18 Months Without Travel: My Most Important Takeaways

Early 2020 feels so long ago and yet so raw. Since a birthday weekend getaway to Penang then, I’ve gone 18 months without travel, and that’s my longest stretch in 12 years. While I must acknowledge my fortune in not catching COVID-19 (so far), losing my income or being separated from loved ones, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t face issues of my own, though they are minor in perspective. This period has helped me grow in ways I’d never expect to.

2020: A minor identity crisis

March 2020 was an anxious time for anyone in hospitality and tourism. COVID-19 was everywhere, and the cautious optimism that it could be controlled without the drastic lockdown that China implemented had evaporated. In Singapore, I remembered the downward spiral of the situation: week by week, the countries that were still open to tourists dwindled, while the list of returning travellers who had to quarantine on arrival grew until it encompassed everyone.

People whose employers resisted the shift to working from home could ill-afford to take that much urgent leave to isolate. Friends coughed up extra to fly home early and had mixed success in getting refunds.

Penang Road laksa in a bowl
This Penang Road laksa was my last photograph on foreign soil

Meanwhile, permitted group sizes at gatherings and dining establishments shrank by the week before culminating in the Circuit Breaker. In those few weeks, Singaporeans went from having the most visa-free access in the world to being barred from leaving their homes except for essential needs.

When one has spent more than a decade building an identity among family and friends as the savvy, frequent traveller, these restrictions on the activity needed to sustain that hit hard. Traffic to this blog and many others tanked due to the lack of demand. Some bloggers went quiet, while others upped sticks and left for less restrictive pastures. While bloggers from other countries have since recovered their numbers as tourism there opens up (perhaps prematurely), this website hasn’t.

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Reckoning with the aftermath

The failure had me judging myself–for not doing an adequate job in the last few years, for not having the guts to commit and leave, for not being attractive-looking enough to draw eyeballs for the wrong reasons. And I didn’t know if I was being harsh enough, since others who started at the same time or later have succeeded where I haven’t. The site hadn’t become a viable career alternative as I intended; with nothing quantifiable to show after eight years, I questioned spending hundreds on keeping it going.

However, acknowledging this site’s failure also lifted the pressure of visiting a new country or thinking of something different to do for the sake of web traffic. With that and the identity I tried to contrive taken away, I focused on other things with the time I didn’t spend travelling, researching destinations and creating content.

Takeaways from 18 months without travel

Learning what matters

I’d been in a relationship for a few months when the pandemic struck. While I was lucky not to have made any plans after my solo Cape Town and Penang trips, we didn’t get the chance to travel together before the proverbial hit the fan. The Circuit Breaker was especially tough because touch and quality time feature highly in our love language. A few other couples who also weren’t cohabiting did not survive that period.

Korean pink cherry blossoms and yellow canola flowers, Daejeo
I was at the Korean cherry blossom festival when we first talked and I sent her this photo

Since then, however, with fewer distractions and a little more money available now, I’ve used these 18 months without travel gainfully to develop the relationship and be present with my other half. Working on this and seeing positive feedback from someone who matters helps make me feel a touch better about my ability to make a net-positive difference.

In addition, gaining her acceptance when I could not offer fame or exotic adventures helped me see that, perhaps, I didn’t need to pursue them like I previously did. The idea of being a digital nomad–with the freedom to reset my environment whenever I didn’t like it–ceased to entice me once I found this unexpected but stable relationship.

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Staycations have their place

I used to look down on the idea of taking a staycation and thought it was a bad way to spend one’s money. After all, for the price of a one-night stay at a posh local hotel, one could pay for a budget flight and accommodation and enjoy a change of scenery a few hours away.

18 months without travel (and counting) changed that equation. With no incoming tourists and price-sensitive Singaporeans starved for getaways, local hotels lowered their rates and threw in incentives like dining credits and late checkout times. Even I couldn’t ignore or resist these offers. At last count, both of us have stayed at six different properties, and I’ve realised the worth of a staycation.

18 months without travel
When you go 18 months without travelling to Bali, Lloyd’s Inn might be the next best option

Given the Singapore housing market and how conservative the people are, couples do not live together before marriage as often as those in other countries do. Staycations give them–and us–precious time alone together (see the previous section). An overseas trip is definitely nice when the opportunity arises again, but transit is less stressful and takes much less time during a staycation. Sometimes, people just a fuss-free way to sleep in a different bed that they don’t have to make; that’s alright and it’s their prerogative.

New experiences in our backyard

This one is rather cliched, so I’ll keep it brief. But yes, I finally visited some of the places that I had been meaning to do but never got around to. They include walking the Rail Corridor, going to an axe range, some old neighbourhoods and revisiting Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Pretty mundane, I know, but judging by the number of people I saw, it seems that half the country has been doing the same thing for 18 months without travelling the world!

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The usual things about under-appreciating what we have indeed apply, even if what we have often doesn’t compare in magnitude or purity to what we could once access abroad. All this info will go into the Singapore slow travel guide.

There’s also something to be said about local tours. We may think that as residents, there is nothing to gain but you’ll be surprised by how much guides need to learn and know before they can be accredited! Some of that knowledge was honed through their experience dealing with tourists’ questions. Go and join one when you can. Knowledge exchange also goes the other way; sharing your story with a guide may, in turn, make the tour experience richer for visitors when they return.

What’s next?

After 18 months without travel, of stillborn travel bubble plans and new waves of community infections, Singapore will very soon allow vaccinated tourists from Germany and Brunei to skip quarantine under a few conditions. Since the former already lets us in with proof of completed vaccination, it’s the first opportunity for us to travel abroad without massive obstacles.

Singapore Airlines A380 superjumbo aeroplane
*Climate activists screaming in the background*

While I still have ground to cover in Germany and would love to explore their craft beer scene, I’m in no hurry to go right now, at least before I renew my passport. I still look forward to that first day back on the road and will enjoy some trips solo. However, future travels won’t be at the expense of my plans to build a home. I couldn’t have imagined it two years ago, but I now have something to look forward to even when I haven’t booked a flight. In the meantime, I have also accumulated plenty of frequent flyer miles for that occasion.

Will you continue to hear from me here? Well, when it was time to renew, I paid to keep this site going for another 18 months. Time will tell if it will remain just an expensive personal diary.