Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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I first went travelling back in 1987 (for details, see my Europe 1987 travelogue), an unforgettable experience but also one that was worlds apart from how people travel today. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some examples of how drastically things have changed in the last 25 years:

(1) Letters. Before the internet existed travellers used to rely on postcards and letters for communication. Delivery of letters was extremely variable and unpredictable, depending on the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the postal systems of the countries through which the letter had to pass. Letters from Italy were notoriously slow, sometimes taking a month or more to reach destinations in South Africa or Australia (even by air mail). The United Kingdom and Switzerland were like greased lightning in comparison - five days from posting to delivery was not unusual.

(2) Telephones. Back in 1987 cellular telephones did not exist and international phone calls via public phones were prohibitively expensive. There was absolutely no way to get in touch with a traveller who was "on the road", beyond making a prior arrangement with a hotel or post office to keep letters poste restante. Embassies were also useful for this purpose, although these were generally located in capital cities only. People used to leave messages for each other at their embassy - in November 1987 I received a very important note from a fellow traveller at the South African embassy in Paris in just this way. By the time I reached Paris and retrieved the message, he had been gone for several days and I had not the faintest idea where he was.

Travelling 2014-style : A tourist talks on his mobile
phone after getting off a tram in Warsaw, Poland

(3) Internet. The internet was merely a glimmer on the horizon in 1987, so there was no electronic mail (email), instant messaging (such as Skype or WhatsApp), VOiP (voice over IP, phone calls via the internet rather than the telephone system), web sites, travel blogs, Facebook, Google+, Twitter or any of the many other means of digital communication that we take for granted these days. Microsoft was still finding its feet and about to start its battle with IBM for control of the Personal Computer market; Google did not even exist yet. On computers, graphical user interfaces were limited to the first, very primitive, version of Apple's operating system - everything else was text-based (anybody remember DOS, Microsoft's first PC-based operating system?)

These days almost all travellers carry smart phones, tablets or laptop computers and expect to have continuous access to the internet via "wifi" (a modern term used to describe a wireless connection to a device that sends and receives data from the internet) wherever they are. At most hotels and guest houses round the world, wifi is available to guests for free. Communication with anybody in the world is instant, easy, fast and generally costs nothing.

(4) Photography. These days everybody has a high-quality digital camera, iPad or smart phone (sometimes all three) and it's a simple matter to take a good photograph - after all, if you snap twenty pictures of the same thing, at least one of them is bound to be pretty good. Storing all these photographs is easy too; hard disk drives keep getting bigger and bigger, and removeable storage devices (so-called flash drives) are cheap, plentiful and very small. Never mind the "cloud", with services like Microsoft's OneDrive and Google's Drive offering massive amounts of free disk space in which to store your digital memories. So recording your travels in absurd detail for posterity, or simply to bore your relatives, is ridiculously easy.

But prior to the digital revolution, photography on the road was hard work. You had to carry bags of film around, being careful not to let the film become smeared in airport X-ray machines, and think carefully about what pictures you took because film was costly. Developing film was very expensive, and then you had to worry about the photographs (and negatives) becoming scrunched in your luggage. So there was none of the "happy snapping" you see in the 21'st century - you generally only took one picture at a time, and then only after careful consideration and due thought. The same applies to an even greater extent to videos; even the simplest modern "point and shoot" camera can take decent videos, a far cry from the days of huge and bulky motion picture cameras and their cumbersome rolls of film or tape.

(5) Money. Europe in 1987 was a fragmented continent. Every country used its own currency and (apart from one or two exceptions) it was impossible to use one country's currency in another. So you had to get rid of all your Lire before you left Italy, and the same applied to Spanish Pesetas, German Marks, Dutch Guilders, Swiss Francs, Austrian Schillings and the host of other currencies in use across Europe. Heaven forbid that you were left with coins in your wallet, because these were almost impossible to convert outside their country of origin. But with the introduction of the Euro in January 1999 these currency travails largely disappeared - you can now use the same notes and coins across most of Western, Southern and Northern Europe (and quite a few countries in Eastern Europe too). And converting Euros to another currency afterwards is easy.

Public telephones ... what travellers used before cell phones, email and the internet

(6) Visas. Prior to the creation of the Schengen zone in March 1995, every country in Europe had its own visa requirements. You would have to apply individually and separately to each country you were planning to visit for a visa to enter that country; each visa application usually took a week or more, so if you were going to several countries (which was not unusual) this was a long and tedious process. These days you only have to get one Schengen visa, which allows you free and unlimited access to all countries that are party to the agreement. Indeed, within the Schengen zone border controls have been virtually abolished, so you seldom even have to take out your passport when going from one country to another.

(7) Accommodation. Finding a place to stay in a strange city was often the toughest part of travelling. You might have just arrived in a new country, not knowing the language and with no coins for a payphone to call a hotel even if you were able to make yourself understood. So you consulted your guidebook and walked into the city from the train station (or took the train, subway or bus from the airport), humping your luggage along while trying to figure out the streets from an out-of-date map. Finally you arrived at a hotel/hostel/backpackers place, desperately hoping they'd have a room or a bed for you. If so, great; if not (which was all too likely if the city was a popular destination like Paris) you had to get to the next hotel on your list, knowing that the later in the day it was the less and less likely you were to find a room. So people often planned to arrive in large cities as early as possible by taking overnight trains or flights, thus giving themselves ample time to find somewhere to stay that night.

This problem is now mostly a distant memory. Online booking engines such as, Hostel World or Travelocity allow anybody to book a hotel room or hostel bunk bed in any city in the world at no cost whatsoever. You simply register on the site and search for hotels in your destination city for your preferred dates; the system will provide a range of results, from budget backpacker joints to sophisticated five-star hotels. You can sort the results by price, or filter out establishments outside of a specific price range, and then book the place you want without making a deposit. In most cases such bookings can be cancelled or altered at no cost. So as you're travelling you can book accommodation two or three days ahead, without fighting the language barrier, and arrive in a relaxed frame of mind knowing that your chosen hotel is ready and waiting for you. These booking engines provide detailed maps of where hotels are, making it easy to find them from airports or train stations. Nothing could be simpler. Almost all modern hotels offer free access to the internet via wifi, so doing the bookings for your NEXT few hotel stays from the comfort of your room is easy. And after you've stayed over somewhere, you can provide a review of the hotel on the booking engine for future travellers to read and use while making their own decision about where to stay.

(8) Communism. From 1945 to 1989 Europe was divided into two parts by the so-called "Iron Curtain" - the democratic West and the communist, Soviet-controlled East. Germany was split into two separate countries and Berlin, Germany's capital city, was itself divided by the notorious Berlin Wall. For a Westerner, entry into any Eastern European country was extremely difficult and permission to do so was only granted (if it even was) after filling out reams of bureaucratic forms and waiting weeks for an answer. Once inside one of the Communist countries, travelling was hard work and limited by a multitude of state-controlled restrictions; for example, Communism prohibited any form of free enterprise, so finding a restaurant or somewhere to stay was a tough job. But since the fall of Communism in the late 1980's and early 1990's, almost all of the countries in the former Soviet bloc have embraced Democracy and Capitalism with gusto and travellers are now welcomed rather than treated with suspicion.

So what am I saying, exactly? Well, simply that modern-day travelling is so much easier than it used to be that there is now absolutely no excuse NOT to get out there and explore. The world is big and it's a treasure trove of diverse experiences ... what are you waiting for?

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa