My first international flight, with my parents, occurred over 20 years ago at the age of 12 and since that day I was hooked. Some 8 years later, I went on my first big backpacking trip around Europe. Even though I’m not that old, in the time since I first started jetting about the globe the internet happened, mobile phones happened, computers became affordable and accessible, and many technological and political influences changed the way we travel forever. I thought I’d take a walk back in time and reminisce about the once-essential travel items that have gone the way of the dodo.
1. Paper Tickets
On my first couple of round the world trips, I was somewhat more paranoid than today and kept my belongings in a travel wallet under my t-shirt. There were three main items that went into the pouch at all times- the passport, my cash or travellers cheques, and my airline tickets. That’s right- when you went to a travel agent and booked your flights, you’d eventually receive a little package that had a little booklet of carbon paper pages each detailing the flight route you were on. If you lost that little booklet somewhere on your travels- no more flying. I still remember the first time I used an e-ticket, and the trepidation that accompanied my walk up to the check-in desk, hoping that they’d actually have a record that I was supposed to be on that plane!
2. Travel Agents and Brochures
In the “old days”, booking a trip meant going to the mall, meeting a lady at the travel agent who would be assigned to your trip, and telling her vaguely where you wanted to go. She’d give you 5 or 6 brochures and you’d spend the next week reading over them and thinking “ooh that sounds fun”. Then the next month or so would involve repeated visits back to the agent who would slowly but surely craft a trip for you. When you were happy with how the trip looked, or the agent had convinced you that it was the best possible deal and you’d have a good time, you’d pay a deposit, and you wouldn’t have to pay the balance until some time in the future when the trip was approaching. These days, it’s all internet research and booking your own flights on the site that offers the best deal.
3. Trips to the Cockpit
I still remember as a kid going on my first overseas trip to the USA with my parents. In the departure hall, we chatted with the captain that would be flying our plane, and once aboard he took us up front to see how everything looked from the flight deck. “If all of these lights come on at once we’re busy people,” he joked. The captain even strolled around the cabin saying hello after reaching cruising altitude. Imagine that today!!
4. Smoking on Planes and Trains
Some changes are most certainly for the best. I know medical science and cultural norms have come a long way in the past decades, but it’s still baffling to me that having a designated smoking section in a confined, sealed metal tube was ever thought to be a good idea! “But it”s okay, we’ll put a curtain across!” As a severely asthmatic child, I still remember huffing and puffing as second hand smoke drifted across the ceiling from the smoking section ten metres in front. And that is to say nothing about the risk from fire at 30,000 feet!
Even in the golden age of postcards I was never a good postcard sender and it was something that female friends and family members in particular complained a lot about. First there was the time spent looking for a newsagent or shop, then you’d have to choose one with a nice picture- one that didn’t have naked women or tasteless jokes (“Wish you were her“) or was completely black with the caption ” by Night”. Rather the picture needed to invite a sense of mild jealousy in the receiver, and then you had to find five or ten like that and work out who was going to get which one. Then there was the time spend writing the damn things and trying to write really small to fit everything in. Then you’d look in your diary to find the address to send it to. Then came the worst part of all- finding a post office in a foreign country and trying to work out what stamps you needed to put on each postcard. Phew- too much work. No wonder I was an early adopter of the group email.
6. Group Emails and Internet Cafes
Once upon a time, long long ago, at the dusk of the postcard era there was an entity known as “Internet Cafe”. This was a place with an invariably horrible name involving the ‘@’ character (such as “Java@Java”) where you could buy a coffee and for about the same price get half an hour of internet access on their crummy computers. Inevitably, the half an hour would not be enough and you’d have to fork out for more time. Once there, I’d pull my travel diary out of my day bag, which instead of a list of postcard addresses would now so modernly have a page full of email addresses. I’d carefully type each address into the computer being careful not to miss any characters (this method was later replaced with something called an “online address book” where you could just tick the boxes of the addresses you wanted included), and once the recipient list was ready, I’d compose the story of my last two weeks, being sure to tell Mum and Dad where I was now and to try and make it as entertaining as possible for those people who were getting spammed and possibly weren’t interested in reading it. Once sent, I’d check the email responses I’d got from the previous group mail.
Now this is going to sound a little weird and geeky but I remember thinking it would be cool if instead of writing that email and sending to everyone, I could just put a “diary entry” on my website (a basic 4 page static HTML site) and anyone who wanted to read the entry could just use their browser (always Netscape Navigator) to read the website. But how to do this? I could code in HTML but writing a new HTML page in half an hour in an internet cafe was not possible. And so in between travels, I wrote my first ever PERL program to put a “web diary” on my website. I don’t think anyone really read it except maybe my Mum and Dad. I still remember hearing such a thing referred to later as a “blog”. I thought it was the stupidest name ever and I insisted on calling mine a “weblog” or “web diary”. (I still think “blog” is a terrible word.)
And I still remember being astonished when I met a backpacker who was carrying (gasp!) a laptop computer, and he hovered in the hostel fire escape trying to “steal WiFi” (whatever that meant) from the apartments next door. Nowdays of course, you just take a couple of pics with your smartphone, upload to MyFaceGram® using the free WiFi available just about anywhere with a few choice #hashtags and everyone knows where you’re at. And for the more verbose among us, the omnipresent WordPress can make every computer illiterate man and his dog a wannabe travel journalist. No need to carry a travel diary anymore then either.
7. Travellers Cheques
In these globalised days of interconnected international banking systems, you can be pretty sure that the ATM card you use in Portland, USA will also work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and most anywhere you want to use it. But there was once a time when that was not so, and before you travelled you’d have to go to a bank and buy some foreign currency. But because cash was completely insecure and likely to be stolen, you’d just get a bit of cash and the rest you’d get in traveller’s cheques. These were issued by the same companies that made credit cards, and like credit cards they were accepted just about anywhere for payment. Each cheque had a serial number on it, and your travel diary would contain a big list of serial numbers. You’d hide cheques in several different places, in your travel wallet, in your backpack, and some in your shoes, because no thief would ever think to look there.
“You want to know where to get the best kebab in Paris?” asked my more well-travelled friend after I told him about booking my first trip. “You need to have the Lonely Planet”. This was in the days before obtaining advice on where to stay or eat was a matter of accessing one of thousands of apps in milliseconds on an iPhone. And so it was, on that first backpacking trip, that I ended up carrying the guides to Western Europe, Scandinavia and of course Thailand, because I was going there on the way back to Australia with my round-the-world paper ticket. The books alone probably added about 10 kg to my pack.
As a side note, I remember a Norwegian girl laughing scornfully and saying “Western Europe? Why don’t you just buy a Lonely Planet for the whole world?” and me responding, “Are you serious? We could fit about twenty Western Europes into the area of Australia.”
Of course, though I didn’t realise it at the time, she had a good point…
9. CDs and a Discman
Also weighing in at a hefty bunch of kilos was your travel music supply. This meant packing the Discman, and rummaging through your CD collection and choosing your favourite 20, which would go into a CD book. Mine was a hard case made of brushed stainless steel so as to best protect the fragile discs inside. Then, you might even throw in a few of the inlay booklets, just in case you wanted to check the song titles on the road. I remember being devastated in the Maldives when salt water got into the spin mechanism and ruined my music party for the rest of the trip.
Nowdays, my entire lifelong music collection is there in CD-quality on my 64 GB iPhone with no moving parts. Amazing.
10. Film Photographs
The last time I took along a film camera to record my travels was in 2003. You can occasionally still find some of those old pics on this website, scanned in. In those days, you’d budget maybe a roll of film per fortnight or so, and because each roll took only 30 shots you’d have to carefully budget each photo. There was no taking things from various angles and with various settings, you had to be really careful because you only got one shot and then you wouldn’t know if it was any good or not until after you got home and got them developed.
By the end of the trip, you’d have a plastic lunchbox full of ten or so rolls. You’d get to an airport scanner, and they’d claim that it was “film safe”, but you’d never believe that and insist that they inspected the rolls manually. You naturally were petrified of your entire trip’s pics being screwed up.
And they did get screwed up sometimes. The developer would say “Sorry buddy but only 20 pics from this roll came out.” You wouldn’t know if it was the fault of the photographer or the developer. An interesting example of this was in 2001 when I travelled to New York City. September 11 had just happened and I travelled to the World Trade Centre where I had stayed as a kid. It was nothing but a big pile of twisted metal and shocked, I snapped off a few shots to show my parents. Instead of waiting til I got home, I got the shots developed, and none of the Ground Zero shots turned out. Whether that was coincidence or the result of a disapproving developer I will never know but I suspect the latter.
The 20th Century was an aspirational time. Man was sent to the moon, and we dreamed of space travel and fast intercontinental travel. Boeing 747 jets were impressive, but any traveller worth his salt dreamt of flying on a Concorde. Looking completely badass, the Concorde flew at Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound and about 2,179 km/hr, more than twice as fast as any other airliner. It crossed the Atlantic from Paris to New York in only 3.5 hours and flew at 54,000 feet, which is 20,000 higher than today. Here’s John Hutchinson, an ex-Concorde Captain, on the flight of the Concorde:
“The only thing that tells you that you’re moving is that occasionally when you’re flying over the subsonic aeroplanes you can see all these 747s 20,000 feet below you almost appearing to go backwards, I mean you are going 800 miles an hour or thereabouts faster than they are. The aeroplane was an absolute delight to fly, it handled beautifully. And remember we are talking about an aeroplane that was being designed in the late 1950s – mid 1960s. I think it’s absolutely amazing and here we are, now in the 21st century, and it remains unique.”
The last Concorde flew in 2003. What do we have now? Planes that get bigger and bigger, rather than faster and faster. Personally, I don’t mind if its high speed rail or flight, just give me speed dammit!
12. Included Extras
While I’m on the topic of flight, while I love to fly, I bemoan the things that we used to take for granted on a flight. Like being able to choose what seat we wanted, or have something to eat, or god forbid, bring a bag along! Low cost travel is great and all, but there are increasing number of airlines looking for any excuse to save a few bucks. American carriers are leading this charge. The stingy buggers won’t even give you a beer unless you pay extra. Growl!
13. Real Isolation- No Phone, Laptop or Internet
Oh, how I have winced at the stories of Vitus Bering, who sailed from Russia to try and find the North American coast, or Roald Amundsen, who first journeyed to the South Pole, or even Burke and Wills, who explored the Australian interior. Their stories are filled with the unknown, desolation, sickness, desperation. They were real travellers. It’s hard to be so in this day and age. The smartphone has revolutionised everything- get your guidebook, camera, travel agent, exchange rate calculator, social support and so much more (did I mention GPS!!!!) all on the one device. Things have changed so much- even in the early 2000s, I’d leave my phone at home- it wouldn’t work overseas. I went to meet friends at a station on the outskirts of London, they weren’t there, I had to catch the Tube back into the city to an Internet Cafe so I could email them another meeting time. Maybe, just maybe, there’d be a week or so when nobody would know where I was. I’d be truly on my own.
The world is getting smaller, and it’s both a good and a bad thing. The destination options nowdays are endless, I’ve managed to get to almost 40 countries. But as technology advances, a real travel experience is harder and harder to come by.
Do you agree? Longeth you for the days of olde? Bleeds does your heart for a simpler time? Got any items to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below, and if you like these articles why not Subscribe. It’s FREE.