Coronavirus and travel: 20 things we never thought we'd miss about travelling

When you find yourself pining for an $8 coffee in the airport departure lounge, you know something has gone seriously wrong. And yet here we are, wishing to be shamelessly ripped off once again, practically begging to buy a $30 power adapter and pick up a stale, $10 croissant after having stood in line at security for the last half hour.

Life has changed, immeasurably. Priorities have shifted, or at least become clearer. Values have crystallised. And all of those experiences that we travellers used to gripe about have suddenly begun to seem quite wonderful.

What you wouldn't do right now for a plate of dodgy street food. How you'd love a long night sitting bolt upright in an aeroplane. It's only when everything we once took for granted disappears that we realise how great it really was.

Of course, we knew we would miss some things about travel. We knew we would miss the excitement, the suspense, the sights, the flavours, the experiences, the people.

How about all of the dramas, all of the annoyances, all of the boredom that is the reality of travel? Funny thing is, we miss those too. We miss the chance to complain about them. We miss the chance to share them. We miss the chance just to go through them because we know that something so amazing and life-affirming exists on the other side.

So, grab a four-day-old sandwich and settle in. Because it's time for some nostalgia.


Where do you even begin? Probably at the parking lot, where you pull in and realise you're about to be stiffed for an insane about of money. Then there are all the queues in the terminal, the terrible food you have to pay a premium for, the flights that get delayed, the gate lounge that has no seats, the people who all crowd the carousels… Airports. Who needs them? Well, right now, us.


Nothing makes you feel quite as much of a gormless, floundering tourist than finding yourself peering up the nostrils of a Parisian waiter. They're usually immaculately dressed, these characters, professional, sharp, and with little time to waste on those who don't know the ins and outs of the local dining scene – that is, you. Still, we could cop a little snobbery from French wait-staff right now. We would be glad to fumble over schoolboy Franglais to order steak frites. It beats having to get up and make your own food.


That feeling of confusion when you wake at 2am and find yourself staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed and ready to go. That dizzying lurch as you scramble to find whatever it is that's making that strange sound when your alarm goes off at 11 in the morning. The shock of sunlight when you feel it should be dark. The desire to drink a beer at six in the morning. All of these are the usually undesirable signs that you're suffering from jet-lag. They're not fun. They're horrible. But… they sound pretty good right now.



AFR 11TH DECEMBER 2013 Photo by Louise kennerley qantas food story about airline food Premium Economy MEAL Barramundi with Moroccan Braised Lentils and Sweet Potato Puree

Photo: Louise Kennerley

The shocking truth about airline food these days is that it's not actually that bad. It depends on who you fly with of course, but there are now some pretty palatable meals at 40,000 feet. Or at least, there used to be. Because now we can't get access to them, and that feels like a pretty disappointing thing. Even the worst food experience imaginable – the case of Bali Belly or Pharoah's Revenge or whatever you want to call it – wouldn't be so bad right now. At least it would mean we were out there trying something different.


Remember those halcyon days of "exercise a high degree of caution"? When you'd check the Smart Traveller website and um and ah over your next destination because of the yellow warning designation? Yeah – everything is red now. Everything. It's not just "do not travel", it's a complete ban. Oh what we wouldn't give for the simple pleasure of some political unrest and the odd tourist-related kidnapping.


You're not supposed to enjoy a failure to communicate. It's supposed to be a stressful situation, where you flail your arms and try not to yell too much and attempt to make yourself understood through a mix of poorly pronounced words, charades and Google Translate. But now, with the benefit of distance, it's easy to understand the inherent greatness of a communication breakdown. It's a bonding experience, a challenging experience, and one that would be a welcome break from the ordinary in these times of isolation.


Young caucasian woman on board sitting on airplane window seat, feeling excited about flying with a plane, looking through a plane window, fastening her seatbelt, using phone, taking pictures with mobile phone, feeling tired, resting her head, sleeping on board, listening to music with earphones, eating a croissant, enjoying her flight.

Long-haul travel was a luxury in itself. Photo: iStock

In normal times we dread long-haul. The thought of spending interminable hours wedged into a plane seat trying to get comfortable. The idea of boarding a bus at night and attempting to get some rest while bolt upright and rattling around. You feel terrible after long-haul travel. It takes days to get yourself right again. Still, those now feel like the good old days. It turns out that the complete lack of luxury was true luxury itself.


There are so many hidden charges you get slugged with when you travel. Exchange rates that never work out the way you think they will. Card payments that involve an option to "pay in your own currency", which is a total rort. Your bank that hits you with foreign transaction fees. Your phone that amasses huge roaming charges. The service charge added to your restaurant bill. The tour company that throws in a sneaky single supplement. All of these are predictable annoyances – and life feels so dull without them.


Where is the light switch? Not that light switch, the other light switch. And how do you turn the shower on? Why isn't there a plug for the bath? Oh wait – that's the plug? How does it work? And how do you iron clothes on this silly little board? And why is my window facing a construction site? And HOW MUCH does this tiny bottle of gin cost? Hotel rooms, mostly, are a bit of a nightmare, with nothing close to the comforts of home. Now that we do have all the comforts of home though – seemingly permanently – a bizarre shower set-up and a million light switches doesn't seem all that bad.


Admit it: you'd kill for the middle seat right now. You would gladly commit yourself to a 14-hour flight fighting for arm-rest space with two bulky strangers. You would happily forgo the chance to book your seat in advance and check in online and just show up at the airport at the last minute and take whichever spot was assigned to you. There's a certain beauty to the middle seat when it means you're being carried across the world to somewhere exciting and amazing. That truth has never been more evident.


These are usually two of the most disappointing words in the English language. Continental breakfast? Come on! Where are my bacon and eggs, my omelette, my beans and hashbrowns, my noodle station, my dim sum? Disaster. And yet, right now a continental breakfast would be just fine. We find ourselves pining for a stale croissant and a weak coffee, for a few bits of fruit that have the audacity to call themselves a meal. Even a bad hotel buffet would be welcomed: the rock-solid scrambled eggs, the questionable sausages, the salad (who eats salad for breakfast?). Sigh. Those were the days.


Uh oh. You know, before you even swing the door open. You know this is going to be a bad one. You know this is going to be an ordeal. You also know that right now, you have no choice. This is what happens when you travel: you find yourself confronted with a fascinating gamut of washroom facilities, toilets that range from the high-tech and pristine to the indescribably terrible. We've all been to the latter and it would be pretty unusual to find yourself wishing for one. But these are unusual times.


No offence, Bintang, but you're not very nice. You're the quintessential desperation travel beer, the type we end up idolising with recollection because of the places you were consumed, the sort of beer we buy from the local bottle shop once we get back home thinking it will remind us of that resort in Bali, that surf shack on Nusa Lembongan, that villa in the Gilis. Only, all it reminds us of is that Bintang isn't actually very good. Still, a cold six-pack right now, with a view of sunset over warm waters? Heaven.


It's so boring. You just reach into your cupboard and there are all of your clothes, right in front of you. All of your toiletries are in the bathroom where you expect to find them. Your phone charger is plugged into the wall. Your underpants are all present and correct. Wouldn't life be more exciting if your belongings were packed into a suitcase lying around in an undisclosed airport somewhere, waiting to (maybe) come home?


Call us crazy, but we've actually always enjoyed the visa application process, even in the times where it was supposed to be an unwanted hassle and expense. Even the convoluted ones, like Russia, where you have to list what you had for breakfast on the third Sunday of the last February during a leap year is kind of exciting, given it's all for a good cause. Surely everyone is now missing the forms and the stamps and the posts via registered mail?


You know the type. The Roman cabbie who drives like a lunatic. The NYC driver who calls you out for your less-than-generous tip. The Agra rickshaw driver who insists on taking you to a jewellery emporium. The Cairo cabbie who conducts a broken conversation, twisted around to look right at you, while careening through the craziest traffic you've ever seen. These are the journeys that become anecdotes, the hair-raising adventures that enter your yarn-spinning canon. They don't seem quite so enjoyable until you can't have them.


You know, they tell you, this place was so much better when I visited in 1986, before the fall of the wall. Not many people could get in then. And the tour leader is actually wrong about that war he's talking about – it began in 1612, not 1622. And that place you ate at last night is a total tourist trap. The real locals go somewhere else. Sigh. We've all travelled with a person like this, someone who's already been there, done that and has the interminable swaggering stories to prove it. These people are an occupational hazard. But really, not such a bad one.


Argh come on! Why is everything covered in scaffolding? The church spire, the parliament building, the museum façade, the central tower. Scaffolding everywhere! Europe is in a permanent state of renovation – every traveller knows that. You can guarantee that at least one of the French Baroque, Rococo, Romanesque or Gothic buildings you're hoping to admire will be covered by a hideous exoskeleton of iron bars and tarpaulin. Such is the way of the continent. Still, sounds all right, doesn't it?


Ah the humble beauty of a well-worked scam. Most of us have been taken in by one at some point in our travelling careers. The rickshaw driver who claims your hostel has burnt down. The art student who wants to show you some of his paintings. The school leaver who just wants to practice his English. These are classic lead-ins to petty swindles, the types that leave you frustrated and a little lighter in the wallet, if not exactly harmed. We never realised what an integral part of the travel experience they were.


Tourists attended traditional Carnival in Venice, Italy, February 4, 2018. Photo/Petr Sedivy (CTK via AP Images) Venice tourist crowd

Tourist crowds in Venice. Photo: AP

Even as the author of said stories, I can understand the frustration: so, all of the destinations we really want visit are sick of tourists? Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik? And it's true, all of those cities were suffering because of overtourism. It was a genuine problem. Of course, I say "was". Because overtourism is the least of our worries right now. It makes you wish for simpler, tourist-soaked times.


All jokes aside, we were always going to pine for these


There's just such a thrill to opening yourself up to so many new people when you travel, people from other countries, from other cultures, from other worlds. Travel throws you into a new orbit, it allows you to mix with people you would never normally encounter in the course of your regular life. And that's a beautiful thing.


This isn't the same for everyone. Some people crave a hectic travel existence, full of stimuli, full of new experiences and flavours and feelings. Others crave a more relaxed, soulful tone, a getaway from the busyness of their reality. Whichever it is you go for, that energy is so vital to the travel experience.


Not all of us travel on our stomachs, of course, but those who do will be nodding their heads immediately. Foreign food is everything. It's adventure and culture and experience all scooped onto a plate. It's challenging sometimes, grossly indulgent at others. It's also inherently memorable and wonderful.


Maybe it's just one night in a five-star hotel. Maybe it's one meal at an expensive restaurant. Maybe it's a joy flight in a helicopter or a bottle of good wine or a ticket to a popular show. Whatever your version of luxury is, travel gives you the chance to indulge in it. And isn't that an amazing thing?


Every holiday is an adventure. Doesn't matter where you go; doesn't matter how long you go for. Every time you take off it's a thrill, a journey into the unknown, an act of courage and confidence that everything will turn out all right. There's nothing that can compare to the sense of adventure that travel brings. Long may it last.