Next month, Elena Gaudino will fly from New York to Las Vegas, rent an SUV and drive to the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park and other desert destinations. The 10-day road trip stands in for her favorite annual tradition — Burning Man, the Nevada arts festival that was canceled this year because of the pandemic — and gives her something to look forward to after a coronavirus-induced travel dry spell.
Now she is itching to trade her Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment for the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest. But unlike in years past, Gaudino will post no requests for restaurant recommendations on Facebook, nor will she swap excited texts with friends detailing her itinerary. Aside from her husband and their two travel companions — and, now, readers of the this story — Gaudino has no plans to tell anyone about her trip.
“Some people believe you’re selfish for leaving your home unless it’s to get groceries,” said Gaudino, 34, a communications consultant. “I’d rather avoid potential altercations and I can go into this experience with a clear mind: I’m taking all the mandated precautions, I know the risk.”
Sharing the details about where we’ve traveled has always been a way to transmit our values, tastes and means — look no further than the postcards of the 19th century or the Kodak carousels of the 1960s and ’70s. Then came Instagram, a decade ago, to turbocharge the practice. And while technology has made it easy to keep up with loved ones during this period of physical distance, there is one topic being withheld from conversations and hidden from social media: vacations. For a variety of reasons related to the pandemic, some travelers are content to let the tree fall in the forest, so to speak, without a single soul around to hear it.
“In addition to protecting your self-image and reputation, a main reason people keep secrets is to protect relationships and avoid conflicts,” said Michael Slepian, a Columbia Business School associate professor who studies secrecy. “People often think, ‘You know, life would just be easier if I didn’t have that fight with my parents, so I’m not going to let them know about my trip.’ ”
In the past couple of years, the concept of “flight shaming” — originally coined as “flygskam” by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg — has gained momentum as part of an anti-air-travel environmental movement. Today, mid-pandemic, general “travel shaming” could also take off.
Two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 Americans surveyed in June by Ketchum Travel, a public relations agency, said they would judge others for traveling before it’s considered “safe.”
Half expected to censor their social media posts to avoid being “travel shamed” themselves. Compare that with last year, when about 80% of the 1,300 respondents in a Skift Research survey said they posted trip photos on social media.
“The pandemic presents a unique case of travel entering the moral sphere, because there are two things that happen when you travel: The first is that I put myself at risk, and the second is by virtue of putting myself at risk, I could be spreading coronavirus to other people,” said Jillian Jordan, a Harvard Business School assistant professor who studies moral psychology.
All it took for Lauren Pearlman, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., to discover what she called a friend’s “shame-cation” was some shrewd digital sleuthing. One hint? A rogue Instagram post — depicting a lake cottage in a decidedly vacation-y setting — by the friend’s husband.
“I feel like it compromises our friendship because it exposes very different philosophical approaches to the pandemic,” said Pearlman, 37, a history professor at the University of Florida. “And 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.”
JORDAN SAID the pandemic — thanks to its unprecedented nature in modern times and patchwork of geography-based restrictions — remains a gray area for ethical norms. Whereas most people would agree that shoplifting is unacceptable, for example, so far there is no universally agreed-upon consensus about whether or not to travel.
“Some people think any trips of any kind are bad; others, meanwhile, are off flying to hot spots,” Jordan said. “If you think it’s fine to travel and some people don’t think it’s fine — but you’re not persuaded by the opposing argument — you may feel motivated to hide your behavior.”
That can be true even when travelers feel confident they’re taking proper health precautions. Gaudino plans to stay in Airbnbs and campgrounds; except for grocery shopping — while wearing a face mask — she will not participate in any public indoor activities. To prepare for a 14-day quarantine upon her return, required by New York for anyone coming from states like Arizona and California, she has stocked her fridge and pantry with long-lasting provisions.
Catharine Jones, 39, also prioritized hygiene and safety when in June she drove with her family from their home in Rochester, Minn., to a lake about 3-1/2 hours north. They stayed in-state, wore masks and bunked in a self-contained cabin.
Watching her children — ages 2, 4 and 7 — play happily by the lake at dusk, she did what many parents might do: She took a photograph and posted it on Instagram.
“Right after I posted it, I thought, ‘Wait a second,’ ” said Jones, a journalist. “Am I going to be judged for doing this? Are people going to say, ‘Wait, you left your house?’ The second thing that ran through my mind was an awareness of how lucky we are: to travel, to be able to spend money, to have a leisurely weekend.”
Though she was not chided for that post, Jones realized that she wants to keep her next trip — another private in-state road trip with little, if any, contact with strangers — to herself.
“We’re living in this moment when long-standing inequities are particularly stark and the dividing line is between people whose lives remain relatively normal and people whose lives have been completely turned upside down by this pandemic,” she said. “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.”
THE QUESTION of what, if anything, to publish on social media is even more complex for travel influencers, whose incomes rely on trips. Some are concerned about backlash from an audience of thousands; others are mulling over how to depict travel responsibly.
“As travel storytellers, our influence can sometimes be a double-edged sword, because while we may have influenced someone to travel to a certain place, we can’t control what they do when they get there,” said Oneika Raymond, a New York-based TV host and travel expert. “Keeping trips quieter might just keep intense wanderlust, and subsequently these transgressions, at bay.”
Although there are obvious benefits to digitally detaching — Gaudino, for one, is looking forward to a trip without a mad dash for Wi-Fi — sneaky trips may have other drawbacks.
“Secrecy can still be hard even in the absence of shame and guilt, because you want to share your experiences with others,” Slepian said. “Even before the vacation you can get a lot of joy just from talking about it, and this is the real reason secrecy is so difficult: It deprives yourself from a way to connect with other people.”
Yet it was secrecy that allowed Sonia Chopra, a Brooklyn-based food editor, to find joy in her wedding last month — a weekend in upstate New York in lieu of what had been planned as a blowout bash in Atlanta. Out of the 350 original guests, only her parents and a couple of close friends knew about the trip.
She didn’t want to endure a barrage of questions: Did she go away? (Yes; to Tarrytown, N.Y.) Did she stay at a hotel? (Yes; Tarrytown House Estate, which has a slew of COVID-19 measures.) Did she and her husband dine out? (Yes; at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an upscale restaurant offering a contactless outdoor “picnic” where everything is pre-ordered online, including bottled cocktails.)
“Although we were being very safe and very careful, we wanted to make sure that nothing put a pall on our day,” said Chopra, 31. “We’re taking this very seriously, but people in very well-meaning ways can sometimes ask questions that can make you feel badly, and we were trying really hard to make sure the weekend felt special.”