History of the Vacation
Vacations form the basis of our best stories. They’re those rare occasions when we break free from our daily routine and give ourselves the freedom to focus on new experiences and most importantly ourselves.
The best vacations, those which we remember until the day we die are the ones in which we create these experiences ourselves. We may travel alone, or with loved ones, but what matters is that we have a say about the experience we create.
But where did the first idea to go on vacation come from? Was it a moment of genius, or a case of an individual who was just desperate to be anywhere else but here?
Like any good story, we need to go right back to the start. In our case, that starting point is the Ancient Romans who, when they weren’t busy conquering most of the known world, were infamous for enjoying themselves. We all know about their love of gladiator fights and eating until they were sick, but did they have any concept of what we’d now consider a vacation?
From there we’ll explore how the vacation has evolved around the world over the past 2,000 years, separating the fact from fiction and putting ourselves in the shoes of those enterprising travelers. Finally, we’ll dust off our crystal ball and take a look at what the future might hold.
Roaming around the ancient world
If you took a traveler from Ancient Rome and set them in 21st century Europe, most of life would look and feel completely alien. Our tech would bewilder them, as would the diversity of countries and ways of life.
But, they may take comfort in knowing that the vacation – an idea they first pioneered – is still going strong. The Romans were the first civilization to indulge in what we’d now consider traveling for pleasure. But, rather than the one to two weeks we manage to get away for, wealthy Romans would look to get away for a staggering two years!
Rather than the one or two weeks we managed to get away for, wealthy Romans would look to get away for a staggering two years!
Tony Perrottet - author, historian and traveler - explained that the Romans were the first nation to travel because foreign vacations required a period of peace and prosperity. The Roman Empire was the first civilization to enjoy such a period and put the infrastructure in place to allow for vacations to happen.
The work of the army and navy in securing borders and transport against banditry, along with the ever expanding borders of the empire, gave citizens freedom to travel without ever technically leaving Rome’s jurisdiction. This freedom led to the establishment of inns, restaurants and tour guides, everything a budding traveler would need to enjoy their trips.
The Romans even had guidebooks, with Pausanias' Description of Greece setting the standard for what a travel guide could look like. It’s a classic of its kind, providing insights on everything from the geography of Greece through to religious art and architecture via a detour into the details of an ancient ritual.
But, it came in 10 parts and without Kindles, it was more of a shelf filler than something to idly flick through in the Forum as you planned your day. Unless of course, you had a servant or two to lug the different volumes around for you.
With the Fall of Rome and the ascent of the Dark Ages, the vacation as we know it took a break of its own. Travel throughout the Dark Ages and for much of the medieval period happened for one of two reasons – finding new land to call your own or raiding the lands of your enemies.
The first image to come to mind when most of us think about the Dark Ages is probably of Viking raiders – hardly something that would encourage people to venture beyond their own front door.
This constant threat of battle, combined with unsafe travel routes meant that for most people across Europe, the furthest they ever travelled was to their neighboring village to celebrate the occasional wedding or holy day.
The exception, (and there’s always an exception) was people who felt a religious calling to embark on a pilgrimage. Such travelers were brilliantly satirized by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, but in reality there were highly structured foundations allowing the medieval pilgrim to tread ancient paths.
The south of Italy acted as a bridge between two of the key pillars of Christian Europe – Rome and Jerusalem – and there was a whole network of inns, traders and monasteries which provided all the support a pilgrim could ever ask for. More ambitious travelers could cover most of Europe on their pilgrimage, as illustrated by Matthew Paris’s 13th century masterpiece - Map Of The Itinerary From London To Jerusalem.
When 13th century traveler Marco Polo went to China, he was surprised by their use of paper money. Most of Europe used coins minted from metal and this use of paper was unheard of.
If you weren’t up for the life of a pilgrim, but still wanted to travel, your best bet was to become part of a merchant’s convoy. The name Marco Polo may be more familiar to most of us as a swimming pool game, but his fame comes from his epic 24 year long trip, documented in The Travels of Marco Polo. We’d find most of his tales remarkable today, but for his contemporaries, it was his description of how people across China used paper to denote currency that was most shocking. Most of Europe used coins minted from metal and this use of paper was unheard of.
“Wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s [Kublai Khan] dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold” – Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo
What’s apparent from these different travels is just how long they all took. Without access to anything more sophisticated than a horse or a boat, foreign travel was a lengthy undertaking. And, as with most luxuries from this period, traveling for pleasure was restricted to a tiny minority – those wealthy enough to go without work, but also without any significant responsibilities to discharge in their home towns.
If you were one of these lucky few, then medieval travel would open your eyes to a whole new world. If not, your journeys were probably limited to the occasional trip down the road to celebrate a Saint’s day or the wedding of a family member.
Tudors on tour
Over in the UK, during the Tudor period, leisure travel was reserved for royalty and the court. Vacations taken by monarchs were called “royal progress”, and usually involved the King or Queen traveling to different towns where they would stay, sometimes for as long as a month.
Although some royal progress was taken purely for leisure, monarchs mainly traveled to other towns for publicity. Without Twitter and People magazine to provide the masses with a quick photo update, the King or Queen rode around each town on horseback, meeting important people and providing the common people with a glimpse of his or her face. In 1535, King Henry VIII took a progress to present his new wife Anne Boleyn as Queen, and to promote the reformation of the Church.
Progress usually happened twice every year, once in summer and once in winter. As summer saw London rife with diseases, uncomfortable heat and bad smells, progress was particularly popular during this season. An escape to the quieter neighboring towns provided the court with a chance to relax, hunt and enjoy the warm weather. During winter progress, the monarch travelled around the Thames Valley and hosts provided indoor entertainment and feasts.
The court mainly traveled to nearby towns, with favorites being Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court (such a fond favorite with Henry VIII that it soon became his own), and Nicholas Poyntz’s Acton Court in Gloucestershire in the West of England. The furthest that Henry VIII traveled on progress was to York.
In June each year, a travel itinerary called a “giest” was published. This provided the court with every important detail about the upcoming progress. Such details included locations, the duration of each stay, instructions on who was to accompany the monarch on the trip, and how much mileage would be covered between stops (usually six – 14 miles per day).
The most popular method of transport for royal progress was on horseback, as it was at the time still the fastest way to travel. Occasionally, the monarch and the court would travel by boat, usually if rivers needed to be crossed.
Hosting the monarch was an honor but hugely stressful and expensive. When Nicholas Poyntz hosted Henry VIII at Acton Court, he built an entire new wing and commissioned new tableware. Hosts were so anxious to ensure that the monarch enjoyed their stay that they even had game shipped over and released into forests to improve the hunting.
It was commonplace for a Tudor monarch’s luggage to extend to dinnerware, tapestries, bedding and even beds!
Generally, around 1,000 people accompanied the monarch on progress. On one occasion, Henry VIII took 4,000 people with him. However, the monarch would often escape to a smaller, private lodging in the grounds of the residence, taking just a select few friends with him.
The Tudors did not have to worry about customs and baggage allowance, which was lucky as it was commonplace for the monarch’s luggage to extend to dinnerware, tapestries, bedding and even beds! In true diva-King style, Henry VIII was usually accompanied by his own cook, organist and choir on his travels. The monarch’s possessions would be organized and packed by officers of the wardrobe, and then placed onto a cart or a mule and unpacked and arranged by the grooms of the Privy Chamber upon arrival.
The length of stay at each location varied from one night to 15 days, however this could change depending on weather, food shortages and the even the outbreak of disease. In 1535, Henry VIII and Anne intended on traveling through the West Country to Bristol as part of their progress, but an outbreak of the plague in the city forced them to abandon their plans and stay for a longer period at Thornbury Castle. Henry VIII was also well known for quickly removing himself from a lodging upon the smallest hint of an illness outbreak.
During the early Renaissance period, travel was mainly used for trade and battle. Means of travel was limited; roads were uneven and treacherous, with robbers lurking and setting traps. Only the rich could afford to travel safely, with groups of soldiers protecting them. Sea travel was also dangerous, with pirates patrolling the seas and storms frequently wiping out whole ships.
Inns provided shelter and were popular among travelers. However, they were expensive, dirty and uncomfortable, with guests often sharing single beds. These inns were commonly used by merchants, not by vacationers. Those people lucky enough to be on vacation would usually be found staying with friends or relatives, where they could receive the comfort they’d expect to find at home.
The renaissance era saw a rise in the popularity of exploring. Advances in shipbuilding saw galleons replace rowing boats, which encouraged more men to take to the sea in their curiosity for the undiscovered world and to experience sights and sounds that none of their peers ever had. Explorers such as Henry Hudson (with his discovery of the Hudson River) took to the seas and made history. Explorers noted the use of salt as currency in many of the countries that they discovered, which is where the term “salary” came from.
This thirst for adventure was high risk, but brought great rewards – for them and for us. Can you imagine life today without the potato? Or without chocolate? Both are products that we take for granted, but which we have explorers to thank for.
In the 18th century, artists and aristocrats revived the Roman tradition of taking a Grand Tour of Europe. On one such tour, Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein. It is believed that her experiences in Germany and Switzerland inspired much of the story.
Despite being 1500 years more advanced, travel was now more difficult. The old Roman roads had faded away across Europe, which made the land harder to navigate and more dangerous to traverse. Those privileged few on a Grand Tour would tend to hop from relative to acquaintance to passing introduction as they searched for places to stay.
This network of acquaintances also underpinned something equally crucial – getting your hands on foreign currency. Tony Perrottet explained that this was done in two ways. The first, and simpler way was carrying your own strongbox of cash, but this was risky and would only get you so far.
The second, more practical way involved carrying letters of introduction. Renaissance travelers would take these letters to the local consulates and be given local currency on the promise of a payment being made back home in their own currency. These letters were travelers’ lifeblood – without them you were reliant on good will and the cash you could carry with you.
Luckily for everyone else, the industrial revolution saw the rise of the steam train, which enabled common people to up sticks and travel to new locations. The first American steam train named Tom Thumb made its first journey in Baltimore in 1830, and within years the steam train was the most popular form of mass transport. This enabled people to travel to the beach en masse for their vacations.
Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein while she was on a trip. It is believed that her experiences in Germany and Switzerland inspired much of the story.
States such as Florida and California became popular with vacationers, who flocked to the beaches to partake in “sandmen” building and took to Silver Springs for a spot of rowing. Piers popped up along coastlines, and ice cream vendors began to enjoy a roaring trade.
It was not only the very wealthy who enjoyed trips to the coast in this era; a growing number of Americans were able to afford short vacations by 1915. New York and Philadelphia became popular tourist destinations. Still, mass tourism was not possible until later in the century.
For the wealthy, vacations were not limited to the coast. Steamboats allowed travelers to visit different continents and explore new lands.
Photographs taken from this era show wealthy tourists climbing the pyramids in Cairo (before this activity was outlawed), riding zebras and posing with native African tribes. For those traveling abroad, guidebooks were published with useful tips. In L.C Davidson’s book entitled “Hints to Lady Travellers”, women were given advice on correct cycling attire, tipping abroad, drinking tea in foreign countries and choosing a suitably positioned deck chair aboard a cruise ship.
Just getting abroad was a mission in its own right. There was no passport control and crossing borders was notoriously difficult. Travelers and their luggage were frequently searched, and countries placed high taxes on the import of luxury items such as tobacco. Smuggling became a popular way to sneak luxury goods into countries, and many travelers took to bribing customs officers.
The Industrial revolution did open up new means of travel – the Orient Express ferried people across Eurasia, while the steamboat opened up sea travel to the masses. Of course, these journeys still took a lifetime compared to the plane rides we enjoy today – a steamboat crossing from London to New York took an endurance testing nine days.
But, such journeys were iconic and the launch of a new ship would be front page news. We remember the Titanic today as a disaster, but the initial launch was greeted with a wave of optimism. Such travel was an example of all that was great about human progress.
In 1903, the Wright brothers’ pioneering work on the concept of the aeroplane would pave the way for a breakthrough that would change the way the world experienced travel, forever.
In the 1800s, those who wanted to travel to London would need to take a steam boat, which took nine days!
The early 1920s saw the rise of entrepreneurial employers such as Henry Ford, who provided higher wages that enabled more people to travel for leisure. Thanks to mass production, automobiles were now affordable and could be purchased by those other than just the very rich.
The automobile became the favorite mode of transport for vacationers, because it was cheap and provided more freedom than steam trains. California became a popular vacation destination for US residents, especially among those who lived in the colder states. On weekends and public holidays, families would load up their automobiles and drive to the coast to enjoy the sunny beaches.
For mass travel, trains and boats were still the most widely used mode of transport, with more and more people beginning to explore exotic foreign nations. This saw the rise of the suntan, and bronzed skin became a sign of status and something that was envied.
Towards the end of the 1920s, air travel was advancing at a great pace. Although aeroplanes were at this point used mainly for mail delivery, people were beginning to imagine the ease and speed of travel by air.
In 1928, a German airship named Graf Zeppelin carried 20 passengers and 43 crew members in the first ever commercial flight. In September the following year, Graf Zeppelin landed its first round-the-world flight.
Wealthy New Yorkers meanwhile, would adopt the old Tudor habit of vacating the city for the summer. These excursions are where our use of the word vacation comes from. People would literally vacate Manhattan for the summer, enjoying the kind of trip to Long Island or the Hamptons we see celebrities take today.
Steaming ahead cover image credit: Baldwinlocomotiveworks - R.A. Sallinen III
Vacations truly came into their own in the 20th century. Beaches were attractive to crowds not for the sea air, but mainly for the man-made attractions on piers. The early 20th century saw people flocking to Florida to enjoy the various entertainments, most notably the underwater theatre at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Camping had become popular in America, with many vacationers traveling to New York to pitch up their tents in the Adironack Mountains. Many campers found this form of vacation challenging, but most saw this as all part of the fun. Large scale campsites and hotels began to pop up to accommodate the crowds of city residents who enjoyed this region as a country getaway.
The 1900s also saw the rise of Atlantic City, New Jersey as a popular vacation destination. Once promoted as a health resort for the wealthy, Atlantic City was now beginning to attract a wider crowd thanks to the completion of its famous boardwalk. In 1910, Atlantic City had 3 million summer visitors; in 1939 that number was up to 16 million.
Where trains made travel within land masses easy, the aeroplane put foreign vacations within the reach of the general public. Or for those who wanted to stay in America, air travel enabled much quicker domestic trips.
In the early 1900s, Atlantic City, New Jersey was promoted as a health retreat for the very wealthy.
Those who wanted to discover different continents such as Europe witnessed the rise of tourism in the Mediterranean thanks to the advent of package vacations. Vacationers from all over the world traveled to the likes of Corsica, Palma, Sardinia and of course the Costa Brava. With the promise of Mediterranean sun, wine at nine cents a bottle and "meat-filled meals" what was there not to like? These trips fuelled the desire for new experiences, discovering hidden gems off the beaten track that they could call their own. From tracking orangutans in Indonesia and then catching a fishing boat to the Gili Islands to horse-back riding in Argentina and then onto Brazil through the Iguazu Falls, people from all over the world wanted to explore, on their own terms.
Our thirst for discovery and unique experiences shows no signs of being quenched as new generations get the travel bug. Each year a fresh batch of students set off to backpack round the world, joining the late twenty-somethings taking sabbaticals from their careers, the honeymooners who are having one more adventure before settling down to have kids and the empty nesters, finding yoga and spending three months in an ashram in North India. Our search for the ultimate adventure, whatever our age or circumstance, continues.
Goldsmith not needed
The 1970s saw the growth of non-bank foreign exchange providers, which gave consumers an easy way of getting hold of foreign currency when going abroad. Going from the high street to the seaports and ferries and then finally into airports themselves, by the mid-80s the bureau de change was a staple part of the travel industry and a fast and easy way for travelers to get their hands on local currency. We’ve come a long way from going to the local silver or goldsmith!
In 1976, the first Travelex store was opened in Southampton Row, London by entrepreneur Lloyd Dorfman. As we celebrate our 40th birthday this year, Travelex has grown from that one store to over 1,400 stores across 26 countries.
Why do vacations capture our imagination, and why are we so obsessed with creating new experiences for ourselves? The answer is that it’s in our nature. Our vacation is one of pioneering, of uncovering new frontiers and asking ourselves what’s next. It’s why in 2016, we’re sat asking ourselves what future vacations will look like.
What’s next is what drove us to explore new horizons, to see what was on the far side of the ridge and to venture beyond the confines of our planet. We don’t ask that because we’re dissatisfied with what we can do today. We ask because it’s human nature to be constantly exploring and asking what comes next. And for travel, the obvious next is space.
Space travel has always captured our imagination. We dream of visiting the moon and beyond. But, for the first time in human history we’re now seeing serious effort being put in to creating actual colonies in space. That effort is coming from Elon Musk and his Space X project. Musk has a stated goal of helping humanity create a sustainable living environment on Mars, but sadly, he doubts he’ll be alive to see it.
However, for our grandchildren and their children, the prospect of vacationing on Mars is a very real possibility. More than that, it’s something which actively excites our imaginations.
Elon Musk has stated his goal of helping humanity to create a sustainable living environment on Mars, but sadly, he doubts he’ll be alive to see it.
In the meantime, a short trip to space is becoming an option – even if only for the very wealthy. But, as we’ve seen throughout our deep-dive into the history of the vacation, what starts as a luxury for the wealthy almost always becomes accessible to the rest of us one day. 700 people have already signed up to fly into space with Virgin Galactic, and they will surely be the first of many.
For people who can’t wait that long, what do vacations of the next 10-15 years hold? We’re likely to see improvements in the form of technology, with a report by Skyscanner suggesting that in 2024 we’ll no longer interact with humans when we arrive at a hotel. Instead our hotel rooms will be fully digital, where even our pillows will contain electronic features to wake us up in the morning.
The deep seas will also become open to us as a travel location. There’s so much to see and experience down there, some will question why we’d ever want to go to space? Why go and see blackness, when you can see the wonders of the deep seas.
It’s impossible to consider how we’ll vacation in the future without considering the impact of consumer friendly virtual reality devices.
Who wouldn’t want to check out their house in the Hamptons, Costa Rican beach cabin or Caribbean cruise liner before handing over the deposit?
And, by integrating the latest reviews into the virtual experience you can peruse each element of, say, a cruise ship and get not only a visual sense of the magnificent dining room but a factual sense as to whether the service is worth the cash.
Marriott hotels are already offering virtual reality services to their clients and we’ll see more and more chains offer the same in the future. Tools like the Oculus Rift make virtual reality something all of us can enjoy, rather than a hobby for the techy few.
We may never be able to travel back in time, but through our future trips we’ll capture the spirit of exploration that drove our ancestors to travel.
Whether we’re plumbing new depths or ice-skating on Mars, the vacation will continue to capture our imaginations. We’ll continue to push the boundaries of our own experiences, striving to achieve those perfect moments we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
What era should you take your vacation in?
When would be the dream time period for you to take your vacation in? Take our quiz and find out where a time machine should take you.
In a perfect world, how long would you spend on a single vacation?
A couple of years - time to really relax
2-3 weeks - enough time to switch off, but I can't just leave forever
A few days at most
Where is your dream destination?
A city break - taking in the cultural aspects of my surroundings
Something adventurous - take me skiing or on a trek somewhere man doesn't normally go
The coast – find me a sunbed, a sangria and a good book and I’m happy
What do you enjoy eating when you're away?
Mediterranean cuisine all the way
A large bowl of pho - preferably cooked in front of me
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