Things That Have Changed Since We Started Traveling A Decade Ago
When Lee and I met we joked that instead of a “Gap Year” we wanted to take a “Gap Decade.”
That’s exactly what we did.
September 2008 was my first solo travel experience, which led to a working holiday in New Zealand, which led to meeting Lee, which led to becoming a “digital nomad” freelance writer, starting this blog and traveling full time ever since.
Since the early days of backpacking around New Zealand, we have traveled to over 50 countries. We’ve spent nearly our entire 20s on the road and we have learned and grown so much.
One of the most fascinating things about this is how the travel experience itself has changed over the last decade. We’ve noticed major trends and significant changes – especially when we look back and remember what things were like in the beginning.
Here are some of the major changes that have happened since we started traveling a decade ago.
Taxi Apps Are a Thing Now
Taxi drivers were often the bane of our existence when we were in Southeast Asia and South America several years ago. Every time you wanted to take a cab, you had to negotiate a price and make sure that they weren’t going to overcharge you or use a dodgy meter.
We had taxi drivers try to give us back the wrong change on purpose, take us the long way around on purpose and demand more money even after we had agreed on a price. Taking a taxi was often a slightly stressful experience. Even though we would research the scams to look out for and inform ourselves about the price we should be paying, there was often a driver who would try to scam us.
Thank goodness all of that hassle is a thing of the past.
In nearly every country we visit now, we can use apps like Lyft, Taxify, Uber, Grab and many more. You can easily get a Lyft code at Rydely.com – and save money on already cheaper alternatives to taxi travel. If you haven’t used one of these apps before, it’s super easy.
It’s all GPS based, so you just drop a pin in the map at your location and the driver will come to you. Then, you enter your destination and they will take you there (no need to try to explain the address in another language.)
Since the taxi fare is calculated on the app (based on a flat rate + distance traveled) and it is paid automatically via your credit card – there’s no more need to argue about taxi costs.
These apps are so incredibly handy and they make it a lot easier not to get scammed by taxi drivers. Plus, they also make it safer – you know at least that the drivers have been vetted before they can become part of the app and many of the apps have 24/7 emergency support if you need it.
It’s Easier to Get a Local SIM Card
One of the things that Lee figured out quite early is that it was a very good idea to get a local SIM card in each country as soon as we arrived.
This allowed us to have internet on our phones and make local calls, which is incredibly useful for finding our way with Google Maps, using Google translate, finding out bus times and opening times while on the go and much more.
Several years ago, getting a local SIM card wasn’t something that every other traveler did. It was tricky to buy local SIM cards and it sometimes took a challenging hunt and a confusing conversation in a local shop.
Not anymore! These days, you can arrive at nearly every airport and there will be several booths or shops emblazoned with the logo of the local mobile provider. When we arrive anywhere, Lee walks up to one of these shops and within 5 minutes his phone is ready to go.
It’s so easy (and often very affordable) so there’s really no reason not to.
It’s Less Weird That We Are “Digital Nomads”
I’ve found it fascinating to see how our lifestyle has become more mainstream over the past decade.
When we first hit the road, the fact that we were working completely online while we traveled was a new concept to many people we met. We got a LOT of interesting reactions to it. Some were enthusiastic, some were judgmental, some were doubting and some were incredulous.
I even created a Digital Nomad FAQ that I could direct people to, as I ended up answering the same questions so many times.
But when I look back through this FAQ, which I created in 2012, I realise that we don’t get asked many of these questions anymore.
I’m certain that this is because our lifestyle is becoming more common and most people have heard about the concept of working remotely before they meet us.
6-7 years ago, we would encounter people who had never heard of anyone working online in this way. These days, when we explain what we do, almost everyone we meet is either aware of the lifestyle, knows someone who does it, is considering doing it themselves, or is a fellow nomad.
As a result, we don’t really have to answer questions like “where do you keep your stuff?” and “don’t you miss out on things because you are working while you are traveling?”
We Meet More Americans On the Road
Here’s something interesting I’ve noticed over the last few years – more Americans are traveling abroad.
This isn’t just a trend that we have observed, it’s actually backed up with stats. Conde Nast Traveler reported in November 2017 that a record number of Americans had traveled abroad in 2016. A total of 80 million people ventured out of the country, which was a staggering 7 percent increase over the 2015 numbers (which were a record as well).
Why is this happening? Skift reckons it’s because of the stronger US dollar, as well as the rise of low cost air travel and the UK Brexit vote.
Whatever the reason, I think it’s great.
There’s a persistent stereotype of the “Ugly American” abroad. Basically, the stereotype is that they are loud, ignorant, rude and assume that people in other countries are stupid because they don’t do things like they do back home in the good ol’ U.S of A. (This guy we met in Belgrade in 2013 is a perfect example, although it must be said that there are assholes like this from every country in the world.)
But I think the Ugly American is disappearing. When we meet Americans on the road now, they are generally more open-minded, culturally aware, curious and accepting.
Also, I always admire travelers from the USA (and Canada), because by going traveling they are breaking the expected mold WAY more than young people in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, it’s culturally acceptable for young people in their early 20s to take a Gap Year. In fact, in many families it’s expected and encouraged. It doesn’t look as bad on your CV and it isn’t judged so much or considered “self indulgent.”
For North Americans, this isn’t the case.
The attitude is that traveling is dangerous and crazy and that by taking a year off to frivolously gallivant around the globe you are irreparably harming your career. (I mean, just look at the comments on this post!) Young people in North America are told this so much, that when they actually do go out and travel they are bewildered (and thrilled) to discover that none of it is true.
When young people in the USA and Canada say they are going traveling, they face a lot more resistance from the people around them – so I think good for them for breaking out of that bubble.
Further Reading: This excellent post by Nomadic Matt, Why Americans Don’t Travel Overseas
Fewer ATM Issues
These days, when you put your card in an ATM anywhere in the world, it pretty much always works. This wasn’t the case 8-10 years ago.
Lee and I found that we would often experience issues with technology such as ATMs – cards not being read properly, or not accepted by that machine. Sometimes, it could be annoying and sometimes it really left us high and dry – such as when we were in a remote region without many ATMs.
Fortunately, the technology seems to have improved since then. (In fact, I’d say that on the whole most technology has improved since then and we don’t have a lot of technological hiccups anymore while on the road.)
WiFi is So Much Better
Take a look at this rant about WiFi Lee wrote in 2012.
I’m glad to say that the situation is much better now.
Yes, we sometimes still stay in hotels where the WiFi doesn’t work – but it’s very rare and usually only in developing countries with poor infrastructure (where we are just thrilled that the electricity is working!)
Most of the time, hotel and hostel WiFi isn’t an issue anymore and when it does go down, the staff are quick to get it fixed because they know that being online is a necessity for the majority of their guests.
Also, it’s easier to choose wisely and see which hotels have good WiFI and which don’t, as there are so many more online reviews to check before you book. (Which brings me to my next point.)
Review Websites Make Travel So Much Better
Although TripAdvisor has been around since 2000, the amount of helpful reviews on it 10 years ago was nowhere near the amount now.
This is great news, because it makes it so much harder to end up staying at a terrible hotel, eating at an awful restaurant or going on a really bad tour experience. These days, if something is bad – guests can quickly and easily post a review and the internet will know about it right away.
On the positive side, it also means that businesses that put in the extra effort to really offer something great will be recognized for their efforts.
This holds travel providers to a higher standard and it means that travelers have way more information when choosing whether or not to book.
No One Uses Travel Agents Anymore
Remember the days when you used to go into a shop in the mall to book your travel? You’d sit at a little desk and the travel agent would show you brochures and packages while they tippy-tapped away at their computer, arranging your holiday? That was the way travel was booked – and no one booked directly with the airlines themselves.
Those days are over.
It’s rare to see travel agents these days. After all – why would you pay someone an extra fee to book your trip when it’s super easy to book everything yourself online? The internet has made travel agents obsolete.
The only way this service still exists is in the form of personal travel concierge services, who arrange a custom vacation for you and take care of all of the details. However, these services exist out of a desire for convenience and a specially curated experience, not out of a necessity.
Travel is Booming
More people are traveling than ever.
Part of this is population growth – there are about 1 billion more people in the world since we started traveling a decade ago. (Earth’s population was 6.7 billion in 2008 and it is 7.6 billion currently.)
And of course, travel is becoming easier and more accessible than ever. This is great of course, but it means that the world’s most beautiful and popular destinations are becoming pretty crowded.
As a result, travelers are always seeking the “off the beaten track” locations that are still relatively unknown and will be less busy than the popular top 10 spots.
Also, some of the most popular attractions are actually shutting down for a bit – so that they can avoid being completely destroyed by too many visitors – such is the case for the famous Maya Bay Beach in Thailand.
The world has changed a lot in the last 10 years.
It’s really interesting to look back on our travel experiences over the last decade and see the differences between life on the road 10 years ago and life now.
If you have been traveling for a while, have you noticed any changes? Let us know in the comments!
PS. This post is about how the world around us has changed, but if you are working how Lee and I have changed in the way we approach our travels – you might find this post interesting.
As a middle-aged American woman, I too am pleased when I read travel blogs and find out the person is an American, or on travel forums I see more and more Americans who are traveling. Personally, I haven’t traveled a lot – just 4 countries, two of which were with the military in remote jungles so I didn’t get to really interact with local culture, but I did live 2 years in Spain and met lots of Europeans, and it quite literally was life altering for me.
You’re right about the whole gap year thing – it is viewed as a frivolous and selfish pursuit – one that only spoiled rich kids could afford or for irresponsible misfits. I’m glad that with the advent of the Internet, more young Americans are getting excited about the places they read about and deciding to go abroad.
Another reason I think a lot of Americans haven’t traveled much is because compared to most other countries, we don’t get much time off. Two weeks vacay is the norm, and even then, we just are not programmed to take time off. Trying to get your entire two weeks off at one time was like pulling hens teeth. Your boss would make you feel guilty or say she couldn’t swing it or your friends/co-workers would think you were being indulgent. I’ve never once in my life have taken two weeks in a row off except when I had a surgery and even then, I had to use some of my vacation time because I didn’t have enough sick leave (no shit – for real). So when you think about traveling to someplace really far like China or Australia for example, Americans ended up spending a lot of cash for relatively little in-country time which is one of the reasons most Americans just stayed in their own country.
Thankfully now, as you said, travel is becoming more affordable plus, a lot of these newer tech companies realize the importance of work/pleasure balance and its relationship to productivity and retention and are offering a lot more vacation time to their employees which has lead other companies to slowly open up and follow their lead.
It’s my hope that as more Americans travel and become, as you say, culturally aware, as a nation we will become cognizant of a couple of things:
1 – We don’t necessarily do everything the best way in the USA. Other cultures and governments have practices and institutions that we could really learn a lot from. This of course will take time. Former President Obama once made a speech in which he said something similar, and about half the country damn near came unhinged.
2 – We really are getting shit on as citizens when it comes to social programs. As mentioned before – little vacay time (which, btw is NOT mandated by law – it is a “benefit” that employers can choose or not, to give their employees), no mandated paid maternity leave (again, a “benefit” and usually just 6 weeks paid – sometimes), universal or socialized healthcare does really work, mass transit systems benefit everyone and most importantly, every country is ‘great’, not just ours, and people in other cultures are just as proud as we are, and shocker, not everyone wants to be an American (as we are raised to believe). Eventually, I think this awareness will cause us to expect and demand more from our off the chain capitalist government. We’ll see.
Thanks for the mention of the “Ugly American” stereotype. Hopefully, as more of us get out there and see the world, that stereotype will start to gradually fade.
Thank you so much for this in-depth and thoughtful comment!
You’re absolutely right about the fact that Americans don’t get as much time off as other countries – so this is a reason why they don’t travel internationally as much. Getting two weeks of vacation time consecutively is rare and may only happen once per year. I can understand why someone would opt to spend this rare time off visiting family, rather than flying somewhere else and then having to fly back not long after they had adjusted from the jet lag.
I like what you said about how, as this trend continues and Americans start to travel more, it will increase awareness in American culture of the fact that the USA doesn’t necessarily do things best. There’s a lot the USA could learn from other countries – but you’re right that an attitude shift is required before that can happen.
Also, I totally agree with what you said about how American social programs are very inadequate. It really breaks my heart when I hear about Americans having to crowdfund to raise money when they have life-threatening diseases or need surgery. In my home country of Canada or Lee’s home country of the UK, if someone is sick – they are covered by healthcare and they don’t have to ALSO go bankrupt.
The US healthcare system is broken and it makes me so sad. (Well, I guess it isn’t broken at all if the goal of the system is to make as much money as possible for the doctors and pharmaceutical companies. If that is the goal, then it’s working very well.)
Everything from schools to prisons to workers rights in the USA could be vastly improved. But you’re right – it’s about the attitude. If Americans think they are the best, they won’t look to other countries for inspiration and won’t demand more of the government.
Have you seen the TV show Newsroom? This scene is very relevant to this situation and I think you’ll really like it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjMqda19wk
Years ago when I was living in London in my early days of traveling there was a red phone box that was misbehaving. For some reason it was charging ex-pats money for calling home. It only happened for an afternoon but the line up of backpackers to use the box curled along the block and round the corner. That was one of my fun memories from the pre digital age in the early ’90’s.
Travel is different now and while I still love it, the heady days are over for me. With the digital age the world has become very small and the mystery and magic are waning. It is much easier to travel now – a good thing :), and the variety of nationalities I meet along the way is much wider. And yes, there are many more Canucks and Americans out there than 20+ years ago.
Have you noticed any ‘negatives’ to how things have changed and how technology has affected travel? I used to enjoy wandering around and finding a place to sleep on the night that i show up somewhere – riskier, but then ‘like-minded’ people would often choose the same options, all without Trip Advisor. Now I find that everyone already has an idea of what hostels they should go to – they choose the number one on Booking.com and other sites. I think it was better when the lack of technology caused me to have to act spontaneously and open myself up to the possibility that things don’t always go to plan – this, I called adventure!
That’s a good point. I’ve also noticed that in hostels more people are sitting by themselves on their laptops and phones. Of course, I’m guilty of this too because I am busy getting work done. However, I think that sometimes we get distracted by our devices in social situations. Sometimes I try to put my phone in my room and ignore it for a while, so that I can concentrate on chatting with people without feeling the urge to check it.
I just discovered your site and really like it! As someone who loves travel and has been to over 50 countries in the past 25 years or so, many on solo trips where you can really engage with the local scene, I think your commentaries and advice are spot-on. I have one lament to add to this article – the increasing prevalence of fake reviews. Whereas we used to be able to mostly trust crowdsourcing sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp when they first appeared, businesses have now gotten so slick at soliciting or paying for positive reviews, that it can be tougher to really figure out if something is any good, a rip-off, scam, or otherwise. I still find that generally if there are enough reviews, you can judge which ones are likely to be fake (vague, glowing reviews written by people with few other reviews, e.g.), and get a gestalt about a place, but the process has gotten increasingly difficult. The sites try to screen out the fake reviews, but I suspect many still slip through the cracks, and the “arms race” between fake review generators and sites screening for them continues to evolve. We really haven’t come up with a good solution for this yet (it’s really part of the larger problem of “fake news” which is all over our digital media nowadays, I suppose). One solution I’ve discovered that I’ll share here is this: check traveler forums as well as review sites. In the forums, the comments tend to be real, as I believe they are more difficult to fake, since many comment threads include back and forth questions and answers between contributors. Tripadvisor has a forum, as does Lonely Planet, and other similar travel resources. Anyway just wanted to share. Happy travels!
I made my first solo extended trip during my “gap semester” between my undergrad and grad school, in the spring of 1990. I bought a “Frommer’s Eastern Europe on $25/day,” a good backpack (for the time!) and standby tickets– the cheapest flexible option at the time. In the roughly 3 months I was gone, my family and friends got postcards. Phone calls were way too expensive, and I called my parents twice– when I was in Austria visiting my mom’s family. (I might point out that Germany was two countries at the time, while Czechoslovakia was one, as was Jugoslavia, which seemed peaceful, but was months away from all-out war! Back then, I might mention, there was a smoking section in the back of airplanes! I didn’t leave the country again until 1998, when I first moved to South Korea. In 2001-2 I made my longest trip to date (not counting that I’ve lived abroad most of the years between 1998 until now) traveling around the world. In that time 9/11 happened, changing travel dramatically. Security become ridiculous, and I am so happy that as a single woman in her early 30s, I was able to travel rather easily through the Middle East (June, July, and August 2001). Digital cameras were still relatively new, and I didn’t have one (I have over 1000 slides from that trip, a fraction of which I have scanned!). Internet Cafes were available, but often the computers would crash and I’d lose everything. Still, it was rare (the Himalayas!) that my family went a month without hearing from me. My how travel (and the world) has changed over the years! Smart phones, sim cards, booking sites and apps, social media. Crazy! Hope you enjoyed my mini “history of backpacking”. Let me know if you are in Korea (I travel in summer and winter, though!) and I’ll be happy to make some off-the-beaten path places (and even take you there!).
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