Saturday, 1 February 2020

Travel in the 1990s - A-Z of changes

Before WiFi, AirBNB and GPS, we travelled without a safety net.  There was less research, more surprises.  Most of my travel was done in the 1990s.  So today I am sharing some memories and have even dug into my archives for photos of old momentos.  If you could sum up the change today, it would be the mobile phone.  So many of these aspects of 1990s travel can be replaced by a phone these days.  All except a Swiss army knife and no one lets you fly with one any more!

A is for Accommodation booking services
Accommodation booking services were in tourist centres rather than online.  I remember spending a week travelling by car around the UK with my mum and dad.  We decided not to book ahead.  So we would book either by going to a a phone box to contact an accommodation service or going there in person.

B is for Batteries
In the 1990s we often packed batteries for cameras, walkmans and alarm clocks.  These days, although there are still batteries in cameras, phones and laptops, I tend to think more in terms of packing chargers to keep the batteries going rather than packets of batteries to replace used ones.

Film canisters and the little plastic tubs they came in.  My bag always had quite a lot of these.
I remember choosing between 100, 200 and 400 ISO when purchasing film.

C is for Camera
Cameras used film so every photo was precious and expensive.  How often did we take a photo thinking it was just right, only to find when we got the photos developed weeks later that someone blinked or the focus was all wrong!  Sometimes it was easier to buy a post card or guidebook instead.  It was exciting to show everyone our holiday snaps.  These days with digital photos we have so many goes at getting it right and by the time we return from holiday we have too many photos and everyone has often seen the best photos already.  And the spare and used reels of film in the baggage were so precious.  No backing up photos online!

D is for Diary
It was the done thing to keep a travel diary when I was backpacking around Europe.  I remember people in hostels taking time to hand write their memories and paste in pictures that were cut from brochures.  These days people carry laptops and write a travel blog or just record memories in FaceBook or Instagram.

My travel diary from my European travels: tickets, directions, notes, sketches, beer label, etc

E is for Embarrassing
We never had embarrassing pictures or stories on the internet when we had a holiday romance or wore birkenstocks with socks on a plane (I admit to neither and you don't have the photos to prove it).  Of course, we shared embarrassing moments but only with close friends.  Nothing went viral in those days - well not in a digital way!

F is for Foreign languages
Travelling in a country where you didn't speak the language was tough.  Lonely Planet was a godsend with a small list of common words to help you communicate with the locals.  But this didn't help in the grocery stores when I couldn't tell what food I was buying.  There was no internet to search for words and no Google translate to help.

G is for Gadgets
My favourite gadget was my swiss army knife.  These are much harder to travel with today if you are going through airports.  Mine was confiscated in 2002 after 9/11.  An alarm clock and a watch were essential to catch planes and trains.  These days mobile phones take their place and we pack more sophisticated digital gadgets such as portable chargers, cables, bluetooth speakers and, apparently, video recording sunglasses.

H is for Hitchhiking
I am by nature a cautious traveller but on occasion have been caught out.  When we arrived at our cabin in Cradle Mountain in Tasmania a few decades back, we were some distance from the main lodge where we had planned to get our meals.  The only way there and back was hitchhiking.  These days, Google Maps makes it so much easier to see exactly where you are staying and going. 

Internet cafes were exciting when you travelled without any other internet access. 
But also slow and expensive.

I is for Internet cafes 
Who can forget the joy of internet cafes in the late 1990s when you could go into a cafe and purchase half an hour of dial up internet that cut out abruptly after waiting for ages for a page to load.  I travelled alone around Europe for a month and was so excited to have a little time to check my emails and connect with friends at home and those I had met travelling.  Now I travel with my laptop or phone and have email, social media and texts there when I need them.  It is great but you never seem to really leave home behind in the way we used to.

J is for Jobs
Many Australian youths travel on a working holiday.  When I travelled we didn't consider finding a job until we were there partly because it was so much easier to apply in person to employment agencies in the UK.  I had friends who were teachers who went through agencies but they met with the agencies before they left.  I remember asking employers to write references for me too.  These days jobs are online, references are by phone or email and the interviews can be done by video conference if necessary!

K is for Kindness of Strangers
In the 1990s I had a European bus pass that should have got me out of Poland.  But when the bus driver refused to let me on the bus, I was unable to understand the system or work out alternatives.  A kindly woman translated for me, took me to her flat for the night and then drove me back to the bus station where the next bus driver would not let me on.  A young man who was getting on the bus told me that I could go to his parents' place and stay in his room.  These days I would have been able to search more about the bus pass online both before I left and while I was in Poland.  Too often now we bury ourselves in our devices rather than look up at the people around us.

Some of my Lonely Planets (don't know where the rest went)
plus a Rough Guide special with stories of travel before blogging gave us these insights.

L is for Lonely Planet 
We called the Lonely Planet Guide "the bible" because it had everything we needed: information about accommodation, sights, places to eat, maps, some basic words in the language of the country, travel stories etc.  I spent hours pouring over my Lonely Planet guides before and while I travelled.  I still have a few of them.  Now Lonely Planet seems limited compared to having the internet at your finger trips.  Now we have the tyranny of choice in finding information about our destination.

M is for Money
When I first went travelling overseas in the 1990s, I went to the bank beforehand to organise travellers cheques that I could cash when I got to the UK.  Then I hid them in a money pouch I wore around my waist.  There was nothing so terrifying as being in a foreign country with no money.  Not to mention the complications of travelling Europe with all the different currencies before the Euro.  Nowadays when I travel overseas I purchase a bit of cash at the airport and make sure I have enough in my credit card account to withdraw it at an ATM (cash machine).

Cashing in travellers cheques in Jerusalam

N is for News
When I travelled in the 1990s we got our news from newspapers, the television and the radio.  None of these were easily available when travelling (especially in a non-English speaking country) and they didn't have much about Australia.  It was exciting to hear news from home.  When I was on kibbutz in Israel and somehow I heard about Sadam Hussain bombing a country near Israel, it was hard to get facts and I phoned the Australian embassy to work out if we were safe (we were).  These days with the internet so readily available, it is easy to keep up with news from home.

O is for Overseas calls
When I first travelled in the 1990s, the way to keep in touch was by phone.  Emails were not so common and there was no social media.  Overseas calls were really expensive.  My parents wisely and kindly bought a phone number with a pin which meant we could call home on reverse charges from any phone.  I constantly am amazed at how easy it is to use mobile phones overseas these days, as well as social media to keep in touch no matter where you are!

Aerograms from the days when we would write a lot on a small amount of paper
and send it home as cheaply as possible

P is for Post
In a strange town, we were often interested to find the post office to purchase stamps and send mail.  It was so much fun to receive mail.  (There was none of the adverts and dross you have to scan through on social media to find news from home!)  I had friends with whom I would exchange aerograms: flimsy cheap notepaper that folded into an envelope.  We would write small to fit as much news as possible into the page.  It was fun choosing postcards and looking at the stamps we bought from different countries.  Now it is so easy to keep in touch by phone and online.

Q is for Queues
So much more was done in person in the 1990s.  You went to the travel agents, did check-in for flights, bought train tickets.  There were so many more people that queues were more common.  I remember queuing at public phone boxes.  Yes we got impatient but it was all part of travel.  Now there are less queues.  So many tickets and check-ins are organised digitally these days.  Sometimes I miss having a person to ask questions but then I remember the queues we used to have.

This pocket sized A-Z London atlas and guide was always with me in London.

R is for Road maps 
I loved visiting a tourist information office for a map.  When I lived in London I relied on the A-Z road maps.  When travelling Europe I relied on the maps in Lonely Planet.  Mind you, Lonely Planet maps were quite limited and it didn't take much walking to leave the security of the map.  These days it is so much easier with Google Maps and GPS. 

S is for Selfies
Our ideas of selfies in the 1990s were getting someone else who looked honest to take a photo.  And being honest did not mean that they knew how to take a photo in focus without half their finger in the frame.  Selfies and selfie sticks mean you don't need to ask strangers to take your photo today, though occasionally we still do.

I spent many hours in phone boxes. 
Not all of them as graceful as this row on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

T is for Telephone boxes
Public phones were a godsend in the days before mobiles (if you can just forgot those horrid cards advertising x-rated services in the British phone boxes).  This was how we would connect with home to let them know we arrived safely, or organise ahead for accommodation or even ring the middle of the night when something went wrong.  We would literally save up our pennies and talk quickly when we had no more money to feed in and we know the line would go dead.

U is for Uncertainty
Not having a mobile phone meant we had to live with a lot more uncertainty.  When we flew to meet a sister or friend, we trusted they would be there.  I even met someone in Amsterdam and arranged to meet on a railway station in Prague.  No safety net of texts if she was not there.  The best way to contact her if she didn't turn up would be finding an internet cafe to send an email.  But she was there.  Just as when I unexpectedly found myself in hospital in Cork, Ireland I had to find a payphone to let people know, including the hostel where I had checked in my backpack!  The flipside of uncertainty was trust!

V is for Vegetarian food
Travelling  as a vegetarian in the 1990s was more of a challenge than it is today.  I remember days in Italy eating very plain pizza margherita or pasta with tomato sauce and wishing for something a bit more.  One of my worst travel meals was on the now-defunct Ansett Airlines in Australia when I was served a sandwich of plain tofu and a slab of butter.  Of course there were some wonderful surprises like the Turkish breakfast of tomato, pickles, cheese, and bread in a hostel in Cappadoccia.  But I really appreciate the good vegetarian food you can find these days through internet searches.

A selection of old cassette tapes.  Most have now been thrown out. 
The Anthems tape was a favourite when travelling.

W is for Walkmans
How I loved my Walkman when I travelled.  It was the soundtrack to my travels.  It calmed me when I was nervous.  It was from the days of cassette tapes when we taped from CDs and the occasional vinyl record.  We only took a few tapes so I listened to them over and over again.  I carried spare batteries because the Walkman went through them quickly but most of all I feared tape being chewed up by the machine.  These days even ipods are a little old fashioned as phones become ever smarter.  And apps such as spotify make it easier to carry a lot of music around without adding to weight and volume.

X is for Xeroxes
Xeroxes (or what we call photocopies in Australia) were an important back up for all our important information such as passports and driving licences.  If we bought travellers cheques or airline tickets these were often photocopied because it made it so much easier to replace if lost.  While I still might photocopy my passport, many tickets can be accessed online these days and even passports can be scanned and kept on the cloud or the phone.

A hostel registration card: no computerised booking, no url, no requests for social media likes!

Y is for Youth hostels
Youth hostels were another great source of information.  I met people to hang out with when I travelled solo, I talked to people about where to eat and visit, and would check out the noticeboards and brochures.  When I was travelling around Europe, people in youth hostels kept telling me to do the tour of Berlin.  I would ask, what tour?  Just do the tour, they told me.  Word of mouth was a wonderful thing.  When I got to Berlin my youth hostel was advertising an English language tour.  It was the best tour I ever did on my travels.  In 1998 Berlin was a vibrant city in the midst of rebuilding after the Wall went down.  These days such tourist activities ca be found online before landing in a city, as are travelling companions and recommendations.  I am sure people still meet in hostels if only they look up from their phone once in a while!

Z is for zzzz
I am sure we got more sleep in the 1990s without the distraction of the internet.  We didn't have to be spending our time posting about travel and researching the next destination.  It was quicker to write on a postcard or in a travel diary and check the Lonely Planet.  Sure, we didn't know the half of where we were going but we had more time for sleep when not spending long nights chatting and drinking.  Ahhhh .... those were the days!


  1. Wow this brings up a lot of memories, such as taking along Lonely Planet books which took up lots of baggage weight allowance. My earliest childhood travel memories involved poring over the Flag Inns booklet and when my mum would call Flag Inns to make a booking, a woman would always answer with "hello, this is Super Sally"!

  2. Nice post. I miss those simpler times just going to a place without much research in advance, but I can't understand how I found my way in strange places without google maps on my phone, caught the right trains without any apps and so on. It was more adventurous back then.

  3. I didn't get roudn to travelling in my youth and I do regret it a bit, so i love this blog post that brings some memories for me regardless - Walkman and cassettes and those blue airmail letters before email, batteries and film for cameras = Wow. Travelling indeed has changed so much with tech, esp. the mobile phone and apps and selfies (which i am proud to this day to say i have never taken on of myself). I really have enjoyed this blog post, thank you for putting it together and sharing

  4. Thanks for putting together this fantastic nostalgic post! I started travelling in the early 00s and still remember so many of these things. Also, book swaps! I would leave home with a book and ask random strangers to swap it, making for a real interesting journey. I feel like people are often too into their phones now to meet random strangers :( all this convenience and information has cost a lot of adventure and flexibility

  5. What a great set of memories! Very evocative for me, linking to all kinds of thoughts of the past. We were just wondering whether there were any youth hostels any more.

    best... mae at

  6. Love this post! So many memories and things I had not thought about for ages. I miss stamps in my passport.

  7. Love this post Johanna.... takes me right back, although as much of my early travel was in the 80s, we didn't even have the internet cafes as an option. But ASA film and lonely planet guides were coming out of my ears... And I have to say, travel photography isn't nearly as exciting now you don't have to wait until you get home to see the photos.
    But without a doubt, the kindness of some strangers as well as the need to be wary of others was way up there in what made travel the adventure that it was xx


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