Living with COVID: Travel Edition

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This post is written relative to COVID only. I am still processing MPV.masked woman pushing a suitcase outside

In 2019, I traveled a lot. I was out there taking advantage of every airline mile, 10th night free offer, and Airbnb credit available.

And I’m so glad I did. In retrospect, those experiences helped shore my wanderlust as I mournfully sat in my house for the next two years, never venturing very far outside the borders of my own state.

I put traveling on hold. And with it, I also put travel content on hold. I didn’t want to encourage anyone to engage in behavior that could end up hurting or potentially even killing anyone else. I did not want to encourage the spread, even if that meant losing some of my profit.

My Instagram feed dried up, as it mostly features my travel pictures and savings tips. I stopped writing about my latest trip to Japan in the middle of the story. The budget travel hacks you used to find here by and large stopped being produced.

But today, I guess all of that changes.

Why I Started Traveling Again in 2022

In 2022, I started traveling again.

There were a multitude of reasons.

During this pandemic, I’ve lost many people. Some to COVID. Some to a lack of care or sub-par care created by an overwhelmed medical system.

At the tail end of 2021 in particular, our family lost several members of an entire generation. From all branches of our family tree. To be honest, I’m still processing all the loss.

This Spring, my cousin was getting married. They were throwing an extremely COVID-conscious wedding, with large portions of it outside or in a building where the front was open to the outdoors. They stressed the importance of vaccinations and testing.

They weren’t pretending COVID wasn’t happening, so they were able to effectively address it and create as safe an environment as possible.

While not everyone in attendance would be living to the same standards I’ve had to keep, this setting felt manageable.

At the time I planned the trip, I still imagined COVID to be a relatively seasonal virus by region, a theory that is now debunked by the data of summer of 2022. I thought it may be one of the lowest times of year in terms of community spread.

CDC Map for the dates of july 29, 2022-august 4, 2022 showing that community transmission levels are in the 'high' or 'red' zone in 94.17% of counties in the United States

I wanted to see my family, especially after all of our shared grief. Especially to celebrate such a wonderful couple.

So I made plans to go.

I had also booked a speaking gig in Philly for the summer of 2022 almost a year prior, when I thought for sure this would all be over (or at least better managed via public health measures.)

I brought my kids to Philly, too, to appreciate the more touristy parts of Old City.

How I Traveled with COVID-19 Safety Precautions

I cannot tell you that the precautions we took eliminated all risk of spreading COVID. I cannot tell you by inherent nature of being on the road, we were able to be as careful as we are at home.

I cannot tell you that setting up safety measures eliminates all risks, or that I don’t constantly question myself whether or not this is something I should or should not be doing.

What I can tell you is that by taking these measures, we used layered mitigations to make amazing experiences more possible. I’ve done it three times now, and well over a month later, I’m happy to say that none of us caught COVID on these trips.

Now, there’s nothing to say on the fourth trip we wouldn’t. My anecdotal experiences do not diminish the prolific evasiveness of this virus. Even if you do everything ‘right’ there’s no way to 100% protect yourself.

But we did what we could to protect ourselves, and did our best to protect everyone around us, too.

Here’s what actually implementing layered mitigations looked like for us.

We only went places we could drive.

 

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Why we did it: My heart broke when masking and testing measures were removed for air travel. The masking was particularly problematic because it also extended to public transit mandates across the country.

Buses and trolleys people use to go to work and the grocery store and the pharmacy everyday.

Not just airplanes.

I’m not saying I won’t get on a plane in the future under the right circumstances. But as I was planning these particular trips at this particular point in time, I decided that anywhere we went, we’d go by car.

On top of that, even though driving a car isn’t great for the environment, the harm is way less than burning jet fuel.

And I’d like the summers to not get any hotter, please.

How we did it: I’m lucky that my work schedule allowed me to drive two days to get to the wedding. And Philadelphia is only one day away by car. We’d be able to have fun and fulfilling trips without having to take on the additional risks of air travel.

We timed our boosters.

 

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Why we did it: Our vaccines, while life-saving for most, are not perfect.

Break-through infections are increasingly normal.

While the vaccine does dramatically increase your odds of staying out of the hospital, not everyone will be on the lucky side of those odds. At least tens of thousands of vaccinated people have died and are still dying from this virus.

And whether you’re vaccinated or not, you can get Long COVID. Long COVID occurs in up to 49% of people who are infected, and all too often follows a ‘mild’ or asymptomatic case.

Vaccines are an important mitigation strategy. But they are not a mitigation strategy to be used in isolation.

Vaccine efficacy also falls off after a period of time — dramatically so between 3 and 6 months from your last dose. Which is why boosters are necessary.

How we did it: Before we took our trips, we made sure everyone was up-to-date on their boosters in the past three months.

Everyone had to have their most recent booster shot at least two weeks before we left on the trip, as that’s how long the boosters take to kick in at full force.

We booked hotels with windows that opened.


Why we did it: Ventilation is a key element of layered mitigation. When the air is flowing, it makes it harder for an airborne virus to spread. You’re removing many of those viral particles from the room.

How we did it: We kept ventilation in mind as we were booking hotels. For one of the Philly trips, we stayed at Independence Park Hotel. It’s a really well-kept hotel with great staff, and was in such a great location in the heart of Old City.

But not all rooms in the hotel have windows that open.

We called immediately after booking to ensure the room we were staying in would. Zero issues.

When I was driving to the wedding, I made sure the hotel I stayed at after the first day of driving had windows that opened, too.

For the rest of the stays, I booked private apartments on Airbnb with windows that opened.

I’ve gotta say, the whole Airbnb experience has gone downhill since I started using them years ago, and I don’t know how often I’ll be using them in the future. But I had some credits in my pocket, and the ventilation situation was ideal.

If we do any road trips in the future, I might get my own HEPA air cleaner to bring along. But that wasn’t something I was overly familiar with prior to these trips.

We kept those windows open for at least 15 minutes before removing our masks.

 

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Why we did it: Real-life cases in both Hong Kong and New Zealand have shown us that even just opening your hotel room door can let the virus in, lingering in the air for a while and causing infection.

How we did it: We had a rule in our hotel room: Every time we entered the room, we immediately opened the window and waited at least 15 minutes before taking our masks off.

We did as much outdoors as possible.

 

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Why we did it: Covid can spread outside. But it’s much harder for it to do so.

How we did it: During these warmer months in the north, there’s no shortage of things to do outdoors. So we planned our adventures accordingly, going indoors as little as possible.

Here are just some of the fun outside things we did:

  • Attend an outdoor wedding ceremony.
  • Paddle boats.
  • Historic tours of Philadelphia. (NPS has an app so you don’t really need to pay for a tour guide unless you want to.)
  • Various outdoor memorials, parks, fountains and river walks.
  • Festivals at lower-traffic times of day.
  • Super fun playgrounds in the city.

We did mask outdoors if an area was particularly crowded.

We masked with N95s.

Why we did it: We did not take our masks off indoors other than our hotel room.

Not to eat.

Not to drink.

Not just for a picture.

Not when people were mocking us.

Not when an employee at the establishment told us we ‘didn’t need to do that anymore.’

Because the coronavirus doesn’t care about all that. If it’s in the air, it can infect you regardless of which activity you’re participating in.

We might not like it, but that’s how science works.

How we did it: That’s not to say we didn’t go indoors at all. When we did, we tried to keep it under 5 minutes. In all cases, whether or not we could meet those time constraints, our N95 masks did not come off inside.

Even when I spoke at Plutus Voices, I kept my mask on the whole time. It was a relatively small event that will eventually be shared online, and the venue was also really awesome and opened the windows to improve ventilation without us even asking.

We ate outside or in our hotel room with the window open.

 

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Why we did it: For all the same reasons listed above.

How we did it: Of course, we did have to eat!

Sometimes we ate outside if the restaurant had a setup that kept us reasonably socially distanced.

Our hotel let me bring our complimentary breakfast up to the room so we could eat by ourselves with the window open.

We also used take out and delivery the same way. Since the pandemic started, almost all restaurants now have a take out option. So it’s not like your dining options are limited. You can eat food from almost anywhere without having to sit in their indoor dining room.

Tested before events.

How we did it: Wedding?

COVID test first.

Plutus Voices?

COVID test first.

Before we went anywhere indoors where we could potentially infect others, we took an at-home COVID test, which you can get free through insurance.

Covid-19 at-home test showing a single-line negative result

Why we did it: At-home testing is another imperfect measure on its own. COVID can take several days to show up on one of these tests, and some strains show up more reliably than others.

PCR testing is much more accurate. It can take several days to get results back, though.

Overall, the at-home tests catch enough asymptomatic cases that they’re still worth taking. If it shows up positive, you can prevent yourself from going to the event and infecting others.

These tests also can catch some symptomatic cases, but they can miss them, too. If you have symptoms and test negative with an at-home test, assume you’re positive anyways. Air on the side of caution for the sake of everyone else around you.

Did any of these pandemic safety measures help us save money?

 

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Heck, yes!

The COVID tests were free, and we use N95s back home, too, so arguably our total additional cost of combatting COVID while on vacation was $0.

In fact, following our safety protocol actually lowered costs, as a lot of the outdoor activities we engaged in were either free or very low cost, while still providing immense joy.

Inside more often comes with an admission fee.

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