A European Road Trip during a global pandemic

Daniel Harris

Spanish & Portuguese Graduate

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As was the case for my fellow graduates, the Summer of 2020 was meant to represent one last break before joining the real world, starting a job, and learning what it is to no longer be a student. As lockdown provided the simple message that every aspect of our lives were to be driven to a screeching halt, I wondered how I could resume my love of travel whilst still being conscious and staying safe from the virus.

“With the coronavirus pandemic, travelling has to adapt and we as individuals have to accept there will be a shift in how we travel.”

The Italian-Slovenian road trip was the answer. Starting in Venice in mid August, a friend and I headed down to San Marino, Florence, San Gimignano, Pisa, Cinque Terre and Trieste. Next, we crossed over through to Slovenia covering the 3 main regions: Koper & Piran on the coast, Bled and Bohinj Soča Valley of the Gorenjska region and into Ljubljana.

As I sit writing on the penultimate day of the Slovenian part of my trip, I can safely say that it is still very much possible to travel during a global pandemic. Moreover, this travel does not have to be limited to getting on a plane, staying in one destination and not leaving your hotel complex. Budget travelling, being constantly on the move and visiting those off-the-beaten-track destinations is doable. That said, I would be lying if I claimed that it is easy to forget about the pandemic. As somebody who checks the headlines every five minutes this was not a goal of mine in the first place. However, I definitely encountered feelings of guilt and nervousness whilst travelling over the last few weeks, so if that would affect your mood then now might not be the best time to go abroad.

I think that one of the great things about travelling is the multitude of different ways to do it and there is no correct way to travel. Whether you’re staying in luxury hotels or a hostel, travelling with friends, family or alone, backpacking round South America or the Lake District, all of these can bring about meaningful experiences of seeing other cultures, earning a well deserved break or enjoying time with the people important to you. With the coronavirus pandemic, travelling has to adapt and we as individuals have to accept there will be a shift in how we travel. For this trip, it became clear in three different ways, but I am sure this will manifest differently for each individual.

1. Flexibility

I am unquestionably a planner. I will have everything booked, accommodation sorted, and activities scheduled at least a few weeks, if not months, in advance. That is simply not possible anymore. Up until the day of my flight there was always the chance of it being cancelled and we had a few contingency plans in case borders started to close. In one sense, this was a frustrating experience. However, it was also an important learning curve and forced me to travel in a way that I would not normally do. Sometimes you do not need to have everything planned out and by taking it one day at a time, you stand the best possible chance of avoiding disappointment and frustration if COVID related restrictions were to impact your plans.

2. Accommodation

I am a big fan of hostels: they make travel accessible to more people, help to surround yourself with other young people, and are a great way to socialise if you are travelling alone. Whilst I do not think that COVID means the end for hostels, I do think that private rooms are definitely the way forward for the next year or so. Having generally kept my indoor, mask-free human interactions very limited during the trip, I think that staying in a shared room with strangers would make me feel a little uncomfortable. The cost of a private room for two people in a typical B&B that we stayed in was generally only 5-10% more expensive than two beds in a shared dorm in a hostel, so money does not have to be a barrier to feeling safe in your accommodation.  

"Having a car helped to give that sense of privacy and flexibility that is still possible, but certainly trickier to find when using public transport."

3. Method of Transport

Given that this was a road-trip, it took a lot of the headaches out of the logistics of travelling during a pandemic. Unless I am travelling with my family or I know a local, I would not generally think to do a road-trip abroad as hiring a car as an under-25 abroad can be quite expensive. However, moving forward I think that a road-trip is the perfect way to iron out some of the difficulties of travelling at this time. Having a car helped to give that sense of privacy and flexibility that is still possible, but certainly trickier to find when using public transport. The times that we did take public transport went off without a hitch, though it was very crowded on the trains in Cinque Terre and the cable car we took in Slovenia. In summary, I would not say to avoid public transport but it is worth considering the option of a road-trip if you are looking to travel over the next few months.

Strangely, but also reassuringly, the majority of the day-to-day life of travelling was not that greatly affected by the pandemic. Apart from the ubiquitous mask wearing and ample signage about social distancing, the experience of travelling has not been so different to what it was before March 2020. At the time of writing there are not that many accessible countries to visit and travel outside of Europe seems less feasible, at least in the short-term. However, for those countries without restrictions and with low infection rates, travelling is absolutely something that is possible, enjoyable and safe. As we all navigate through the next few months waiting for a vaccine, it is down to all of us to find a balance between sensibly managing the risks of coronavirus, whilst still living and travelling in a fulfilling and meaningful way.

This article was written at the end of August 2020.

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