- I used to travel only for other people’s special occasions, but that changed in 2021.
- I realized I’d maxed out my earned time off and couldn’t accrue any more, so I booked a real vacation.
- That trip showed me I need to give to myself at least as much as I give to others.
Before the pandemic, I never traveled for myself. All of my vacation days and travel money went toward community obligations: weddings, engagement parties, graduation parties, bridal showers, baby showers, and birthdays, whether milestones or not. If I ever took what might be called a real “vacation day,” it was merely an extra day added to a weekend that was primarily about someone or something else — never time I’d allocated for its own sake alone.
Thus it did not occur to me, until over a year into the pandemic, that even though I couldn’t travel to see and support people, I might still need time off for me. The notion of what I wanted or needed from earned time off had never before been a foremost consideration in my life.
Yet by April 2021, I clearly needed that time — I was constantly cranky and irate, simultaneously listless and emotional. I was a prime example of the reason vacation days from the office exist, yet I still didn’t think it necessary to take that time, not if it couldn’t be used toward a better purpose — like attending to someone else.
I got a wake-up call when I checked my company’s HR portal
But in April 2021, I discovered that I was, in a sense, losing my paid time off, or PTO, from work: I had hit my yearly maximum of earned time off per month and couldn’t accrue any more. In studying the HR portal closely, I realized I had effectively been losing PTO each pay period since two months prior, in February 2021. Angry at myself for having ceded my earned compensation back to my job for two months, I decided immediately to take a proper vacation, despite not having something or someone other than myself to orient it around.
As I booked my first real vacation ever — I decided, on the recommendation of a former work colleague, to go to St. Maarten — I was a nervous wreck. A part of me felt superstitiously fearful that something would happen to me before my trip — my train to the airport would crash, my airplane would fall out of the sky, I’d discover the hotel was a scam — serving me right for choosing to spend my time and money on myself. But as the clear waters of St. Maarten’s shoreline came into view, I felt something inside me click into place, and I realized that I had stepped into a whole new way of being in my world.
I started using my credit card rewards to take even more trips
The decision to take my PTO back for myself was the gateway into taking my money and time, in general, back for myself. That was up to and including the hundreds of thousands of frequent traveler points across multiple programs that I had been accruing since the pandemic lockdown began, and a lot from before then, too. Before, I typically saved those in order to make all my travel for other folks’ needs cheaper — all the weddings, in particular, were simply not affordable without using my earned airline and hotel points over the years to cut my travel expenses.
So for that first vacation, I made a point of using my travel points, covering most of the flight and hotel package I’d purchased with Delta using Delta SkyMiles; I could have covered the whole thing with points, but it was important to me for the purposes of that endeavor — to finally spend on myself — that I spend at least some literal dollars on myself, too.
For my next trip, to Alaska, I did the same thing: covered my whole week at my hotel with a combination of Marriott Bonvoy points and British Airways Avios, and then covered most of my Delta itinerary with a flight credit from a pandemic-canceled trip back in 2020, paying a small amount in cash on top of that.
By the time I got to planning my next two trips, to Italy and Iceland, I decided to use some of the remainder of the money I had saved up since March 2020 to travel — having just paid off the last of my credit card debt and become debt-free in June 2021 — but did so by first putting it on a travel-based credit card and then paying it all off immediately from those same savings. I was, and am, committed to staying out of debt, but still want to earn program points toward future travel; using my cards has also gotten me a couple of elevated travel statuses to gain free checked baggage and occasional airline lounge access for long-haul flights.
Travel became an act of self-love
In multiple ways, my 2021 travels became my road back to myself, a self I now believe was drowning under the weight of perceived community obligations long before the pandemic lockdowns arrived to force what I thought would be a temporary pause to that circumstance. I discovered in 2021 just how much I love travel for its own sake; I didn’t know, until those first forays into taking my vacation time for me, just how happy visiting the places I’d always wanted to go but had never before made the time for would make me.
I’d always had dreams, of course, but only ever allowed myself permission to follow the functional ones — dreams related to school, to career goals, to socially visible achievements, like completing marathons and winning writing prizes. Last year was the first time I followed private dreams, like seeing a glacier cleaving in Alaska, or visiting Florence because of a movie I’d loved as a teenager. Following the light of the things I truly wanted reshaped me, insofar as teaching me what pursuing that light as a way of life even felt like.
Intentionally spending time and money on myself that I’d become reflexively accustomed to saving for others was the preliminary doorway toward continuing to follow that light in my life in general. And I am glad and grateful to have had that door finally thrown open, by way of the HR portal that first showed me what I was losing by not putting me first. I now believe that as much as I give to others, I must give at least that much to myself. After decades spent rigidly focused on the needs of others, my vacations last year were necessary, long overdue acts of self-love.