Outside the Box: How to be resilient when traveling during COVID-19

Vaccinated in March, boosted in November, masks ready, we boarded an E190 JetBlue aircraft at Reagan Washington National Airport. It was our first air trip since the pandemic began, and we analyzed all the information we could find and considered our own comfort level and tolerance for risk.

After numerous canceled day trips in 2020 and canceled air trips thereafter, we finally felt ready — and prepared.

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Since we are both working, we had the additional factor of scheduling a time convenient for both of us. Miraculously, we found something we agreed on: a short domestic trip during which we would rent a single-family house in a walkable location, skip the rental car, aim to eat in or, if at restaurants, only outdoors.

We wouldn’t travel during peak holiday periods, skipping Thanksgiving, and we’d wear new masks determined to be safe and comfortable to wear in airports and for at least a two-hour plane flight. Warm weather was not an option for this first trip in early December.

We were hardly alone. U.S. travel, according to the Transportation Security Administration, has swelled in 2021. The day we traveled, more than 2 million others passed through TSA to hit the skies, up from roughly 837,000 in 2020, the year the pandemic officially emerged. In 2019, for that same day, close to 2.3 million were recorded by TSA

I knew the worst risk, considered it, and put it out of my mind as best I could. I weighed the risks of a shrinking life against the possibility of disease, and decided that not traveling, at least for me, was becoming debilitating. I have been a traveler for as long as I can remember, exploring the world for whatever the reason. It’s part of who I was, and who I still wanted to be.

Yet, as the Omicron variant hit the news, I began to wonder if my decision was still a reasonable one. Was it necessary to take this trip? Could I accept forfeiting any money that was too late to be refunded? I could, I told myself. Yet at the same time, I wanted to be on the other side of this experience — to have traveled and returned home safely. 

Probably the hardest part for me, after 22 months of no air travel, was entering the plane. Walking onto the aircraft, I kept thinking that the plane was like a cigarette — so narrow and long — with just two seats on either side, no business class, and certainly, no first class.

Then, there was takeoff. Sitting in row 16 put us just behind the wing, with a cacophony of sounds more intense than I’d remembered. Once I got past that I began to enjoy being in and beyond the clouds, a place I’d always loved to be.

In earlier years, the further the destination, the smaller the plane, the happier I’d be. I’d adjusted my choices in more recent years, but still relished the sense of being in a compartment for two or more hours that would safely bring me to another environment to explore.

For this trip, I followed all the guidelines including those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and TSA, and suggestions from other experienced travelers.

For me that meant revisiting what I could and could not bring on the flight: One carry-on bag and one personal item. The liquids could be no larger than 3.4 ounces in the carry-on bag. Small items like a tiny tube of toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletries aren’t hard to find, except maybe for sunscreen.

Yet, doing it right, and applying for TSA PreCheck can save you time and hassle at airport security.

I also checked in with psychologist Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., author of “Thriving in Thin Air: Developing Resilience in Challenging Times,” who shared some of his own experiences and thoughts about traveling in times of COVID.

“Make informed choices,” he told me. “Don’t give yourself a guilt trip for traveling.” That was good to hear from a man who has helped people dealing with trauma from events such as the Sept.11. 2001 attacks. Most important, “have a plan.” 

An “agility plan” gives you two or three options when faced with changing circumstances while traveling during the pandemic. “Having a fact-based plan with contingencies is a major contributor to resilience and reducing anxiety,” he told me. Flanagan, who is founder and president of The Center For Resilience, outlined his approach for developing resilience related to traveling during the pandemic. He cites five factors:

Focus. Flanagan defines this as “the ability to maintain your attention on the things you want to concentrate on — to keep your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors centered on matters and people at hand.”

He advocates practicing a 20-minute breathing meditation, a three-minute breathing meditation, a cleansing breath, arriving “mindfully,” and scheduling time to focus.

 Pragmatic optimism. The core of this is believing “that the future will be better, and you will have a role in making it so,” according to Flanagan. “You will contribute to a better future when you do small things to make a positive difference every day.” It’s an attitude.

 Empathy. “Building empathy is investing in relationships so that you can see a situation from someone else’s point of view,” Flanagan advised. As a result, you are able to understand and share their feelings about a problem, challenge, or situation they face.

 Fact-based decision-making. This means “ensuring that conclusions are grounded in facts rather than assumptions or biases. Fact-based decision-making improves the quality of your decisions by minimizing prejudices and expanding the information you consider,” he wrote.

 Agility. This is the ability to change course quickly to achieve your objective when facing challenges and obstacles.

Flanagan suggested making fact-based decisions at any point in the trip. For example, if you are considering eating indoors at a particular restaurant because it is raining, “stand at the threshold,” and decide whether you will enter based on facts such as: Are the servers wearing masks? You should have one or more contingencies or Plan Bs before the trip begins. 

“Have a contingency plan before you need it,” he said. “If you decide not to get on the plane, what are you going to do instead?”

In my case, I took the risk to travel, and I am glad I did. But I will admit, coming back I feared COVID-19. Getting a flu test, a rapid COVID test, and a 24-hour COVID test relieved my worries.

All were negative. I had reached my goal. I am now on the other side. I traveled by plane, and made it home safely.

Harriet Edleson is the author of 12 Ways to Retire on Less: Planning an Affordable Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), and writes for The Washington Post Real Estate Section. 

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