One year ago today, the final leg of our journey from Washington, DC to Tokyo landed at Narita International Airport. It took about an hour for us to exchange our Japan Rail Pass vouchers for tickets, board a train headed for Tokyo, and relax as another whirlwind adventure roared to life. Just a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, we cheered with tens of thousands of others as the clock struck midnight and we celebrated everything that comes to us on January 1st: the promise of new beginnings, of new lessons to learn, and of new memories to be made. On the walk from Shibuya Crossing to our hotel, I remarked to Adam that it was exciting to be 12 hours ahead of our home time zone; it felt like we had managed to find an extra 12 hours in our year.
By March, I was ready to give those 12 hours back.
The news of a novel coronavirus began to take over the media not long after we returned home, and from our sofa we watched as the entire world seemed to go dark. First Asia turned off the lights as tourists were banned from the very places we had just visited, Beijing and Tokyo, and we pondered how the kind people we had met just a few weeks before were dealing with the equally novel concept of quarantine. Then it was Australia and New Zealand who closed their doors, followed closely by Europe. On March 13th, over beers to celebrate a friend’s birthday, we discussed our own “lockdown” that was beginning the next day. It would just last two weeks, we thought, although we weren’t surprised when two weeks turned to four. And then eight. And then twelve.
As the weeks turned to months, it became clear the world would not be turning on their lights for travel again in 2020. We started to erase travel plans from the list we keep on a whiteboard in my office: Greenland and Iceland were off the table when Memorial Day travel was impossible, and our plans to return to Europe and visit Georgia and Moldova were cancelled shortly thereafter. We decided to skip a cross-country road trip to Mount Rushmore as the virus continued to strengthen over the summer, and we hit the pause button on long weekend trips to New Orleans and New York City. By early fall we said goodbye to our last remaining hopes to explore the globe this year, including a week in Central America before Thanksgiving and a New Year’s Eve trip to Chile. Perhaps the most disappointing cancellations were trips to Oregon for Thanksgiving to visit Adam’s family and Maine for Christmas to visit mine; after all, armchair travel sustained us for most of the year, but a season without hugs and conversation over breakfast with loved ones felt like one final insult from a year that seemed intent on taking anything and everything it could pry from us.
Still, though, it wasn’t a terrible year for travel.
It might be surprising to read that, but it’s true: 2020 was not a terrible year for travel. In fact, it might have been great for travel—and as the world looks ahead to vaccines, economic recovery, and a return to something closer to the way things were in healthier times, there’s a good chance we’ll see just how important this year was for travel.
But before we look ahead, let’s look at where 2020 took us—and where it didn’t take us.
Countries/Cities Visited in 2020
States/Cities Visited in 2020
- Virginia (Charlottesville, Arlington, Shenandoah Valley, Bunny Man Bridge, Various locations)
- Washington, DC (Various locations)
- Pennsylvania (Punxsutawney, Kecksburg, Shanksville 9/11 Memorial, Gettysburg Battlefield, Fort Necessity)
- Maryland (Poolesville, National Road locations)
- West Virginia (Lake Shawnee)
Number of Vacation Days Used
With our options quite limited this year, we didn’t need any vacation time for travel itself. We used 11 vacation days to explore spots within driving distance of our home in the Washington, DC area. To minimize our exposure to COVID-19 we didn’t spend any nights in hotels, which limited the radius we had to work within as we planned our trips—but helped us to focus on some gems we might not have explored without our self-imposed restrictions.
Website Year in Review
We have strongly recommended staying home to stay safe this year, and we reduced the number of articles we shared to promote travel this year as a result. We only published 19 articles this year (compared to our peak of 53 back in 2018) but we still managed to have our second best year for web traffic. According to Google Analytics, we had over 105,000 unique visitors from 188 countries and territories this year! Adam spent a considerable amount of time researching day trip destinations and improving Road Unraveled in 2020, updating everything from our logo to our shop page. We’re excited his incredible efforts will serve as a strong foundation for the articles we’ll have in 2021 and beyond as travel comes back and we all get ready to hit the road again! We also wrote a post about the Bangor Police Museum for Atlas Obscura back in January and we were very proud to have our content featured on Virginia.org (our socially-distanced visit to some of the state’s LOVEworks signs is linked on their website).
Best of the Year in Travel 2020
Even without trips to some of the places we hoped to visit, 2020 had some true highlights. As we like to do in our annual Travel Year in Review posts, here are a few of the highlights that brought some joy into our experiences throughout the year.
► Best Places of 2020One of our favorite experiences of the year was the weekend we spent in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney, which is just over an hour away from Pittsburgh, comes to life in the days before meteorological spotlights from around the nation zero in on the Weather Capital of the World. Early in the morning on February 2nd each year, thousands of cheering fans gather in the freezing cold to watch the illustrious Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his slumber to share whether we’ll have an early spring or suffer through six more weeks of winter. It’s nothing short of totally fun to be in-person for the celebration, and our weekend in Punxsutawney was one of the last trips we took before quarantine began. In less restrictive years, or when shivering shoulder to shoulder with strangers sounds like a good time again, we can’t recommend Punxsutawney strongly enough.
► Best Meals of 2020
Even if our travels had panned out and taken us around the globe as expected, it would have been hard to beat the food we enjoyed in Japan. From sushi so fresh it melted in our mouths to ramen served piping hot and slurped quickly so the next person in line could take our spot for their own bowl of soup, the food in Japan was nothing short of memorable. We were grateful for menus with pictures of what we were ordering so we knew just what to expect, and there wasn’t a single meal that we ate that disappointed us. Notably, our Kyoto food tour opened our eyes to the depth of Japanese cuisine and just how unique the food scene really is.
► Best Tours of 2020
Our favorite tour of the year was also our most recent: our visit to West Virginia’s Lake Shawnee Amusement Park. Our guide, Chris, has strong family ties to the land and the tradition of welcoming and entertaining guests. For decades, Lake Shawnee featured numerous attractions that drew local families to visit year after year. A series of tragic accidents led to the park’s closure as well as rumors that it might be haunted by people who died on the property. Today, Chris shares engaging stories as he escorts guests along the property, breathing life into the final resting place of as many as 3,000 people dating back over several centuries. We loved our tour, and we were grateful to have met Chris and had the chance to talk with him during a very educational afternoon.
► Worst Memories of 2020
Well, arguably, most of the year was a blur of “worst” moments: cancelling trip after trip tops the list, although finding a thin layer of dust on our suitcases this fall was another painful reminder of the Travel Year that Wasn’t. It made us both miss some of our previous worst moments, like the time we were stranded in Ushuaia on our way home from Antarctica, the time we almost missed our flight to Easter Island, or the time cancelled flights threatened our Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure. Perhaps the lesson has now become that even the worst travel moments are great because any travel is better than no travel.
► Best Memories of 2020Weeks into a quarantine that would eventually extend through the end of the year, we took a day trip to photograph some of the various LOVEworks signs throughout Virginia. It was a simple excursion, the kind of day trip we would have planned, taken, and moved on from without much additional thought during less “challenging and unprecedented” times. This trip was different. It was the first time in weeks we had left home, masks and hand sanitizer in tow, to explore something outside of our zip code. Every turn reminded us about the pandemic. Entering the first address into the Waze app, it reminded us we shouldn’t be on the road unless it was absolutely necessary. Road signs along I-95 told us the same thing. Within a few hours, we found ourselves completely alone at Colonial Beach. I took my sandals off and dug my feet into the sand, closed my eyes, and took a few deep breaths as the sun warmed my face. I wondered if it would be my last trip to the beach for the year, and it was. It was one of the few moments of unbridled freedom I felt this year, but I felt it fully and remain grateful to have had it at all.
► Best Lesson Learned in 2020
Speaking of lessons learned, there were a few that popped up for us as the year unfolded.
Patience is, truly, a virtue. It would be wonderful if all of our plans came to fruition just as expected time after time, but that isn’t the case. We spent a lot of time and energy planning for vacations we couldn’t take this year, and we discovered that patience is key when it comes to a successful vacation. Travel wasn’t impossible in 2020, but it was certainly complicated. With patience, the trips we want to take will be back on our calendars, and without the complications that come from nasal swab tests and quarantines.
There is no such thing as wasted planning. We wrote an article earlier this year on the rise of armchair travel that suggested 2020 was the perfect year to plan your next vacation, and we hope that was true for you. It was certainly true for us. We spent very little time out of the house this year, but we spent far more time researching and planning than ever before. Our vacations to Greenland, Chile, Eastern Europe, Mt Rushmore, and Central America will happen in the future, and we have stronger itineraries brimming with new ideas added over the last few months. Trips that weren’t on our radar before this year now have planning spreadsheets with notes, links, and ideas. Our time in 2020 wasn’t spent the way we expected or wanted to spend it, but it was spent well.
Final Thoughts on 2020
As 2020 takes its final bow and 2021 rises to greet us, we all feel a sense of relief mixed with trepidation; 2021 has some serious promise, but we’re not quite out of the woods yet. More than anything, it’s hope that seems to be pushing through, and we’re feeling very hopeful about the future of travel.As we apply our well-practiced patience and await an available vaccine, we’ll also finish our planning for the trips we can’t wait to take. As borders begin to reopen, we’ll start to reenter a world where travel is appreciated in ways it hasn’t been in a long time. 2020 took many vacations away, and we’re ready to reclaim them. We’re looking forward to time out of the office spent reconnecting with loved ones, exploring new parts of the world, and relishing how much there is to love about a little time off. We’re even looking forward to returning to work after taking those vacations, sharing what we did and what we learned with colleagues as we inspire them to take time off as well. All of that will start to come back in 2021; it won’t be a big splash at first, especially in the early months, but as the world gradually becomes safe again the lights will turn on for all of us. We’ll dust off our luggage, schedule our out of office notifications, and settle into airplane seats as our journeys begin. And these vacations will mean more to us than they ever have before, because we will remember what it was like when we couldn’t take them. We’ll be more protective of our time off, and we’ll take greater care to use our vacation days well.
2020 wasn’t a terrible year for travel. It was our year to learn what travel means to us. We won’t forget what we have learned, and we know you won’t, either.
Thanks for being part of the Road Unraveled family. Have a safe, healthy start to 2021—and we’ll look forward to seeing you at a boarding gate very soon!
Take a look at some of our previous Year in Review articles.