Travel 20 years ago vs. today

I recently saw a Facebook meme that outlined all of the ways young people today have it easy. As I’m currently in Germany, the country where I first lived abroad, I chuckled at the meme because I’d just been thinking about how easy I have it these days when I travel. I’ve been experiencing nostalgia overload since arriving in Germany, and have been thinking about what it was like to go abroad that first time (20+ years ago) vs. now.


Here’s my list:

Then: Who remembers having to call all the airlines individually (with a land-line, of course, and maybe even a rotary phone) and talk to a human in order to find out ticket prices? And if you didn’t book through a travel agent you had to call the airline again to make your reservation.

Now: Doesn’t it cost extra to book your ticket over the phone? It’s so much easier to go to or Expedia to search for the best flight. And then choose exactly where you want to sit on the plane.


Paper plane tickets. Remember when they were mailed to you? I was soooo excited the day my tickets to Frankfurt arrived in the mail. It made my upcoming adventure real. I also remember a couple years later when I was set to fly back to Germany for my college study abroad program and I thought I’d left my (and my friend’s) plane tickets at home. After a couple hours of intense freaking out I found them stuck in a pocket of my new backpack.

Now: I check in the night before my flight and download my boarding pass to my phone. Even if I lose my phone I can swipe my passport at the airport and print out new boarding passes.


Then: Nobody would have even considered flying within Europe. We bought Eurail passes and took trains everywhere. I remember many multi-day/night train and ferry rides in order to get from one end of Europe to the other.

Now: I’d probably still take the train simply because I love European trains, but since flying is now so cheap and easy I’d seriously consider it.


Once a month I’d go into the Deutsche Bank and withdraw money off of my credit card (did debit cards existed back then?). When I traveled outside Germany, I’d cash traveler’s checks. Withdrawing money off the credit card was easy, provided the bank was open, but those traveler’s checks were so annoying.  You had to purchase the checks in the US and they came in denominations of $20, $50 and $100 (if I remember correctly). There was a fee per check so to save money you’d want to cash the higher amounts. But it was often hard to know how much of a specific currency you’d need before moving on to the next country. I always ended up with lots of extra money or not enough. This was a pain back when each country had a different currency.

Now: I go to pretty much any ATM and withdraw all the cash I need for a small fee. If I use my Chase visa, I pay no fees and I earn airline miles. And these days I can actually use my credit card at many stores and restaurants.


If you wanted to drink coffee, you went to a cafe, sat down, and drank coffee from a real cup. I once asked for coffee “to go” after eating at an Italian restaurant because I had to leave for the airport and didn’t have enough time to linger over a cappuccino. The waiter looked confused and said, “what, you want to take the cup with you?” It just wasn’t done back then. The best you could do was to go to a Stehcafe and drink a quick cup while standing at a table.

Now: It’s still not as prevalent as in the US but I’ve seen more “coffee to go” signs in cafe windows and Germans walking around drinking coffee out of to go cups than I ever expected. There are even two Starbucks-like coffee chains that weren’t here last time I was in Germany.


Maps, guide books, novels, music…everything was hard copy and heavy. I used to tear the pages out of my guide book and staple them together to save space (and not look like a huge dork when I needed to check the guidebook). And when I was in high school I packed a mini-stereo and like 50 cassette tapes in my suitcase.

Now: I downloaded everything onto my iPhone before leaving home.


I used film in my camera and got 24-36 photos on each roll. I didn’t take that many photos because film was expensive and I had to carry all those rolls of film. And of course I had no idea how they turned out until I developed them. I have a lot of tiny photos from my first year in Germany because it was so much cheaper to develop them in a smaller than normal size.

Now: I can take a bazillion photos with my digital camera or iPhone. I take far too many photos of each thing so I can sort through and fix them later.


While the way I used to travel sparked many fun memories and we dealt with things just fine, I’m pretty content with the conveniences we have today!

What would you add to this list? How have things changed since the first time you went abroad?


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About the Author: Cate Brubaker

Dr. Cate Brubaker is a re-entry/repatriation coach, consultant, and author of the Re-Entry Roadmap creative workbook and the Study Abroad Re-entry Toolkit. Cate has lived in Germany, worked and traveled in 36 countries on four continents, and has helped all kinds of globetrotters successfully navigate global transitions for over 20 years.

7 thoughts on “Travel 20 years ago vs. today

  1. Love this post! I can totally relate to each point!

    You forgot keeping in touch!
    Then: I had to go out and purchase a phone card, find a phone booth (or use my land line while I was living abroad) and then call home trying to get everything in before the card cut out.
    Now: Of course we have email and Skype and Facebook so we’re never really that out of touch with friends and family back home.

    This also applies to finding accommodations while traveling. I used to have to get a phone card and then stand at a phone booth calling every place in the Let’s Go. Of course during the height of summer most places in the book would be full. Even if you could make a booking using the book you were never really sure quite what you were getting since the descriptions were so short and of course there were no reviews. Now we have Hostelbookers and Hostel World and I’m sure a bazillion other sites which make it really easy to research all of the options, see pictures, read reviews, and BOOK without ever having to buy a phone card and search for a phone booth!

    Another thing I love about internet/iPhones is being able to use the free WiFi at a place to make a call if I’m lost looking for a hostel, need to make a booking, meet up with a friend, etc.

  2. That’s a good one, Lindsay! I remember doing that, too. I have so many old Germany (and French, Spanish, etc) plastic phone cards. It was so hard to focus on the convo when all I could think about was how quickly I was draining that phone card. I LOVE Skype. Yesterday I was able to chat with my husband and take him on a tour of my apartment and show him a bit of the neighborhood. It’s not quite a good as having him here, but it’s sure better than standing in a freezing pay phone booth!

  3. You’re so right, Anita! I almost never print my photos but I feel like I use them so much more than I used to. Most of my non-digital photos are simply sitting in boxes.

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