Travel advice: How to say no to traveling right now

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

I am starting to get invites for trips with friends for a month or two from now. As much as I want to travel, or at least start planning, it feels too early. Most recently, a friend asked if I want to visit our two friends in Portland, Ore. We would both be flying from two different cities on the East Coast and staying with our friends and their partners. The thought of being in an airport, sitting on a crowded flight and being in a different city right now feels irresponsible.

I am really struggling with how to have conversations about not feeling comfortable with this just yet without coming off as judgmental. — Rachel, Washington, D.C.

Friends and family have been clashing over the coronavirus for about a year now, from mask-wearing to vaccines to group gatherings. I wholeheartedly relate to your situation, as my loved ones regularly remind me that I’m “all gloom and doom” and “ruining the fun” when I turn down pandemic travel suggestions.

To find the best solution for our problem, I went to Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist who has an advice column “Ask Dr. Andrea” on The Lily. On a phone call this week, she told me these situations may be easier to approach now that we’ve been knee-deep in the pandemic for so long.

“In the beginning, a lot of these things felt very awkward to talk about. … Everything was new. People were changing their minds,” Bonior said. “I do think people have gotten a little bit more secure in finding ways to communicate that are respectful, and a little bit more secure in their views.”

That doesn’t mean these conversations aren’t still awkward and challenging. Every time pandemic travel pressure comes up, I feel like a broken record repeating sound bites from the CDC and [Anthony] Fauci. Here’s how Bonior recommends tackling the topic.

Establish your travel boundaries

Before you answer your friend, Bonior said to determine the risks you’re willing to take, the ones you’re not and why. Ask yourself: How much of your own mental and physical well-being are you willing to sacrifice for a trip?

Maybe you are comfortable taking some risks locally, like going to your gym where you know their safety protocols, but you’re not comfortable flying across the country.

“Having that rationale can help you — not that you have to defend your choices,” Bonior says. “But actually mentally to yourself, it’s a little bit easier to bolster your argument and use when you’re thinking about boundaries.”

Of course, the pandemic is ever-changing, and you are allowed to change your mind. Your line in the sand may change as new information comes out about the coronavirus, if you get vaccinated or for a number of other reasons.

Once you feel confident in your stance, reply to your friend honestly. That means don’t say “yes” or “maybe” to a trip if you know you are going to back out later. Bonior said a lot of people think it will be easier to avoid conflict, but it actually can damage your relationship by eroding trust.

“If you develop a pattern of doing that, then everybody knows that you’re going to be the one who backs out later,” Bonior said.

Opt out as clearly and respectfully as possible so your friend doesn’t get their hopes up or get a mixed signal that if they wear on you long enough, you will eventually give in.

Use “I” statements when talking about the travel plan

Traditionally thought of as a technique reserved for couples to resolve conflict, using “I” statements can be helpful to handle issues with platonic loved ones. Framing your decision from your point of view will help you avoid sounding judgmental.

“I think the more deep the relationship, the more it can sustain these nuanced, difficult conversations where you might say, ‘I really feel guilty not being there, but I know what’s best for me’ or ‘I really have mixed feelings and I might regret this later, but I have to say no,’” Bonior said.

Here are some other “I” statements Bonior offered:

  • “I wouldn’t feel comfortable traveling to Portland. I’m feeling a little too nervous to do something like that yet, but I really hope that you have fun.”
  • “I’ve been struggling with anxiety about coronavirus stuff, and for me, I just know I would be so nervous. I’d be preoccupied and wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself. I wouldn’t want that to affect the trip.”
  • “You have every right to do this. If my circumstances were different, I might choose differently, but I have to look out for my situation or my comfort level.”

Bonior said a good friendship is built to withstand differences of opinion as long as they’re conveyed respectfully. Consider this an exercise for strengthening your relationship.

Don’t travel shame your friends

Should the conversation get heated, remember that travel shaming doesn’t work. If you expect a friend or loved one to respond to your declined invitation aggressively, have a script ready with those “I” statements in advance.

“If they try to take you off script, have that one thing that you keep returning to, like ‘I love you and I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m sorry,’” Bonior said.

Bonior said that while travel shaming won’t change anyone’s mind, you don’t have to keep quiet if you have legitimate concerns for their safety.

“You can have a respectful conversation, ‘Hey, I totally get that you’re trying to do this. I would feel remiss if I didn’t just mention I’m worried about you doing this, and I will shut up, but I got to get this off my chest,’” Bonior said. “That’s different than shaming … but once your friend has made a decision, then the shaming part is just going to create some sort of a rift.”

Have a travel dilemma for By The Way Concierge? Submit it here.

Read more on travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive