How we did it then
In early adulthood I began tending the seedling of wanderlust. There was a process in those days that is quite different than how travel occurs today.
It looked like this: I’d either call or pop in to a travel agency. The individual would look on their computer and log books (yes, log books—I’m old). Eventually dates would be arranged. They would do all the booking work. That’s where the excitement began. I’d get a call days later letting me know the tickets were in. I would give them the money: cash or credit. If it was credit they would bring out this big slider thing—cha-chunk! And there would be carbon copies of the credit card imprint. I would take one. They would keep one. I would be given tickets with red carbon, one for each leg of the flight. These were THE tickets, which meant that if I lost them I was really out of luck. I’ve never lost one, thank goodness.
Once at the airport we’d stand in line for boarding passes and bag checks. Then we’d take our boarding passes and carry on to security. We’d walk through security with the metal detectors, taking off belts and jewelry. But there were no digital devices and laptops to deal with. Maybe just a camera and film. We’d get on the other side of security and find a place to hunker down. Maybe we’d read. Or we’d people watch. We might write in a travel journal or even play cards. Sometimes we’d engage in conversations with strangers. Perhaps we’d take some photos, but we wouldn’t know how the photos turned out until the film was developed.
We’d board the plane and take our seats. No one had a digital device or a screen on the back of the seat in front of them. You did however have headphones that were uncomfortable and you could flip through about ten channels to listen to music. If it was a longer flight there would be a larger screen for everyone to watch. There was little to purchase on board as almost every flight offered food and drink that was included in the flight ticket. You would read, or listen to music, or people watch. You would sleep or think. Or both.
Landing at the destination, depending on how much or how little your travel agent did, went something like this: You’d get off the plane with some information from the agent on where you’d be staying. They would have already confirmed your stay at the hotel or hostel. You would then either go to a tourism booth to get directions and instructions and A MAP of the place you were. From there, with map and pen and notes in hand you’d take some form of public transit to the hotel. If you didn’t have a hotel you’d ask the tourism consultant for suggestions on a place to stay. They’d ask you what you wanted while you were there: night life, arts and culture, a view and what your budget was. They would make suggestions accordingly. If you were lucky, they may even call ahead to make sure there was room. They’d wish you a great stay and good luck. They may even make some suggestions like good places to eat or things to avoid. You never really knew what your hotel looked like, (or smelled like) except for a couple of photos from a brochure or pictures in the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You’d find a foreign exchange booth at the airport before you left. You’d exchange your dollars to pounds, or yens, or lira. And then, bright eyed and brave as a warrior you’d step outside and get transportation. Subway, tube, train, bus, taxi (if you were rich).
At the hotel you’d breathe a sigh of relief seeing that it was as nice as the tour agent promised. You’d give your passport to the front desk and they’d give you a key to your room. No wifi. No data. There would often be a library in the hotel lobby with loads of books. There would be radio and a television in your room. You’d leave your bags and go back to the front desk to ask for recommendations for places to eat besides what was in your guide book. The friendly front desk person would offer suggestions checking in with your tastes. Vegetarian. Fast food. Local cuisine. Then they would say something like “this one is my personal favorite.” You’d head down the street and try to find the lovely hole in the wall with home cooked local cuisine. You may get lost and ask a local how to get there. They’d ask you where you’re from. They’d direct you and you would think ‘what a friendly place this is.’
You’d eat a delicious meal, make friends with the server and go back a couple more times. You may even have an opportunity to join the server or they may tell you ‘the table over there’ is also traveling and you’d engage in a fun conversation. You could even hang out the next day. You’d exchange names and stroll back to your room. The front desk person would ask you how your evening was and how the food was. You’d chat and laugh, connecting.
The next day you’d explore, again like a warrior, because you only have a map! You’d get lost but find a super cool glass blowing demonstration and the oldest pie shop in London or a sweet pizza shop in Moron City or a gorgeous used book store or a fill-in-the-blank. Because it’s inevitable to have some fun while you’re lost and looking simultaneously. You’d stand in line at the Eiffel tower with out pre-paid tickets and chat with the boys from Oklahoma. A stranger would offer you a napkin for your messy juicy peach. An old woman would walk you blocks out of her way to get you in the right direction. You’d communicate through phonetics and pantomime. You’d cross your fingers that you’d get in to the museum before it closed. You’d hope and hope and hope and every success felt like the lottery.
You’d discover crepes and street meat and jewelry makers all transient, changing locations with the tides of people. One day there the next day gone. Sometimes things would be a little unpleasant. Someone would get mad. Someone would yell. You’d feel frustrated but in the end you’d always have a good story.
The hotel would help you make additional bookings and give you the phone to use if you needed it. You’d buy postcards in case your photos didn’t turn out.
The volume of your trip would be turned way up. You wanted to remember every last detail. And it’s in that totality of being fully present that you decide you are happy. You are in the moment. You thought travel made you happy and it did but it was being in the moment that actually wound together with the adventures of discovering a different world that was full of people just like you.
How we do it now
Today, we pick up our smart phone and tap into the search engine, finding the cheapest deal. We book and pay all in that moment. We don’t get paper copies of our tickets as they are in our device. We pick our seats and any add ons that we feel we may need for the flight. We have to pay for a bag and sometimes food and drink. It’s okay. The flight was a good deal.
Twenty-four hours before we depart we do an online check in declaring that we have nothing to declare. We get to the airport just in time, not needed boarding passes. We print baggage tags ourselves and drop our bags. Then we go straight up to security and patiently wait as people but their lap tops in separate bins along with their digital devices and all that extra stuff we didn’t have 25 years ago. We get through and collect our belongings. We put our headphones in and find a spot to hunker down. Some people are tethered to the walls charging their devices. We troll our social platforms announcing to everyone that we are starting an adventure. If we read it’s on our device. If we play a game it’s on our device. We monitor the flight departure time from our device.
When boarding is called with stand and make our way to the line, headphones in. At our seat we have a screen in front of us and of course our device so we are ensured entertainment. If we need anything at all it is done via credit with little interaction except for the flight attendant. We don’t sit silently with our thoughts. We generally don’t talk to our neighbor.
Upon landing we link up with the airport Wi-Fi and find our accommodations. We’ve booked ahead and know that the reviews are good. We go to google maps and get directions. Headphones in we carry on and make it to the hotel seamlessly. We check in chatting a little with the front desk person, making sure we have the Wi-Fi code. In the room we go on one of the countless apps: Tripadvisor, Loungebuddy, Skyscanner. We read reviews and find a place that sounds good and has photos of the menu items. We put in our headphones and listen to music while we walk to the restaurant. It’s one that everyone loves. We take a table, order the most popular dish and take loads of pictures, deleting anything that we don’t look good in. We make small talk with the server. We head back to the hotel and spend the evening pre-purchasing tickets to all the things we want to see so we don’t have to stand in any lines.
We efficiently spend the next few days doing it all. We never get lost. We never stand in line looking at the world around us. We never chat with a local. We never need to. It’s all very pretty and easy and clean. Even the photos. And we post everything as we do it. Which is cool. Yet, when we get home no one asks about out trip. No one waits for the cool stories because they sort of already know—thanks to the posts.
We have fun but there is an inorganic-ness about it all. It’s a check list put out by google and we want to hit the targets, and we surely don’t want to say we missed something. But, it’s not our list. It’s someone else’s. We have also met one third of the people today that we would have twenty five years ago.
Which is better
I think that our present society is always on the edge of something ‘scary’ happening so everything is in place to help avoid pitfalls, bad situations, and frustrations. Fair enough. But somewhere in all that streamlined experience we lose a bit of fun in the adventure of travel. It’s supposed to be an adventure. It’s supposed to come with a bit of the unknown. Or a lot.
Don’t get me wrong. I have definitely turned on google maps at night when I’m traveling alone to get to my destination faster. But I have also let myself get lost, not brought out my phone for meal time and asked the locals where the cool, best food, view, bars, shops are.
The ultimate goal for me is adventure meets connection. The minute I decide to leave the house and travel I’ve already decided that I might just be uncomfortable. If I wanted comfort I would have stayed home. Because I’m old(er) I think I’m going to give my opinion the 70/30 rule. I like the idea of traveling 70% like the old days with lots of adventure and 30% like the new days with some conveniences.
What do you think?