Travel before the Internet: a backpacker’s tale

To see how much the Internet has changed travel, we needn’t look back too far. In order to compare how transformative the Web has been on the travel experience, we spoke to Rory and Katrina Costelloe, who, whilst in their twenties,  spent a year backpacking overseas between April 1985 – April 1986.

The first step in planning any holiday is the motivation to actually go in the first place. Now that we have the Internet, this motivation is easily come by, what with all our friends’ photos on Facebook and the ability to read a stranger’s blog entry on what fun they had hot air ballooning over the Serengeti. In the 80s, however, this information was much more limited. What’s more, taking a “gap year” was not the phenomenon it is today, given that flights were hugely expensive. What’s more, for many people in their twenties, their focus was on buying their own house rather than exploring the world. What, then, made Rory and Katrina so keen to travel? Rory says it was a roadtrip up the east coast of Australia that inspired him. “You meet so many foreign travellers and they’re all so friendly. It makes you realise how many different sorts of people there are out there and you want to go see what their countries are like.” For Katrina, it was a friend returning from a few months in England that inspired her. “She had so many stories, and made it all [organising travel] sound so easy. I thought, if she can do it, so can I.”

One of the main aspects of travel that the Web has significantly changed is the way in which we plan for a big trip.  The Internet allows us to research our own holidays, and the abundance of sites such as Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums mean we are never without information on our destination of choice. How did Rory and Katrina plan their trip, then? How did they decide where to go?

Rory peering over the Berlin Wall. Extremely dangerous!
Image courtesy of Rory Costelloe.

“In deciding where we’d actually travel to, we remembered stories from other travellers – foreigners that we’d met on domestic trips. We also relied heavily on advice from our travel agent. There were two guide books on Europe that everyone used. The books were American- produced and written by Frommers. They were called “Let’s Go Europe” and “Europe for 25 dollars a day” and were the bible of travel back then- there was no Lonely Planet.”

“From our travel agent we bought a round-the-world ticket that including 30 tickets, or ‘coupons’ as they were called, for our return flights to Australia and to major cities across Asia, Europe and North America. We had to pre-book all these flights through our travel agent, of course. If changed our mind about where we wanted to go next while we were in London, for example, we had to go to the Qantas office and wait to see a representative,” says Rory.

Another aspect of travel the Internet has changed dramatically is the ability to plan your trip as you go. In 2012, the ubiquity of Internet cafes and, in many instances, free wifi, has made booking your hotel room in Cambodia whilst you’re in Greece relatively easy. This was not the case in 1985.

“You couldn’t just ring and make a booking. Unless you’d booked hostels in advance through your travel agent [whilst still in Australia] you literally had to turn up at the places listed in Frommers and then go door-to-door to compare prices,” says Rory.

A 1980s Qantas ticket.
Image courtesy Rory Costelloe.

Another difference was the stringency with which you had to keep financial records. Of course, the story about the budget traveller that runs out of money and survives for two weeks on tinned soup is a classic, but Internet banking has made it easier for travellers to keep track of their funds. No such service was available in the 80s, however, and Rory kept a daily diary of all his expenses so to ensure he knew how much was still in his account at all times. Although Rory carried a credit card, there were many places where withdrawing cash or paying with credit wasn’t possible. Travellers cheques were safer than carrying cash and often the easiest way to pay, although it meant having to carry your passport around all the time so you could be identified as the owner of the cheques.

Rory’s budget book.
Image courtesy of Rory Costelloe.

In 2012, it’s easy to forget what a huge undertaking a year away from home was in 1985. Now, we enjoy the luxury of email and Skype. Everyone has a mobile phone, and whilst international phone calls still remain expensive, text messages and apps such as WhatsApphave enabled travellers to be in constant contact with home. In 1985, however, communication with friends and family at home was sporadic at best. Letters were the main form of communication, and had to be planned six weeks in advance to ensure they would reach your next destination on time.

“You would have to write to people weeks earlier,” says Rory. “You’d nominate a major city you’d be in in six weeks time, so they could address their letters to the post office there. It meant you’d have no mail for six weeks until you got to that city.”

An airmail letter, sent to Paris from Rory’s mother.
Image courtesy of Rory Costelloe.

Rory and Katrina were both committed to letter writing, and would write, on average, one or two letters a week to their respective families. You’d have to speculate whether it was a private letter or one for the whole family, in which case you gave permission for it to be passed around to all the extended relatives.  For Christmas, Katrina’s parents sent her a tape they’d recorded of the whole family sitting around the table talking. Katrina would then erase the tape and send one back where she’d talk about what she’d done that week.

As well as keeping in contact with family and friends, keeping in touch with other travellers was also difficult. Now, of course, Facebook has made keeping in touch with those people you partied with in Berlin almost too easy.  Without any available methods of communication, Rory and Katrina would occasionally set dates to meet up with friends in other cities, but if they weren’t there when you were, there wasn’t much you could do about it. However, “everyone travelled the same paths, so there was a high likelihood you’d keep running into each other anyway,” says Katrina. “People would also give you their home addresses and phone numbers, and if you happened to visit their city you’d call them and go out for dinner, or maybe even stay at their house.”

The lack of communication at home also extended to news. “We were completely oblivious to world news. We just weren’t as information hungry back then,” says Rory. There was just no way of accessing news, save the occasional newspaper clipping sent from home. From time to time, Rory and Katrina would go to the nearest Qantas office to read an Australian newspaper.

No Facebook, and indeed no digital cameras, made sharing photos much harder, and much more expensive. Nowadays, the only limit to the amount of photos you can take is the battery life of your camera. In the 80s, the cost of film prohibited backpackers from taking the thousands of photos travellers take now. Katrina says people then weren’t so obsessed with documenting every single experience. “At one stage our camera broke but we weren’t particularly fussed, we just bought postcards at all the places we went to.” On arrival back home, people would be invited over to look at your photos.

“People were more intrigued then, it was so much more foreign.”

The whole family would see you off at the airport.
Image courtesy of Rory Costelloe.

Rory and Katrina both agreed the Internet has changed travel in profound ways, both positive and negative. Whilst the Internet has made researching trips to exotic destinations such as Namibia and Antarctica that much easier, the amount of information available also take away some of the surprise. “In many ways, travel was much more adventurous back then,” Rory says. “When you went to airport, you’d have dozens of family and friends come to see you off, whereas now, it’s not so unusual. You just go because everyone’s travelling all the time.”

In what ways do you think the Internet has changed travel? Has it been for the better or for the worse?


14 responses to “Travel before the Internet: a backpacker’s tale

  1. The first big overseas trip my husband and I took was 3 months in Europe in 1979. We were on a family holiday in the south of the state when Qantas announced some cheap fares. We had to find a public phone to ring our travel agent to book them 🙂

  2. As the family of Katrina, we were dwelling on mail. Both Katrina and Rory were extremely conscientous with letter writing, but one waited for 3 to 4 weeks for news then —“We’re going behind the Iron Curtain now” , certainly brought a touch of anxiety ,in those days.

  3. What an interesting read… I often wondered about what it would be like to travel without internet and cellphones. I could never really imagine because I’ve grown up with it and it’s a big part of my life. Every time I go on a trip, I can’t decide whether to bring my phone or not. I didn’t, on my last trip and I found myself spending more time writing letters and postcards. Making an effort to reach out to people at home felt more special than sending a “Look where I am!” picture via WhatsApp. Still, I did miss my phone from time to time.

  4. Yep thats nails it! Technology has changed but there are still plenty of adventures to be had,its just the communication thats different.

  5. G’day Rory,
    A top little explanation of the way it was – I’m old enough to remember!
    I leave for China tomorrow with my wife to visit our son who works there & every single aspect is researched, booked, paid for and almost “tasted” by the net.
    I recall a trip to London return with Qantas in 1977 was about $2,200 – almost 50% of my annual wage of a first year teacher! Can you imagine people paying 50% of a teacher’s wage for the year just for the flights these days ($35K)??? How lucky are the young ones?
    Anyway, a good read thanks.

  6. I loved reading about this comparison. We recently took our children overseas. Having done the obligatory backpacking tour of Europe in 1994, we wanted to ‘share’ the world with our kids. What a contrast in the research (as you say). Having the children with us made us feel more vulnerable and so the adventurous spontaneity of our backpacking days gave way to a carefully planned sequence of accommodation and train trips, car hire or flights. I booked all of our accommodation myself, (leaving little for the once indispensable Travel Agent) including a heavenly chateau in the Loire Valley. To make sure the houses and chateau we rented were REAL, I used googlemaps walked the village or city streets using Streetview! We had the most fantastically stress-free holiday and if ever we got lost I just checked ‘Maps’ on my Iphone – so much easier than buying a local map at a train station or using the little maps in our ‘Backpacker’s Bible – ‘Let’s Go- Europe’ of 1994! Instead of posting home our rolls of film in a lead-lined bag, I shared a daily selection of pics and commentary on my Facebook page. Still, there is something to be said for the beautiful adventure and isolation of being non-contactable. In the 90’s CNN was the only world news we accessed at youth hostels and they NEVER mentioned Australia!

  7. Way more fun in the 80s. It was a real adventure then. I remember trekking around Annapurna in 1981 with a guy I had met in Koh Samui and we had agreed to keep in touch through Poste Restante in Kathmandu. You phoned home Reverse Charge and if your parents answered they would refuse the call but at least they knew where you were as the operator would say to them “Would they accept a call from Colin in Kathmandu?” I dare you to leave your phones at home!!!!!

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  10. i already bookmarked your website in my list.thanks for sharing so much information about various destination and tips. i have read your articles in this help me a lot!

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