What Travel Was Like Before The Internet

Editor’s Note – Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that sheds light on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. This August, we’re stepping back in time to revisit some of the greatest retro travel experiences.

(CNN) — It’s your first time in Eastern Europe, you don’t speak the language, and you don’t have a smartphone (or even a laptop). But you’re confident because you have an excellent guide to… Yugoslavia?

Your book is so old, it’s not even a country anymore. You need to find a phone booth, but what country code is the United States? And how much currency do you need to make an international call?

Eight months later, you finally return home, vowing never to leave your postcode again.

For those only familiar with the Internet, it’s easy to imagine what sightseeing looked like before it appeared.

“The first thought people probably have is to be amazed that anyone could even travel a mile from home without Waze and Instagram,” muses Chuck Thompson, author of “To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism”.

Yet people were traveling before the Internet.

Just ask Troy Haas, President and CEO of Brownell Travel for two decades plus.

Founded in 1887, Brownell is the oldest travel agency in North America. Their longevity is all the more remarkable as they had to survive what Haas calls “a one/two punch – the reduction in airline commissions and the arrival of online travel agencies”.

Not to mention a few more body shots courtesy of Steve Jobs. Because in 2007, Apple released the iPhone. And in 2008 they opened the App Store.

“A flood of technology was unleashed,” recalls Aron Ezra, president and co-founder of software company Plan A Technologies. At the time, he was still at his first startup, MacroView Labs. While today Plan A creates “complex custom software platforms and digital transformation solutions for all sorts of different organizations”, back then it was all about apps.

These included a couple offering “geo-targeted content for the Las Vegas area” that Ezra describes as “a virtual concierge.” Suddenly, a traveler had the opportunity to spend a day exploring the Strip and all the Long Island iced tea it has to offer, then pull out their phone and instantly find they could still get tickets to the Cirque du Soleil.

Life would never be the same again.

In short: these times have completely transformed the way we travel. (And how we live, period. If you had told someone in the 1980s that there would come a time when the average American would spend more than five hours a day on their phone, they would have said, “Five? I’m hanging up after being put on hold for two hours, tops.”)

This is how we traveled the globe before the Internet. It wasn’t the most effective approach. Then again, as we grow so carried away by Wordle, we can barely bring ourselves to watch another season of the hottest new show, nor is it like we’re models of productivity today.

An Illinois travel agency in 2002.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

When it was so easy to get off the grid

Before the Internet, if you told someone you would meet them at a certain place and at a certain time, you had to:

• Remember what the place was.

• Know how to get there.

• Show up about when you said you would.

It seems impossible, but it was real. It was our cruel world. For once you left your respective fixed lines, you were both unreachable until this fateful meeting.

Was it an intense way to live? Absolutely. Yet there was also a certain “que será, será” spirit. Because if something went wrong and you couldn’t make it to that meeting… We figured out that it’s easier to make a new friend.

Get into that headspace as we begin our journeys.

The research

“I have lots of old envelopes stuffed in boxes in my basement with brochures, maps and fact sheets sent to me from state parks in Wyoming, small towns in Italy , hotels on the Malaysian islands, etc., in response to telephone and postal inquiries, sent them to ask for information before the trip,” says Thompson.

That’s how you figured out what was going on. And once you’ve chosen one of these places, you’ve made sure to take its essential brochures with you.

It was the 1970s and Tony and Maureen Wheeler had a dream: to travel from London to Sydney overland, or at least as much as they could. They embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey that changed world travel forever.

Getting There

If you’ve watched Keri Russell/Matthew Rhys’ “The Americans” series, you know their Russian spies have a cover career: they run Dupont Circle Travel.

Why? Because they need to go everywhere at weird times to kill people, and in the 80s that was perfectly reasonable behavior for travel agents. (Maybe not the murders. Rest: normal.)

After all, if something went wrong during your trip, you had no internet to save you. You were just hoping your agency would support you, whether it was travel, the KGB, or whoever would accept a AAA member discount.

Want the story of a proven travel agency? Haas recounts: “In the 1930s, one of our agency owners, Jennie Brownell, was with a group of Americans on tour in Berlin the day America declared war on Germany! She had to change trains four times to get them home safely because every country wouldn’t let their trains cross the border and go back. »

And suddenly “saved me $12 off my car rental rate” seems disappointing.

do it alone

Granted, not all travel agencies offered Brownell’s Indiana Jones-type assistance. So, how difficult was it to manage everything yourself back then?

Ezra has some insight. Over the years, it has built other forms of travel technology, including booking engines.

He deeply appreciates this innovation: “Before, you had to phone the hotel and talk about availability and prices and finally – if you found something that worked for you – read them your credit card information. During all this time, you I’m thinking: Should I make more calls to see if there’s a better offer Or just accept it, because if I let this piece go and there’s nothing another and when I call back they say, “Sorry, someone else I booked it, I’ll do a breakdown.”

Be there

Has anything been lost? Absolutely. Haas puts it this way: “Some of the wonders of travel, mostly because major destinations suffer from tourism and issues like ‘selfies'”.

Thompson is more blunt: “There were fewer people, for sure, and that made it a lot easier and a lot more civil.”

They also agree that there was more of a sense of discovery, because when you visited a place, it was probably the first time you saw it in motion. (Those guides you dragged had photos. Embedded videos? Not so much.)

The more things change…

Whirr and click: Slideshow hosts had a captive audience.

Whirr and click: Slideshow hosts had a captive audience.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Thompson says the current travel literature on social media can be off-putting, but it’s nothing new.

At the time, there were slideshows. And they were tough.

The ‘best life’ travel photos on social media have become quite obnoxious, but so has someone talking about their life-changing trip to Europe while not moving fast enough. towards the overexposed 14th slide of a gothic cathedral as you entered your second hour on a soft couch feigning interest.”

Likewise, Haas says Brownell survived when so many travel agencies collapsed because they always stayed true to their mission of being “advisors who create an exceptional travel experience.” (As opposed to the guys who tell you Delta has a 7:30 p.m. flight but not the usual 8:15 p.m. on Thursdays.)

Again, some things are genuinely different, in ways we should be grateful for.

“Early in my career, back in the days before the internet, I had to travel more days than I did at home,” Ezra recalls. “Once I was sent to Brazil at the last minute to attend a meeting. It was held entirely in Portuguese. I am deeply grateful to live at a time when a translation app is within reach of download. ”


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