What it was like to travel before the internet

Editor’s note – Monthly subscription is a CNN travel series that highlights some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. This August, we’ll go back in time to revisit some of the greatest retro travel experiences.

(CNN) — It’s your first time in Eastern Europe, you don’t speak the language and you don’t have a smartphone (not even a cell phone). But are you confident because you have a fantastic guide to… Yugoslavia?

Your book is so old it’s not even a country anymore. You need to find a payphone, but what’s the country code for the United States? And how much change does it take to make an international call?

Eight months later, you finally come home, vowing never to leave your zip code again.

For those who only know the internet, it’s easy to imagine this was the way to see the city before it came along.

“The first thought people probably have is to be amazed that anyone was able to travel a mile from home without Waze and Instagram,” reflects Chuck Thompson, author of “To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism”.

Yet people were traveling before the internet.

Just ask Troy Haas, president and CEO of Brownell Travel for two decades and counting.

Founded in 1887, Brownell is the oldest travel agency in North America. Their longevity is all the more remarkable because they’ve had to survive what Haas calls “one punch/two punch: airline commission cuts and the rise of online travel agencies.”

Not to mention some additional body shots courtesy of Steve Jobs. Because in 2007, Apple released the iPhone. And in 2008 they opened the App Store.

“A wave of technology has been unleashed,” recalls Aron Ezra, president and co-founder of software company Plan A Technologies. At the time, he was still at his first startup, MacroView Labs. While today Plan A builds “complex custom software platforms and digital transformation solutions for all kinds of different organizations,” back then it was all about apps.

These included a couple offering “geolocated content for the Las Vegas area” that Ezra describes as “a virtual doorman.” Out of the blue, a traveler had the chance to spend a day exploring the Strip and all the iced teas Long Island has to offer, so he whipped out his phone and instantly found out that he could still get tickets to the Cirque du Soleil.

Life would never be the same.

In short: these times have completely transformed the way we travel. (And how we live, period. If you told someone in the 1980s that there would come a time when the average American would spend more than five hours a day on the phone, they’d say, “Five? I’ll hang up after I’ve been on hold.” for two hours at the most.”)

This is how we traveled the world before the internet. It wasn’t the most efficient approach. Then again, as we grow so swept up in Wordle that we can barely bring ourselves to watch another season of the hottest new show, it’s not like we’re models of productivity today, either.

An Illinois travel agency in 2002.

An Illinois travel agency in 2002.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

When it was so easy to get off the grid

Before the Internet, if you told someone you would meet them at a certain place and time, you had to:

• Remember what the place was.

• Know how to get there.

• Show up around the time you said you would.

It seems impossible, but it was real. This was our cruel world. For once the two of you left each other’s landlines, you were both unreachable until that fateful meeting.

Was it an intense way to live? Absolutely. Yet there was also a certain “que será, será” spirit. Because if something went wrong and you couldn’t make it to that meeting… We figured it was easier to make a new friend.

Put yourself in that headspace as we begin our travels.


“I have a lot of old envelopes crammed into boxes in my basement with brochures and maps and information sheets sent to me from state parks in Wyoming, small towns in Italy, island hotels in Malaysia, etc., in response to phone and mail inquiries I’ve sent them inquiring before the trip,” says Thompson.

That’s how you figured out what was out there. And once you chose one of those places, you made damn sure to bring along the essential pamphlets of him.

It was the 1970s and Tony and Maureen Wheeler had a dream: to travel from London to Sydney by land, or at least as much as possible. They embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey that changed global travel forever.

Getting there

If you’ve seen the Keri Russell/Matthew Rhys series “The Americans,” you know that their Russian spies have a cover career: They run Dupont Circle Travel.

How come? Because they need to go everywhere at odd hours to kill people and, in the 80s, this was completely reasonable behavior for travel agents. (Maybe not the murders. The rest: normal.)

After all, if something went wrong during your trip, you didn’t have the internet to save you. You were just hoping your agency had your back, whether it was travel, KGB, or whoever else would accept a AAA member discount.

Do you want a story of a travel agency that is emerging in a huge way? Haas recounts: “In the 1930s, one of our agency owners, Jennie Brownell, was with a group of Americans on tour in Berlin on the day America declared war on Germany! She had to change trains four times to get them home.” safe and sound because every country wouldn’t let their trains cross the border and leave.”

And all of a sudden “it saved me 12 bucks on my rental car fee” sounds underwhelming.

Do it yourself

Granted, not all travel agencies offered Brownell’s Indiana Jones-type assistance. So how hard was it to handle everything on my own then?

Ezra has some insight. Over the years it has built other forms of travel technology, including booking engines.

He deeply appreciates this innovation: “First you had to get on the phone with the hotel and talk about availability and prices and finally, if you found something that worked for you, you would read your credit card information. All the while you’re thinking, should i make more calls to see if there is a better deal out there otherwise he booked it, ‘I’m going to have a breakdown.

Being there

Has something been lost? Absolutely. Haas puts it this way: “Some of the wonders of travel, mostly because major destinations suffer from tourism and issues like ‘selfies’.”

Thompson is more forthright: “There were fewer people around, that’s damn sure, and that made things a lot easier and a lot more civilized.”

They also agree that there was more of a feeling of discovery, because when you visited a place it was probably the first time you’d seen it in motion. (Those guides you brought along had photos. Embedded videos? Not so much.)

The more things change…

Whirls and clicks: Presentation hosts had a captive audience.

Whirls and clicks: Presentation hosts had a captive audience.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Thompson says travel documentation on social media today can be daunting, but it’s hardly new.

In the past there were slide shows. And they were rough.

“‘My best life’ travel photos on social media got a little obnoxious, but so did listening to someone talk about their life-changing trip to Europe without advancing fast enough to the overexposed 14th slide of a gothic cathedral as you entered your sophomore period on a saccharine couch feigning interest.”

Similarly, Haas says Brownell has survived when so many travel companies have gone out of business because they have always stayed true to their mission to be “advisers who create an exceptional travel experience.” (Unlike the just guys who tell you Delta has a 7:30pm flight but not the usual 8:15am Thursday.)

Also, some things are truly different, in ways we should be thankful for.

“Early in my career, before the Internet, I had to travel more days than I did at home,” recalls Ezra. “I was once sent to Brazil at the last minute to attend a meeting. It was conducted entirely in Portuguese. I am deeply grateful to live in a time where a translation app is just a download away.”