Around 25 years ago, I was probably kicking back on some tropical island, staying in a $4 bungalow, wondering whether I should have rice or noodles for my next meal. I was traveling through Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Greece, Turkey, Holland, and England on my first trip around the world.
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.
Now when I hear people complaining about the stress of travel or all the difficulties they had to overcome on the road, I can’t help but smirk. When I set off in the early 90s, it was certainly a lot easier than when Kevin Kelly backpacked around Asia in the 1970s (we at least had ATMs in most cities by then), but it was still a lot rougher. The internet and smartphones have made travel 100 times easier.
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 25 things travelers couldn’t do 25 years ago, when I went on my first year-long backpacking trip.
1) Send an e-mail.
OK, if you were a real techie you could find a way to send an e-mail back in 1994, but unless your friends were computer programmers, they probably didn’t have an address. Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo Mail didn’t exist yet. You sent a fax or you wrote a letter and mailed it.
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. You clung to your guidebook like it was a life raft because without it you were flying blind.
If you wanted to find out what local restaurant was good, you looked for a crowd, you questioned random strangers, or you asked the people in your guesthouse. If you wanted advice on a good place to stay in the next city that wasn’t in the guidebooks, you looked at the physical bulletin boards in the cheap hotels.
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.
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 taking it on faith since you had 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 year-long journey, we bought a round-the-world 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.
Now you can not only book online, you can shop the prices to anywhere in the world from your home airport using Google Flights or Skyscanner. You can ask one of these sorcerers, “Where can I fly for cheap next Friday? and they will give you a definitive answer.
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 smartphone.
Now you can waltz into the airport without even having your phone, scan your passport or punch your info into a kiosk, and out comes your boarding pass. At some point we’ll probably just use a retina scanner…
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!
Last time a flight of mine got canceled, I found out about it before the gate agents did and rerouted via Twitter in real time without getting up from my seat.
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 or REI 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 because there were no travel gear reviews to study.
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, no Instagram, not even Friendster or MySpace.
10) Bank or invest 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 in the early 1990s you also carried these things called traveler’s checks as a back-up that you paid for in advance. No online bill paying, no inter-bank transfers, no logging into your IRA account to make trades.
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–the year this Cheapest Destinations Blog launched via my book publisher’s website. (So I was at travel.booklocker.com for many years before getting my own domain.)
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 in the early ’90s, 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 mentioned above. 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 or they’ll get trashed on Tripadvisor. 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.
13) Pull up a map
If you wanted a map of where you were going 25 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 1994, 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. On the plus side, no big tech company was tracking all your movements…
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 our photos 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:
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. You often didn’t see what you had snapped until weeks or months later–and nobody else saw your photos until you got back home.
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 books at a time though meant a lot of bulk and weight. There was no Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, 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 the CDs and the player still took up a good bit of room. And you got sick of your collection fast. We’d be psyched to get to a lawless land like Bangkok so we could load up on pirated copies of new albums on CD. Otherwise, we hoped for the best from the cafe and bar speakers. After all, there’s only so much Bob Marley and Pink Floyd you can take.
19) Pack a UV wand water sterilizer
Our water sterilizers in 1994 were a little charcoal filter cup we used mostly for brushing our teeth and iodine tablets. Other water purifiers were too big, too bulky, and priced for expedition leaders. 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 carry a Grayl water purifier bottle with a built-in filter.
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 in person by a member to get approved, purchased lists for the country where you were going, wrote letters to potential hosts, mailed the letters, waited for a reply by mail, then followed up by payphone once you arrived in the country. Compare that to the ease of Couchsurfing now.
And remember, there was no VRBO or Airbnb then, so if you wanted to “live like a local” by renting an apartment or a room in a house, you had to find a homestay through the tourism office or a lady hanging out at the train station. If you wanted to do a home exchange, you got a bulky book in the mail and did that whole letter mailing and waiting process again.
21) Get answers to trivia by IMDB, Shazam, or Google
Travelers used to argue for hours about who that actor was in x movie or who sang that certain song that was playing on the cafe stereo. It would bug people for days because there was no easy way to look up the answer. Now you just wake up your phone or open the tablet and get a list of every Julia Roberts movie ever made.
22) Book a day tour or activity in advance
If you were headed to a new city in a week and wanted to connect with a local guide or tour, what could you do? Apart from paying to phone them (if you knew who to call) or hiring a travel agent with connections there, you were out of luck. If it wasn’t built into a larger organized tour you were taking, you just showed up and started looking around. Now you can just pull up Viator, GetYourGuide or just put “Guanajuato Tours” into Google and book through the company’s website. You can even book a meal in a local’s home using EatWith!
23) Send Money by Paypal, Venmo, or your own bank
Back 25 years ago, there were very few ways to move money around. Yeah, you could take cash from your distant bank via an ATM, but if you wanted to send someone else money, the only option was an expensive and slow bank wire transfer. You certainly couldn’t give money to the person across the table from you without having cash on your body right then.
24) Call an Uber or Lyft
You know how frustrating it is when you’re in a city where you actually have to call a cab? Or hail one in the street? Well it was like that virtually everywhere not so long ago. The idea that you would be able to pull a phone out of your pocket and have a car pull up right where you stood, without having to talk to anyone, without needing any cash in your pocket, seemed like sci-fi fantasy.
25) Translate a menu without a phrase book
This is a very recent one, but it’s going to be accepted as a given a few years down the road. Thanks to Google Translate, you can take a photo of a sign or of a restaurant menu and get a pretty good idea of what it says. Imagine how much confusion this eliminates in Bulgaria, Japan, or China, when you have no idea what you’re looking at. It’s still nice to learn a little of the local language, but you don’t have to be completely lost because you haven’t learned Czech. As this technology keeps improving, we’re going to get to a point where we’re living the Star Trek life, communicating with foreigners in real time via a universal translator.
All you geezers out there that have been traveling for a quarter century, it’s your turn now. What are things travelers couldn’t do 25 years ago that you can easily do now?