Technology Has Totally Changed Traveling: Remember Traveler’s Checks, Kodachrome & Cyber Cafes?

It began in 1981. 

I was just a kid, 22, covering the Paris Air Show for an aviation magazine. I had traveler’s checks, a Walkman with cassettes, and bought several little pieces of paper that had color photos of famous sites on one side – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame – and room to write on the other: “Hi Mom! I’m here.”

Over the decades and numerous trips to Europe, some for work, some for fun, I’ve witnessed, benefitted from and have often been befuddled by the incredible advances in travel-related technology. So, come on along as I take a stroll down my memory lane of postcards, cameras that use film, traveler’s checks and cyber cafes.

Money

Ah, traveler’s checks, we wouldn’t dare leave home without them and risk the wrath of Karl Malden. You didn’t mess with Karl.

Here’s how they worked: You’d go to your local bank or American Express office and purchase traveler’s checks. For a small fee, or course. There were two places to sign your name on the front of each check, and you’d immediately sign every one of them on the first designated signature line.

After you arrived in London, Paris or Rome, you’d search for hours for the bank or exchange booth offering the best rate for that country’s currency. And then sign the traveler’s checks you wanted to cash a second time, under the watchful eye of the person at the bank or exchange booth. The matching signatures were proof you were the lawful owner of the checks. 

Or a really good forger.

But wait, don’t be fooled! Some exchange booths offered what seemed like too-good-to-be-true rates: 6.1 francs to the dollar! 2,056 lira! Then they tacked on an exorbitant exchange fee. I learned this lesson the hard way near the Spanish Steps in Rome. 

Although traveler’s checks still exist (really, they do), everyone now has credit/debit cards, and ATMs are everywhere. Within a few years, I predict actual, plastic credit cards will all but disappear and the virtual wallet on your smart phone will seamlessly handle all your financial transactions.

Until you’re hacked by a gang of international virtual-wallet hackers.

One more thing: All the countries had different currencies: francs, lira, mark, drachma and guilder. Yep, guilders. In the Netherlands. So many different coins. And then the Euro was invented in 1999. Sill so many coins.

Photos

We brought large, heavy cameras with us that used needed something called “film” from two once-thriving companies: Kodak (yellow box) and Fuji (green box).

After you used a roll of film, you put it in a pouch or plastic bag, then carried your accumulated rolls of “exposed” film with you for the remainder of your trip. Then hoped and prayed the airport X-ray machines wouldn’t ruin them. Once home, you’d take your film to a special place, often a small booth in the parking lot of a strip mall, to have them processed and printed. Adding $50 or $100 to the cost of your trip. More if you wanted this done in an hour.

Because of all of the above: Each and every shot was a precious commodity. The Coloseum? Two shots max, one from outside, one inside. 

In 1999, the newspaper I worked for sent me to Normandy to cover D-Day. And gave me a first-generation digital camera. It was about the size and weight of a brick, and the memory chip was good for maybe 20 shots. You downloaded the chip onto your laptop, which was about the size and weight of a small microwave oven. Using a dial-up telephone connection, you then transmitted your images and stories to the newsroom. It was a complicated, anxiety-riddled experience. Sometimes it worked, sometimes you had to start all over and re-send.

This was an improvement over what we did in the 1980s: Called the newsroom and dictate stories to someone who desperately wished someone else had answered the phone. Like when I covered the Tour de France.

Film and digital cameras are mostly gone, made obsolete by smart phones. And now, instead of rationing what we shoot, travelers take hundreds (thousands?) of shots and videos, seeing the amazing sights of the world through the backs of their smart phones. And then post way too many of them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Don’t even get me started on selfies. Or selfie sticks.

Phone home

Calling the Unitd States from overseas was something we just didn’t do back then. Unless it was work related, and paid for by work. Or, an emergency, as in: “Help, someone stole my traveler’s checks, wire some money to me at the American Express office in Athens, please!”

Wire? It’s a long story.

When we did call home, to avoid the exorbitant cost of calling from a hotel room, we went to telephone switchboard operator centers. They had them in most large cities. You’d wait in line, get to the front and tell the person at the desk the country and number you wanted to call. You were then assigned to a specific booth, and hopefully talked to the person you were trying to call. If they were home. Or at their desk in the newsroom.

I know, this totally sounds like a 1940s, black-and-white movie starring Cary Grant (and these two other people). I liked to pretend I was a spy, and the Russians were after me. It made waiting in line a lot more fun.

Telephone calling cards became a thing in the early 1990s, and made calling from pay phones much cheaper. The telephone switchboard centers quickly disappeared, and a lot of international switchboard operators lost their jobs.

By the late 1990s, everyone had email, and we stopped calling home. Cyber cafes sprang up everywhere. I think all the abandoned switchboard centers were converted into cyber cafes. 

And now, in 2020, with smart phones, international calling plans and wifi, there are too many phone-home options to list here. I use WhatsApp.

I haven’t seen a cyber café in years. I think they’ve all been converted into Starbucks, and are manned by legions of former international telephone operators and the people who once worked in camera and film-processing shops.

Music

The biggest issue in 1981 was which five cassettes to bring and play on my Walkman. At least two had to be Springsteen.

A Walkman? 

A portable cassette player introduced in 1979 that revolutionized how we listened to music. The next major advance was the iPod, followed by the smart phone. Then again, I now mostly listen to podcasts about unsolved murders instead of music. And have access to Netflix and Hulu on my laptop. Sorry, Bruce.

Postcards

Here’s how they worked for those of you unfamiliar with this archaic and ancient means of communication: We purchased small pieces of postcard-sized paper. On one side is a wonderful photo of a famous tourist attraction, like the Sagrada Familia. On the other is room for an address and space to write a short message. Then, off you go to find a post office, to purchase stamps and mail the postcards. They usually arrived four days after you had returned home.

Postcards were my version of a camera throughout the 1980s. Why carry a camera and film, and get crappy shots of the Tower of London, when I could buy a picture-perfect postcard of it? 

I have a shoebox full of postcards. That I never look at.

On our 1997 bike trip, Susan and I did a … blog. Blogs were the next generation of postcards … and have since been surpassed by Instagram, which will soon be surpassed by something shiny and new. A couple of trips ago, I started my own YouTube channel and shared the links on Facebook and Twitter. And on this Biking France blog. I know, it’s exhausting.

Darn it; I miss postcards. At the end of a long, hard day of touristing, it was nice to sit in a café with Susan, sip some wine or pastis and write a few postcards. We’d talk about our day, laugh about what we were writing, and wonder if the people we were sending them to would be appropriately jealous.

I now have thousands of digital photos in the clouds. That I never look at. And have to trash several hundred from time to time to free up space on my phone.

Luggage

Suitcases and knapsacks have been around for centuries. And were a pain in the neck, and back, to carry around.

And then, miraculously, in the 1990s, they sprouted wheels and were so much easier to tote around. I did a little digging, and it seems the Rollerboard, the first wheeled suitcase, was invented by Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot. Plath initially sold his Rollerbaords to his fellow Northwest crew members, who wheeled them through airports all over the world with the greatest of ease. Other travelers saw these new-fangled suitcases and strated drooling. And demanded them.

A new industry was created. Northwest Airlines is long gone, “absorbed” by Delta. I could, and maybe will, write a post on how airlines have changed since the 1980s. Remember charter flights?

The future is now

Justin, our nephew, accompanied me on my most recent adventure: biking the Dordogne region of France (in 2019, when you were allowed to travel). Being a millennial, Justin is several steps ahead of me in the technology game. He booked our train reservation on his phone (I’ll pay you back soon Justin, I promise, as soon as I learn how to use Venmo); figured out how to use Google maps while we were riding and didn’t have wifi; and taught me how to edit my smart phone videos (a skill I have since forgotten).

As we were walking up the super-steep and medieval, stone steps of Beynac, I said: “Justin, how steep do you think this is?”

“Hang on a second,” he said. He clicked away on his phone, put it down on the steps, and … “It says it’s an 18-percent grade.”

Ah, the marvels of technology. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Perhaps advances in virtual reality will make it so we never have to leave the comfort of home to cycle our way up Mont Ventoux. Oh wait, you can already do that on your Peloton.

***

Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.

5 thoughts on “Technology Has Totally Changed Traveling: Remember Traveler’s Checks, Kodachrome & Cyber Cafes?

  1. Steve, this took me back to when I travelled the world on Business.
    Two things that you missed out are the Messaging Pagers, and CD Walkman along with the Fax as a well used form of communication.
    Nowadays I have all that you mentioned and more on my Smart phone! But I don’t really need it being retired!
    Keep up the blogs, I enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great pics illustrating the “old days” which this near-octogenarian can appreciate. Hard to imagine how we did it with such low tech but then I recall that my mother traveled Europe in the late 1930s with even less tech. We took 18 year old grandson on a part of our six weeks in Netherlands and Belgium in 2019: his tech advice was great but I also was impress how he managed to navigate, on his own, when the batteries died.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I quit college and took off to Europe with a one way ticket in 1971. Had no itinerary, no reservations and no map. Now I can book hotels for a good part of my trips online or at least the first couple nights and even look at pictures of the area I will be in online. I use a GPS or mapping app for directions. I remember one day in 1971 going for a drive in Germany and seeing a sign announcing an approaching border and having to unfold the paper map and figuring out where we were to find out exactly which border we were approaching (East Germany). Now you can go online and figure out transportation options from any place to any destination. In 1971 you talked to other travelers to find out where to go and how to get there.
    It’s different these days but still fun to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point … I have fond memories of talking to other travelers on trains, at cafes, on my bike, etc., about where they’d been, what hostel or hotel, their routes, etc. You’re right … we’ve lost some of that with technology.

      Like

    2. I too took the train through W Germany to East Germany … and, at the border, the train stopped, scary military men entered and checked you quite thoroughly. Same at checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

      Like

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