Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Travel Has Changed Since1973 (When I First Started Traveling)

This post begins a series of posts that explore the general experience of traveling.  The first few posts provide some general insights, then I offer hotel recommendations, and then present several posts that explore the usability of air, rail, and Metro (subway) travel experiences.

But this first post waxes nostalgic: how travel has changed since I first started traveling.

I’ll start by dating myself: I took my first major trip in 1973; a bus tour across the USA on a bus with 46 fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, and 4 chaperones. We traveled the Interstate system and stayed in hotels for most of the 50 nights of the trip. That trip launched an odyssey that continues to this day and has taken me to all but one state in the US, 7 Canadian provinces, all continents except Antarctica, and 25 countries.

The travel experience has significantly changed in the ensuing decades.  Off the top of my head, here are some of the major ones:

McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts have replaced Stuckeys as the roadside stop. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Stuckey’s is a chain of roadside convenience stores with gas stations and limited counter service. Their advertised specialty was pralines, but I liked their sesame chips.  When I took that first road trip in 1973, it seemed like we could find a Stuckey’s at every exit.  I hardly every see them; I ran across one on the Florida panhandle a couple of years ago.

Starbucks, Nathans, and Roy Rogers have replaced Howard Johnsons as the rest stop restaurant.  On the east coast, Howard Johnson’s was the leading family restaurant, and the restaurant at nearly every rest stop on every state turnpike.  They had clean wash rooms, acceptable food, and great salt water taffy. By the mid-1980s, Roy Rogers replaced many of the Howard Johnson’s at rest stops.  More recently, Starbucks and a resurgent Nathan’s have taken up shop at these rest stops.    

Fewer toll booths exist and the ones that do have gone electronic.  For example, the Connecticut Turnpike seemed to have toll booths nearly every 20 or 30 miles—complete with the wreckage of a car to warn drivers to be careful, and most bridges and tunnels required both coming and going drivers to pay tolls.  Connecticut dismantled its toll booths (I don’t know why; I’ve heard that they were road hazards but also heard that they found other sources of revenue) and most bridges and tunnels have converted to requiring tolls in just one direction.  And in the past ten years, most states have offered drivers the opportunity to buy an electronic transponder, which electronically charges the toll to the car.  More than that, many adjacent states with toll roads have collaborated so that they share a transponder system.

Heck, there's even one toll road near Toronto that has no humans working at the toll booths.  Instead, they they take a photo of the license plate and send a bill later--along with a processing fee.

People don’t dress as formally when they fly.  As late as the early 1990s, people looked like they carefully planned what they would wear on the plane.  But since planes became flying buses, the dress code has relaxed.

Loyalty programs have arisen and taken on lives of their own.  Frequent flyer programs seem as much a part of travel today as the ride, but they came into prominence in the early 1980s.  Hotels and car rental companies followed suit.  At first, travelers had to earn miles the old fashioned way—by actually flying them.  With time, though, members of loyalty programs could earn miles through credit cards, flying with partner airlines, eating at partner restaurants, making online purchases through the airline’s website, and even through inconvenience (a slight delay is sometimes worth 500 miles).  As the myriad ways of earning points rose, the number of points awarded for flying diminished.  For example, Air Canada now only awards full mileage credit for passengers paying full fare.  So much for loyalty.

Airports have been converted to shopping malls.  Need a shirt?  Try Brooks Bros.  Did your computer case break?  Check out Wilson’s Leather.  Need a museum momento as a gift (even if you didn’t visit the museum)?  Check out the Museum Store.  The Hong Kong, Pittsburgh, and Amsterdam airports have trend setting shopping opportunities, but don’t write off other airports.  Heck, I once purposely booked a flight through Detroit because I wanted to buy a watch at its Pangborn design store.  

Low-end hotels often have more desirable amenities than high end ones, like free Internet and breakfast.  Marriott and Renaissance both charge about $10 a night for Internet, but their sister hotels—Courtyard and Fairfield—both offer it for free.  Fairfield also serves breakfast—at first it was defrosted Sara Lee-like items but now it features hot foods.  Even the Motel 6 is offering 400-count  cotton sheets.  But watch out.  As these hotels upscale the services, they also upscale the prices.  Hampton Inns and Courtyard by Marriott used to be moderately priced hotels, but their prices often compete with those of their higher end siblings, Hilton and Marriott.  

While European hotels have dropped their free breakfasts, American hotels have added them. One of the things that I remember the most about my first trip to Europe in 1980 was the free breakfasts at all of the hotels.  More than free, they were good: freshly made cappuccinos and straight-from-the-oven croissant.  What made these free breakfasts seem all the more special was that few American hotels offered anything like it.  So flash forward 30 years, when my Hampton Inn and Fairfield stays culminated in free breakfasts, while my European hotels wanted to charge as much as $26 for the meal.

Airlines have eliminated leg room. I’m a short person. So when I complain about a lack of legroom, that means a problem exists.  

Most rental cars now come with unlimited mileage.  When I first rented a car in 1981, I paid extra for the privilege of having unlimited mileage. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time that was a concern.  All rental cars seem to come with unlimited mileage these days.  

Rental car companies now let you gamble with gas prices.  One of the most frightening parts of any car rental experience was returning the car without going to the gas station first, and watching what they would charge to refill the tank.  Now, car rental companies let you avoid that by pre-paying for a refill.  But you have to figure out, first, whether you will drive the car enough to warrant pre-paying for that refill.  And that, in turn, has become the modern gamble.

Hotels provided, then stopped, free newspaper delivery.  As a courtesy to guests, most hotels provided free delivery of newspapers to all guest rooms.  In the past few years, I’ve noticed that’s declined.  At first, they only delivered the newspapers to the rooms of people who achieved status with a frequent guest plan.  Then many hotels stopped delivering the papers altogether, instead leaving a pile of them at the front desk. On the one hand, I rarely read that paper and they usually just piled until I left, when I threw them away.  On the other hand, I liked the service they represented.

Check out has become an increasingly unnecessary stop on the way out of the hotel, thanks to the bill mysteriously appearing under the door the night before you check out.  All you need to do is call the front desk and say thank you.  In some cases, the call goes to voice mail.  When it goes to a human, I often get the feeling it doesn’t matter whether I call or not, as long as I leave the room.

Humans rarely give wake up calls any more.  With the invention of voice response units, machines do it.  That’s not so bad, but many hotels don’t record even a rudimentary message.  I often wake up wondering whether I received a wake up or suspicious phone call.

People who work in gas stations can’t give directions.  When gas station attendants pumped gas instead of making coffee and sandwiches, a lost traveler could ask the attendant for directions and receive reasonably good ones.  Increasingly, however, gas station attendants answer the question, “Where is…” with “I dunno.”

Pay phones are an endangered species.  As cell phone usage rises, finding a pay phone becomes an increasing challenge. Many airports, hotels, and malls seem to have dropped them altogether.  They’re even hard to find at highway rest stops.  I prefer pay phones; at $2 per minute in the US, my Canadian cell phone is almost too expensive for emergencies.

Drivers increasingly focus on everything but the highway.  Although the occasional slow driver is elderly, these days, most slow drivers are texting or on their cell phones, even in states and provinces where they’re required to use hands-free equipment for voice calls and ignore text ones.  But in some cases, drivers have more important tasks that speaking on the phone, like the woman driving through Delaware on Interstate 95, with a Biggie Coffee in one hand and her Dunkin Donuts bagel and cream cheese in the other.  And yes, she was in the driver’s seat and better yet, driving at 75 miles an hour.  

No one checks luggage anymore.  On trains, the service doesn’t seem to exist.  (In fact, one of the surprising characteristics of intercity trains in Europe is that they don’t have room for luggage in the rail cars.) But no one wants to use the service on planes.  If slow unloading and delivery of luggage to the baggage claim area and the high likelihood of lost luggage weren’t enough of a deterrent, the checked baggage fees have sealed the deal.  One problem: Most planes are flying full and don’t have enough room for all of the carry on luggage.  Oh—and another problem.  At least 10 percent of those with carry-on luggage have luggage that’s too overstuffed to fit in the overhead bins.

One more thing: the number of travel writers advising us of these changes and how to deal with them has significantly increased in the past 4 decades.
Next post:  Hotel Recommendations in Europe.  

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