What Travel Looked Like Through the Decades

Getting from point A to point B has not always been as easy as online booking, Global Entry, and Uber. It was a surprisingly recent event when the average American traded in the old horse-and-carriage look for a car, plane, or even private jet.

What was it like to travel at the turn of the century? If you were heading out for a trans-Atlantic trip at the very beginning of the 20th century, there was one option: boat. Travelers planning a cross-country trip had something akin to options: carriage, car (for those who could afford one), rail, or electric trolley lines — especially as people moved from rural areas to cities.

At the beginning of the 1900s, leisure travel in general was something experienced exclusively by the wealthy and elite population. In the early-to-mid-20th century, trains were steadily a popular way to get around, as were cars. The debut regional airlines welcomed their first passengers in the 1920s, but the airline business didn’t see its boom until several decades later. During the ’50s, a huge portion of the American population purchased a set of wheels, giving them the opportunity to hit the open road and live the American dream.

Come 1960, airports had expanded globally to provide both international and domestic flights to passengers. Air travel became a luxury industry, and a transcontinental trip soon became nothing but a short journey.

So, what’s next? The leisure travel industry has quite a legacy to fulfill — fancy a trip up to Mars, anyone? Here, we’ve outlined how travel (and specifically, transportation) has evolved over every decade of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The 1900s was all about that horse-and-carriage travel life. Horse-drawn carriages were the most popular mode of transport, as it was before cars came onto the scene. In fact, roadways were not plentiful in the 1900s, so most travelers would follow the waterways (primarily rivers) to reach their destinations. The 1900s is the last decade before the canals, roads, and railway plans really took hold in the U.S., and as such, it represents a much slower and antiquated form of travel than the traditions we associate with the rest of the 20th century.

Cross-continental travel became more prevalent in the 1910s as ocean liners surged in popularity. In the ’10s, sailing via steam ship was the only way to get to Europe. The most famous ocean liner of this decade, of course, was the Titanic. The largest ship in service at the time of its 1912 sailing, the Titanic departed Southampton, England on April 10 (for its maiden voyage) and was due to arrive in New York City on April 17. At 11:40 p.m. on the evening of April 14, it collided with an iceberg and sank beneath the North Atlantic three hours later. Still, when the Titanic was constructed, it was the largest human-made moving object on the planet and the pinnacle of ’10s travel.

The roaring ’20s really opened our eyes up to the romance and excitement of travel. Railroads in the U.S. were expanded in World War II, and travelers were encouraged to hop on the train to visit out-of-state resorts. It was also a decade of prosperity and economic growth, and the first time middle-class families could afford one of the most crucial travel luxuries: a car. In Europe, luxury trains were having a ’20s moment coming off the design glamour of La Belle Epoque, even though high-end train travel dates back to the mid-1800s when George Pullman introduced the concept of private train cars.

Cue “Jet Airliner” because we’ve made it to the ’30s, which is when planes showed up on the mainstream travel scene. While the airplane was invented in 1903 by the Wright brothers, and commercial air travel was possible in the ’20s, flying was quite a cramped, turbulent experience, and reserved only for the richest members of society. Flying in the 1930s (while still only for elite, business travelers) was slightly more comfortable. Flight cabins got bigger — and seats were plush, sometimes resembling living room furniture.

The ’60s is the Concorde plane era. Enthusiasm for supersonic flight surged in the ’60s when France and Britain banded together and announced that they would attempt to make the first supersonic aircraft, which they called Concorde. The Concorde was iconic because of what it represented, forging a path into the future of aviation with supersonic capabilities. France and Britain began building a supersonic jetliner in 1962, it was presented to the public in 1967, and it took its maiden voyage in 1969. However, because of noise complaints from the public, enthusiasm for the Concorde was quickly curbed. Only 20 were made, and only 14 were used for commercial airline purposes on Air France and British Airways. While they were retired in 2003, there is still fervent interest in supersonic jets nearly 20 years later.

The ’80s are when long-distance travel via flight unequivocally became the norm. While the ’60s and ’70s saw the friendly skies become mainstream, to a certain extent, there was still a portion of the population that saw it as a risk or a luxury to be a high-flyer. Jetsetting became commonplace later than you might think, but by the ’80s, it was the long-haul go-to mode of transportation.

If we’re still cueing songs up here, let’s go ahead and throw on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” because the 2010s are when air travel became positively over-the-top. Qatar Airways rolled out their lavish Qsuites in 2017. Business class-only airlines like La Compagnie (founded in 2013) showed up on the scene. The ’10s taught the luxury traveler that private jets weren’t the only way to fly in exceptional style.

Of course, we can’t really say what the 2020 transportation fixation will be — but the stage has certainly been set for this to be the decade of commercial space travel. With Elon Musk building an elaborate SpaceX rocket ship and making big plans to venture to Mars, and of course, the world’s first space hotel set to open in 2027, it certainly seems like commercialized space travel is where we’re headed next.