Travel’s changed a lot since I first started racking up the miles decades ago. I took my first flight as a babe in arms in 1970 and made my first solo trip to Europe whilst still in my teens. But it was a transformative 6 week visit to Peru in 1995 which would unlock the wanderlust that’s since taken me to 120 countries across 6 continents. As with life in general, some things have changed for the better over the years, others for the worse. So here are some thoughts on the things I miss and don’t miss about the old days of travel.
I Don’t Miss...Suitcases Without Wheels
Take a look at other people’s luggage next time you find yourself at an airport – almost everyone these days travels with a roller bag. It’s been a very long time since I carried rather than rolled a suitcase, and I have no desire to go back. The first person to successfully market luggage on four caster wheels was a man named Bernard Sadow, whose 1970 invention was at first, unbelievably, a hard sell. Later, the concept of carry-on, with a retractable handle and two wheels came courtesy of Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath’s Travelpro Rollaboard in 1987. Those guys are my unsung heroes of travel, and I’m guessing I won’t be alone in saying so.
I Don’t Miss...Film Cameras
Travel photography is something else that’s come a long way. I purchased my first DSLR after many years of carrying rolls of film and it transformed the way I took pictures. Gone were the days of weighing up whether the scene in front of me was worth the cost of processing when I got back home. For that reason I have just one, almost ethereal, photo of a volcano high in Chile’s altiplano. The composition’s a little off, but I framed it just the same, and every time I look, it niggles just a bit. Now, thanks to digital, I can snap away and simply delete the shots that don’t make the grade when I get back home. These days, I don’t even need the camera for some trips; I can just use my smartphone.
I Do Miss...Paper Flight Coupons
Actually I miss paper flight coupons, despite how easy it was to lose them or how devastating a theft could be. Watching an agent write out a flight coupon somehow tapped into the romance of travel. That list of place names preserved forever on the carbon copy at the back promised the adventure to come in a way today’s email confirmations never will. Each time a flight ticket was ripped out of the booklet, the flutter in your stomach would signal that you were off somewhere exciting. But IATA member airlines stopped accepting such coupons for flights in 2008, and now, you’ll be lucky even to get a paper boarding pass.
I Don’t Miss...Packing Books
One of the great pleasures of a fortnight in the sun is the opportunity it affords vacationers time to get lost in all those novels they’ve been meaning to read but haven’t had the time. These days, that means downloading a dozen or so onto my Kindle, but not so many years ago, I would cram as many paperbacks as possible into my suitcase and lug them halfway across the world. Book exchanges helped – if I was travelling somewhere that was likely to have one – as would replenishing my stash in local book stores if I happened to be somewhere English-speaking. If not, each trip I’d promise my aching arm muscles I’d take fewer books with me next time, though I never managed to stick to my word.
I Don’t Miss... Smoking On A Plane
Flying was once far more glamorous than it is today, but one thing that those nostalgic airline photos don’t make clear is just how smoky the air inside airplanes used to be. United Airlines was the first to launch a non-smoking cabin in 1971, but it wouldn’t be until 2017 that the last cigarettes legally lit on domestic flights in China (by passengers, at least) would be stubbed out. Traveling from Turin to London in the early 1990s beside a chain-smoker was probably the worst flight of my life, rivalled only in Laos a few years later when the plane started to fall apart mid-flight. I’m delighted that passenger health, not to mention aircraft maintenance, is now much more of a priority.
I Don’t Miss...Travelers Cheques
Before ubiquitous ATMs and credit cards came along, the only way to get around the pickpocket peril potential of a trip was to supplement a wallet full of banknotes with a book of travelers cheques. To convert them into cash mid-trip wasn’t always as straightforward as the issuers would have you believe. Often it involved finding a bank branch that would accept them and queuing for the one teller who was tasked with processing them. If having to take time out of your precious vacation to do so wasn’t enough, the exchange rates offered were often pitiful, rubbing salt into the wound.
I Do Miss...Sending Postcards
Communication from the road has changed a lot. Travelers would call home from noisy telephone exchanges at unsocial hours and stop by Poste Restante offices to see if anyone had sent mail. The humble postcard is a throwback to that era. Despite the rise of social media and mobile phones, both of which offer instant gratification, it somehow still manages to cling on. I’m not going to lie and tell you I send the same sheaf of cards I once did, but every now and then I scribble a heartfelt message and pop one into a post box somewhere exotic. That the postcard often arrives long after I do is missing the point: despite the distance, at that moment I put pen to paper I was thinking about the recipient. And that’s got to count for something, hasn’t it?