For many Americans, retirement is the reward after decades of work—it’s a time for unwinding, personal projects, and, if you can, seeing the world. Often it’s the relatively few vacation days we get that make retirement the first opportunity for certain trips: a month spent in Greece, for example, or that multi-stop heritage trip. And for women, who still do the bulk of housework and childcare (often spending double the time men do on chores daily) finding the time to both travel and spend money on yourself is even rarer.
But what happens when, after years of planning, you finally retire and book those dream trips—only to have a pandemic hit, rendering travel impossible? We spoke to three women who have gone through just that. They tell us about staying home, where in the world they’d rather be right now, and how they’re finding hope in a retirement that looks very different than they’d planned.
Indianapolis-based Simpson, also known on Instagram as @travelingblackwidow, is a former high school guidance counselor and special education teacher who had been traveling the world before the pandemic hit.
I retired a few years ago, after 27 years in the suburban school system here in Indianapolis. My husband died shortly before I retired. After his death, I did take some trips with friends, but they would have reasons that they couldn’t travel, so I would just go on with the plans myself. I’m at a point where I don’t ask friends if they want to go. I’m just a solo traveler now.
When the pandemic started, I was supposed to be leaving March 19 for a trip to the Holy Land, which was the final place on my bucket list. When I couldn’t do the trip in March, I got over it, because we were all so into COVID, and locked down, and trying to buy things at the grocery store. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the trip. This is just really temporary, I kept thinking.
But later on in the spring, [and then] as September approached, I was incredulous that, gosh, I’m not going anywhere this fall, my favorite time to travel. As an educator, you get a lot of time off in the summer, but you can’t take off in the fall because school has just started. So you look forward to traveling during that time. There are huge numbers of educators retiring this year, because of the whole teaching school online, and I feel for them.
In September, I went through a bit of—I won’t call it a depression—but an extreme low period. I was supposed to be going to Eastern Europe, to Croatia, Hungary, Austria at the end of the month. Now I’m thinking about a trip planned in March, and every day I lose a percentage of the chance I’ll go.
The thing is, there’s nothing that equates to travel. It’s such a lifestyle. It’s so overwhelming now, I try not to think of it. I have volunteer work that I do. I’ve sort of thrown myself into that. I’ve thrown myself into reading, thrown myself into Netflix, like so many others, and I’m throwing myself really into trying to stay healthy.
I did go to Chicago for Labor Day weekend. And it was unlike any Chicago I’ve ever seen before—like there had been some kind of world event that you hadn’t heard about and you’re one of the survivors on the street, just sort of bumbling around. But I loved it more than I ever had. I noticed the grandeur of it, the greatness of it, and the things that I liked about it. Maybe in time I’ll get to taking travel for granted again, but it’s sort of hard to believe now.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Cross worked for the federal government for the bulk of her career. She retired for the second time last August.
I worked for the U.S. government for almost 30 years and I retired and began receiving my pension. Then I got offered a job as a fraud investigator two miles from the house, so I took that. Last year, we paid off our house, and I was thinking, Wow, okay, I’m 56, I’m healthy, we don’t have a mortgage anymore. I can afford to fully retire along with my husband, who had already retired, so I put in my resignation.
Of course we had all these dreams. We weren’t big world travelers—not that we didn’t want to be. When we were working and had kids in expensive schools, we couldn’t afford it. There were several months there, after I retired, where, my goodness, we just had a ball. We took our first big family trip to Italy with our kids and their significant others last October. For my 58th birthday in November, we went to a football game at Pennsylvania State. We went on a kayak trip down one of our beautiful Missouri rivers. In January, we went down to Florida.
That’s when we started getting wind of the COVID crisis.
When I decided to retire last August, we set up a retirement gift for both of us to go to Scotland and Ireland. It was supposed to be the first two weeks of September, just last month, and of course that got canceled.
I was devastated because it was something we really looked forward to. Having not had wonderful opportunities to travel extensively, it had been a trip where it really didn’t matter where we were going, it was just that we were able to go and experience something like that, just the two of us. We’ve been married for 34 years and to have a trip like that would be remarkable.
We’re trying to be patient with it. I’m not terribly disappointed at this point. As the months have gone on, I see the light at the end of the tunnel—this can’t go on forever. In the meantime, my husband and I can enjoy what we can here in the U.S. On beautiful days, we load up the bicycles, and we go around the St. Louis area and nearby Illinois. It’s a big world, but you don’t have to go very far to see beautiful places.
Mendoza, who currently lives in Georgetown, Texas, retired from her tech career three years ago.
I’m 61. I retired about three years ago, after a tech career in Silicon Valley for 20 years. I loved my job, but once I felt like I’d generated enough wealth, that was good enough for me. I always knew that I wasn’t gonna retire just to retire, but to move on to the next chapter in my life. I’m a busy person.
During a sabbatical, I had organized a sister trip to San Miguel de Allende. As a second generation Mexican-American, I realized I was not familiar with my home country’s heritage beyond beach resorts. The trip was life-changing. I attended a cooking school, learned how to shop and prepare traditional Mexican dishes—beyond tacos and nachos.
As soon as I learned Mexico had over 100 similar heritage towns, I decided I wanted to spend my retirement visiting with family and friends. I also wanted to share it with other second, third generation Latinas. I eventually established a small boutique travel company, Dulce Vida Travel, specializing in tours to Mexican Heritage towns.
When COVID hit, I was going to host a trip to San Miguel de Allende. I had 20 participants paid, and we were going to depart on a Saturday, I think it was March 14. It was all Mexican-American women, going to get closer to their culture and heritage. When the national emergency was declared the Thursday prior, we had to cancel.
It was the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my life. Reimbursing everybody took all of the cash from the business. I felt it was still the right decision, but those were heavy financial losses that the business took on—which, by the way, took me three years to accumulate. It also took me three years to accumulate the reputation and the ability to run a small boutique tour company.
I definitely had my ups and downs, and had my moments that said, maybe this is kind of a sign that you need to move on and do something else. I believe I have 10 years where I know I can enjoy life as an entrepreneur before I actually want to retire and, you know, grow a garden—at that time, I envision travel will look like going to Greece for a month to just rest and watch the blue sea. But being an entrepreneur is kind of how I viewed my pre-retirement retirement.
Half of me says I need to get back out there. Because of COVID, I’m definitely staying local, but one of the immediate trips I’m planning is to Santa Fe, because we have friends there; Phoenix has a [lot of] hispanic heritage, so I’ll go visit friends there too. For the first half of 2021, I plan to do local travel, and continue to promote local travel that celebrates Hispanic heritage. I’m lucky I got to travel the world with my corporate job on business trips, but now I want to spend my energy on purposeful travel, where it’s filling my soul.