When New York entered lockdown in the spring, 30-year-old Jenna* couldn’t believe some people she knew were still getting on planes. “There was one girl I just wanted to unfriend who was throwing parties and literally traveling nonstop. I was like, People are fighting for their lives right now,” she says. But by July, with no clear end date to the pandemic in sight, Jenna’s mentality changed. “At this point, I didn’t really give a shit,” she says. “I hadn’t traveled for six months, which is the longest time I’ve ever not traveled since I was a baby.”
She got a flight to London, where she stayed for a few weeks before meeting up with a group of friends in Turkey. “All my European friends have been traveling within Europe during the summer, so I didn’t really feel that weird about it,” she says. Jenna was so happy to be out of lockdown and vacationing on the Turkish Riviera, she couldn’t resist sharing it on Instagram. “Sweatpants, zoom calls and banana bread prohibited,” she captioned a photo of her and some friends dressed in flowing sarongs at a candlelit club on the beach. Almost 20 of her followers reached out to ask her for advice on how they too could get into Europe.
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, many countries closed or sharply restricted their borders, scores of airlines declared bankruptcy, and global tourism came stuttering to a halt. Worldwide commercial-airline traffic has been down about 50 percent from last year. But that doesn’t mean international flights have been completely empty. For a particularly peripatetic segment of the American population, recreational travel isn’t something they’re willing to cut from their routines so easily. While they were willing to endure strict lockdowns in the spring, as the summer dragged on and COVID increasingly became the new normal, they started to make their own rules. Most of the travelers I spoke with are members of the wellness, finance, tech, or “entrepreneurship” worlds with lengthy, multi-hyphenate job titles, for whom high salaries and amorphous, do-anywhere digital jobs have long made the world feel borderless. And though many of them don’t think normies should be flooding the airports, they widely insist that they are taking precautions and thus feel little compunction about broadcasting their trips to their followers.
“As a digital nomad, I actually don’t have a home in the U.S.,” says Claire, a travel blogger who spent two weeks in London last July before heading to Croatia, where she has been living ever since. “There was a lot of talk in the beginning of quarantine about everyone staying home, but that’s not something that’s possible for me.” Her most visited website is that of the International Air Transport Association, which has a comprehensive map of restrictions for American travelers around the world. “Every morning, I would have my tea and pull it up and be like, Okay, has anything changed? Where can we go?”
Americans may be barred from dozens of countries, but they’re still getting around to a rotating list of vacation spots like Mexico, much of the Caribbean, and parts of Eastern Europe. With the help of travel bloggers busy keeping their readers updated on new hacks and loopholes, people have figured out how to keep their wanderlust dreams alive, even if it means pivoting from Ibizan vacations to Albanian vacations. Although Americans can’t travel directly to most countries in Europe, they can still enter the U.K. or Ireland if they quarantine for 14 days. From there, many travelers have had success entering countries like Italy, which allows travel from other countries in the E.U. regardless of nationality, or Spain, which claims it won’t allow American passport holders in “unless they meet very specific requirements” but, according to some people I spoke with, has proven to be more lax in practice. Turkey and Croatia also allow Americans and have become launchpads for European travel. “Basically all my friends who were traveling went to Turkey this year,” says Jenna. “You can go to Croatia, but Turkey’s more of a Mykonos vibe.”
According to Courtney Rey, people really started moving in August. She runs a Facebook group called YesNomads, which is like a friends-of-friends-only Airbnb for over 4,000 “like-minded individuals who want to live throughout the world more freely,” as she puts it. She estimated that 20 percent of her members traveled internationally that month. Some made use of personal connections, like having partners with European citizenship or second homes abroad. “Once a few people got through, I think now you’re starting to see more pockets of people trying it,” she says. “Even about a month ago, two of my friends in San Francisco were like, ‘I can’t believe you’re getting on a flight.’ And then I check in with them this week, and they’re on flights.”
In August, Rey decided to try her luck too. Her husband is French and needed to go back to France for visa reasons, so she went with him. She doesn’t feel weird about it. “I personally felt zero guilt because it was a question of being with my husband or not,” she says. “Leaving the country to be with him was about getting back to our lives of being together.” After their trip to France to see her husband’s family, they traveled to Spain to see friends, and then finally Portugal, where they have a second home. “There’s been a good amount of people from the community who said, ‘I want to be with my European friends. This has always been a part of my life.’ There’s still a cautiousness, but it’s kind of like, this is a new reality, and it’s underpinned by an attitude of We have to get on with our lives, and how do we do that as safely as possible?”
Rey and her friends have also gotten savvier about what they post. “No one’s posting group photos, because it’s not a good look,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of people do close friends only for their travel.” For Rey, that “close friends” circle on Instagram is pretty wide, and most of her business associates and acquaintances are like-minded about the importance of resuming their busy transatlantic social lives. “My investors have all texted me, like, ‘I want to be in Ibiza. How do we do that!?’ They’re all very cool,” she says. “There’s not a lot of travel shaming that I’ve seen on Instagram.”
Plenty of people have come under fire for posting about travel on social media, like the Australian influencer with 3 million followers who had to publicly apologize after ’gramming her trip to Rwanda; influencers like Naomi Davis and Ali Maffucci, who became targets of ire after relocating from New York in the early days of the pandemic; and Kim Kardashian, who just this month “surprised her closest inner circle with a trip to a private island.” In August, the New York Times wrote about the new wave of secret vacationers hiding their travel from friends in order to avoid social conflict. But the people I spoke to weren’t so afraid of backlash, and their beach pics were less likely to invite scolding than to prompt queries about how their peers could hack the system too.
When Patricia, who runs marketing and events for wellness brands in the Bay Area, touched down for her two-month vacation in Turkey and Croatia, she was afraid to post. When she announced her travel plans, she lost 50 of her 2,700 or so followers, and she was wary after seeing an influencer in her native Brazil get “canceled” for throwing a party. But Patricia found that once she started sharing photos from her trip, engagement went up. “A lot of people were very excited to see what we’re doing, how other countries are handling things,” she says. “I actually ended up gaining more followers than I lost.”
A lot of people I spoke to justified their trips by invoking visions of safety. Some said they felt air travel was the safest mode of transport because of the plane’s powerful HEPA filters (there is some initial evidence to support this, though it’s far from conclusive). Because they are mostly young and privileged, they aren’t worried about getting seriously ill, and they have the resources to buy medical-grade masks, take private cars to their private villas, and get tested whenever they want. What, they wondered, was the functional difference between social distancing at a shared house in Europe and social distancing at “home”?
“It’s just as much of a risk for me to go into a grocery store as it is for me to fly across the world,” says Ben*, a freelance brand-strategy consultant who has been working remotely from an Airbnb in Croatia with some friends since early September. Swaths of his peers escaped New York in the spring and set up “pods” to live and co-work with friends in rental homes; after some research, Ben and his friends decided on Croatia. “I don’t want to be a reckless American, but I was tested, and I didn’t have any symptoms,” he says. “The reason we did end up coming to Croatia is it was completely legit; we weren’t hacking the system at all.” While Ben was comfortable using his name with me at first, once I started asking him about some of the more ethical considerations behind his travel, he changed his mind. “I think there’s a lot of trolls out there, and I don’t want to have somebody come and say, Oh, you’re being so totally reckless for doing this,” he says. “I’m not claiming I’m doing the right thing by any means,” he adds. “I’m not claiming I’m doing the wrong thing. I think I’m just doing my thing.”
While nonessential travel from the U.S. is still inadvisable, especially now that cases are spiking worldwide, as long as the airports are open and the planes are still running, a lot of people are probably just going to keep doing their thing. Some are more transparent about their motivations than others. Kira*, an entrepreneur who asked for anonymity to avoid backlash, openly acknowledges that her decision to travel didn’t involve any fraught ethical calculus but was an impulse driven out of frustration with life in lockdown. “I’d gained, like, 15 pounds. I didn’t let the housekeeper come to my apartment. I wouldn’t order, like, a salad. I was so terrified of COVID,” she says of her early days under lockdown. After a few months of interminable Zoom calls, she changed her tune. “I was just like, I’m over it. I’m sick of, like, sitting home all day. I can’t do this anymore. I need to live my life. If I get it, I get it, whatever.”
Stepping off a plane in Tulum was like stepping into another world. She and her fellow travelers — a group of 30 or so friends of friends, mostly in the venture-capital world — were grateful for the respite. They tanned and snorkeled and ate big group dinners and, with local clubs closed, afterpartied back at the hotel. “Mexico was a place that we were allowed to go to, so there was like, zero level of secrecy. We were posting everything,” Kira says. All was well until one of their group members started to feel ill and got tested at a local clinic — he was positive. Then others started feeling sick. “I’m like, We need to get the fuck out of here,” she says. “But obviously, on the form at the airport I’m not gonna say, Yep, I was exposed to COVID, and now I’m going to quarantine for two weeks in Mexico. Like, sorry, I’m selfish that way.”
Back home in New York, Kira continued to live her life. She and a friend had mostly done their own thing on the trip instead of being with the big group; plus, she felt fine. The next week, she bopped around town, as well as heading to the Hamptons with some friends. When she found out that she, like 16 other people on the trip, had tested positive for COVID, it was too late; she had already infected at least one friend of hers back in the city. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I gave it to you. I’m so sorry,’ like, Holy shit,” she says. “He was like, ‘Well, it was my choice to hang out with you, obviously.’”
After her experience, she cautioned another girlfriend not to go on a private-jet trip to Tulum: “I was like, ‘Don’t you dare do that.’” But does she regret going? “I’m actually thankful that I got COVID,” she tells me, since it “was a very mild strain. And if it wasn’t on that trip, I would have gone on another trip and gotten it another way probably, because I was not taking precautions.” Now all bets are off. “I have antibodies. I’m planning a trip to Miami soon.”
*Some names have been changed.