Old-school travel: Eight ways to travel like a pre-2000s backpacker

Not a mobile phone in sight; just people living in the moment.

That's what we're supposed to believe travel was once like, before everyone had iPads and phones and TripAdvisor and Fortnite. People had to talk to each other. They had to take in their surroundings. They had to live in the moment.

Was travel really better back in the day? Back in the '70s and '80s and '90s? It's hard to say. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that those days don't have to have disappeared. You can still travel like an old-school backpacker. You can still get in touch with the spirit of budget travel in the time of hippies and drop-outs. You just have to travel like this …

Buy a Eurail pass

Plane or train? Travelling Europe at ground level can open up new possibilities.

Trains are still a great way to get around Europe. Photo: Supplied

Back in the day it was known as "Interrailing", though to Australians now it's "Eurailing", given we're not eligible for an Interrail pass (it's EU citizens only). Still, you can harness this traditional and seriously great mode of travel with a Eurail pass, which provides access to Europe's vast and efficient rail network. This used to be the way to get around the continent, meeting people, having adventures, seeing the sights. Trains are an amazing way of getting around, and I would highly recommend giving them a try.

Take a grand tour of Europe

Another classic "overseas experience" of the '80s and '90s: buying a clapped out old campervan in England and heading across to the mainland, spending the summer ambling around Europe with a few of your best friends (or some randoms you picked up from a hostel in London). I never got to do this, but I seriously envied those who did: there's such a feeling of freedom when you have your own car. You can go anywhere, you can sleep anywhere, you can have great adventures on the cheap.

See also: Grand tour: The best of Europe in 30 days

Go overland

Topdeck image

Re: Topdeck image

Topdeck started out with an old double-decker bus.

These days, Topdeck Travel is a major tour operator that runs laps of various parts of the world in comfort and style. The company began, however, with one old London double-decker bus doing overland adventures from the UK to Kathmandu. Now that was an adventure. You might not find an old double-decker to hitch a ride on these days, but there are still plenty of opportunities for rough-and-ready overland adventures, particularly in east and southern Africa. Or buy yourself a hardy vehicle and head out on your own. (Just be careful, and don't fly drones in Iran.)


Hit the banana pancake trail

For decades now, backpackers have been hitting the "banana pancake trail", the popular budget-travel destinations in Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. This is an old-school way of backpacking and it's still a blast. Begin in the trail's traditional base, Kathmandu, making your way down towards Goa in India, heading through Myanmar and on into Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Stay in hostels; stay in ashrams. Travel by bus. Eat as many banana pancakes as you can fit in.


Everyone used to camp. Not just in wilderness areas, but in cities. This was how you'd travel on the cheap, particularly in Europe. Travellers would gather in campsites, they would eat, drink, socialise, and occasionally even do some sightseeing. That tradition seems to be waning a little, as everyone wants comfort and cultural experiences these days, but the campsites are still there, and this is still an amazing and affordable way to see the world. Just pack up your tent and go.

Drop out

These days it's probably called a "gap year", approved and accepted, but back in the day you'd have to "drop out" to take a long holiday in Europe, or to hit the banana pancake trail. The secret to old-school travel is to take a long time doing it. Quit your job, drop out of uni, leave mortgages and car loans and other serious things for another time. For now, it's all about travel.

Share a ride

Don't have friends who want to go camping around Europe? Don't have anyone to share your US adventure with? Then become one of those randoms in the hostel who joins someone else's group. Old-school travel was all about this, taking chances on other travellers and seeing where the road would take you. No reason you can't still do that now.

Use a guidebook (and that's it)

Stacks of Travel books , Travel guides . Lonely planet.  Frommer's. 
Wednesday 26 October 2005
Age Travel pic.  Pic by Rodger Cummins. rcz051026.003.001 Frommers travel guides

Photo: Rodger Cummins

Obviously, there was not a mobile phone in sight back in the '70s and '80s. And even in the '90s you pretty much couldn't use one outside your own country. There was no TripAdvisor either. No inspiration from social media. No way to keep in contact or ask for advice from friends or family aside from post restante letters and phone calls that kept dropping out. And that's a very freeing thing. So, do the same now. Ditch your phone, leave your laptop behind, stop checking all the reviews and stop booking everything ahead. Stop talking to friends and family all the time and just head out there on your own. One out-of-date guidebook is all you need.

Do you think it's still possible to travel like an old-school backpacker? What are your favourite memories from your former budget travels? Is this really the way it was, or have I got it wrong?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Twenty-one things you'll only understand if you travelled before 2005

See also: Ten great things about travel that have disappeared forever

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