They say it used to cost $5,000 to fly from NY to Paris
May 13, 2010 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn what travel was like back in the day!

I'm tired of hearing people (myself included) gripe about airports and annoying hotel check-ins, and want to wax nostalgic for the days when people couldn't book their rooms online or see videos of the places they wanted to visit. Don't we take the relative cost of air travel for granted now? How did people prepare for The Great Tour, or trips to Europe 75 years ago?

Any book or movie recommendations to help me learn about the reality of what traveling, not just exploring, used to be like? The only fiction I can think of is The English Patient and Under the Sheltering Sky, but since those don't examine the mechanics of being on the move or leaving home, they're not really what I'm looking for. Nonfiction narratives and bios of movers and shakers especially welcome.
posted by blazingunicorn to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (26 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Well, 75 years ago was 1939 and no one with any sense tried planning vacation trips across the Atlantic at that time, because the U-boats were shooting to kill.

But if you subtract another 15 years (1924) trans-Atlantic travel could be very comfortable, albeit not all that rapid. This was the era of the famous luxury liners, and being on one was kind of like being in a luxury hotel that moved.

It could also be utterly miserable, if you traveled as steerage in a low-class cargo ship.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 PM on May 13, 2010

(Rats. I'm off by a year. You mean it isn't 2009 anymore? I need to set my watch. I also need to learn to subtract. 75 years ago was 1935, and the war hadn't started yet.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:50 PM on May 13, 2010

It is about twice as long ago as you are looking for but Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad" is still worth reading: both to see what has changed and what has not.
posted by rongorongo at 12:52 AM on May 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Kevin McLoud from 'Grand Designs' did a 4-part series last year called the 'Grand Tour', where he recreated the traditional travels of upper-class young men through Europe from the 1600's to the 1800's. While the original grand tours (and Kevin's series) focus mainly on the search for the cultural legacy of classical and renaissance times - architecture, art, music etc, the series does cover some of what you are after. And who can resist Kevin's charms?? (ok, maybe you can, but I sure can't!) Enjoy.
posted by Pippi Longstocking at 1:07 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is Around The World in 80 Days (1872) too early for you?

(Keep in mind that not a lot of people traveled for business or had vacations 75 years ago. You were either desperate or rich if you traveled.)
posted by Ookseer at 1:09 AM on May 14, 2010

"So you're going to fly" - a 1939 Popular Mechanics article for people who have never been on a commercial airliner.

It is fascinating throughout:
A three-minute phone call saves a seat in your name. The air line limousine will pick you up Friday, an hour or so before departure time... You're allowed forty pounds luggage... You peel off $157.95 for the sleeper trip.
posted by milkrate at 2:35 AM on May 14, 2010 [20 favorites]

Robert Louis Stevenson is great for funny, detail-rich travel stories from the late 19th century-- picture him kind of like Michael Palin with a droopy mustache. The Amateur Emigrant goes from Scotland to New York by steamer; Across the Plains from New York to California by rail; and he wrote a whole book about wandering around the South Sea islands.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:57 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Nevil Shute has a bunch of stuff about the logistics of travel in his novels... the titles are escaping me right now...
posted by bardophile at 3:02 AM on May 14, 2010

Agatha Christie (1890-1976) did a whole lot of traveling as a young woman of some means, and then as the wife of a prominent archaeologist. A lot of her sequences (and at least two entire novels) are set on ships and trains (and even some planes - although I never liked any of those) and many foreign lands, and if you get really into her, her autobiography is a fun read with lots of travel anecdotes.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:06 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

M.V. Hughes (sometimes the reprints say Molly Hughes) writes a lot about travel in A London Family 1870 - 1900. There are train trips to Cornwall in her youth, a long trip to Wales, a very long trip by ship to Canada and the U.S. and travel within those two countries, and also a trip to Europe that has lots of details about packing.

The small detail I remember most are large lumps of coal soot found in the folds of one's dress after train trips. Ick.
posted by JanetLand at 3:18 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Turning this around a little bit from the travellers point of view to the people providing travel services.

Thomas Cook (UK based tour operator) has some brief info on their website and the brochures in their archives would probably be very interesting regarding how you went about booking holidays/tours.
posted by selton at 3:22 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your local travel agent had brochures and took care of all the bookings etc. Some people still book travel this way. Air and sea travel was rather expensive.
posted by caddis at 4:28 AM on May 14, 2010

I once had a reprint of Baedeker's United States travel guide from 1893. It was absolutely fascinating to read, and was eerily similar to modern travel guides (explained hotels, city layouts, restaurants, getting to cities via trains, etc).
posted by rtodd at 4:29 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding the $160 cost for a 1939 Newark to San Francisco one-way ticket, the BLS says that ballparks to around $2500 right now. By way of comparison, a EWR-SFO one-way ticket on Continental six weeks from now is $1050 + taxes.

The BLS calculator for inflation is at:

A quick google suggests that the average salary in 1940 is around $1700, for whatever "average" means. The BLS calculator says that's around $26K after adjusting for inflation. The median income for a full-time male in the US right now is around $45K.

So, in inflation-adjusted terms, the 1939 air ticket is more expensive than a first class ticket today (and the trip would take longer: there are no red-eye flights going east to west), and, relative to earnings at the time, it would take a bigger bite out of "average" income, almost 10% compared to a bit less than 2.5%.
posted by chengjih at 4:31 AM on May 14, 2010

The 1970 movie Airport gives a good idea of what air travel was like in that era (minus the melodramatic hijacking stuff).
posted by marsha56 at 4:44 AM on May 14, 2010

How did people prepare for The Great Tour, or trips to Europe 75 years ago?

The simple fact is that only the relatively well-off took grand trips like that. They were the only ones who could reasonably afford it. Back in the time-frame you are talking of, big, traveling vacations were not done by most people.

The low cost of flying today may please ones egalitarian senses, but it's pretty easy to argue that today's cut-rate flights are what has directly contributed to the industry's woes.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:49 AM on May 14, 2010

The Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat was in service for just a few years, but it was an ultra-elegant way to cross the Atlantic or Pacific.

Clipper passengers looked down at the sea from large windows and enjoyed the comforts of dressing rooms, a dining salon that could be turned into a lounge and a bridal suite. The Clipper's 74 seats converted into 40 bunks for overnight travelers. Four-star hotels catered gourmet meals served from its galley.

posted by Carol Anne at 5:59 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cheaper by the Dozen has a chapter that describes taking their 12 children on a train from the east coast to California. I don't know the exact year, but it must have been between 1915 and 1925. They used sterno cans to heat water and ate a lot of graham crackers while most of the family struggled with motion sickness. Sounds grand.
posted by CathyG at 6:32 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

The simple fact is that only the relatively well-off took grand trips like that.

Although the elite are the ones with the means to travel, they certainly did not travel alone. Most travelers went on their Grand Tour with at least one servant. Some of them traveled with many. If you would like to read more about the Grand Tour, I highly recommend Matthew Todd's Journal, edited by Geoffrey Trease. Todd was a 23 year old servant who accompanied his employer throughout Europe in the 1830s. Todd took care of the food and lodging arrangements, so its a great look at the technical details of early travel.

I loved Todd's Journal because it is far from dry. There are rumors of ghosts and flirtations with innkeeper's daughters and plenty of pranks during their trip abroad. It was written a little earlier than the time range you gave, but I can't help but recommend it.
posted by mmmbacon at 6:34 AM on May 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

An alternative would be to give it a try. Buy yourself a pre-WWII automobile and a road atlas, drive down to U.S. 20, and aim yourself at Boston, or get on U.S. 30 in Portland, and drive to Philly. Plan on stopping to have minor service done on your car every 1000 miles, at least two full tune-ups, and a couple sets of tires over the course of the trip (if you don't cheat and put on radials).

That's the kind of driving adventure some returning servicemen took in the late 40s.
posted by DaveP at 7:18 AM on May 14, 2010

CathyG: It was June 1917 - there were seven children at that point (Mary had died of diptheria in 1912), Lillian was six months pregnant, and Frank wasn't with them. Fun times!
posted by elsietheeel at 7:32 AM on May 14, 2010

Seems like the place to put in a recommendation for William H. Brewer's autobiography, Up and Down California, in which he tells of his travels to California by steamer from the east coast ca. 1860, and his subsequent role as one of the leaders of the first scientific and geologic survey of California (1861-1866?). I found the description of traveling by steamer (and overland through Panama) and the epic (!) saga of his team's journey up and down the Sierra Nevada mountains to be absolutely fascinating. It's all told through a series of journal entries and letters home, and along the way you get a good sense of just how hard it was to travel in California at a time when it was still very rustic and undeveloped. Not exactly the same as a grand tour of Europe, but no less insightful on the practical aspects of self-supported travel in a foreign region.
posted by mosk at 10:51 AM on May 14, 2010

Somewhere at home I have the journal of some distant relative of mine who did a big tour of Europe in 1937 or so. He was a college professor, so he wasn't super rich, but he would have been comfortably off. He sailed to Europe from New York (not in first class I don't think).

According to the journal he pretty much planned and reserved the whole trip using Thomas Cook. He would take the train to the next city on his own and the "man from Cook's" would meet him at the station and take him to his hotel, give him an introductory tour of the city, etc.
posted by interplanetjanet at 11:33 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a look around and found that journal. The person who kept it was pretty obsessive about writing down minutiae from how much everything cost to what time he took a bath everyday. If you're interested let me know and I can post some of the figures.
posted by interplanetjanet at 3:52 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough's Our Hearts Were Young And Gay* is the story of two privileged white women who graduate from Bryn Mawr, stuff their frocks into their steamer trunks, and bugger off for Europe, by way of Montreal.

It is full of deck chairs, antique itineraries, those old kinds of champagne glasses, between-the-wars opulence, smoking, measles, bedbugs, and frilly adventure. I recommend swallowing this book whole (as one would in order to enjoy a black velvet painting of Elvis) to appreciate the world of people who could afford to do these interesting things and to prevent yourself from choking on the florid look-at-me-I-am-so-cute prose.

I always wondered how a person could throw themselves into strange situations in foreign lands encumbered by luggage they were unable to schlep on their own. Somehow, these two had faith someone would be there to haul their giant trunks. And someone always was.

*for 1920s values of gay, mind you
posted by Sallyfur at 6:18 PM on May 16, 2010

Flying in 1939
posted by caddis at 7:34 AM on May 20, 2010

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