Travel in an age of travel shame

longer read (9-10 mins)

Anything to declare? Some travel shame perhaps?

I read a New York Times article recently, Shh! We’re heading on vacation, that probed the notion of travellers who normally post about their trips on social media staying silent for fear of being travel shamed by friends, family or strangers (thanks Twitter).

If you read the piece, you’ll note there’s perhaps a touch of irony in parts:

‘Aside from her husband and their two travel companions – and now, readers of the New York Times – Ms. Gaudino has no plans to tell anyone about her trip’.

Hopefully her friends aren’t that into the New York Times…

On a serious note though, how did so-called travel shaming come about and what place does it have in a pandemic? How do we travel (or view travelling) with a clear conscience right now?

Read on for my eight point ponder:


A remote corner of the world

During a call with friends in Washington D.C. the other day I mentioned my forthcoming Scottish adventure. I was very quick to emphasise that we would be travelling as remotely as public transport would allow us.

Pre-pandemic, this would be taken for what it is, a desire to get away from tourist hotspots. But there I was, not wanting to come across as naive to the risks of travelling during a pandemic.

I will freely admit that I felt slightly guilty to be admitting to travelling away from home (even within the UK) for a such a length of time, at this time.

Travel shame isn’t new, of course. It’s just morphed.


A plane's turbine

In 2018 the ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’ movement took off, championed by Swedes including Greta Thunberg’s mother, opera singer Malena Ernman. Broadly, it is a commitment to travel slower, by train or by boat for example, or to not travel at all, thereby exerting a lower carbon footprint.

On the more controversial side, it promotes the idea of flying as a shameful act, literally flying in the face of climate change. And what started in Scandinavia has had a large effect around the world.

At World Travel Market in London last November I recall the term mentioned at almost every event I attended. Many industry insiders considered flight shame a top consideration for travellers and a big worry for the aviation industry, months before the cataclysm of COVID-19 hit us.

For myself, I don’t really agree that criticising or shaming ordinary, sensible people is the best way to go about encouraging more responsible, collective action. And shaming the people who really don’t give a damn? Good luck to you!

In the sense that the two types of travel shame can be compared, it is understandable that for many of us our concern about travelling is not just whether it is actually safe enough (or carbon neutral), but what people will think of our choices.


Quarantine country checklist

Globally, according to John Hopkins University, the total number of COVID-19 cases stands at over 24.2 million (as of 26th August).

In the UK, a slowing of cases is challenged by increasingly familiar announcements of local lockdowns, as in Aberdeen and Manchester, and changes to the government’s list of air corridor countries that now require a spell of quarantine on return.

Particularly in the past few weeks we have seen hundreds of thousands of UK travellers return early from countries where cases have climbed: Spain, France, The Netherlands, Croatia, Trinidad and Tobago.

One holidaymaker who narrowly missed returning from France in time to avoid quarantining had this to say to The Guardian:

‘How does it make sense? Either you allow people proper time to stagger getting back or you say quarantine is effective immediately. A 12- or 24-hour deadline just means that 100,000 people rushed back one day earlier than us, they’re more high risk because of that, and we are in quarantine and they’re out in open spaces.’

Government mishandling of deadlines aside, there was always a certain inevitability that the creation of air corridors from the UK, a country with the 13th highest number of cases in the world, would lead to rocketing case rates in popular holiday destinations.

Despite the risks, UK tourists are highly sought after, as Portugal’s recent successful fight for an air corridor has shown. (Thinking of going? FYI Lisbon remains under tighter controls than the rest of the country, but Porto is a beautiful alternative for a weekend away, as this travel guide proves).

Given the obvious risks, what do people on both sides of the argument think?


Polaroid Camera

Speaking to the New York Times, Catharine Jones described spending a weekend away with her family, 3 1/2 hours north of her home in Minnesota. She hesitated about posting a picture of her family at their remote cabin, admitting, ‘I feel like vacation pictures signal to the world, “hey! This isn’t so bad!” and it has been really that bad for many, many, many people’.

So there is certainly a guilt factor in all of this. That somehow it is unfair to those who are suffering, to be seen to be having a good time.

Lauren Pearlman also spoke to the New York Times, about learning a friend had hidden her travel plans: ‘if you’re going to go on vacation, then own it and say that you are. If you don’t feel like you can advertise it, then obviously you aren’t positive it’s the ethical thing to do’.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. What do we hide things for, if not because we know, even subconsciously, that something is wrong? But what about the other side of the coin? The grey area of just not wanting to be shouted at, even though you feel you’re in the right?


Ketchum survey results

Staying in America for a moment, according to a survey carried out by PR company Ketchum, 67% of 4,000 Americans surveyed said they expected to judge others for travelling before they themselves think it’s safe, while 56% said they expected to self-censor on social media so as to avoid being travel shamed.

If we admit it, we have probably all been quicker to judge others since the pandemic began, whether it be toilet roll purchasing habits, mask etiquette or a willingness to leave the house.

Alongside these natural concerns about how people are behaving, for anyone who has been shielding or keeping indoors for longer periods, it’s understandable to feel that some have been moving too fast, too early. Sometimes, all we can be sure of is our own judgement, and that’s ok.

But the frequently signposted ‘new normal’ had to start sooner or later. Our isolation couldn’t go on forever.



According to the Office of National Statistics, from a survey in June, one in five of us have likely experienced depression this year – that’s up from one in ten last year. There’s a lot on our minds, so it’s no wonder.

And, with a ‘mental health pandemic’ literally looming over us, on top of everything else, isn’t there something to be said for doing what we need to do for our own mental health, even if it involves hopping on a plane somewhere?

We all know that being outdoors can help combat stress. Further from the front door, the mind also has a chance to stumble on new stimuli. Take a break from technology.

But what’s good for our mental health doesn’t need to be exclusive of what’s good for our physical health, they are one and the same. And there isn’t a one size fits all way to see this crisis through, or recover from the effects.


Face mask GIF

As someone who experienced a particularly nasty case of COVID-19 back in March-April, I still worry about who I could have passed it on to before I experienced symptoms. I fear catching it again and unwittingly spreading it while I’m away.

However, before I set foot in Scotland, I will have a better idea of my own health, having taken a Coronavirus test as part of a King’s College study.

Obviously I hope it’s negative, but with immunity now thought to last only a few months at best, and with talk of an imminent second wave, it’s incredibly important, especially if travelling further afield, not to let once hyper-cautious behaviours slip just because we have more freedom of movement.

This article from BBC’s Medical Editor Fergus Walsh gives a really balanced overview of life now compared to the height of a pandemic, and has this to say about being careful now more than ever:

‘We all still have a role to play in curbing the outbreak. Social distancing and hand hygiene still matter. If you can’t remember how many people you are allowed in your back garden, or whether it’s OK to give two people from different households a lift to the shops, at least remember to wash your hands and not get too close to those you don’t live with.’


Speech bubble
  • Travel and migration is in our DNA – whether we’re moving countries, seeking refuge or exploring a new destination on holiday.
  • We shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving the house, if we feel safe to do so and guidelines allow it. If we don’t feel safe? That’s ok, tomorrow is a new day.
  • Our tourism and hospitality industries need as much of our support as we can give them.
  • The best responses to this terrible pandemic have been the ones that involve us coming together, looking out for one another.
  • That means doing our best not to risk the health of other people.
  • It also means a commitment not to judge others who might be doing the best they can in trying times, and whose circumstances we may not fully understand.
  • No-one is an expert on what the ‘new normal’ means exactly, and how we should live it.

So I’m going to own my adventure round Scotland and I won’t be keeping silent about it. In fact, for a few hours each week I’m planning on producing a podcast, sharing my experiences as I go. But the other 165 hours each week?

Keeping off social media and enjoying a trip for what it is, unbridled by technology… surely that’s the holy grail many of us yearn for anyway?!

Safe travels.

Published by Kateonhertravels

An insatiable appetite for travel.

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