Ch-ch-ch-changes (Part two)

Well, so much for my New Year’s resolution to be more consistent with my blogging. But, better late than never, right? I had started writing last time about some of the significant changes that I have seen in travelling for the past 22 years. For the most part, crowds have increased and prices have also gone up but it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few areas where things have actually gotten significantly easier in the past few decades. For example:

Communication

Ah, the good old days. Before I embarked on my first trip to Europe in 1995 my father gave me a small card that folded out to reveal a list of long numbers, one for each country in Europe, that allowed me to make collect calls from a public phone booth. Once every three days at about eight o’clock I’d find a booth, punch in a series of about 12 numbers and then enter my parents’ number when prompted. We’d have a quick chat, always aware that the seconds ticking by as long distance rates were several dollars a minute and I’d tell them where I was planning to go next and when I’d try to call again.

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About once a week I’d also pick up a few post cards and stamps and send them off to a few close friends, usually after researching which countries had the cheapest postal rates. My cheapness came back to haunt me though, several of my post cards didn’t get delivered until after I was back home again. (Turns out there was a reason why the Hungarian postal system was so cheap back in the mid nineties.)

Nowadays, well you probably know the story. Free Wifi is pretty much mandatory in any place that wants to attract tourists so even without ever turning on my data plan I can check Facebook, text my friends or send my parents a picture of what their grandkids had for lunch in Germany or Italy or Ireland or wherever we happen to be that day. If we ever get stuck our plan allows us roaming throughout North America and Europe for a few dollars a day and for those that want even more connectivity there’s always the option of getting an unlocked phone.

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The pace of change has been just staggering. Nowadays I can’t imagine going a day without connecting with family and friends at home. Is this a good thing? Well, I’m not about to give it up any time soon. Say what you like about the problems with the digital world; there’s nothing quite like seeing your kids waving and wishing their grandparents a Merry Christmas from the other side of the world. But I suppose we did give something up when we became so connected. There was definitely a bigger divide between my backpacker self and my life back at home in the days when communication was limited to a few minutes every three days and the occasional postcard.

On the whole, though, I’d say that the changes in our ability to communicate while travelling have been overwhelmingly positive over the past two decades. But there’s one rule I’ll never break: I never check my work emails on the road and I never will!

Planning

I’ll admit, I love to plan. I’ll happily spend hours on the internet or reading piles of books I’ve checked out from the library, or doing both at once. I usually have several trips in the planning stage, several in the distant future stage and several in the dream stage all at once. I’ll check out a hotel from every angle before booking, compare prices and go on several different sites to find the best prices. Once booked I’ll find the location on Google maps and walk my little fake person around the neighbourhood, finding nearby parks and playgrounds, seeing where the closest grocery store is. If I see a nice looking restaurant nearby I’ll search for it and look up the menu.

Even if you never go online, the resources are amazing. Your average chain bookstore has a large section packed with travel books on every place imaginable. There are guides for hikers, for foodies, for upscale or budget travellers. If you can’t afford to stock up on all the glossy books your local library probably has most of them available too. There are cable travel shows going to every imaginable destination as well if reading isn’t your thing.

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Back in the good old days, things were a lot different. Our choices were limited to “Fodor’s Europe” and Frommer’s” which I think was the “Europe on X dollars per day” series. Each was about an inch think and covered about a dozen major cities. There was also a guide called “Let’s Go” which was more budget orientated and some of the first Rick Steves guide were out but where I lived they could only be found at specialty travel stores. I’m fairly sure some others like Rough Guides and Lonely Planet were in existence by then but they hadn’t yet made it to our corner of Canada by that time.

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Back in the old days there was no pre-booking or reading traveller reviews. You rolled into town as early as you could with your battered guide in hand and started trekking out to the hostels listed in your book, hoping that there would be a free room somewhere. If a place was a long walk away or required a trip on public transit you might spring for a calling card and try reaching the front desk to see if there was room before heading out. Although things usually worked out fine in the end, there was more than one occasion where I had to give up and used my Eurail pass to hop on a night train to another city, basically using the train as a noisy, moving hotel.

It was fun at times and made for a few great travel stories, but I have to admit I like things a lot more the way they are now. I guess the one downside of this new way of travel is that it is much harder to be spontaneous. People snap up all the rooms online months in advance and the person who decided to roll in that morning may be out of luck if they haven’t made plans in advance. I suppose that in my backpacker days that could have been a problem. But as someone who travels with young kids now, I’m very happy that I can check things out in advance and make sure I have a safe, clean place to stay every night before I head out.

In just over two decades of travel I’ve seen quite a few things change. It will be interesting to see what travel will look like when my kids are grown and I’m the old senior reminiscing about the good old days when we didn’t have jet packs or hover-bikes and nobody had to excuse themselves to go have a hologram conference with their boss. But I’m sure that whatever happens, it will always be worth doing.

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