How travel has changed since 1994


This week marks an important anniversary for me: Exactly twelve years ago, on a sunny Oregon afternoon, I completed my first vagabonding stint — an eight-month road trip through 37 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Living out of a 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon on a budget of a just over $600 a month (earned from a post-graduation landscaping job), I'd managed to survive the '94 Northridge Earthquake, attend my first New Orleans Mardi Gras, ride with a police patrol in Houston's Fifth Ward, volunteer on a housing project in rural Mississippi, spend a month in Florida during Spring Break season, experience New York for the first time, stay at a Cistercian monastery in Massachusetts, backpack through a dozen national parks, swim in two oceans, and cross the Great Divide eight times. It was my first long-term travel experience, and it will always remain one of my favorites.

When I look back through my old journals and photos, I'm struck by how much travel has changed since 1994. These days, I take it for granted that the Internet keeps me in touch with friends and family, even from far-flung places like Mongolia and Patagonia; in 1994, contacting a single person from Montana or Pennsylvania required a phone booth, a pocket full of quarters, and a lot of patience. In 1994, I navigated with paper maps, got my information from a single Let's Go: USA guidebook, and met people at random. These days, folks can navigate via GPS or online driving directions, scour the Internet for a wealth of travel ideas, and use online message boards to make travel friends before they ever leave home.

Before I get too wistful about the "purer" travel conditions of 1994, however, I'll admit that travel has always been getting easier and more accessible. In the 19th century, people claimed that the efficiency of the steamship had destroyed the romance of sailboat travel; in the 15th century, coach carriages were ridiculed as a wimpy alternative to going it on horseback. No doubt when Marco Polo first headed east as a teenager, his father and uncle continually reminded him that the Sogdian bandits weren't nearly as fierce, nor the sirocco sandstorms as severe as when they first traveled to Asia.

I mention these examples because I recall how, as I planned my 1994 journey, the travel veterans I sought for ideas were often more interested in giving lectures than in giving encouragement. For those old Oregon hippies, traveling in an age of easy credit cards, telephone voicemail, and cable TV was decadent and meaningless compared to the days when they had to find their way by word-of-mouth, hitch rides from speed-addled truck drivers, and make spare change by selling hallucinogenic kumquats (or whatever).

Since I don't want to similarly diminish the experience of those who are just getting started in their travels, I'll refrain from nostalgic harangues here. Still, in the interest of pointing out how much difference 12 years can make, here are five major ways the travel experience has transformed — for better and for worse — since 1994:

1) Cell phones

In 1994, cell phones were too clunky and expensive to be of use to budget vagabonders; I used quarters or calling cards to call people, and I was functionally unreachable to incoming calls. These days, cell phones make communication cheap and easy stateside — and cell rentals are increasingly being used by travelers in overseas destinations. In time, the proliferation of web-browsing BlackBerry-type devices, Internet phone services (such as Skype), and satellite technology will make out-of-pocket communication even easier. On the upside, this makes travel anywhere safer and more efficient. On the downside, one of the charms of any journey is being completely cut off from your home — and a buzzing phone in your pocket only makes it harder to immerse yourself in your surroundings.

2) E-mail

Just over a decade ago, few people outside of research and technology circles had an e-mail address; now it's rare to meet a person without one. Fortunately, e-mail is a useful and non-intrusive way to communicate on the road — just so long as you don't get obsessive about seeking out Internet cafes to check your inbox as you wander.

3) Digital cameras

Not so long ago, waiting in anticipation for photos from a one-hour developing lab was a standard part of any travel experience. Now, digital cameras enable you to immediately document, analyze, and edit your travel experience. In a certain sense this threatens to dilute travel experiences, as the quest for a perfect snapshot can get in the way of actually seeing a place (if you don't believe me, just witness the obsessive snap-check-edit rituals during any Santorini, Chichen Itza, or Angkor Wat sunset). Nevertheless, there's something to be said for having a visual record of your travels: In 1994, I often got fed up with the hassles and uncertainties of my film camera — and my photo album has unfortunate gaps as a result.

4) iPods

In '94, I thought my Sony Discman (and 60-CD storage wallet) was the pinnacle of compact audio technology. Twelve years later, iPods (and similar devices) allow travelers to carry their entire music library in their pocket — and still have hard-drive space left over for podcasts, digital maps and city-guides, TV episodes and photo storage. The advantages here are obvious; the challenge is in knowing when to set aside your digital world and better embrace the real one.

5) Internet travel planning

The World Wide Web is inarguably the most significant thing to affect travel planning in the past twelve years. When I was planning my 8-month USA trip in the early nineties, I often felt like a lonesome, semi-delusional iconoclast. These days, online travel communities like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree,, and IgoUgo, can connect you with dozens of people who share your travel yen and are willing to pass along advice and encouragement. Moreover, online booking services allow you to score the best travel bargains; destination guides and tourism websites allow you to plan your itinerary right down to the last ferry run or museum opening; blogging software allows you to post your travel journal and photos in real time. In terms of increasing travel options and efficiency, this has been a godsend, but the primary temptation is to micromanage your journey before you ever step out the front door. Most everything memorable from my 1994 USA adventure happened by chance — and those happy accidents rarely happen on an over-planned itinerary.

On a final note, for those of you who think that 1994 wasn't that long ago, I'll share one more fact: For the entire 8 months of my journey, I rarely paid more than a dollar per gallon of gasoline. Ancient history, indeed.

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