No Internet. No Phone. Backpacking Through Europe in 1993.


2018 marks the 25th anniversary of my grand backpacking trip through Europe.  You are probably thinking to yourself that I don’t look a day older.  It’s true.  But, in the meantime, the way we travel has been transformed.  Gather round, and let me take you back a few decades.

The year was 1993, and I was a junior in college.  I had spent a semester in Tübingen, Germany, and then set off for a few months with my backpack, a EuroRail train pass, and $500 in cash.

Brace yourself: There was no Internet.
Ok, that is a sort-of lie.  There was a weird kind of file sharing arrangement one could find at the Department of Defense or through the nerdiest people at universities.  The rest of us had never  heard of it.  We did not know what a “search engine” or “web browser” meant.  Google would not be around for another 5 years.

The trip research of every American backpacker consisted of the following steps:  Step 1) Purchase a copy of the travel guide Let’s Go Europe, which was published by Harvard students.  Step 2) There was no step two.  Aren’t you paying attention?  There was no internet.  Let’s Go Europe was all we had.  Those kids at Harvard were smart.  They did the thinking for us.

There were no smart phone cameras.
I was trying to soften the blow for you.  The real situation was worse.  Much worse.   Cell phones as we know them did not exist.  I had never seen a digital camera.  Instead, I had a disposable Kodak camera with 36 pictures.  Mind you, this was a bit of a splurge over the 12- or 24-picture option.  I took all 36 pictures during that trip.

At the end of months of backpacking, I took my disposable camera to be developed at the grocery store.  I then waited with wild excitement for a few days to see if any of the 36 pictures “turned out.”

Airbnb?  Nope. 

Before you start panicking, let me say very clearly that there was a vibrant home-sharing industry back then.  Here’s how it worked:  You arrived at a train station.  The citizens of the town with rooms to rent would show up to meet new arrivals.  You randomly picked someone in the crowd who didn’t look too murdery, and then followed them home.  I am not joking.  That’s how it worked.

We had to use backpacks.  There was no other option.
Some people still use backpacks in Europe, but I am trying to figure out if they are just being “retro.”  Because, seriously, why aren’t they using rolling luggage?  I would have given up all 36 photos for a rolling suitcase.  The upright, rolling suitcase was not patented until 1987, and it was not in widespread use in 1993.

No Texting.  No E-Mail.  
We wrote letters, because there was no texting or e-mail.  Ok, I lied again.  My university at home issued me a special e-mail account based on my study abroad status.  Then, I had to go to a special computer terminal at my university in Germany to use it.

My parents, grandparents, and friends did not have e-mail accounts.  They were not special.  They were not studying abroad through a fancy-pants university.  We all exchanged a few letters, but they pretty much had no idea what I was doing or where I was for 6 months.  Now, when I travel, I send them an updated photo every 3 seconds.  They beg me to stop.

Online bill pay didn’t work very well.
That was a test, and you failed.  I told you: THERE WAS NO ONLINE.  I had a credit card with a balance, and I did not know how to get the bills delivered to me when I was on the road.  My dad stepped in and made my payments for the six months I was away.  He probably thinks I am an ingrate and have forgotten about this.  I haven’t forgotten.

We used traveler’s checks.  
Every backpacker had a pile of traveler’s checks that we converted into cash at a special store when we needed money.  Why didn’t we use the ATMs/automatic bank machines?  ATMs were scarce AND the European system didn’t talk to the American system.

(Did I lose some of you with this one?   It’s OK.  Google the word “check.”)

We had to use our passports.  A lot.
Europe did not have open borders.  We showed our passports whenever we crossed into a new country.  We were often woken up in the middle of the night on trains to do so.

The Cold War had just ended.
Large pieces of the Berlin Wall still were scattered across the streets of Berlin.  American kids and many Western Europeans traveled freely into Eastern Europe for the first time in our lives.  In 1993, we had front row seats to this remarkable transition in Europe.

I read this post to my husband.  This was his feedback:

Maureen: “What do you think?”

Maureen’s Husband: “Well, it’s not very practical, is it?  It’s not very useful.”

So, here is my practical advice.  If you want to travel like it’s 1993, then follow these steps:

  1. Do no research whatsoever before heading out to a foreign country.
  2. Leave your cell phone at home and wander around without Google Maps or Google Translate.
  3. Don’t tell your loved ones where you are going, and don’t check in for six months.
  4. Follow strangers home from the train.  (But, be smart about it.  Make sure they  don’t look murdery.)
  5. Take no debit or credit cards with you.
  6. Make your dad pay your bills.
  7. Try to show your passport to someone as you cross borders in Europe.  Just pick someone at random and pretend they are an inspector.
  8. Make a cup of “American coffee” like they did in post-communist Prague. Directions: Throw some coffee grounds directly into hot water and serve immediately.