21 Things Travelers Couldn’t Do 21 Years Ago

round-the-world travel

Around 21 years ago, I got on a flight that would change my life. I was on a plane to Japan and would then proceed through Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Greece, Turkey, and a bit of Europe. My then-girlfriend was with me and since we hadn’t killed each other after a year of being together 24/7, eventually it seemed like a good idea to get married. We circled the globe two more times after that.

Last week I got an e-mail from someone asking for long-term travel advice and she said, “It seems so difficult and scary to just pick up and travel around for a year, much less three times. How did you manage it?”

That’s a funny question because to me it seems like traveling is incredibly easy now compared to what it was like when I first started. Instead of having to search hard for advice, you find a deluge of it. Things that used to be frustratingly difficult and took days are now done with a few clicks.

So that you about-to-depart travelers get a sense of perspective on how lucky you are these days, here are 21 things travelers couldn’t do 21 years ago, when I went on my first year-long backpacking trip in 1993.

1) Send an e-mail.

OK, if you were a real techie you could find a way to send an e-mail back in 1993, but unless your friends were computer programmers, they probably didn’t have an address. Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo Mail didn’t exist.

2) Find info about a hotel/restaurant/destination/travel site on the web

There was no web, no browser, nothing to look up even if you could. The Netscape browser launched to limited use at the end of 1994, but nobody could really “surf the web” until the following year. And only by dial-up through the phone line.

3) Google something

Nope, no browser, no World Wide Web, not even a rudimentary search engine. Yahoo was incorporated in 1995 and Google didn’t exist until 1998. A world without Google? It wasn’t so long ago.

camel safari

No website, no reviews.

4) Book a hotel/hostel/apartment online

To find a place to stay, you showed up and looked around. If you were really intrepid you could call ahead or have a travel agent do it, but you were flying blind with no photos or descriptions besides what was in your guidebook or that article you ripped out of a magazine. (Incidentally, the backpackers who still do it this way tend to pay significantly less over time than those who book everything in advance. Easier isn’t always better in terms of your budget.)

5) Compare flight prices and book a trip yourself

On our first round-the-world trip, we bought a RTW ticket from an agency specializing in that sort of thing and then carried the physical tickets around with us for a year. When we had to make a change at one point because of canceled flights in India, we had to phone the office in San Francisco from a telephone kiosk in Delhi and they had to get an Indian travel agent to issue us new tickets for us to pick up. The only way to get prices or book a ticket was to call the airline direct or deal with a travel agent.

6) Check in with a confirmation code or e-ticket

On all three of our round-the-world trips, we had to keep bringing a physical ticket to the airport to check in and get a boarding pass. It wasn’t until everyone and their brother had an e-mail address that airlines finally started accepting printed pieces of paper with a confirmation code. And forget about online check-in or boarding passes on your smart phone.

7) Check the status of your flight in real time

It was a big deal when airlines started texting passengers on their flip phones to tell them a flight was canceled or delayed. Before that, you had to proactively call and confirm and if things changed last minute, too bad!

Nobody could tweet this...

Nobody could tweet this…

8) Shop online for travel gear and luggage

We bought everything we needed for our first round-the-world trip at our local Campmor store in New Jersey. Had we been in some small town, however, we would have been SOL. You couldn’t just pull up a Backcountry, REI, Sierra Trading Post, or Zappos site to order the travel gear you needed. Your only choice would have been Wal-mart, Sears, or a mail order catalog. And you didn’t know what was good until you used it.

9) Easily keep in touch with friends and family

My mother would collect our mail and send it to an American Express office along the way according to our itinerary. We’d go to the office and get the bundle when we arrived. Often this meant getting letters about surprise bills or late charges months after the unforeseen infraction happened. If we wanted to communicate with our friends and relatives, we had to pay for an expensive phone call, send a letter/postcard, or send a fax. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even Friendster or MySpace.

10) Bank online

When you went traveling back in the early 1990s, you put all the money you had into your bank account and either wiped out all your debts or had Mom/Dad/Sis/Aunt Sally take care of writing checks for your outstanding bills. You took an ATM card and prayed you’d find a machine somewhere that would accept it. There were entire countries where there were no ATMS though and you had to go into a bank branch to do a withdrawal. This would often require waiting, paperwork, a bank manager calling someone for the current exchange rate, more waiting, and then a stack of big bills you needed to make last until you had the energy to do all that again. So you also carried these things called traveler’s checks that you paid for in advance. No online bill paying, no inter-bank transfers, no Paypal.

11) Post things on a blog

After the birth of the browser, the internet came to the common man. Blogging didn’t really get going until the beginning of the 21st century though and WordPress didn’t launch until 2003.

12) Ask questions on message boards

As with e-mail, there were a few geeks who were logging in and sharing information on online message boards through their dial-up connection, but this wasn’t a widespread practice. There was no Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, BootsnAll, Fodor’s board, or FlyerTalk. The message boards were often real boards instead: big cork things with messages pinned to them in Bangkok or Kathmandu guesthouses.

12) Read reviews on Tripadvisor

Before online reviews came along, crappy hotels could stay crappy and almost never suffer real consequences. Sure, they would get bad word of mouth and people would leave nasty “avoid this place” notes on those physical message boards. People might even write to Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and tell them what a bedbug-infested rathole that place was. But there was no central place to find out what other travelers had to say. Now every hotel needs to be on its toes and even hostels get rated on sites where you book hostels. Apartments get rated where you rent apartments. If a place is terrible, you’ll know it.

travel in 1990s

Never posted on Instagram

13) Pull up a map

If you wanted a map of where you were going 20 years ago, you visited a store that sold maps. If they didn’t have it, then you hoped you could find one where you were going. If you wanted to access one from your (15-pound) laptop, you needed this thing called a CD-ROM. And that didn’t come cheap.

14) Use GPS

Back in 1993, about the only people walking or driving around with a GPS device were Special Ops soldiers and jungle expedition guides. If you were lost, you unfolded a big map or asked for directions.

15) Store your photos digitally

Nobody had a digital camera then. Photos were stored on this stuff called film and you printed them out at a photo shop. We mailed ours home but kept the negatives in case they didn’t make it. When we got word they arrived at one of our parents’ houses, we sent the negatives in the next batch. Sometimes these photos faded, or got mildewed, or stuck together, or got lost. If I want to share them now, I need to dig them out and scan them. We didn’t know if we got a good shot until the developing was done. So two months later, we got this:

Indonesia travel

Landed in town Monday, decided on batik class on Tuesday

16) Share your photos

Unless someone was sitting next to you looking at printed photos (or the old slide projector), they didn’t see what you saw. The only place you could “post” them was on a cork bulletin board somewhere or in a frame on the wall.

17) Carry 40 books in your daypack

Trying to find good books to read on a regular basis was a constant struggle when we traveled. We read a lot of so-so books because they were all we could find. The main sources were used book shops (great in Bangkok, not so great in rural Indonesia), guesthouse book exchanges, and trading with other travelers. Carrying more than two or three at a time meant a lot of bulk and weight. There was no Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, Nexus, or phone screen.

18) Carry 1,000 songs in your pocket

This was the pitch of the first iPod, which launched in 2001: “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Now you can carry 10,000+ if you want, or have an unlimited supply via Spotify. In the early 90s we traveled with this thing called a Walkman and it played cassettes. As you can imagine, there are only so many cassettes you can carry in a backpack. It got a little better when the price of portable CD players came down, but they and the player still took up a good bit of room. And you got sick of your collection fast.

19) Pack a UV wand water sterilizer

Our water sterilizers in 1993 were a little charcoal filter cup we used mostly for brushing our teeth and iodine tablets. Mostly we had to buy bottled water and contribute hundreds of throwaway plastic bottles to the environment. Now you can travel the world with a SteriPen and have safe water to drink anywhere on Earth. Or this cool Camelbak bottle with a built-in sterilizer.

20) Find a place to crash online

We did a few homestays on our first trip around the world. It was through an organization called Servas. Here’s how cumbersome it was: you paid a fee to join, got interviewed to get approved, purchased lists for the country where you were going, wrote letters to potential hosts, waited for a reply by mail, then followed up by payphone once you arrived in the country. Compare that to the ease of Couchsurfing.

21) Get answers to trivia by IMDB, Shazam, or Google

Travelers used to argue for hours or agonize for hours about who that actor was in x movie or who sang that certain song that was playing on the cafe stereo. Now you just wake up your phone or open the tablet.

All you geezers out there that have been traveling for 20+ years, it’s your turn now. What else can you easily do now that you couldn’t do then?

  1. Pam

    Yeah, this is a pretty comprehensive list, and I’m a geezer, so I’ll add two things: – Go for a long stint abroad without losing my job (telecommuting was not an option when I started working.
    – Get to know people in far away places and then randomly hop a flight to see them. Okay, I guess we had pen pals, but it was kind of a big deal. I still remember how fun it was to get on a flight to Antwerp to see my “friend” Dianne, and how delight I was when we got to really be friends, no quotes. And we’d connected via a forum for expats. Hey, there’s another one — connect with people via a forum.

  2. David

    Great list I’d certainly think about adding 3 more to that list.

    1) phoning a hotel or friend to say your late or lost from your mobile that now works in almost every country.
    2) screaming at hotels or airlines on social media if something goes wrong and having it resolved..
    3) having access to offline translation apps on your phone

  3. SC

    Make a phone call
    Without a delay or beeping noise that was so annpying!

  4. Rob S

    I’m a REAL geezer. My first adventure was on the hippy trail overland to India in 1971. Interesting that nothing changed for over a quarter of a century and then everything started to change. Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but in retrospect, one nice thing about traveling then was the lack of easy communication. You cut your ties with your home country and became immersed in the culture that surrounded you. Instead of guide books, you had the grapevine. That meant you were always meeting different people instead of looking online. Not that I don’t take full advantage of everything that’s available today – just think we might have lost something.

  5. gary

    Hmmm… my thoughts concur with Rob S.

    There’s something about reaching out to someone at a given destination and asking “where would you go?” or “what would you do?” that can unfold wonderful surprises.

    That being said, Priceline, Airbnb, VRBO and the like have been a godsend to this frugal rambler.


  6. Jess

    I eurorailed solo in Jan. ’94 for a month I bought a guidebook Europe for > $40 p/day. I found all the hostels that way and since it wasn’t summer there was no need to have a reservation. I even showed up to a hostel in Sweden trekking through the snow in the dark to get to the hostel by myself. I think they were pretty shocked someone showed up that night, but they had staff. They were kind. It definitely wasn’t Asia pre internet. I agree all the junk now can be a distraction.

  7. The Guy

    Oh I love the idea of that water steriliser. In 1993 I took my first major trip which was a month travelling around mainland Europe. I remember having special tablets to sterilise water and we were so careful about the water we drank.

    You list some great points here which really highlight how the online world and technology has changed our lives and travel so much. I struggle to think how I managed (although I did manage) all those years ago compared to today.

  8. kay dougherty

    Excellent list! I remember being in New Zealand in 1985 and my grandmother was in the hospital. I had to go to the post office to schedule a phone call to her and it cost what seemed to me at the time a fortune! As someone who loses paper like crazy the advent of e-tickets was a thrill for me!

  9. Chet

    Touche. Sound arguments. Keep ?p the g?od spirit.

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