Reading departure signs in some big airport reminds me of the places I’ve been. – Jimmy Buffett
Am I really that old? My sixth passport arrived in the US Mail last week. Having been traveling since the early 1970s, I thought about the places and changes I’ve seen across five decades of travel. This post shares some of my reflective perspectives.
American citizens are lucky to be able to travel extensively without a passport. The continental United States, a huge area of 8 million square kilometers, spans 4 time zones. Americans can also visit Alaska, Hawaii and many Caribbean islands without crossing a border or learning another language.
My first plane trip in 1974 was a short flight from Atlanta to visit family in Columbus, Georgia. The 20-minute flight on a Delta DC-9 jet cost $18. And that was before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, a law that brought about new low-cost air carriers and more affordable air travel.
1980: A Passport to Europe
My grandmother, quite a world traveler herself, took me to apply for my first passport in 1980. I was 15. Jimmy Carter was president. The United States was in the midst of a hostage crisis in Iran, a conflict I followed on the nightly news but didn’t understand.
Because I was under 16, this passport was issued for five years. I would only use it once, traveling to Europe that summer with a high school group. This trip would not have been affordable before the airlines were deregulated.
Traveler’s checks were standard for international travel. Each country in Europe had its own currency, making money changing a frustrating and money-losing experience. As a coin collector, however, I was fascinated with the different colors, sizes and shapes of the coins and banknotes. Though England had switched to decimal-based money, the old shillings and pence coins still circulated. This made it a bit confusing to shop!
We visited London, crossed the English Channel on a ferryboat to the Netherlands, explored northern Germany and finished in France. Highlights included watching Wimbledon tennis, viewing the treasures of King Tut, climbing up the Cologne cathedral and walking down the Eiffel Tower.
1985: Beyond Europe to Africa
As my first passport was expiring in 1985, I applied for a new 10-year passport. Another trip to Europe, this time with family, was on the horizon that summer. This trip we rode the giant hovercraft across the English Channel, a unique craft that has since been retired.
The following year I graduated from university and began working for a large international corporation. This was the heyday, or “golden age”, of airline frequent flyer programs. I began piling up the miles on Delta Airlines with business and personal travel.
Personal computers arrived on the scene. Early mobile phones would appear, but the first smartphone was still 20 years away. I first used a Lonely Planet guide during a business trip to Switzerland in 1994. That book series would become my “go-to” resource for trip planning.
Photography required film and flashbulbs. Airport X-rays could damage your undeveloped photos. Another challenge was taking enough pictures to capture your trip without wasting film. Developing pictures post-trip was expensive and required a patient wait.
My most adventurous and exciting trip was to Africa in 1993. I had given a series of seminars across Europe in 1992, and leaders from our company’s Mideast/Africa Group invited me to speak at their events in Cyprus and Zimbabwe. Visiting Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park to spot elephant, leopard and many other big mammals was incredible.
Before retiring this second passport, a final highlight was celebrating my thirtieth birthday sailing in the Caribbean on the Windjammer ship Polynesia. These historic vessels celebrated a bygone era full of rich nautical traditions. It was also incredibly relaxing. Taking the helm of the tall ship at night while the sails were set made for a memorable birthday.
1994: To Antarctica and Beyond
My third passport was issued in 1994, the year the Channel Tunnel opened connecting Great Britain to continental Europe. By this time, automatic teller machines became prevalent and easy to use, a change that eliminated the need for traveler’s checks. Europe introduced the euro currency in 1999, further reducing the headache of money changing.
It was about this time that the golden age of frequent flyers ended, making it much more difficult to earn all those free flights. Earned points became based on ticket price and fare class, not flight segments.
Before 2001, airport security remained relatively easy to navigate. It was still common for family or friends to meet you at the arrival gate and even visit onboard the plane before takeoff. On longer flights pilots would sometimes allow passengers to visit the cockpit.
The internet era began, making travel planning much easier. My first memory of internet travel research was during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when not only could you choose the event dates, but also see which teams would be playing. Tickets were delivered by air express.
I also began running long-distance races during this era. My first full marathon was in Antarctica in 1997. I had intended to run only the half-marathon (21 kilometers rather than 42), but new friends on the ship convinced me to give the full distance a try. I then began a quest to run a marathon on all seven continents by age 40. I would complete six races on this third passport.
My life also changed significantly for the better in 1998, as I married in Maui on a Monday in May. All those stockpiled frequent flyer points allowed family and friends to fly free and join our wedding celebration!
2003: Fourth Passport to Asia
With only one marathon to go, I renewed and received my fourth passport just before Christmas 2003. This was the year I purchased my first digital camera, carrying both types of cameras with me on trips. Within a few short years, digital photography and social media posts would completely revolutionize the photography industry, forever changing how we capture moments and memories.
I would complete my final marathon in Kazakhstan, just a month shy of my 40th birthday. Not only would this complete my seven-continent quest, but also result in a career change.
As part of our trip to Kazakhstan, we volunteered with a youth sports camp. Not having children of our own, my wife and I sensed a special calling to go share our life skills with young people. We have continued that effort across two different countries, learning three new languages in the process.
Smartphones first appeared in 2007, further streamlining travel plans. Now a whole new network of anonymous “friends” can help you find the right hotel, café or spot.
We also became parents to six foster children while in Kazakhstan. This cemented our calling to help those less fortunate. If you had told me back in 1980 when I applied for my first passport that I would one day be living in a remote city that was part of the Soviet Union and speak Russian to my children, I would have thought of an entirely different world outcome.
2012: A Fifth Passport
Another 10 years passed, and it was time for a shiny new passport. It was also the year we attempted to travel overland from the USA to Kazakhstan, making it as far as Budapest without any passport stamps.
Barack Obama was re-elected president. Kazakhstan and the USA introduced new five-year visas (though with shorter stays). As our foster children graduated in 2014, we sensed another move and relocated to Turkey in time for my 50th birthday.
Having studied the Kazakh language, we had a head start in learning Turkish. After exploring more of this wonderfully beautiful and historic country, we settled on the Black Sea coast in Trabzon in 2017. My “life list” of countries grew to 67. I also finally visited all 50 US states.
2021 – Time for Renewal Again
What does the future hold? We are currently experiencing a once-in-a-century global pandemic. This world stoppage has greatly affected travel, especially cruise ships and trains. I have flown safely twice in 2020 and not yet caught the COVID, but I remain hopeful for a vaccine that will restore life and travel to normal again.
What are my future goals? While some travelers desire to visit 100 countries, that is not something important to me. My wife would like to see Mt. Everest and the Northern Lights. I would like to visit Iran someday, as the Iranian people I’ve met have always been gracious and friendly.
I feel blessed to have experienced so much already, both in business and personal travel. My life is much richer because of the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned. And if I can’t travel because of a pandemic or other reason, I will still smile at the reminders of the places I’ve been.