A four-day whistlestop tour of Portugal and Brazil was my last big trip. I still vividly remember the taxi driver racing down an unmade path to our hotel in the middle of the Atlantic Forest, my head hitting the ceiling of the minibus with every bump.
Flying was a pretty uneventful part of life in 2019 and I was no stranger to travelling alone for work or pleasure.
But in March 2020, that all changed. The pandemic hit, the world was suddenly under lockdown and no one was travelling. With health conditions that make me vulnerable to the virus, I definitely wasn’t going anywhere.
How had I gone from adventuring in South America to being afraid of stepping outside my own front door?
When the world started to reopen, many jumped at the chance to go abroad again but I wasn’t so sure. I decided to hold back until things seemed more certain.
More lockdowns came as the COVID situation fluctuated and then we arrived in 2022, two years since this nightmare began. I hadn’t stepped foot outside of the UK in so long that I had become nervous about going abroad.
Flying for the first time in two years
In May, I was invited to travel to Norway for work. Just a two-hour flight from London Heathrow, the journey was shorter than many domestic train routes in the UK. Still, the prospect of flying filled me with dread.
I wasn’t alone either. Speaking to friends and family - especially those whose health put them at risk - many were still hesitant to get back to international travel.
In the UK, 16 per cent of people say they are not taking a holiday this summer. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, money is obviously a big factor for those not planning a trip. Almost 50 per cent, however, still list uncertainty over the COVID crisis as a reason, according to recent research from insurance firm Allianz Partners.
My hesitance to hop on a plane, it seems, is not unique.
Swallowing down my nerves, clutching a borrowed suitcase (my own lost to some irrational lockdown clearout), I walked into Heathrow to catch my flight.
Waiting in the queue for the desk, my nerves began to evaporate. Travel restrictions have eased and, bar a few leftover warning signs, it was just how I remembered it. I checked in my bag and passed through security without a hitch - despite the chaos at many UK airports in recent months.
The flight itself was painless too, with very little to suggest that there had even been a major world event between now and my trip to Brazil. No one flinched at my decision to continue wearing a mask despite the recent changes to requirements.
Travelling for the first time since the pandemic began was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be.
The experience was definitely softened by the fact that I was visiting Norway - a country where all entry rules were lifted in February. I didn’t have to provide proof of vaccination or do any COVID tests so there was no additional travel stress, aside from the usual fear of missing your flight.
In a personal tradition that I hoped had been left in 2020, along with wired bras and the morning commute, I returned with a sore throat and blocked nose. But, after some judicial testing to ease my nerves about COVID, everything came back negative. It was just my usual travel-induced cold.
Is this a return to pre-pandemic travel?
Airports in particular were a big sticking point for me when it came to throwing myself back in. I won’t deny that I was scared to discover what travel was like after a two-year absence. In reality, not much had changed.
A lot of people have found the same thing and are unafraid to travel now restrictions have eased. European airlines and hotel chains report seeing bookings recover to levels not seen since the pandemic began.
Statistics suggest we’re still sceptical about long-distance and business travel, but pent-up demand has seen short-haul trips bounce back pretty quickly.
That being said, planes are still a pretty miserable - and unsustainable - way to travel. And, if one thing did change during the pandemic, it's my consideration of whether I really need to fly at all.
Rail services across Europe are rapidly improving and the environmental impact of flying is becoming ever more clear. The planet’s brief respite during lockdown helped many of us to reconsider our own impact on the climate.
Despite being nowhere near as bad as I thought it might be during my pre-airport spiralling, I think I’d still rather catch a train when I can. And if two years without stepping foot on a plane really wasn’t that hard, why not take a few less flights a year?