Picture this: you’re halfway around the world, on your own in a foreign and exotic land, and you see something amazing. Whether it makes you laugh out loud, gape, or cringe, you just want to share it with a friend.

Quick, you grab your cell phone, snap a photo and send it through WhatsApp or post it on Facebook. If you’re a millennial, you probably do an Instagram story.

Oh but wait! It’s 1995. Facebook has not been invented yet. There is no Instagram, no WhatsApp, and hardly anyone with an email address, let alone a home computer or a cell phone.

So what do you do? Send a message in a bottle?

Message in a bottle

Things have changed a lot since the mid-90’s when it comes to communicating with friends and family from the road. Just last month, I had a couple of different friends travelling through southeast Asia. Almost every day, I was in touch with at least one of them either through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, transmitting text, photos, and even voice and video, straight from my own computer or phone.

Flash back to 1995, and keeping in touch while travelling was a whole different story. Here’s how things would have worked. (Don’t worry, you didn’t have to send a message in a bottle!)

Making phone calls from abroad in the 90s

Very few people had cell phones in the 90s. They were bulky and mostly used for business. I’m not even sure if they would have worked overseas.

Back then, If I wanted to hear somebody’s voice or communicate important information quickly while travelling, I often went hunting for a Telephone Centre. They were sometimes associated with, or near, the main post office. You walked in, told them which country you wanted to call and they would give you the per-minute rate. Then they would direct you to a little cabin with a soundproof glass door where you made your call. A counter showed how much you had spent to date. When you came out, you paid the clerk and that was that. (I kept using those as late as 2010.)

Sure, hotels had phones, but using a room phone wasn’t cheap and better kept for emergencies. Besides, the cheap guesthouses I tended to stay in usually didn’t offer room phones.

One could also use public phone booths (remember those?) to make collect calls. For years I carried a little Canada Direct leaflet in my money belt which gave special numbers to dial to get an English-speaking operator in many popular countries. Some of these phones would only take pre-paid plastic cards though.

British phone booth (keeping in touch while travelling)

British phone booth – they were usually not that pretty!

Yes, making a simple phone call involved major logistics.

And what if someone wanted to call me? To be honest, I don’t remember this ever happening. In the case of an emergency, my family members were instructed to call a local friend who had the means to communicate with me in other ways, such as email. If they happened to have the phone number of my hotel (rare, since I booked my accommodation as I went) they could also call there.

Sending and receiving email in the 90s

In the mid-90s, most people didn’t have computers at home. Unless you attended university or worked for a high-tech company, you probably didn’t have an email address either. Luckily for me, I worked in software, so my friends from work had an email they could use while in the office.

Since nobody travelled with a laptop or mobile device back then, I had to find internet cafés to check my email.  Touristy areas had a few cyber cafés, but they were rather primitive. I remember one time in Nepal being told that if I wanted to print my emails, I would have to come back later because they had to do it for me! So much for privacy.

To be honest, the only times I bothered with internet cafés was when I was travelling for a month or more. Since so few people were sending me emails anyway back in those days, it wasn’t really worth the hassle if you were only gone for a couple of weeks.

And what about those friends and relatives who didn’t have email? My mother, who died in 2005, never used a computer in her whole life. But she loved to write me letters, especially if she couldn’t phone me.

Relying on good old snail mail

Canadian mailboxes (keeping in touch while travelling)

Back in the day, people depended on snail mail a lot. And for the most part it was reliable. Just slow. If you travelled for a long time, you could take advantage of foreign post offices to have your mail delivered, even while you were on the move, by using something called “Poste Restante” (General Delivery).

If you knew where you were going to be during a certain period, and could estimate how long it would take for a letter to travel from the sender to you, you could give people an address such as:

[First name] [Last name],  
General Delivery,
[City], [Country]

and their letters would be brought to the main post office of that city, waiting for you to pick them up. (Underlining your last name was important to make sure the letters were filed correctly.)

Getting the timing right was the tricky part. If you didn’t pick up your mail within 30 days or so, it would be returned to the sender.

But I remember how excited I was when I found some mail from loved ones waiting for me in a foreign city, even if their news were now several weeks old.

Of course, sending letters and packages home was a lot easier … most of the time. I’ll never forget trying to send a package from Pushkar (India) back home though. First, the post office refused to accept the box because something was rattling inside (my collection of coins and shells). Then they said I needed to have the box wrapped in fabric and sealed with wax! I kid you not. I ended up in a tiny shop across the street (and I mean tiny – it was like a wooden box) where I spent nearly an hour while a tailor sewed cream-coloured linen around my package with a needle and thread!

And of course you were often back from your trip by the time your friends and family got your postcards.

Sending postcards from abroad (keeping in touch while travelling)

How have new communications changed travel?

If you’re a millennial, all this may sound like the Middle Ages to you, but it was barely 20-25 years ago.

Have our new means of instant communication made travel better? Well, they’ve sure made travelling and connecting easier, but I feel we may have lost something in the process.

Now when you arrive at your accommodation, you can connect to the WiFi and instantly see what your friends at home are up to. Back then, once you landed in a new country, you were on your own. You had to adapt to your new environment and communicate with the people around you, such as locals and other travellers at your hostel.

You were truly disconnected from home. And you really felt like you were far away. Sure, it could be a little unnerving at first, but it was an adventure. Isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

You were not only disconnected from your friends and family, you were also disconnected from work. They called it a “vacation”. Your boss and colleagues wouldn’t even dream of trying to reach you. You didn’t have to worry about getting a work question as you were boarding a night train to Malaysia! In a way, this disconnect was rather freeing.

Now, no matter how far you travel, it feels like you never really leave home and your home life behind. The world feels much smaller. Is this a good thing? I’ll let you answer this one for yourself.

If you enjoy these blasts from the past, you may want to find out what planning a trip 20 years ago was like. 🙂

(Note: All the photos in this article except for the last one are from Pixabay.)


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