The world in 2016 was for many an unsettling and even dangerous one given terrorist attacks and conflict in the Middle East. But as I returned from a trip visiting Europe last week, it struck me that we have much to be grateful for. Consider just how much easier it now is to travel and do business overseas.
Yes, I know coach travel is often crowded; delays due to outmoded air-traffic-control systems are irritating, and service standards are often lacking. If one can’t get into a special security lane, airport searches of passengers can be grueling and humiliating. But I’m old enough to remember what travel was like in the pre-Internet age, and we are so much better off today. Before we grumble, we should count our blessings.
If you were a middle-class American at the turn of the century in 2000, you would probably have had to spend valuable time with an often indifferent travel agent who was planning your trip; you stocked up on often outdated guidebooks and relied on word-of-mouth recommendations for where to eat and stay. You could plan on your own, but it was cumbersome — Rick Steves’s travel guides as late as 2000 included sample form letters you could mail to a European hotel to make a reservation, together with an international postal-return coupon to ensure confirmation.
Now, thanks to breakthroughs in the Internet and cellphones, travelers can book their own flight and hotels online, opt to stay at a stranger’s home through Airbnb, and browse reviews of restaurants on their mobile devices using often-free Wifi. GPS-locator technology can tell me if there is a wine store or a boutique within walking distance of where I am, and the store’s website can tell me what it has in stock.
Nor is it just the Internet has changed our mode of travel. I can remember standing in line to get a booth number at foreign post offices where I would then be able to make an expensive overseas call to friends and family. Now a cheap T-mobile cell plan gives me unlimited North American calling, free data worldwide, and 20-cent-a-minute phone calls to and from more than 140 countries.
I used to be highly nervous about driving overseas, intimidated by poor signage, strange languages, and unclear routing. Now GPS technology gives me (usually) trouble-free directions in English that guide me to my destination. Once there, I can dispense with foreign exchange offices and withdraw foreign money from an ATM at a good rate and without fees. Tour books used to solemnly warn people against leaving home without traveler’s checks; today, with credit cards accepted everywhere, they are dinosaur-like curiosities.
Then there is the “sharing economy,” which has transformed travel both domestic and foreign. Uber, the ride-sharing company, operates in 70 countries and more than 500 cities now — and Uber has an increasing number of competitors. The shared-private-lodging concept pioneered by companies such as Airbnb and Onefinestay has made it cheaper and easier to travel to overcrowded resorts and places like hotel-starved Cuba. Today, more than 10 percent of U.S. travelers have rented space in a private home or apartment.
Hotels are catching on the competition and improving service. Starwood Hotels allows guests to communicate with its front-desk personnel via WhatsApp, BlackBerry messenger, or iPhone either before or during their stay.
Traveling overseas is also more affordable than it has ever been. International airlines operated a tight cartel until the 1980s, making trans-Atlantic travel expensive if you didn’t use outliers like Iceland Air and Freddie Laker. But competition gradually emerged. I remember taking budget carrier People Express from Newark to Brussels in 1986 for a then-unheard-of $99. Flight attendants went down the aisle collecting your fare after the plane boarded. Sandwiches and drinks were for sale.
Now the People Express model has counterparts in dozens of low-cost airlines operating in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even parts of South America. And people who don’t want to fly have it better than ever through a network of high-speed rail systems in Europe and China. A high-speed service can now whisk a passenger from central Frankfurt to central Berlin in three hours and 40 minutes, from Paris to London in two hours.
It’s entirely normal for an American to land in a European airport, have his passport casually examined, and then never show it again until leaving even if he has traveled through a dozen countries.
Although I am a critic of the European Union’s mismanagement, overreach, and refusal to profile dangerous suspects, I have to admit that the EU has made life easier for travelers. Today, it’s entirely normal for an American to land in a European airport, have his passport casually examined, and then never show it again until leaving even if he has traveled through a dozen countries. No one misses keeping baggies with a half dozen currencies, waiting in long lines at border crossings, or coping with overzealous customs agents who would paw through your luggage — all of which were the norm in the non-Communist countries of the continent.
What can we expect as travelers in the future? There will always be legitimate concerns about privacy, but travel companies promise that they will be able to deliver an increasingly personalized service. Firms will be able to suggest highly customized products to travelers, based on their profiles and past shopping behavior. Many people will blanch at having their habits so closely monitored, but for those who want to invite Big Brother into their lives, they’ll find he doesn’t have to be an Orwell-like totalitarian monster. After all, a Big Brother can also provide a wise guiding hand that teaches how to better take care of ourselves.
I predict that travel will only become easier to plan, offer more variety, and be more enriching.