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The Golden Age of Travel:
I’ve been reading an article on Expedia about the Golden Age of Travel, comparing ‘then’ with ‘now’ with more than a hint of nostalgia. While I’m not quite old enough to remember ‘then’ as described by the article, I did fly for the first time at the age of five in the mid-1960s. My father, a Doctor in the Army, was sent to Borneo and we were stationed in Ipoh, Malaysia. Dad had already travelled out so my mother followed, with the three of us aged 5, 3 and 1. My youngest brother counted as a ‘babe in arms’ and didn’t have a seat of his own but it didn’t matter because we seemed to have space all around us. I remember quite vividly sitting in what felt like large armchairs (this may have been influenced by my own size at the time). The flight took 3 days and 4 nights with around 14 stops for refuelling.
I know my mother survived the trip by planning. My brother and I were given goodie bags – and allowed to take one gift out every few hours. The bag had colouring books, crayons, sweets, crisps and fresh fruit, all wrapped up in a newspaper. The hostesses must have loved us! Once we reached Bombay we were allowed into the airport. After a glass of luke-warm coke (a real treat), we went into the ‘Gift Shop’ at the airport. And, I burst into tears when my mother told us it was time to leave. The shelves were stacked with rather tacky gifts. But, unlike visiting Santa, which I’d done a few months earlier, here the promise of a ‘gift’ was left unfulfilled. Mum relented only as far as allowing us an early treat from the goodie bag…
Flying was a glamorous affair in those days. Little girls who might otherwise have wanted to be a ballet dancer or showjumping star aspired to be air hostesses. The lovely ladies who looked after passengers were perfectly groomed and immaculate, well-spoken, polite and, at least through my five-year-old eyes, all TERRIBLY beautiful. As for destinations, well, I guess we were a little unusual – the only other people I knew who travelled long haul were those emigrating to Australia or New Zealand
By the early 1970s, it seemed as if everyone went abroad for their holidays. My own parents, who of course believed they had seen the World, were disparaging. The era of the package holiday, the reality of destinations like Costa del Sol and the Canary Islands was better weather than the UK, great beaches and resorts that were just like a home from home. We bucked the trend and went camping (under canvas) in Europe, travelling by ferry and then driving for what seemed like days. Later, when my parents were living overseas again in Libya I can remember meeting midway for Christmas and staying at a friend’s timeshare apartment in the Canary Islands. While we all loved the pool, the resort itself lacked the colonial glamour of Malaysia. My family really didn’t ever buy into package holidays and I suspect my own perception was biased by my parents’ views.
In the 1980s I was a student. Air travel seemed incredibly cheap and for the first time, I booked a package holiday, though only to get the cheap flight that was part of the deal. You could still sleep on the beach in Greece, especially if you took a ferry out to the islands. And, although I suspect the seats were smaller than those we’d enjoyed travelling out to Malaysia, I still felt that there was plenty of room for all. Long Haul was still rare though and, as an impoverished student., Europe was the best I could do.
By the turn of the century, things had changed. You could holiday in the Maldives or go shopping in New York for a weekend with airfares all appearing to be much the same price. I used to travel to New York to see friends, dog-legging via Paris for a couple of days of culture. And, by doing that I could half the business class fare. It was already much nicer to travel business or first class, but I also remember flying economy to New York and having the luxury of a whole row of seats to sleep across. Food – well airline food tasted like airline food – even in business class where they made some attempt to serve better wine and meals that looked like a restaurant takeaway rather than an overcooked microwaved ready meal. With just a hint of masochism, I used to like the business class breakfasts you got on short-haul flights to Europe, with a kind of rubbery omelette, a slice of soggy bacon and a little sausage. The British public was more adventurous, both at home and abroad, holiday resorts for the most part now offered local food, albeit adapted to suit a timid palate and usually alongside a British Grub option.
As the global economy went into recession, so airline travel became less comfortable and inclusive seemed to include nothing that anyone wanted. My recent trips abroad suggest that there’s something of a recovery right now. While your standard seat on an airline might be unpleasantly short of legroom, most airlines now offer an option to pay for those ‘special’ seats that used to end up going to staff or frequent flyers. Resorts and hotels are becoming more open about what you get for your money – hidden extras are vanishing. Those bundled deals which offer a package of things very cheaply but which include a host of extras you don’t want or need are getting scarcer while ‘bespoke’ packages are increasingly easy to find. It’s the power of the internet, enabling companies to offer choice to their customers at no extra cost to themselves. Today’s traveller may lack the glamour and comfort of the 1950s, but experiences the greatest flexibility to go where they want when they want at a price that suits them. Even at the start of the journey, you can customise your experience and eat a Heston Blumenthal restaurant in Terminal 5 at Heathrow or pay £25 to use a business lounge at Stansted. If you want the glamour of old, it’s perfectly possible to buy it – even if it’s just for half an hour before you fly.
Today is an anniversary for Gatwick Airport, developed as a direct alternative airport to Heathrow. Although there had been a commercial airport at Gatwick for several years, the original site was closed so that ‘the new London Airport’ could be built. The airport cost £7.8 million to build and was officially opened by HM The Queen on 9 June 1958. I didn’t realise that the ‘new’ Gatwick was the world’s first single facility airport accessible by all modes of transport – air, rail and road. I do remember though, that it was a treat to go to the airport and watch the planes taking off and landing. In the 1950s and 1960s, air travel for the general public was still new, exciting and rather special. Now it seems commonplace, but take advantage while you can – it may never be so easy again.
So, while I am still a little nostalgic, in many ways NOW seems so much better.
Disclaimer: I have been paid to provide editorial relating to the golden age of travel. All views are my own.