This is part of Airplane Mode, a series on the business—and pleasure—of travel right now.
When I went to Europe last fall for an extended solo post-college adventure, I felt prepared. But not because I had two suitcases full of clothes for every occasion (Reader, I have a chronic overpacking problem). No, my confidence stemmed from something that wasn’t even in my luggage: my phone.
It had all the apps I could possibly need—Airbnb, Expedia, Rome2Rio (which I’d use to calculate different routes around the continent), Trainline (crucial for train tickets throughout the U.K.), and the always janky Ryanair booking portal. I had confirmation numbers galore saved in my Notes app and my email. And when I arrived, I was constantly taking pictures of landmarks and funny things to send to my family and friends. (Did you know that in Portuguese, Diary of A Wimpy Kid is called “O Diário de um Banana”? My brother was able to receive this information mere moments after I spotted the translated copies in a bookstore.) As a member of Gen Z, I have no idea what it’s like to truly not be able to look something up. When I was in Amsterdam and got hungry at night, a Domino’s delivery (yes, that Domino’s!) was just a click away.
Recently, I asked my mom to tell me about the year she spent traveling through Asia in the late ’80s, right after she graduated from law school. She relied heavily on guidebooks to get places, and when she needed help, she had to ask someone around her—an inconvenience my generation has never known. Tickets were purchased in person, and sometimes just directly at airports; Expedia wasn’t even a twinkle in Microsoft’s eye. When she would meet new, interesting people, it was a Herculean effort to try to meet up with them again on the road, or even to hang out again in the same town. And although there were phones—she would wait in lines at 3 a.m. to get in touch with her parents—she primarily communicated with friends and family through letters that they, not having her exact address, sent to the respective city’s American Express office or poste restante (post office).
Together, we pored through her scrapbooks of letters, hand-drawn maps, and physical sheets of paper where she kept track of expenses, all methods that seemed quaint. Of course, there were some snags—she recalled having a call drop right as her parents were telling her they had some news … and then not being able to get in touch with them for days. (Luckily, the news turned out to be that they would be visiting her in Thailand.) Overall, however, she seemed to look back at the time fondly.
Curious for more stories about what life was like before the proliferation of the internet, I spoke to a few other people (whom I found on social media, where else?) about what the experience of pre-smartphone travel was like. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. I hope you’ll take them as an invitation to reminisce about your own days of prepaid phone cards and dog-eared guidebooks—and to ask those older than you about theirs.
I was in Europe in the early 2000s. To get around in London, I had the A to Z guide, which was amazing. They do a street-by-street breakdown of the entire city. But you had to flip it around when you were walking down the street, otherwise you would go in the wrong direction.
There were internet cafés. I did that a lot. I’d pop in somewhere, grab a coffee, and pay for an hour on the computer. You could go to the library and get printouts like you do in the U.S. I would literally cut and paste stuff and print it off and would carry that. It was easy because once I was done with that leg of the trip or whatever I wanted to do that day or week, I could throw it out. I would print out the bus schedules, where I had to go—I’d map it out.
I used a lot of travel guides. The guidebooks were absolutely necessary for getting around, for sure. I still think they’re important with the advent of smartphones because if you travel now, you’re being warned that if you have your phone out, someone can take it from you. Also, phone batteries don’t always last. And if you get caught in the rain, you don’t want electronics to be ruined. So I still like using “old-school” means of researching. I also like the tactile sensation. —Faith Dow, Gen Xer currently living in the D.C. metropolitan area
The first time I really went out into the world, I was a senior in college. This was 2007. I spent a few months in Paris “studying.” I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have a laptop. At that point, you had to pre-book everything. Frequently—as was the case when I went on my first trip—you’d show up and find out [the accommodations] didn’t exist at all, or were not what you expected. And then you’d just have to improvise.
I remember wanting to meet up with a group in Grenada for dinner and I couldn’t find the restaurant we were meeting at. These days, it’s not an issue. But back then, if you couldn’t find it and no one near you could tell you where it was, you were just screwed. That’s that. There were missed connections, and meetings that didn’t happen. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
I would say the biggest thing is how Airbnb revolutionized finding a place to stay. Hotels were ridiculously unaffordable—that hasn’t changed very much—but if you wanted to get an apartment someplace, you had to look on Craigslist or some random board. You had to wade through a sea of scammers to find someone who was less obviously a scammer. They usually wanted you to send a big deposit. While I personally never got ripped off, I knew a lot of people who were. I remember sending a deposit to a person in Spain, having no idea if they really existed or if the apartment existed. You just had to show up and hope that it was actually real.
That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s easy to go anywhere and find a place to stay. —Nick Hilden, 38-year-old travel writer in Mexico City
I was stationed in Portugal and my boyfriend was stationed in northern Japan in the early 2000s. We kept in touch through email, primarily, and occasionally we would have business to call each other because we both worked for the Air Force and we were able to make direct calls to each other’s station. I later moved to Japan, a different station, stationed near Tokyo. He was still six hours away and we would primarily communicate via email.
When we would visit one another, we would have to take the bullet train. We would just let each other know what time we were arriving, and you would just go and stand and wait at the station. It’s kind of absurd when you think about it, because now we text each other so frequently, like, “I’m leaving,” “I’m on my way,” “I’ll be here soon,” “I’m standing by that door.” We are so much more connected to each other, whereas our previous ways of traveling, we just trusted the other person would show up when they said they would.
Now, we use our GPS to get directly where we are going in the most efficient route, and we don’t take those meandering drives where we might end up someplace we hadn’t expected. I do miss the serendipity and the inefficiency of travel previously. We really relied on our own senses, and we had to be much more present and aware to notice our surroundings more.
I find myself trying to teach my own children some of these navigation tools. When you’re in a city—orienting yourself on a grid and knowing which direction you’re heading, and which direction is north. I think it’s important that we have that confidence as travelers. If we do end up in a place where we have no cell service, how do you rely on your own senses? How do you rely on your own awareness of your surroundings, and your willingness to rely on and trust local people?
I would love to go back to Japan. I really want to repeat a lot of the travel I did previously to see how much richer the experience could be with a smartphone. I didn’t speak Japanese and probably missed out on a lot. —Jessica Barousse, a woman in her early 40s living in Kentucky
After college, in 2009 and 2010, the first job I had was working for a congressman in upstate New York, and his district covered six different counties. In the course of 18 months, I drove 22,000 miles, and these places were so often in the middle of nowhere.* So what I’d do was print out a series of MapQuest directions, and I’d be looking at the MapQuest directions trying to make sure I stayed on the right road. It was a very different way to travel.
I had a government-issued phone back then, but it was an awful BlackBerry; there was no internet service, you could only make phone calls with it. There were times when I would have no service, be on this backcountry road, trying to get to this town, do what the printed-out map says. I’d be watching the odometer be a mile or two past where I should be going. You start doing all this backtracking, and you have to flag someone down for directions. It was a very different experience. Now when I’m going places, I plug in the address on my GPS and I’m going to do what the robot tells me to do.
When you’re not leaning on this device, you’re more vulnerable. But in a certain way, that’s a good thing, because it does push you to ask people for help or directions. And built into that was this patience. You always kind of had to wait. That instant gratification, that instant need for an answer, wasn’t there. You knew things would take time. —Zigis Switzer, 36-year-old in New York
At one point in my early 20s, I quit my job and just said, “I’m going to Spain.” I was there for six weeks.
But I had met this person two months before I was trying to leave. When I was abroad, I missed him terribly. We would talk on the phone every week. It was incredibly expensive; we had to buy these prepaid phone cards. I would have this scheduled call with him, once a week, and I would go to this payphone near my place and put the card in, and we’d have a chat until the phone card ran out. You could hear the money falling off the card. It was nerve-racking because there was so much to say. We talked four weeks in a row, and it was fine. But in the last two weeks, whenever I would try to reach him at our allotted time, he wasn’t around.
I felt so completely adrift. I had made one friend, so I had somebody to talk to about it, but our communication wasn’t that great. It was so destabilizing to be somewhere else, and be unable to text him. It was the early ’90s, I couldn’t even conceive of texting at that time—but it was truly a feeling of a vanishing light.
I would have loved to be able to reach the guy. But at the same time, I think that trip was so meaningful because I had to look at myself a lot more, I couldn’t bounce off of my girlfriends. I had to take a beat.
I came across this giant box, when I was cleaning out a cabinet, of letters I wrote from that trip to Spain. Because it was the only way to communicate, I had letters from people who I am still friends with that are little time capsules of that time, what we were thinking about, what we cared about. That’s the way it always was, before telephones at all. But it was just this complete delight to discover that. Unless you save your emails or texts when you’re traveling, you don’t get that. —Stephanie Dolgoff, 56-year-old in New York City
Correction, Aug. 4, 2023: This article originally misstated that Zigis Switzer drove 2,200 miles. He drove 22,000 miles.