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The 6 Most Significant Changes in Travel in the Last 20 Years

Student Work Entertainment
by Sharon Harvey Aug 1, 2014

I SPENT 6 YEARS as a young traveler exploring the globe, and have been fortunate to have spent the last 18 years working in the travel industry, both in the inbound and the outbound tourism markets.

The concept of going on a holiday hasn’t really changed in the last two decades. There’s still the aspiration, the need to fund it, plan for it, book it, and travel to it. Once there, there’s the requirement of sleep and food and the desire to explore. Sights such as the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian Pyramids, or walking the Inca Trail haven’t changed, yet subtle shifts have altered the travel experience in some big ways.

1. Trip planning is now a DIY art form.

Twenty years ago, researching a trip was done in the library, in the travel sections of the newspaper, and in travel agencies. Purchasing guidebooks like Lonely Planet were crucial to planning, as they offered personal testimonials from seasoned travel writers. Keeping abreast of the political and economic climates of countries was done by contacting government organisations directly or via the news media.

Planning my first backpacking adventure was pretty much all done with a travel agent; they assisted in designing my itinerary, booked airline tickets and the first few nights’ accommodation, and organized rail passes. Also, they advised on visas that took months to courier, process, and return, and they pre-purchased currency and travelers cheques.

Today, the best and most up-to-date info is found online, where research, comparisons, and bookings can all be carried out. Sites such as TripAdvisor provide access to personal reviews on destinations and hotels, airlines and restaurants, and create certain expectations prior to departure. Google Maps can plan the distance and best route from an airport to hotel, train station to tourist sites. The latest political, economic, and cultural aspects of any destination are instantly available, as are transport timetables and currency converters.

2. The load is much lighter.

Two decades ago, the all-important travel wallet held passports, airline tickets, pre-purchased vouchers, travelers cheques, and various local currencies; this was guarded with one’s life. Everyone carried a heavy ‘day pack’ that held a Walkman (later a Discman), a limited amount of cassettes (or CDs), a travel journal, an address book, guidebooks, and a book. Camera equipment and film, which were kept in lead bags to protect them from x-ray machines, were also jammed in, as were local maps and other destination paraphernalia.

Now, almost all travel documents can be stored in the Cloud, as can photos, music, books, maps, journals, and address books. The versatile smartphone is travel wallet and day pack in one; it even takes photos, translates foreign languages, and tracks your location.

3. We expect air travel to be somewhat uncomfortable.

Twenty years ago, airport security was a brief, cheery chat while watching bags disappear through x-ray machines. Smoking was allowed on the aircraft, even by flight attendants, metal cutlery was used, and bags — generously filled with toiletries — were given to all passengers to keep them comfortable during the flight. Meals were a sumptuous highlight and alcohol was dished out liberally.

Now, airport security has ramped up to include explosive tests, 100ml liquid bottle limits, and invasive searches by uncompromising security staff. The price of air travel has actually decreased while airport taxes have increased, keeping the average international ticket price on par with or lower than 20 years ago. Airlines have had to dramatically reduce their service and offerings to stay afloat, and low-cost carriers have had a huge impact, including making travel more accessible and affordable to the masses.

Also…Virgin Airlines are now selling seats to outer space!

4. Our interactions with currency have evolved.

The first job when arriving in a new destination 20 years ago was to find a dedicated bank and convert currency or travelers cheques. Today, all it takes is a simple credit or debit card withdrawal at any ATM to obtain local cash, and traveling throughout Europe with the Euro is a breeze…albeit a much more expensive breeze.

5. Communication technologies have made the world much smaller.

Twenty years ago, phoning home was the only form of real-time communication with family and friends. It was done at an International Telecommunications Exchange or, if you were lucky, by a reverse charge call from a phone box. Dialing the home operator was a tedious task and wasn’t always successful. Receiving mail on the road was a major feat. My parents would consolidate my mail and send care packages via Poste Restante to a main post office of a designated city that I was planning to visit. It was beyond exciting to receive these packages, which brought news from home, occasional photos, and, sometimes, familiar edible treats like Twisties. Sometimes friends I’d met traveling would write and share their travel or returning home stories. Pen pals were made for life.

Today, the first thing to acquire on arrival is a local internet and phone SIM card. Family can access their loved one via email, phone, or Skype no matter where the traveler tries to hide. New friends met on the road can be easily tracked via sites such as Instagram, and everyone the traveler has ever met can follow each step of their travel journey.

6. The ‘homecoming’ is less dramatic.

Developing film after returning home was an expensive delight. A significant part, and end, of the travel experience was the post-travel get together (or ordeal) with friends and family to share endless photos and recount stories. Today this isn’t as necessary, as the travel stories have already been seen, read, or watched pretty much as they happened.

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