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Travel Nostalgia: The Way We Went

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Be honest.

If you’re over 50 you’ve said these words to yourself.

“Travel was so much better/nicer/fun back then.”

Back then before low-cost airlines scrunched us on one another’s laps or the online world revealed every destination’s secrets before we arrived.

You know, back then when the No Smoking section was smaller than a folded handkerchief (all right, not fun) and your on-board gourmet meal was free.

Was travel really better then? Or is it just my imagination?

It’s not. I know because I asked a few seasoned travel writers and specialists and they all remember past travels with a dose of tenderness.

Imagine the 1940s. Imagine Frank Sinatra giving you a compliment. Imagine a full-course meal on every flight. Space to move. Courtesy.

That’s exactly the kind of life Violet (Sweeney) Ward experienced as an air hostess in the late 1940s. Her niece, Catherine Sweeney of Traveling With Sweeneyretraces her Aunt Vi’s footsteps.

“At the time Aunt Vi was applying to TWA, the official job qualifications for air hostess included a nursing degree, a college degree, or four years practical business experience… She also recalls that one had to be at least 5’2; fall within an approved weight range; have good grammar and diction; and be poised and self-confident. Most importantly, an air hostess had to SMILE! “

Travel vintage TWA manifest

Violet (Sweeney) Ward reads the TWA flight manifest. Notice the stylish TWA cut-out lapel on her uniform/Catherine Sweeney

Aunt Vi isn’t the only ‘stewardess’ who remembers it this way.

“I had the privilege (and it was a privilege) of being a Pan Am ‘stewardess’ in the early 1970s – the dawn of 747 jumbo jets, and the quintessential ‘kinder, gentler, age of travel,” says Michelle da Silva Richmond of The Restless Voyager, who flew a few decades later.

“In those days, being a flight attendant was a glamorous profession and we at Pan Am wore our uniforms proudly as we glided throughout airline terminals all over the world.”

Travel Nostalgia 707

Michelle flies to Martinique on a Pan Am 707, her first flight after graduating/Michelle da Silva Richmond

“Flying was an ‘event,’ rather than the ‘herd’ experience it is today and there was a certain camaraderie among travelers, which is lacking nowadays,” recalls Michelle. “Passengers dressed well and they didn’t act like – nor were they treated – as if they were boarding an overcrowded bus. Pan Am lived up to its motto of: ‘Making the Going Great.'”

“Meals were served on every leg – even in economy – no matter how short the flight. We weren’t subjected to the absurd security measures we see today, although we often had air marshals onboard our flights because of the occasional threat of hijacking. That was the extent of our global terrorism.”

The only improvement today, she says, is that smoking is no longer allowed.

Vintage Travel Pan Am Clipper

Pan Am Boeing 377 Stratocruiser Clipper Seven Seas at London Heathrow in 1954/Wikipedia

In addition to the glamor there did seem to be a slower pace to travel back then. As late as the 1980s travel seems to ebb and flow more casually, rhythmically.

Suzanne Fluhr of Boomeresque remembers her prenuptial honeymoon in Peru and how she and her husband-to-be took it all in stride, airline bankruptcies, war disruptions and all.

Travel Nostalgia Peru 1980s

Pre-honeymooning in Peru – was it really that long ago?/Suzanne Fluhr

“For me, the big dividing line for travel then and now is the advent of the internet,” says Suzanne, “with easy to use search engines and travel websites where one can read about and pre-book one’s own travel, including transportation, accommodations, activities, restaurants…”

“However, one of the downsides is that the internet has made travel accessible to more people so that some places that were formerly not mobbed with tourists are now overrun to the point they are actually becoming physically degraded by the multitudes.”

Those Were the Days

Whenever we think of a time gone past we tend to remember the good. Human nature has a way of stamping out minor negatives and leaving us wishing fondly for a return to a simpler time.

Or, as for Jo Castro of Lifestyle Fifty, adventure and excitement.

“It was a privilege and exciting, something not to be taken for granted. These days because of our so-called global village it’s become more of a necessity, like an unwelcome bus trip. With good reason security checks have become invasive whereas in my twenties you could rock-up to the airport just two hours before your flight without any worry. I could pack the entire contents of my make up and skin care regime in my hand carry if I chose  just in case I wanted to glam up before disembarking  For me, air travel has lost its romanticism. It’s just something to get through.”

It’s sad to think that travel may have become something to bear between two points of pleasure.

It’s not just flying. Road trips don’t seem to have weathered time well either.

I remember being squeezed into our car as a child, trying to direct my driving father from behind and reading out every single sign. We drove more slowly then and there was plenty to read. Each tree counted, each lampost was a minute gained towards our destination. My childish eyes took in all the wonder – the plains giving way to the mountains until, finally, the seashore, an entire world all from my back seat.

“Today my grandkids ride in a big SUV, strapped into seats and entertained by movies on the internal player,” says Carole Terwilliger Meyers of Travels with Carole.

“I think it was more fun (though, of course, not as safe) back in the day when we rolled around freely in the back seat. The thing I loved most was when my mom would gift me with a handmade outfit for my beloved Toni doll (named for a popular permanent brand at the time). From our home in L.A. to our destination in San Diego to see relatives, we would drive along Highway 1 through Laguna Beach and the official town greeter would wave at us and we would get excited. Ah, those were the days.”

Billie Frank of Santa Fe Travelers also believes those were the days.

“I miss the days when highways were blue and went through the countryside, when Burma Shave signs dotted the horizon, when staying on the road meant a night at a funky motor court with those wonderful 50s metal chairs on the front porch. You can still get a bit of it on Old Route 66 through the southwest, but mostly it’s gone.”

It’s also about the ‘there’

Not only journeys but places too have changed, sometimes for real, and sometimes in the way they play upon our memories.

In her poetic Goodbye to Fire Island, Alison Abbot of Green with Renvy looks at a specific place through not only its own life cycle but through her own.

“It is a rare moment that I don’t look back on travel experiences with fond memories. This recent trip took me through the gamut of nostalgic thoughts, as it was probably the last time I would visit this lovely spot that has been a part of my life for almost 60 years,” Alison says.

Vintage travel Fire Island

Fire Island, remembered/Alison Abbott

A Few Words from the Wise

It’s not enough to remember – sometimes we have to share not only the memories but the wisdom that goes with them.

“With some 30+ years of bouncing ’round the globe under my dodderin’ wanderlust belt (and still going, and going, and going…) some of us (neanderthal nomads) can well remember the challenges of traveling back in the dark ages,” says Dyanne Kruger of TravelnLass, in Travel Tips from the Ancients. 

“We’re talkin’ the late ’70s and 80′s here – the good ol’ (or bad ol’, depending on your perspective) days of traveling without a smartphone, a laptop, a Kindle, a camcorder, Skype, Twitter, Facebook… Indeed, in retrospect, it’s a wonder we managed to skip ’round the world at all.”

Travel Nostalgia bottles on planes

Imagine that!/TravelnLass

Donna Janke of Destinations Detours Dreams misses the fun road games, the getting together for an evening with friends after a trip to share photo albums and travel memories.

“Remember postcards and travelers checks and no Internet access? It’s possible we’ve lost some of the mystique of travel, but it is difficult to imagine going back and giving up the changes,” she says in Travel Then and Now.

I appreciate what invention has brought my way. I don’t know how I’d manage without email and the Internet and my iPhone. but I also suffer from travel nostalgia. Often.

All it takes is for the passenger next to me to grab the armrest once too often and I am jolted back to the days of elbow room and folded napkins and thick paper tickets.

There’s plenty about travel that was better a few decades ago – but it was far from perfect.

Safety was a bigger concern – faulty Comets and DC-10s, poor visibility, and the threat of hijacks to Cuba or Algeria.

We used up more time, precious time. As a child the trip from Rome to Montreal would entail stops in Lisbon, Madrid, Santa Maria in the Azores, Gander (Newfoundland) and finally Montreal. That Santa Maria stop was a thrill – usually covered in dense fog, without enough fuel to make it the rest of the way should we be unable to land.

More people do travel today and the flip side of massive travel and pressure on destinations is democratization. The more people travel, the more they open up to the world, its people, its cultures. And after all, isn’t that we’re seeking too?

What do you think? Was travel better then? Or do today’s advances allow us to enjoy the world as never before?


  1. alison abbott on November 10, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    Leyla, Thanks so much for including my post. You’ve written a lovely walk down memory lane. The landscape of travel has changed so much for all of us. Talk about nostalgia, Virgin Airlines just introduced a new style of flight that is all about bringing back the missing pieces of modern day airline transportation. Ah, the good old days!

  2. santafetraveler on November 11, 2014 at 12:11 am

    Great post. Thanks for including me. Love “Aunt Vi”. Those were the days. I have a friend who flew for Eastern. This weekend she was at the Smithsonian and found her old uniform on display. Flying was definitely an occasion in those days, today it’s just a means to an end- and not a very good means!

  3. Johanna on November 11, 2014 at 1:45 am

    I love the way you’ve knitted everyone’s responses and feelings about travel nostalgia together. Thank you for including mine too 🙂 What a wonderful group of boomer bloggers I’m privileged to be amongst – all with such interesting and revealing memories of travel in the past. I read the post with great interest and was swept back to more distant memories of my own as well, but I was also propelled to think about the future and how space age travel may change our ways yet again! Thank You for such an insightful post!

  4. robyn metzger on November 11, 2014 at 4:23 am

    I travelled in the 70’s- the end of the hippie days, travelling in the 80’s , 90’s etc was different-not better or worse just different.
    I have learnt not to go back, dont go looking for that cute little fishing village in Greece or the friendly locals who invited you home in Spain.
    Go further afield, where they dont have in free internet to stop fellow travellers from conversing with each other
    Go to a developing country where things are still cheap and they really need the tourist dollar
    I have a few favourites, Vietnam, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu…
    The latter 4 are luckily only about 4 hours from NZ (where I live )so I dont have to endure the cramped plane ride too long and when I get there its is like stepping back 30 years …….keep travelling, just find an undeveloped, old fashioned, uncrowded place that suits you

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 11, 2014 at 7:52 am

      I completely agree! Going back is so often disappointing and I’d rather be left with my memories. Recently I was contemplating crossing Africa along the path I’d taken as a foreign correspondent nearly 20 years ago but the more I think about it, the more I see it would be a bad idea. And good point about the need for our tourist dollars – that’s an important consideration.

  5. Michelle da Silva Richmond on November 11, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks so much for including me in this wonderfully nostalgic round-up. It stirred up some precious memories of the “Way We Were.” Sigh.

  6. Life Images by Jill on November 11, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    Thank you for the great post. What a great selection of women travellers you have brought together. I enjoyed the “look back” at the past. I didn’t fly till I was in my 30s, so I can’t comment on the past, but I always thought the life of an air-hostess must be very glamorous. I am not so sure now.

  7. Cathy Sweeney on November 11, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    I tend to be very nostalgic, especially about traveling — not so much in the “how I traveled” sense. It’s more in the what I saw/did once I got somewhere. Certainly air travel has changed. I can remember flying economy on 747s with very few other passengers and being served full meals that included wine (and I mean good wine). But even though air travel isn’t what it used to be, I still get excited going to the airport and just deal with the inconveniences. I also still get a thrill from road trips, especially when I can get off of the crazy busy freeways and onto roads less traveled. I can almost feel like I’ve gone back in time. Honored to be included your post, Leyla. Thanks!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 11, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      I do feel nostalgic about the past and its lost comforts and conviviality but the excitement of travel hasn’t left me. Just walking into an airport or train station makes me smile and speeds up my walk, giving it purpose. My mother traveled regularly until she died at 84, and I plan to continue seeing the world until I’ve seen it all or can’t stand up anymore, whichever comes first!

  8. Renate Barreras on November 12, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I came to the USA in 1968 no intention of staying, I had travelled the world prior to joining Pan Am. But feel in love with the life style, married a Purser and still living in the USA. Yes flying in the 60s 70s was a wonderful experience. But still is great, my grandchildren enjoy each flight.

  9. Cindy da Silva Cassidy on November 12, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    I don’t know…I still think we should protest the insanely small pitch and seat space the airlines have forced on the traveling public. Having been a Pan Am flight attendant for many years, I fully understand the “passenger rage” that is occurring these days. People are treated poorly on the ground , de- humanized at security and then squashed into miserable, hard, small seats with so little space between the rows (pitch) that they can’t bend over to “grab their ankles” if there were an emergency.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 12, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      I so agree! Recently I was almost bisected when the person in front of me suddenly threw his seat back – I had my tray down and it was painful – and could have been worse because the tray slammed into me. I absolutely understand the frustration and the anger of passengers. Even a crammed bus has more room than a flight these days.

  10. Rana Singh on December 14, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Amazing article loved reading it. Btw how did u manage to get those old pics.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 14, 2014 at 11:16 am

      Thanks Rana – the old photos came from the various people I mentioned in the article… old family photos they had kept.

  11. Marie on January 24, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    Love the article and love the photos!

  12. Wayne Taylor on May 5, 2015 at 12:27 am

    What really put an end to the glamor of air travel was the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. After that routes were no longer protected and cost cutters proliferated. Class airlines like TWA, Braniff and Pan Am were unable to compete with the no-frills “peanuts and hot pants” carriers that became Third World back country buses with wings instead of threadbare tires.

  13. Holly Blake Hebbel on May 14, 2017 at 4:10 am

    Really enjoyed the article and photos!!! Agree not enough room on flights

  14. Suzanne Fluhr on October 5, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    Rereading my contribution (Our Honeymoon in Peru in 1982), it seems somewhat elitist to bemoan the “hordes” of tourists now able and wanting to travel to formerly exotic places that few would get to back in the days before the internet and budget airlines. On the other hand, I’m still thankful we had Machu Picchy almost to ourselves after the tourist train left.

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