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The concept of leisure travel has long been ingrained in the American psyche. But many of the most enduring types of travel we know and love today — from camping to the great American road trip and all-inclusive overseas vacations — didn’t exist until the early 20th century (and, in many cases, even more recently). A number of reasons help explain this shift — rapidly changing social structures and demographics, new technology (from jet planes to social media), and a postwar boom in consumerism. As the global travel industry continues to reckon with the ongoing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, read on to learn about how 10 of the most defining travel trends of the past century started, and how they continue to evolve.
In 1869, a Connecticut minister named William H.H. Murray released an unassuming book titled Adventures in the Wilderness. As much a nature guide as it was a love letter to his rustic time spent in northeastern New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the book was an unexpected hit, becoming a best-seller and sending well-off city dwellers from their urban entrapments into the great outdoors like never before. The book earned Murray the designation of “father of the Outdoor Movement” and laid the groundwork for America’s ensuing camping craze.
At the dawn of the 20th century, American cities continued to grow at a rapid pace. While Ford had started the personal vehicle revolution with the Model T in 1908, cars were still not yet the norm. And although leisure time was starting to trickle down to more than just the upper class, travel excursions remained largely within modest means (and distances) for most. This often meant taking advantage of nearby natural beauty. For New Yorkers, it was the Adirondacks; for Californians, it was Lake Tahoe. By the 1910s, organizations such as the YMCA and the Boy and Girl Scouts had established several national campsites and corresponding guides, including a 1911 handbook that introduced many Americans to tents far more appealing than familiar military styles. This opened up more camping possibilities than ever before, and camping had become a family staple by the 1960s.
Were it not for a camping trip taken by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, this might not be the case — his trip to the Yosemite Valley inspired him to create the National Park Service, established in 1916, and helped to create and protect campsites for generations to come. Today, America’s national parks are not only home to stunning natural beauty, but have also grown into the backbone of the country’s outdoor recreation lifestyle.
The Road Trip
The concept of the road trip as we know it today was cemented in the 1950s. American wartime austerity had come to an end, and the country was in the midst of a love affair with the car. By then, the U.S. had emerged as the world’s leading automobile producer, with 75% of families owning a vehicle. And for the first time, many working Americans now had paid time off. Since air travel was still only within reach for the wealthy, family vacations became centered almost entirely around the car.
Although the interstate system would not begin construction until 1956, highways — including the iconic Route 66 — connected many major U.S. cities from the 1920s onwards. From there, roadside diners, motels, and attractions began to pop up around the country, ready to welcome cross-country travelers. Perhaps the biggest draw for many road trippers across America was the lure of the West — from natural attractions such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, home to the Western-themed movies and TV shows that ruled screens throughout much of the 1950s.
America’s love affair with coast-to-coast car travel was immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 literary classic On the Road. Although Kerouac’s alternative beatnik lifestyle might not have captured the majority of middle-class American road trippers’ experiences, it romanticized — and some might even say legitimized — the modest mode of travel for many.
The Summer Resort and Vacation Rental
It’s a familiar depiction in American pop culture — spending the summer away from the heat and the grind of the city at an idyllic lakeside resort or vacation home. For many, this image was crystallized in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, set at a fictional 1960s upscale Catskills resort inspired by the real-life Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel.
In the early to mid-20th century, travel was still considered a relative luxury that many did not have the time nor the finances to enjoy. While the working class tended to stick close to home and enjoy more rustic camping adventures, wealthy city scions were able to send their families to more luxurious resort getaways. In the Northeast, the Catskills Mountains were home to several popular resorts. This area was known as the Borscht Belt, and its time as a travel hotspot, predominantly for Jewish Americans, has also been canonized in the popular TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
By the 1920s, the Catskills had hundreds of hotels and resorts to accommodate families looking to escape the punishing city heat; meanwhile, resorts and summer homes throughout New Jersey (and particularly in Atlantic City), Massachusetts (including Martha’s Vineyard), and Rhode Island also exploded in popularity. In the 1950s, vacation home advertisements began popping up in newspapers across the country, making it as much a travel tradition as the great American road trip.
Over time, resorts and elite lakeside vacation homes lost their exclusive appeal, as new travel options such as flying opened up for the wealthy, and post-war American mobility and income increased across the board. Over time, the once-stately resorts of the Catskills and other aspirational locales across America were lost to time, economic problems, and changing interests, though many of their skeletons remain to this day.
The Jet Age
It’s hard to imagine a time when air travel wasn’t a daily part of life, from quick business jaunts to leisurely weekend trips afar. While commercial air travel in the U.S. dates back to the 1920s, planes were primarily used for military purposes until the 1950s, and traveling by airplane wasn’t an affordable or accessible option for many until the 1960s. It was during this decade that the passenger jet age was introduced, and the world experienced what is widely known as the golden age of travel.
The turning point in travel — and ultimately the dawn of the jet age — came in 1958 with Pan Am’s introduction of the game-changing Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 airliners. Not only were the aircraft faster and safer than ever before, the 707 could fit more than 100 people, a notable increase over the propellor-powered planes before it. Pan Am was the first to offer overseas flights on their new jets — which led to a new physiological phenomenon from traveling across time zones called jet lag. Soon, Pan Am and other airlines would also begin to offer domestic jet flights, and by the end of the decade, almost all air travel in the country was via jet.
While this golden age of travel may conjure images of bygone hospitality — opulent (and free) meals and drinks, posh flight attendants, legroom galore — it certainly wasn’t perfect. Tickets were still prohibitively expensive for the great majority of Americans, the rides were bumpier, and they were much more boring — in-flight movies weren’t common until much later in the decade.
The Package Holiday
Booking any part of a trip — flights, hotels, local transportation, dinner reservations — is often as easy as a few taps on a smartphone. But at the dawn of the 1960s jet age, everything felt as new as the novelty of flying itself. The concept of a package tour — a vacation in which a travel agent took care of all the arrangements — became an essential service for people eager to see parts of the world they’d never imagined possible.
As early as the 1930s, enterprising businessmen such as Thomas Cook were offering organized European vacations for the elite class. By 1950, Russian-born Brit Vladimir Raitz set up Horizon Holidays, chartering weekly flights from London to a beachfront campsite on the Mediterranean island of Corscia. Though these trips were still primarily only attainable to upscale clients, they established a framework for an appealing method of travel — booking flights, accommodation, and often meals and excursions all together — that was set to explode with the popularity of flying. Raitz is widely considered to be the inventor of the package holiday.
By 1970, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet took flight with more than 400 seats onboard. Its sheer scale made bargain-price tickets possible to and from just about anywhere in the world, and the package holiday thrived. Many of these travel companies purchased their own jets and constructed their own hotels and resorts around the world. With the passing of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 and an economic downturn in the 1980s, prices became more affordable than ever. The middle class became increasingly global, technological advancements made bookings easier than ever, and package holidays helped fuel a mass tourism industry boom into the 1980s and beyond.
As the saying goes, life often imitates art, and one of the most unexpected examples of this was the exploding popularity of cruises that coincided with the 1970s TV show The Love Boat.
Cruise liners had been around since the 1800s, as water was one of the only ways to travel long distances, but the steam ships were mainly still used for transporting cargo and mail alongside a select few first class passengers. By the early 1900s, cruise ships were modernized and considered the most glamorous way to travel (see: luxury liners like the Queen Mary). Over the next few decades, however, the industry would wane and weave its way through two World Wars, when many liners were co-opted for war efforts and Americans were not eager to spend their money on luxury.
Despite the country’s post-war economic upturn, the cruise industry faced new challenges as it struggled to compete with the dawn of the jet age. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, an effort to transform the public’s perception of cruises was underway. Ships were essentially transformed into floating hotels, with a more casual, comfortable atmosphere and a new focus on the voyage itself rather than the destination, and came complete with revamped on-board entertainment and dining experiences.
Alongside the premiere of The Love Boat in 1977, the cruise industry began to boom. (Years later, one cruise line even credited “The Love Boat” with generating about a billion dollars in revenues for cruise companies.) Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, luxury passenger cruises catered to on-board adventure seekers, bringing malls, movie theaters, and even golf courses to the at-sea experience. Major vacation players like Disney got into the cruise business as well, changing the game as far as niche, themed cruises go.
The sheer variety of cruises available today — in duration, destination, themes, and more — continues to grow, making the industry nearly unrecognizable from its 19th-century beginnings.
For some travelers, the appeal of a resort where you don’t have to think about, well, anything is too good to resist. Building on the concept of a package holiday, the popularity of the all-inclusive resort is an easy one to understand. Along with accommodation, travelers have food, drinks, and entertainment taken care of with the click of a “book now” button. The experience can be as social or as private, as adventurous or as laid-back as you want.
Club Med is generally seen as the pioneer of the hassle-free travel fad. Since its 1950 beginnings, the Paris-based company has operated members-only resorts throughout Europe and the Caribbean. While it initially attracted fun-loving singles looking for a way to meet people, the allure of the all-inclusive has since evolved to encompass couples and young families, too. The all-inclusive model started with Club Med, but it came into its own with the proliferation of big resorts, including the launch of Sandals Resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1980. The expansion of flights to the Caribbean — notably from the U.K. — fueled their popularity further.
The 1980s began in a deep recession for much of the world, but as the decade progressed and economic stability returned, people were eager to take advantage of simple, affordable vacations in the sun. Over time, all-inclusives evolved to offer different levels of luxury, and many now feature the gourmet menus and trendy cocktails that were once only available off-resort.
The 1990s brought a new twist to the standard family vacation — not only were parents and their young children embarking on road trips, cruises, or all-inclusive trips, but now Grandma and Grandpa were also along for the ride, ushering in the era of multigenerational travel that is still thriving to this day.
The social and demographic shifts of the decade were the major driver behind this change. Adults were working more than ever, which only served to refocus the importance of spending leisure time together as a family. Additionally, grandparents were living longer and healthier, more active lives than in generations past. The family unit had also experienced significant changes in the previous decades — with the high divorce rates of the 1970s and 1980s, the dissolution of the multigenerational household following the 1960s, and the adults of the 1990s being more overworked than ever, it wasn’t as easy to connect and make family memories as it once seemed.
Extended-family vacations were treated as reunions of sorts. They were also an opportunity for the now-adults of the family to give their parents travel experiences that weren’t attainable to previous generations. Although family structures continue to evolve and change, multigenerational travel is holding strong — as recently as 2018, it was one of the top travel trends of the year.
Starting in the late aughts and extending into the 2010s, travel became less about checking off a list of must-see tourist sites and instead about savoring the experience of visiting a new place. Experiential travel puts the focus on soaking in a city or country on a local and cultural level — immersing oneself in the neighborhoods, history, food, and people in the hopes of gaining transformative, or at the very minimum, memorable learning experiences.
Throughout the 2000s, the expectation of being able to personalize just about every aspect of life started to emerge. Naturally, this extended to travel, where a trip custom-tailored to one’s interests was not only appealing, but possible. (Prefer to take a baguette and a bottle of wine to a Parisian park instead of holding your phone over your head for a photo of the overcrowded Mona Lisa? Who can blame you?) The experiential trend rose hand-in-hand with other personal leisure travel trends, including the rise of the slow travel movement, which encourages experience and connection, and culinary tourism, in which trips are based almost entirely around dining and drinking experiences, thanks in large part to the celebrity chef phenomenon.
The desire for flexibility and choice dovetailed with an increasing expectation of it. As the sharing economy took off in the late 2000s (thanks in part to Airbnb and similar companies), suddenly, travelers could easily stay in a local’s house in any neighborhood, book a taxi to any random street corner, and look up location tags to find the perfect spot to eat. It might not be the same as chatting up a local barfly, but for many, it’s a more authentic way to travel than they’ve ever had access to before.
If you took a trip and didn’t post about it on Instagram, did it even happen? It’s difficult to understate or even fully understand the impact of social media on every aspect of life in the 2010s. The same, of course, applies to travel — how people research, plan, and execute their vacations has been completely upended as social media has become the great crowdsourcer for travel inspiration.
Hotels and resorts around the world now regularly host social media influencers in the hopes that their aspirational posts will attract more travelers. And it works: 92% of consumers find people more trustworthy and effective than traditional advertisements. But there’s a downside to the influencer effect, too: overtourism. A recent example is the so-called “poppy nightmare” of Lake Elsinore, California, where some 50,000 people flocked to the area for photos of the area’s famous poppy fields, leading the town to shut the site down.
The influence of influencer travel goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing advent of experiential travel. It’s a less structured, more organic and personal approach to the capital-T tourism that dominated travel in years past. And of course, not everyone posting their vacations is looking for social media clout. They’re simply happy to share a memorable moment from the highlight reel of their life — and, most likely, they’re happy to see you do the same.