and to reflect on what might be appreciated about the shit moment at hand.
How it played out: As we reached Pedrotti Refuge hut, the highest point of one of our hikes, fog accumulated and the wind picked up. It even began to sleet. Conditions were far from ideal in a spot where on a sunny day you might see for miles. Despite this, our ascent had been rewarding and dramatic. We felt like heroes for reaching the pass, especially since our muscles were recovering from our hike the day before.
At the top, we met a few other hikers — all very nice — including one who repeatedly referred to the “shit” conditions, especially in comparison to the sunny days he’d encountered in recent hikes elsewhere. On one hand, he had a point. The visibility was bad. On the other hand, I felt bad. For him. Disappointment seemed to define his moment.
We enjoyed a beautiful hike. Not only the morning’s crystal blue skies we all shared, but the same skies whose drama swirled the mountain peaks around us. We celebrated our accomplishment, ate our picnic sandwiches and reflected on the vastness and solitude engulfing that rugged little hut, a feat of human will which had no business being tucked away up there. Our minds were absorbed by the magnificence of the moment.
Only temporarily was our focus taken off-track by someone else’s preconceived notions and disappointments regarding the way life ought to be. That for us was a lesson re-affirmed. In travel as in life, one’s satisfaction has much to do with expectations and how those expectations influence one’s view of what is.
Spending your cycles atop a foggy mountain complaining about the weather condition: a waste. Things change. Witness the weather, especially in the mountains. And all of it out of your control. And yet, that changeable weather is part of the moment. Train yourself to see it, and that’s part of the beauty you’ll encounter. To us at least, that's what hiking in the mountains — and travel in general — is all about.
Life, too. You can play the hands you're dealt as best as you’re able. Or you can complain about what in poker is called a “bad beat” – where you did everything “right” and it didn’t work out. If things turn bad, recognize and maybe even celebrate that you did the best you could. And is it really so bad? If there’s no sun shining on you at the moment, don't forget the sun in your rear view. Celebrate that you carried yourself to the top of the mountain. Or just celebrate the mountain.
Stealing disappointment from the jaws of gratitude will only sour your travel experiences and your memories. With or without COVID-19.