Carry On

After A Year Of Staying Close To Home, Travel Has Become An Emotional Journey

When Jennie Larson finally became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, she jumped into action and added three big events to her calendar: Her two vaccine appointments and a trip to Atlanta, Georgia from her home in Washington, D.C. Exactly two weeks and one day after receiving her second Moderna shot, and thus fully immunised, she'll be boarding a plane for the first time in over a year. "I have some loose plans to meet up with some friends, but mostly I plan on a quick solo weekend trip just enjoying the fact that I can travel again," she tells Refinery29. 
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Larson says that Atlanta is her second favourite city in the country after her own, but that's not the only reason she's decided to head there for her first post-vaccine vacation — it was also the last place she traveled before the pandemic, about 10 days before the country shut down. "This trip feels symbolic in a way, like I am bookending the uncertainty and fear that the pandemic brought for so long," she says. "One trip before we all really knew the hell COVID-19 was going to release on the world, and one trip 14 months later, fully vaccinated, that marks the beginning of our return to normalcy." 
For Larson, normalcy means traveling. Before the pandemic, trips were a huge part of her life. "With the expendable income of a single woman in her late 20s, unlimited PTO at work, and a knack for finding cheap flights, impulse weekend trips were something I used to do regularly — whether it's a day trip to New York via Amtrak, a weekend trip to Detroit to explore a new city, or a cross-country flight to visit my parents in California, I was traveling in some capacity at least once a month." She's not the only one for whom travel feels vital. "I love to travel and missed the normalcy of it," says Leslie Tayne, who recently took her first post-vaccination trip to Boca, Florida where she visited with her mom and some friends. "I missed being able to take a break, visit new places, and explore." Within that normalcy, though, is an escape into novelty. "It keeps things interesting to step out of your daily routine and experience something different," Tayne shares. "Different climates, different food, and different people and experiences than you're used to can make everyday life more exciting."
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The novelty that a trip provides is one reason that travel can have an enduring impact on our happiness. Dr. Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies how happiness is affected by experiential purchases versus material ones. According to him, though material purchases like clothing or tech gadgets may physically last, the emotional value they provide us is often fleeting because we get used to seeing them in our closet or in that tech drawer among a tangled mess of errant wires. That's not the case with experiential purchases like travel. "It's not like we want some other trip aside from the great trip that we took," Dr. Kumar explains. "We look back at it fondly, we often have these positive memories of our experiences. The psychology of material goods doesn't work in quite the same way."
Tayne enjoys getting away to a new environment because it helps keep her grounded. "It allows me to re-energise and revitalise, which then translates into my work and daily life," she shares. "There's always an emotional connection when learning about new cultures, ways of life, food, and experiencing new places." That emotional connection to something outside of our regular routines is one aspect Tori Stark has also missed about being able to take trips this past year. "My favourite part of traveling is plugging into the local culture and imagining myself having a life there," she says "After a year of monotony and feeling stagnant, I'm looking forward to being reminded of the whole big world out there and just feeling part of something bigger!” 
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Stark is currently in the process of planning two post-vaccine trips. First, she's heading to Portland, Oregon with her boyfriend. "I live in L.A. and wanted to celebrate being fully vaccinated with a quick trip somewhere relatively close, but new to me," she says. "While we've looked into some restaurants and tourist attractions, we're honestly just looking forward to being anywhere different from our apartment, and strolling through a neighbourhood we haven't seen every day for the past year." One week later, she and her mother are going to surprise her sister who lives in Maui, Hawaii. Though she hasn't even boarded a plane yet, Stark says she's already reaping some of the benefits of travel. "I really missed having trips to look forward to," she explains. "Simply having something on the calendar is so refreshing and helps me orient myself."
Then, too, the activities leading up to the trip have provided her with a major mood boost. "I really missed the planning stages where you're researching what to do in a new destination and finding that balance of hitting all the must-sees, while leaving wiggle room in your plans in case, for example, the hotel concierge has a recommendation for a cool local spot," she says. "Getting to indulge my love of planning and researching and busting out my Excel sheet with links to Airbnb or hotel options, restaurants, parks, museums, and other attractions has honestly been the most fun I've had in a year. And then it all comes to life when you're on the actual trip!"
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For so long, conditions of the pandemic and vaccine rollout were so uncertain that it was impossible to make concrete plans, especially for something like a vacation. Now, we've finally arrived at a place where we know it's safe to travel after we've been fully vaccinated, which means we've entered into an anticipatory period that can provide emotional benefits. According to Dr. Kumar, waiting can feel good or it can feel bad. When it comes to waiting for the arrival of material possessions — like perhaps all those purchases you made online throughout the last 14 months just to feel something — we tend to feel impatience, anxiety, or frustration. 
Waiting for an experiential purchase like a trip to Portland or Maui, on the other hand, tends to be more positive or even pleasurable and exciting. "You can start deriving satisfaction from these experiences now, before you've even engaged in the travel," Dr. Kumar explains. "That's why it makes sense to book your flights ahead of time, of course, to start planning that vacation, to maybe look at restaurants that you might go to, menus, maybe buy tickets to things that you're going to do. Essentially, that increases the time that you can spend savouring this future consumption."
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For Stark, one key part of that planning process and the trips themselves is how they can be shared with others. "Traveling has so many relational opportunities to express care for one another because you're creating a brand new experience together from scratch," she says, which is exactly why she can't wait to explore Portland with her boyfriend and visit with her mom and sister in Maui. "What can we prioritise that you're most excited about? What can I do to contribute to you having a relaxing, fulfilling time on this trip? I love answering those questions together and using a trip as a way to learn new things about each other."
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According to Dr. Kumar, it is the social value of experiential purchases like trips that, more than anything else, contribute to people deriving more satisfaction from them versus material purchases. "With these experiences, we engage in, like travel, they're actually more likely to be talked about than material purchases," he explains. "Travel makes for better story material, and experiences like that are more likely to be discussed with others and contribute to our social relationships." And, fostering our social relationships, Dr. Kumar says, happens to be one the best things we can do for ourselves. "It's one of the strongest predictors of happiness. It's basically essential to our wellbeing.” And, of course, the pandemic, has made tending to those relationships more complicated, as the act of social distancing was necessary for our physical well-being, but impeded our ability to maintain social connections, which in turn, likely impacted our emotional well-being. Now that we're able to once again plan trips, we've regained one way of facilitating those social connections with others. "Even if you can't yet engage in this travel right now, at least you can talk about the travel that you're going to engage in with other people, and those interactions, those discussions are going to make you happy in the moment as well," he explains.
For so many, connecting with loved ones is the sole motivation behind their first post-vaccine trips. Linda Ostrom and her husband Chris, for instance, recently flew from where they live in San Francisco, California to Houston, Texas to visit their son, daughter-in-law, and two grandkids, one of whom they met for the very first time. Initially, upon finding out that they would be getting another grandchild, the couple told their son and daughter-in-law that they wouldn't be able to visit when the baby arrived. "This was before the vaccine, it was too far to drive, and we were not comfortable flying," Ostrom shares. "Chris and I had been pretty conservative throughout the pandemic and more so since my mom moved in with us in January. Our son and his wife were disappointed but understood." Then, in February, they were able to get vaccinated and book a surprise trip to Houston. "We kept telling them we couldn't make the trip," she says. "Finally, when they were going into labor, we couldn't keep the secret anymore and told them we were coming!"
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The anticipatory excitement combined with the opportunity to connect with their kids and grandkids that this trip provided brought the couple a lot of joy. Ostrom says that simply spending time together made the vacation extremely memorable. "We helped a little around the house, helped with [our grandsons], ate takeout," she recounts. One day, all six of them went over to her daughter-in-law's parents' house. There, Ostrom and her family ate brunch outside. She sat around watching the older of her two grandsons play in the pool and holding the new baby. "We just 'were.' It was one of the best days of our lives!" she says.
The second trip that Ostrom and her husband took post-vaccine is also all about connection. They're currently in Honolulu, and while they will be checking in on her mother-in-law who lives there, this trip is mostly a vacation filled with quality time as a couple. When asked what she's looking forward to most about the trip, Ostrom shares a thrilling list: "Reconnecting with my husband, taking care of each other, doing whatever we want all day, sleeping in, snorkelling, eating out, doing nothing, vacation sex!" After a year of lockdowns, isolation, fear, and grief, even reading about that experience for someone else likely brings a smile to your face.
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Travel, it turns out, can also make us feel more connected to and appreciative of our everyday lives. "It might sound weird after being home for over 13 months, but I think my upcoming trips will have an 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' effect on my relationship with my home city," Stark says. "I've been grateful for the refuge my little apartment has provided during this hard year, but I'm excited to be away for a little while so the return is that much sweeter. In a very meta way, I miss the feeling of missing home." Increased feelings of gratitude, it turns out, are a common side effect of travel. 
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"What we find is that reflecting on the experiential purchases that you've made — so maybe the travel that you've engaged in in the past — that tends to inspire stronger feelings of gratitude than reflecting on significant material purchases that you've made," Dr. Kumar explains. "So when you think about the trips that you've taken, or the venues that you visited, or the amazing meals that you've eaten or something like that, you tend to feel more grateful than when you think about all of the gadgets that you own or the furniture you've bought or the stuff that you have." According to Dr. Kumar's studies, that increased gratitude prompted by experiences like travel, in turn, often prompts altruistic behaviour. Tayne has certainly felt this phenomenon when she travels. "It's easy to forget that not everyone lives the same way you do in your part of the country or world, so being taken out of my element carries into my professional life and allows me to practice empathy and gratitude with clients and colleagues upon returning," she shares.
For many, these post-vaccination trips will have the added benefit of feeling like that return to normal they've been craving. "It was nostalgic to walk in Waikiki on a Friday night and hear folks dancing and laughing to a live band, see couples holding hands, and smelling exotic flowers!" Ostrom shares. "Like how it used to be." 
Larson can't wait for that experience. "The second my immunocompromised brother FaceTimed me to tell me he had just gotten his first vaccine, I felt immediate relief from extreme fear and anxiety I didn't know I had been carrying. I expect that the first time I step on a plane fully vaccinated, the feeling will be somewhat similar," she says. "Not only is it one more step toward normalcy — whatever that ends up meaning post-pandemic — but it's also participating in something that brings me joy after a year of so much fear and anxiety."

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