Travel Then and Now Through Photos

Travel Then and Now / Getty

In the early days of world travel, we felt lucky to be going anywhere, and our system reflected it. It was an era when getting there truly was half the fun, and even the common traveler could experience the ease and the expectation of comfort that we now forget even existed.

An AOL Travel survey found that Americans are decidedly disenchanted with the state of travel today. Fully 59% of respondents said that travel is more frustrating that it's even been before, and 57% said it's a lot less fun. That's a landslide, and the dissatisfaction stings even more when you learn that more than half the people who answered have at least two decades of traveling experience under their belts.

Just what happened to travel in America?

Hors d'oeuvres on an airplane trip? Wicker airline seats? Sure, in some ways, our luxuries have improved, but there's something about the novelty of early long-distance journeys that makes us realize just how jaded we've gotten about them today. Sometimes, a picture tells the whole story. Here's the way we went:

In-Flight Meals

In-flight Food Service Then and Now / Alamy

Sure, this old shot was staged by Pan Am in 1958 to make its new 707 look luxurious and to sell airplane tickets – remember, they had to convince people that they weren't going to fall out of the sky – but, as the pearls and bowties attest, in those days, we really did dress up to travel. We also got more interesting food (served hostess-style), and apparently, seat belts were optional as long as you didn't spill your sherry. One sartorial choice hasn't changed: Flight attendants are still forced to put on ridiculous uniforms.

In-Flight Entertainment

In-flight Entertainment Then and Now

E. Bacon/ Getty Images / Mike Clarke, AFP/ Getty Images

In aviation's early days, some long-haul flights used an actual film projector to entertain passengers. Given the grim decor, it's hard to believe these guys (on a German airline in 1925) aren't being flown to a prison somewhere, but the lightweight seats and overhead netting reminds us that before jets came in and propeller planes were the standard, we had an obsession with airborne weight restrictions straight from the military origins of the air industry. Today, the better airlines have individual seatback screens with live satellite TV signals for our amusement, but the worn-out foam cushions under our behinds can be just as penal.

In-Flight Comfort

In-flight Comforts Then and Now / Alamy

Rail passengers could abandon their seats and enjoy the dignified retreat of the dining car, but space and economics meant that social graces didn't fly for long on aircraft. These passengers from 1935 (left) are on Pan Am's Martin M130 China Clipper, which pioneered the transpacific route from San Francisco to Manila and Hong Kong. Now we're hemmed like livestock into our ever-shrinking personal space, staring at the back of another seat instead of into the eyes of a charming dinner companion. No more "Pass the sugar." Now, your only exchange with your seatmates is likely to be an announcement of your bodily functions as you struggle to wriggle out for the lavatory.

Airport Security

Airport Security Then and Now

MPI/ Getty Images / David McNew/ Getty Images

There was a time that even an evildoer would be terrified to risk boarding a newfangled airplane, so passengers just lined up to board this American Airlines Curtiss Condor in the 1920s they same way they did on oceangoing ships. We all know how that turned out. On the bright side, the invention of the jetway means we're much less likely to get rained on.


Camping Then and Now

Getty Images / Winnebago

Although old-fashioned canvas tents still exist as an option for the intrepid, a growing number of Americans chose to leave home by essentially taking everything at home with them (here, in a Winnebago, which produced its first motor home in 1966). The recreational vehicle industry boomed along with the Interstate road network and the proliferation of cheap gas. Ever-rising fuel prices, though, are making that tent look better every year.

Cruise Ship Activities

Cruise Ship Entertainment Then and Now

Reg Speller, Fox Photos/ Getty Images / Royal Caribbean

In olden days, when oceangoing was synonymous with romance between B-level 1950s stars and Charo was a household name, deckside shuffleboard was the first amusement most of us thought of when we considered taking a cruise. In 2008, Royal Caribbean installed the first ice rink at sea, and now, most guests spend so much time at the on-board shopping mall and Johnny Rockets that many don't even realize they've been at sea until they get back home. Among the shipboard pursuits today: water coasters (Disney Dream), rappelling (Norwegian Epic), zip-lining (Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas), FlowRider (above right, on the Freedom of the Seas), body boarding and rock climbing walls (Royal Caribbean ships), and planetariums (Queen Mary 2).

Road Trips

Highways Then and Now

FSA/ LOC / Alamy

The first transcontinental road on the planet, the Lincoln Highway, opened in 1923. By 1930, one in five Americans owned a car, and these pleasant meandering highways grew fast, adding the Dixie Highway, the William Penn, and others. One of the country's spines was Route 66 (left, near El Reno, Oklahoma in the 1930s), which exposed generations of vacationing Americans to new cultures, topographies, and roadside amusements. In 1947, California had only 19 miles of freeways. But by the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower set bulldozers of the modern Interstate Highway system in motion, impatiently plowing through neighborhoods and giving roadside America the homogenized blandness we blearily traverse today. On the right, cars plod along I-75 in Atlanta. They're still sitting there now.


Hotel Lobby Then and Now

Francis Benjamin Johnston/ LOC / Marriott

Back in the day, hotel lobbies were social centers. They had to be, since travel took much longer and guests stayed longer, making hotels true homes away from home. The one in the New Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, (seen here in 1901), was so active that favor-seekers regularly petitioned the government's power players there, which some historians claim gave rise to the modern term lobbyist. Hotel lobbies were furnished with deep leather chairs suitable for lounging and cigar-puffing, and many installed features that became city landmarks, such as the San Francisco's St. Francis, which was famous for its central clock. To the right is the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco today, where the only thing power players petition for is room upgrades.

Hotel Rooms

Hotel Rooms Then and Now

Theodor Horydczak Collection/ LOC / Alamy

Although the room at the left (from Hot Springs National Park's Arlington Hotel circa 1920) would barely measure up to one in a spinster-run B&B today, consider that at the time, American life was much less elaborate, labor was more intense, and back at home not everyone had running water or electricity. A room like this, with its expensive and hard-to-clean white linens and soft carpeting, would have been considered luxurious and romantic (even if its chaste single-bed sleeping arrangements, by our standards, are less so). The corporate room on the right could be any room anywhere, and that comforting effect is just the way the chain hotels like it. Headboards have been jettisoned (they get damaged, or they damage guests) and the risk of in-room fireplaces is an anathema. This room is an industrial design triumph of viewpoint-free furnishings and beige and olive colors, since industrial hoteliers now strive simply to be as non-offensive and durable as possible.

Long-Distance Train Travel

Train Travel Then and Now

Detroit Publishing Company/ LOC / Amtrak

This is a standard Pullman car on an overland train in 1914. The standards were decidedly 19th-century. In fact, at the time of this photograph, Robert Todd Lincoln (Abe's son) was its CEO – and believe it or not, this carriage was considered deluxe. Today, the most deluxe a standard American train gets is the Acela Express service linking Boston and Washington, DC, via New York and Philadelphia. It has free Wi-Fi and you can plug your laptop in beside your seat. Although America unwisely dismantled its comprehensive rail network in the mid 1900s, forcing us to go back and re-create what already existed in order to reverse gridlock on the roads, at least the on-board service has improved.

Read Full Story

From Our Partners