Kira Segal is a supremely organised traveller, regularly making lists of must-brings and to-dos for vacations with her husband and four children, whose ages range from almost 6 months to 7 years old. In March, after the grown-ups got their second shots, Kira assembled what she’d need to get to Anguilla, including virus tests and passports for her two youngest children. But she forgot her kids’ sunblock, hats and rash guards.
"It’s like I completely forgot that we were going to a Caribbean island," says Kira, 35, a New Yorker who is about to start law school. "Usually, I would have a full bag: the spray, the stick, the lip balm. Now, as far as safety for my children goes, Covid and masks are much more at the forefront than sunblock."
Losing touch with the process
As inoculations rise, parts of the world open up and travellers endeavour to regain their sea legs – a collective young "Bambi," relearning to walk – they’re fumbling and stumbling in ways large and small, usually while laughing about it. In a new digital campaign from Accor, one of the largest hotel companies in the world, actor Neil Patrick Harris captures the sentiment, opening a 90-second "etiquette lesson" about packing by saying: "It’s been a while since we left the house. So the idea of packing for a trip might seem a little unfamiliar."
"Because of this interruption that’s lasted over one year, the things that we are usually so familiar with – the things we usually take for granted, the things we can just automatically perform – have been disrupted," says Qi Wang, a Cornell University professor of human development who studies memory.
Chad Kelley, a Seattle-based Delta Air Lines flight attendant who usually flies Midwest and Pacific routes, has recently noticed an uptick in requests for headphones, plus an unusual number of requests for goods that planes generally don’t stock, like toothpaste and over-the-counter medicines.
"When people get on board, they seem to really have forgotten how things work," Chad says. "People are staring at the overhead bins a little bit longer and trying to figure out, ‘OK, how do I sit down? Will this bag fit up there?’ We’re all so used to sitting on the couch."
Before the pandemic, Chad commonly saw parents with expertly organised kids’ gear and snacks. Now, he says, "Bags are noticeably more dishevelled. It seriously looks like people have just thrown stuff in there, because no one’s actually packed to go anywhere."
In August, when Anthony Berklich, founder of Inspired Citizen, a luxury travel consultancy, arrived at the airport for his first international flight of the pandemic, he realised that he didn’t have his passport, "completely forgetting that I needed this document to depart the country," he says. (He had to reschedule his flight.)
"Protocols are changing so rapidly; it’s so confusing to travellers," says Anthony, who usually logs 200,000 miles a year. "Their minds don’t have enough space to worry about regular travel essentials when they’re worried about whether they’ll get into a country or be allowed to leave."
Professor Qi says travelling engages what’s called "prospective memory," or the ability to remember to perform a task in the future; say, bring a passport to the airport or pack sunscreen for a beach trip. "With some prospective memories, once you lose that well-exercised routine, you may need to more consciously monitor your packing," she says. "Before, when you were so used to it, you almost didn’t have to think about those things."
William Rademacher, general manager of The Wayfinder Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, recalled one business traveller who had stayed at the hotel regularly before the pandemic.
"On his first stay back with us in March, the front desk agent asked him if he needed help with his bags," William says. "He looked around and said, ‘That’s weird. I never leave my luggage in my car.’ A few minutes later he came back in, walked up to the same front desk agent and said that he had forgotten his bag – all of his clothes and toiletries – at home."
The curve ball called Covid
Then there’s the degree to which Covid – and its mind-boggling requirements for international trips – has dominated travellers’ attention spans.
"We had clients so nervous about all the Covid testing and protocols that they forgot all about the other vaccines needed for travel and arrived in Kenya without their yellow fever vaccine," says PJ Scott, chief operating officer of Roar Africa, a luxury safari company, referring to the country’s vaccination requirement.
"Clients are so focused on Covid protocols that everything else seems to go by the wayside. Luckily, after much persuasion and discussion with immigration, they were allowed to enter."
Even seasoned industry employees are not immune – something Teva Canetti, assistant banquets director at Le Fouquet’s, confronted when the Paris luxury hotel reopened in June after a closure of more than a year.
"When I returned, I had completely forgotten my work phone number," he said. "I had to keep a note with me all day with the number on it."
Yet perhaps the biggest feeding ground of "face-palm" moments has been – where else? – airport security.
The ‘relearning curve’
"Some people who haven’t flown in more than a year or year and a half, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, my passport expired’ or ‘I should have worn my slip-on shoes,’" says Lisa Farbstein, a public affairs spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration. "They’re having to become refamiliarised with the process. It’s a learning curve – or really a ‘relearning’ curve."
Lisa says the agency is seeing an unusually high volume of rookie mistakes at checkpoints, including full-size liquids in carry-ons.
"We’re seeing far fewer business travellers – frequent flyers, people who know the routine," she says. "Instead, we’re seeing casual leisure travellers. They can’t stand sitting around their living room anymore; they get vaccinated and then they’re like, ‘I’m out of here.’ So they throw everything in their carry-on without thinking about it."
According to an analysis on tourism expenditures released in July by the U.S. Travel Association, business travel may not bounce back to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
When Gray Malin, 35, a travel and fine-art photographer who has been to all seven continents, arrived at the airport for a flight to Hawaii around Christmas, he learned that his TSA PreCheck membership had expired when he was locked down in Los Angeles last year.
"So I had to go through security and take out my laptop, my camera, my iPad," Gray says. "I felt like a real novice. If you travel a lot, you always see that person who clearly has never travelled before. Well, that was me."
On the return leg of that trip, Gray forgot that his S’well bottle was full of water. "When the security guard opened it, I was like a dog with my tail between my legs," he said. "I can’t believe I made such a foolish mistake. When you do something routinely, it comes naturally. And if you stop the routine, then it’s a little trickier getting back into it."