(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 cell phone). But you are confident because you have a great guide to… Yugoslavia?
Your book is so old, it’s not even a country anymore. You need to find a pay phone, but what is the US country code? And how much change do you need to call abroad?
Eight months later, you finally return home, vowing never to leave your zip code again.
For those who only know the internet, it’s easy to imagine what sightseeing was like before it came along.
“The first thought people probably have is to wonder how anyone could even drive 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”.
But even before the internet, people travelled.
Just ask Troy Haas, President and CEO of Brownell Travel for two decades.
Founded in 1887, Brownell is the oldest travel agency in North America. Their longevity is all the more remarkable given that they have endured what Haas calls “a double whammy” — the reduction in airline commissions and the emergence of online travel agencies.
Not to mention some extra body punches courtesy of Steve Jobs. Because in 2007, Apple released the iPhone. And in 2008 they opened the App Store.
“A tide of technology was unleashed,” recalls Aron Ezra, chairman and co-founder of software company Plan A Technologies. At the time, he was still at his first startup, MacroView Labs. While Plan A today creates “complex custom software platforms and digital transformation solutions for all types of organizations,” back then it was all about apps.
This included a couple who offered “geo-targeted content for the Las Vegas area,” which Ezra describes as a “virtual concierge.” Suddenly, a traveler had the opportunity to spend a day exploring the Strip and all of Long Island’s iced teas, then pull out their cell phone and immediately discover they could still get Cirque du Soleil tickets.
Life would never be the same again.
In short: these times have fundamentally changed the way we travel. (And how we live, period. If you told someone in the 1980s that the average American would eventually spend more than five hours a day on the phone, they would have said, “Five? I’ll hang up after I’m on hold was two hours, at most.”)
This is how we traveled the globe before the internet. It wasn’t the most efficient approach. Then again, since we’re so carried away by Wordle that we can barely bring ourselves to watch another season of the hottest new show, it’s not as if we’re role models for productivity today either.
A travel agency in Illinois in 2002.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
When it was so easy to go off the grid
Before the internet, if you told someone you would meet them at a certain place and time, you had to:
• Remember what the place was.
• Know how to get there.
• Show up around when you announced it.
It seems impossible but it was real. This was our cruel world. Because after you both left your respective landlines, you both were unavailable until that fateful meeting.
Was it an intense way of living? Absolutely. But there was also a certain “que será, será” spirit. Because if something went wrong and you couldn’t come to that meeting… We understood that the easiest way is just to make a new friend.
Put yourself in this headspace as we begin our journeys.
“I have a lot of old envelopes in boxes in my basement with brochures and maps and fact sheets that from state parks in Wyoming, small towns in Italy, hotels on Malaysian islands, etc. they sent me asking for information before the trip,” says Thompson.
That’s how you found out what was out there. And once you’ve decided on one of these places, you’ve bloody well made sure you’ve taken the essential brochures with you.
If you’ve watched the Keri Russell/Matthew Rhys series The Americans, you know their Russian spies have a cover career: they run Dupont Circle Travel.
Why? Because they have to go everywhere at odd times to kill people, and that was perfectly sane behavior for travel agents in the 80’s. (Maybe not the murders. Rest: normal.)
After all, if something went wrong on your journey, you didn’t have the internet to rescue you. You were just hoping your agency would have your back, be it Reise, KGB or whoever would accept a discount for AAA members.
Want the story of a travel agent hitting the big time? Haas has it: “In the 1930s, one of our agency owners, Jennie Brownell, was touring with a group of Americans in Berlin on the day America declared war on Germany! She had to change trains four times to get her home safely because every country wouldn’t let their trains cross the border.”
And suddenly, “saved me $12 on my rental car price” doesn’t seem particularly heady.
do it alone
Admittedly, not every travel agency offered Brownell’s Indiana Jones-esque assistance. How difficult was it to do everything yourself back then?
Ezra has some insight. Over the years he has developed other forms of travel technology, including booking engines.
He really appreciates this innovation: “You used to have to call the hotel and discuss availability and prices and finally – when you found something suitable – read the credit card details and you think: Should I call more to see if it’s out there.” is there a better offer? Or just take it because if I leave this room and there’s nothing else and if I call back they say, ‘Sorry someone else I booked it,’ I’m going to break down.
To be there
Has something been lost? Absolutely. As Haas puts it, “Some of the wonders of travel, especially as top destinations suffer from tourism and issues like ‘selfies’.”
Thompson is more blunt: “There were fewer people around, that’s for sure, and that made things a lot easier and 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 guidebooks you lugged around had photos. Embedded videos? Not so much.)
The more things change…
Whizz and Click: Slideshow hosts had captivated audiences.
Thompson says today’s travel documentary on social media can be off-putting, but it’s hardly new.
There used to be slide shows. And they were rough.
“The ‘My Best Life’ travel pics on social media have kind of gotten sickening, but so has someone chatting about their life-changing trip to Europe while not fast enough to 14 second hour on a soggy couch, showing interest pretends.”
Likewise, Haas says that Brownell survived when so many travel agencies went under because they have always remained true to their mission of “being consultants who create exceptional travel experiences.” (Contrasted with the guys who tell you Delta has a 7:30pm flight but not the usual 8:15pm Thursday.)
Then again, some things are really different, in ways that we should be thankful for.
“Early on in my career – before the internet came around – I had to travel more days than I was 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 in a time when a translation app is just a download away.”