We peek into the airport routines and bizarre quirks of the world’s most well-traveled people, Pete Buttigieg.
By Kaitlin Menza
The United States Secretary of Transportation has a clearly preferred mode of transportation. “Planes are always the most magical, ever since I was a little kid,” says Pete Buttigieg, who has worked on infrastructure legislation and a climate action plan since assuming office in early 2021. “There’s nothing more remarkable than human beings being able to fly, so I’ve got a soft spot for when it comes to my personal travel.” Though there’s one more sustainable method of getting around that he enjoys: “Bicycle‘s a pretty strong runner-up.”
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana chatted with Condé Nast Traveler about the American coastline that surprised him, a stunning solo trip he just took, and his favorite activities in his hometown.
How early he arrives at the airport:
I’m not an absolute last-minute person, but I like to keep it pretty tight. I don’t want to be lounging around in the airport any longer than necessary. As long as I know I’ve got the pre-check and Clear stuff all down, I’d say I try to get there about an hour before take off. Now things are a little different—obviously, my travel’s a bit more complicated with the security arrangements—but when I’m traveling just as a private citizen, that’s how I like to go.
Whether he spends flight time reading, sleeping, working:
All of the above. I definitely find that it’s a good chance to catch up on sleep, often. I’m pretty good at sleeping in any circumstance and that’s quite true for airplanes, but I also can get a lot of work done, because nobody can call me!
What he prioritizes when planning a vacation:
I think a great vacation is one that alternates between very active days and very laid-back days. If you’re in a new city, spend one day really exploring, checking things out, and then maybe the next day, just hang out at the hotel or take it slow.
One of the best trips of his life:
Probably the most memorable one I ever took alone was to Svalbard, which is this chain of islands in the Arctic, north of Norway. It’s the northernmost place you can get to using frequent flier miles, and absolutely fascinating. I went in August. The sun never went down; it just went around in a big circle. You could find fossils, you could see glaciers, and you could visit an abandoned Soviet settlement that they just left when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed.
As I understand, it’s the only part of the world still under the Treaty of Versailles, kind of a joint Norwegian-Russian sovereignty, which would make it harder to visit now. But that was an amazing experience, probably the best trip I’ve taken alone. The best travels that Chasten, my husband, and I have done together have been places we didn’t know much about, but just plunged in and explored—again, usually on the strength of frequent flier miles, which let us see different parts of Europe that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
The stamp on his passport that he’s proudest of:
Well, the hardest one to get probably was Somaliland. There’s not a lot of places you can even get a visa to enter Somaliland, because it’s not recognized as a country by most other countries. A friend and I decided we wanted to visit there, and had to find their consulate in Addis Ababa to get the visa, which came in the form of a stamp, and then went in through Djibouti on a Somali airline. So in terms of the effort, it took to get a stamp in my passport, that’s got to be the winner.
An American place he thinks is underrated:
I would say northern Michigan, my new home. I didn’t know much about northern Michigan until I met Chasten, even though I lived and grew up just a few miles away from the southern Michigan state line. It is unbelievably beautiful! You have turquoise waters that look almost Caribbean, big sand dunes and forests—it’s just an amazingly beautiful American coast, right in the Midwest, that I think a lot of people don’t know about.
The destination he could travel to a million times and never tire of it:
My father emigrated from Malta, and so when I was growing up, every two or three years we would get to go over there and see family. It’s a tiny country, but it is infinitely fascinating. Not only do I love, of course, being with members of my family there, but it is full of incredible history. It’s home to some of the oldest freestanding structures in the world, prehistoric temples, and because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean, it bears the marks of influence from Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Moors, Arabs, Turks, crusaders, and then ultimately a period of English colonization and now independence. It’s so rich in history and very physically beautiful.
In fact, it’s often been used for film sets for everything from the film adaptation of The Odyssey to Game of Thrones. So in this little country that’s no bigger than St. Joe County, Indiana, where I grew up, you just have infinite things to check out and enjoy.
What he recommends to visitors of South Bend:
The food alone would keep you pretty busy, from a lot of nice restaurants that have opened recently, to a great brew-pub scene, to amazing street tacos on the largely Latino west side. You could eat your way through the city. People know about the campus in Notre Dame, which is beautiful, but I think a lot of the most rewarding places to see are right in the heart of the city—including one of the things I’m proudest of [while] being mayor, which is the River Lights.
The way they lit up with kind of active artwork, the waterfall that sits in the middle of the city that was originally constructed for industrial purposes—now it’s just a focal point for the heart of our city. They’ve got great parks. You can kayak down the first manmade whitewater rapids in North America, which was put in in the 1980s. No shortage of things to do there in South Bend!
The hotel amenity he cares a lot about:
The iron. It’s so important, and it’s amazing to me how hotels don’t always get this right. First thing I do every day, if I’m on the road, is iron my shirt. If that iron’s got some sticky stuff on it or it’s not working properly or it’s spitting out rust when you turn the steam on, that’s a bad day. I’d say more than anything else, I need to know that the hotel room’s got a good iron.
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