Evolution of Travel Trends – A Look at the 1997 Edition of The Practical Nomad

Matt Scotland
1998 Matt

In 1997 writer and all around travel expert Edward Hasbrouck wrote what would become the bible of the independent traveler, The Practical Nomad. In it Hasbrouck introduced a generation to the concepts of career breaks and truly nomadic travel. I found the book while cleaning up the house recently and I couldn’t help but scan through the pages. We have the original 1997 edition, but the book has been updated five times since then. Both my partner and I traveled after college and the concepts and practical tips in the book proved invaluable. I couldn’t help but smile though as I read through the book again, especially the chapters regarding staying in touch with home and the role electronics play in the life of the traveler. I wanted to share with you all some of the tips in the book that have definitely changed over time, showing just how much travel and indeed the world has evolved since 1997 which was not that long ago at all.


The role of the Internet in travel planning

“It may change, but as of mid-1997 the World Wide Web was of relatively little use in choosing destinations, certainly much less use than Usernet newsgroups. Most Web sites about destinations are essentially self-published amateur guidebooks.”

From “The Practical Nomad” 1st edition 1997


Since this is being published on a travel blog, one of thousands in active use, it’s obvious that the world has indeed changed since 1997. The author is right though, in 1997 there wasn’t a wide variety of honest, independent web sites available for the curious traveler. I was never a big fan of user groups but when I planned my backpacking adventure in 1998 I don’t think I used any web sites. Instead I relied upon a copy of Let’s Go Britain. Today it’s unusual for me to use a source that’s not on the web during the travel planning process. From researching flights and hotels to finding restaurants and activities on the ground, every stage of the travel experience can be planned for and anticipated online. This is the democratization of travel; the power has shifted from travel agents and guidebook writers to the individual. There are pros and cons with this evolution, no doubt there, but it’s an amazing shift to have occurred in just a little over a decade.

Electronics, Appliances, and Adapters

“My first advice is not to bring electrical or electronic devices or appliances with you unless they are essential.”

“Camcorders are awfully heavy to carry all the time, and too valuable to leave anywhere, including a hotel room.”

“People who travel with laptop computers tend to depend on them more for data communications than anything else. You can write with a pen in a notebook, or add numbers with a calculator, but you can’t check your e-mail or transmit electronic data without a working computer and modem.”

From “The Practical Nomad” 1st edition 1997

Where to start. Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. What this means is that processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras improve almost exponentially. These quotes more than anything else show the power of this convention and how it has changed our lives.

I entered college in 1994. At that time the Internet was fairly limited as was our ability to get anything out of it. Most of my classmates didn’t have a laptop unless they were wealthy and the only kind of camera anyone owned required rolls and rolls of film. Since then everything has changed, including our reliance upon these gadgets.

Today my iPhone contains everything I need, from Internet access to camera and even video recording, all in an insanely small device. As electronics have improved we have found ourselves more dependent on them. In most cases the modern traveler, even a nomadic one, wouldn’t think of going around the world without a bevy of electronic gadgets. For a while we called these people flashpackers, but I’m beginning to think it’s just everyone except for the odd curmudgeon out there. The advice Hasbrouck provides though is still important. You have to be smart about which electronics you bring with you and you always have to guard against theft or loss.


Keeping in Touch

“Faxes are the most generally useful medium of rapid international communications.”

“Other possible electronic ways of keeping in touch range from the forgotten (but not gone) telex and telegraph to the much-heralded, but not yet of much use to travelers, e-mail.”

From “The Practical Nomad” 1st edition 1997

A few months ago I found myself on a small runabout boat in the middle of the Chobe river in Namibia. Surrounding us were crocodiles, elephants and hippos. The stars seemed to go on forever and I felt like I was the last person in the world, a glorious feeling. I of course had to share this event so I emailed a photo of the sunset back home and uploaded it to Twitter. From the boat. The one in the middle of nowhere.

International and instantaneous communications have come so far it’s inconceivable to think about how things used to be. When I was backpacking in 1998, I called home using a prepaid phone card and a telephone booth, a great idea I thought at the time. I remember once seeing a weird TV/computer hybrid in a train station that would have allowed me to access the internet, but not without a lot of difficulty. No one around me cared about email or anything to do with a computer throughout my time on the road.

Some bemoan this inability to truly be inaccessible, but what a First World concern! Instead consider all of the good this democratization of communications has done for people around the world. It’s also wonderful for the modern traveler, not just for keeping in touch but for more practical affairs such as banking and even work. Being an employed nomadic traveler could never have been accomplished in 1997; well not without a lot of effort and angst. Now thousands of people live this way and more join their ranks every day.

 Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Career Breaks

Sure it’s fun to look back at Mr. Hasbrouck’s original 1997 edition and snicker at the anachronistic chapters, but you know what? In rereading much of it almost every bit of advice he provided fifteen years ago is just as smart and sound today. But that’s not what I really appreciate about the book. I don’t think the author gets enough credit for what surely must have been groundbreaking writing about career breaks.

He writes, “Don’t rule out long-term travel just because you have a full time job,” “I’ve come to the conclusion – one that has surprised me as much as it has surprised most of the people whose experiences have brought me to it – that the greatest barrier to long-term travel by American workers is the disempowerment that leaves them unable to bring themselves even to ask for time off. Just do it.”

Today while not completely mainstream, the idea of career breaks in the United States is becoming more and more popular every year. This is best seen in the annual Meet, Plan Go event series the mission of which is to inspire people to plan their own breaks and travel the world. This effort has also helped make this once unimaginable work option more accepted in the American workplace.

So much has changed in the fifteen years since Edward Hasbrouck first published his groundbreaking guide “The Practical Nomad.” Today it’s easier and cheaper than ever to spend months on the road, seeing and experiencing the best the world has to offer. Technology has obviously made most of this possible, but so has our evolution into better travelers. An evolution made at least in part possible from tips and words of advice like the ones found in this remarkable book.

What travel changes have you noticed in recent years?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

8 thoughts on “Evolution of Travel Trends – A Look at the 1997 Edition of The Practical Nomad”

  1. Wow – that made a great read I recall my first RV road trip to the USA in 1997. I too used the book “Lets go USA 1997 edition” I didn’t have a computer or phone with me, I sent a long handwritten fax to our office every few days to be distributed to various interested parties from there! – some were photocopied and snail mailed. I used a public phone and phonecard to ring the office and check on business! and all that only 15 yrs ago.

    Today I am completely lost and naked without my apple arm extension.

  2. What’s frustrating for me is that air travel has become increasingly more difficult. There are always delays and cancellations, I would say on 75% of the flights I take now. Since I take short trips, losing a day can be really heartbreaking. I remember 10 years ago I would fly to Colombia or Iceland for a long weekend and not have one problem.

  3. I can totally relate to these! When I traveled in the late 90s, I went days without checking my email via my nascent AOL account. Then, early in the aughts, I began using internet cafes — which, of course, was a huge time-suck, often in the middle of the day which should be prime sightseeing hours. It was only in mid-2010 that I started traveling regularly with a laptop, but it’s made such a huge difference. Of course, now I typically have to spend time during trips working on my blog, posting on Facebook, twitter, etc., and editing photos and videos. I didn’t have to do any of those things in a time when I would get my rolls of film developed after returning home, and then bore my friends by showing them the prints (none of which I had the opportunity to do even the most basic editing to, such as cropping or clone-stamping).

    And yeah, I had a calling card linked to my landline, and I would use that to make calls from payphones. I haven’t even HAD a landline for about 6 or 7 years now . . .

    Regarding the wonders of current technology, I have a similar memory to you, in terms of, when I was on a safari game drive in South Africa and looking up at the stars, posting a status update to Facebook.

    Another change from my early days of traveling involves ease of access to funds. A long time ago, I had to use traveler’s checks, and now we all take for granted making immediate ATM withdrawals immediately upon arrival at the airport. Also, anecdotally, it seems a lot easier to pay for things with credit or debit cards in more places now, although there are problems in some countries now if you use U.S.-issued cards that aren’t embedded with microchips.

  4. This is an excellent article. It’s funny, my husband and I had a similar conversation this morning. We’re preparing for a trip to Quebec City this week, and we were talking about how much technology has changed since we first started traveling together. We can now easily document our trips with pictures and video, edit directly from the camera and share each moment instantly with our friends and family at home via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

    In February 2007, we traveled to Tahiti, Bora Bora, and another small secluded island near Taha’a in French Polynesia. It was absolutely breathtaking, the most incredible place I’ve ever seen, but we weren’t able to truly capture the entire the experience. We snapped a few photos here and there, but we were limited on the number of pictures we could take due to the small amount of space on our digital camera. We didn’t have a waterproof digital camera, only a disposable camera from a drugstore to capture our snorkeling adventures. We thought we captured some great pictures of topical fish and sea creatures, but were disappointed to find blurry, cloudy images once we picked up our photos back home. It really wasn’t that long ago, only 6 years or so since our trip. It’s just amazing to see how far we’ve come is such a short time and how it has impacted us as travelers. I’m determined to take another trip back to French Polynesia in the next few years to capture what we missed before.

    Thanks again for a great read!

  5. Great post! Most people who’ve already commented here can compare with their own travels in the 90’ies. Since I was 10 in 1997, my travels back then were pretty much dictated by my parents. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the fact that things used to be different, though, and this post is a great way of reminding us. During my trips I’ve already often thought something like “What if I couldn’t look this up on the Internet right now?”.
    Wonder how we’ll be traveling 20 years from now…

  6. I remember when I first started travelling, post cards and expensive phone calls were the best ways of keeping in touch. Then MSN and hotmail really broke the ground – and in a year of travel I accumulated over 600 email contacts of whom would become part of a mailing list. Facebook and other connectors certainly have aided in the work load of trying to stay connected – but that’s just the human element. Of course guidebooks and maps are a thing of the past with such easy online access and apps for phones. So where we are now is a bazillion times easier to travel certainly than when this groundbreaking book was written.. just imagine where we’ll be in 15 more years? It’s almost impossible to conceive!! Transporters? Flying cars? Implanted information downloaded directly to your brain?

  7. I’m younger than you so I grew up a bit more in the technological age. I do still remember life before computers and cell phones, but at this point in life I’ve had a computer for longer than I went without and I’m going on 10 years of having a cell phone. Not to mention, I have lived abroad for the past 16 months and I can’t imagine not having skype and Facebook to contact my friends and family at home with. My mom would be freaking out if she couldn’t contact me regularly for one.

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