In my last column, I counted off 10 things that were better about travel back in the day, from the ability to walk your loved ones to and from the terminal gate to more reasonable and efficient airport security. They were all related to air travel, because let's face it: that's the most miserable part of travel these days, and thus the one most prone to nostalgia.
But while there were plenty of great things about travel in the good old days, it's not all bad today -- in fact, there are plenty of "good old" things I hope never to have to live through again. The great things about travel today can be found in all areas of the travel experience, and are not limited to air travel. Without further ado, here are 10 things that are way better about travel right now.
This is number one on my list, by far; frankly, the disappearance of this single item redeems the modern travel experience almost completely in my book. It wasn't just forgetting to bring your tickets to the airport that made it tough -- rather, it was taking extraordinary care not to lose your return tickets that was the real challenge. This alone may have created the fanny pack craze, as the only way to be sure your tickets were safe was to have them directly on your person. If you lost your tickets while traveling, especially overseas, replacing them sometimes initiated an ordeal worthy of an Ellis Island veteran. Good riddance.
One of the oft-cited arguments against reregulation of the airlines is the fact that some routes were almost insanely expensive under regulation, as prices were set by the government to ensure that the airlines were guaranteed a profit on all routes. As fares have risen steadily over the past half-decade or so, it is still useful to remember How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50 Percent in 30 Years (and Why Nobody Noticed).
In truth, those government-determined high prices made possible the meals and silverware and free booze and people wearing suits -- the profit margins were so high that the airlines could afford to give away alcohol, and only people wearing suits could afford to fly.
Add to that the abundance of perfectly serviceable and clean budget hotels priced in the $60 - $80 range located in many parts of the world, and travel is actually affordable for much of the population.
Until very recently, I was a holdout on the rolling luggage thing; hauling big duffle bags and suitcases through airports was good enough for me for years, and it never really occurred to me to change. Plus, hauling a bag through the airport was good exercise before and after a long-haul flight.
Then a friend loaned me a big rolling suitcase when the latches on my old bag gave out, and I saw the light. Add to that the ability to have my kid flop on the bag after a red-eye flight while finding a perfect balance point on the wheels that made him and the bag feel as light as a skateboard, and for sure rolling wheels make the list.
Today the idea of a designated smoking section on a plane seems almost incomprehensible, but these were common back in the day, as were smoking sections in airports. The term "second-hand smoke" came into common usage only in the early 90s; now there are concerns even about third-hand smoke. Considering this new knowledge, we give thanks for no-smoking rules in the airport and especially in the air, whew.
The nostalgia for a time when everyone wore a three-piece suit or a dress on an airplane always confounds me. I got my start as a traveler not as a white-collar worker, but more like a five-dollars-a-day type, albeit a good generation or so after the original guide to inexpensive travel came out in 1957. To seek worldly adventure on a trip that started and ended in a gray suit just so you could get on the plane never had much appeal.
I am not in favor of bathing suits and short shorts on airplanes -- the planes are filthy enough without people smearing their sunscreen on the seats, and in close quarters no one needs to sit skin to skin with strangers -- but the democratization of air travel seems to me a good thing. There are still plenty of people who fly in suits, but now they might be sitting next to a 20-something backpacker in cargo pants, a family of four with kids in flip-flops or a pair of retirees in leisure clothes who've saved up for their dream trip. It's all good.
You'll note that booze was also on the list of things that used to be better about travel; I can't deny that the idea of settling into a long, bumpy flight with the aid of a nice cocktail sounds like a good one. The reality, however, tends not to be so attractive: dehydration, hangovers tagged onto jet lag and the presence of unruly people in the air. As seats get smaller, rows get tighter and planes get fuller, the idea of being in close quarters with someone who is half in the bag or worse doesn't seem like so much fun anymore.
Certainly we have many more choices in routes, destinations, flight times, connecting cities and even airlines than we did a few decades ago. Additionally, the number of alternate airports that are served by airlines flying commercial jets has greatly increased. Although airline mega-mergers have threatened this trend considerably of late, the number of choices we have today can be a major boon to travelers, as it can let them escape the most heavily trafficked airports while actually putting them closer to their preferred destination.
Even though mapping applications have been ubiquitous and accurate for only a few years now, this is one of those things that it is hard to imagine living without. Perhaps it is selective memory, but I have to go back almost to childhood to remember pulling over and asking directions at a gas station or from someone in their front yard raking leaves. Mapping applications are something of a modern miracle in the various ways we can use them as travelers, which go well beyond just getting from Point A to Point B.
For example, if you saw a restaurant that you want to revisit, but can't remember the name or exact location, you can use a street view app to go up and down the streets in the area you saw it, find the storefront and the restaurant name, and maybe even the restaurant phone number and hours of operation if they are shown on the window or awning.
To be fair, you might miss out on some local color by not stopping for directions. On my family's first drive to Florida, the guy who gave us directions to Front Royal, Virginia, became a family legend ("Shawr, I can git you to Fruntrall"), as did the guy who didn't give us directions to Norfolk ("Narfoke -- I ain't never been to Narfoke"). But this is a small price to pay for not getting lost every few hours, which was pretty much a common experience for travelers just a few decades ago.
Even when we started this column, which has always been a digital publication, the amount and variety of information available to travelers was pretty limited. For example, when currency exchange rates first went online, it was a big deal; you could see on daily basis what your money was worth across borders, wow! Print guidebooks filled the gap here, but those could get outdated quickly, and early Internet message boards contained heaps of stuff, but for timely and expansive material, now is the time to be traveling.
Now the amount and detail of available information is stunning. You can find out which specific rooms are the best in any given hotel, the cheapest place to get gas on your way back to a car rental garage, the nearest coffee shop pretty much anywhere in the world, which aircraft seats recline and which don't, whether airport parking garages are full, and heaps more. If you take just these examples and consider how much headache, backache and heartache they can save you on a single trip, it really is a massive and positive change in how we travel.
Anyone who has watched their stash of local currency dwindle close to nothing on a weekend in a foreign country knows that there is no reason to be nostalgic for the days of finding banks and currency exchange desks to get local currency ... or the fact that the store of one currency you had built up was worth nothing as soon as you crossed a border, and you couldn't even get a Coke without first finding a teller somewhere.
There was many a traveler who had a very hungry Sunday night and Monday morning waiting for the banks to open. And it wasn't just finding the place to do the exchange; somehow you had to have enough cash to last your entire trip, as getting money wired to you was not for amateurs or for travelers who were on the move. Typically this was in the form of traveler's checks, which I can almost guarantee no one misses either.
Now you can get local currency pretty much within steps of the spot you enter the country, whether by air, train, boat, you name it, and typically at the best available exchange rates -- maybe even without additional fees if your bank's ATM network is large enough. Over the course of a trip, you can save several hours and even more dollars that you would have surrendered only a couple of decades ago.
There are other vast improvements to the travel experience that are less travel-specific than they are widespread trends, but still benefit travelers on a daily basis; fleece, air-conditioning and SPF 50 sunscreen come to mind.
Is there anything we missed that either was better then or is better now? Let us know in the comments! In the meantime ...