Is the Golden Age of Travel Gone?

I remember traveling in Europe in the 70’s. I was always excited to get on a train bound for new places. Travel was full of amazing scenery and interesting people. But invariably, the last half hour of the ride brought a certain amount of anxiety.

train on stone trestle

Before the age of the internet, as budget travelers we would arrive in a new city and go to the tourist booth in the train station to find lodging. Sometimes the result was fabulous – a great pension in France or an economical youth hostel in Germany.

But sometimes we were disappointed or even panicked about where we would stay for the night. The uncertainty always made for a couple of nervous hours until we were safely ensconced in suitable lodging. Today, and AirBnB make this a much more relaxed experience.

But it's not perfect

I often lament about the state of modern travel as I cram myself into another cramped airplane seat or over-crowded subway train.

I grumble that travel was so much better in the old days – before hours-long security lines, before “charge for everything” airline policies and before EVERYBODY had decided it was a good idea to travel the world.

crowded subway train platform

Ah, the romantic past

In my minds eye I see an idyllic 1950’s and 60’s where American tourists with a strong dollar in hand could travel to exotic locations and enjoy a relatively unspoiled experience of authentically different cultures. I see myself strolling quaint, uncrowded cobblestone streets and imagine myself in an earlier time and place far from the bustle of western consumerism.

PanAm clipper hawaii

But was that really the case?

Certainly there were fewer people. The enormous cities found in all parts of the world today were smaller and often easier to navigate. In 1960, the Paris metropolitan area had a population of only about 7 million which has grown to 12.5 million today, and Buenos Aires was home to less than 7 million people – today it is over 15 million.

crowded street scene
More and more people

The “old town” parts of the worlds great cities are often the primary attraction for travelers.  Today they are often overwhelmed by the surrounding urban development.  The streets are more crowded with both tourists and locals.

And of course, air travel was much more pleasant in the past. Seat pitch has gone from about 35 inches to 31 inches or less and from 18 inches wide to as narrow as 16 inches. So there was definitely more room. The price of the ticket included your bags as well as your martini, and typically meals were free even on shorter flights.

Ah, but could you afford it?

Air travel was special given that not everyone could do it. But therein lies the rub. Flying was expensive, more dangerous than today and, if you happened to be a minority, fraught with discrimination.

So in the past, maybe travel was more romantic – if one could afford it. But for all the rose tinted fantasies about April in Paris, the realities of difficult long distance communication, hard to verify hotel bookings, the lack of ATMs (remember Traveler’s Checks?) and language barriers often made for difficult travel. Today we have many more tools to make the day-to-day reality of travel easier.

Electronics to the rescue!

Modern conveniences such as Google Maps, Uber and Lyft, Whatsapp, local information apps, ticket consolidators make travel much less stressful. Perhaps the most useful single innovation is the ability to see reviews from real people of the places and services we want to use.

All of these modern inventions make travel easier and safer and available to more people. True, it may lead to more crowding in our favorite destinations, but at least we CAN travel.

WhatsApp, one of my favorite digital tools, allows users to make clear free phone calls back home with only a wifi connection. What an amazing convenience and source of peace of mind this is for friends and family. And if you have every been lost in a strange city where you don’t speak the language, you know what a godsend Google Maps can be.

Hands pointing to map on phone
Digital savior

None of this existed in the pre-internet world. And, while I admit I often long for certain analog features of the past, the ability to get around confidently and even work from remote locations tells me the digital age is a pretty golden age.

It balances out

So, all in all, we have given up some things and gained some others. I’d say things balance out. There are still authentically different cultures out there. And even if more crowded, they are still accessible and have something to teach us.

Travel will never be completely easy – and that’s actually a good thing. The more we push ourselves the more we learn. It’s just nice to be able to spend more time on the fun stuff and less time on the duller parts.

What’s been your experience?

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