Rosh HaShanah feels like the real new year to me. But every Jan. 1, the IRS and my health benefits remind me of another opportunity to start anew. So while friends vow to lose weight, cut screen time or take up a sport, I make resolutions that answer the question: How can I travel better this year?
And every winter, influenced by experiences of the previous year, the conclusions are slightly different. In honor of 2019, here are my own travel resolutions, which I hope may inspire you to reflect on your own sojourns — and travel not only better, but also smarter, more ethically, and more satisfyingly in the new year.
Resolution 1: Test my preconceptions. Rarely do we set out for truly unknown destinations. But much of what we think we know is likely to be critically incomplete at best (and plain ignorant at worst, like when people told me I wouldn’t find pizza on my first trip to Italy). Coming back with a more empathetic understanding of a place and its people is among the unsung rewards of travel.
I remember being surprised by how prosperous Greece appeared in the grip of a well-publicized austerity crisis; versus neighboring countries, its roads were far better maintained, its cafés livelier, and its people better dressed than I’d assumed from reports. You had to pay closer attention to understand the financial (and indeed, existential) desperation many Greeks were quietly living — and to realize how poverty, like so much else, is deeply relative.
This year, my political preconceptions were tested by the evident affection of many Hungarian Jews toward that country’s controversial prime minister, belying the negative Western narrative. Chatting with locals reminds us that every culture is more complex than outsiders can truly grasp — and best appreciated with an open mind.
Resolution 2: For fresh perspective, try swapping region or time of year. Come vacation time, most of us beeline for a particular area: Western Europe, the Caribbean or New England. But there’s much to be said for the jolt of novelty.
My most memorable Passovers have featured unexpected flavors of charoset and meringue at foreign seders; a Thanksgiving in France stands out for the fun of sourcing turkey and cranberries in the villages near Paris.
If you haven’t tried off-season travel in a while, make this the year. Try your winter ski resort in July for hiking trails, swimming pools all to yourself, and far lower rates. Last year, I swapped my August Vineyard beach getaway for pre-season June … and discovered a greener, far less crowded side of a familiar seashore.
Resolution 3: Aim lower. One of my favorite pieces of travel advice is to do a few sights well, rather than try to cover everything. At some point, nearly all of us realize we will leave pyramids unseen, rivers unexplored and delicacies uneaten around the globe.
And I’m fine with that. I resolve to savor experiences big and small with the people I love, rather than make them crazy by trying to tick off each museum exhibit, light show and botanical garden within range. When our three generations get together, I aim for one quality experience per day — it could be a beach outing, shopping trip or concert — and one relaxed, delicious meal with good conversation. That’s achievable.
Resolution 4: Unplug more on vacation. A few days into my current Florida trip, I set out for an excursion and realized I’d left my phone at home charging. I decided not to go back for it. It happened to be Christmas, and I decided that if pretty much everybody else could have the day off from Twitter and Gmail, so could I.
Many of us regularly unplug on Shabbat, but it does take intention — and not a small amount of pushback from impatient family members — to make oneself electronically unavailable otherwise.
Yet not so long ago, travel meant precisely this. I’m not even talking about international travel — where roaming fees, unpredictable networks, and time differences necessarily limit contact. Before cell phones, you left the house and nobody could reach you. You got lost, made new friends and discovered places you didn’t realize existed.
It wasn’t all romance; travel before Trip Advisor and GPS could be frustrating, scary and almost certainly less informed. But without electronic distraction, you focus more on the people around you and in the scenery in front of you. It’s a reminder we all could use from time to time.