From the 1950s to the late 1960s, overseas travel by Americans was heavily weighted toward tour groups or wealthy individuals who went only to the grand tour cities, and mostly stayed in top-of-the-line hotels.
Our good friend Chesley Pruet, who died a few years back, told me he traveled Europe on a $1,000-a-day budget.
Most of us aren’t in that league, but things changed in the 1960s. With cheap air fares and a little research, Americans could afford to travel to many countries doing what I call “traveling off the grid.”
Vertis and I had never traveled when I took a transfer to Benghazi, Libya, to work as a wellsite geologist. Our immersion into off-the-grid travel occurred after a year in Benghazi when we flew to Athens, Greece, on a four-day holiday weekend to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.
We were counting our dollars, and it was going to be a test of the new travel book we had bought: Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day.” We hopped on East African Airways at 4:30 a.m., with a reservation to return four days later.
When we arrived in Athens, it was Jan. 17, and spitting snow. We spotted a hotel from our travel guide book and stepped in to a small, warm lobby as the desk clerk ran around to help with our bags. They had plenty of rooms.
A point-to-fish-and-calamari dinner from a glass showcase (calamari cost the equivalent of 25 cents) was our first step into eating and drinking off the grid in local establishments. During the next couple of days we took a bus to Delphi, walked from our hotel to the top of the Acropolis, and roamed historic Athens, always clutching our off-the-grid guide book.
On our final European vacation before heading back to the States from Libya, we flew from Benghazi to Rome. Out first night was in a mansion of a retired Catholic cardinal adjacent to the Vatican. It was spectacular, and cost $8 a night. (Remember these are 1960s dollars); our best ever off-the-grid find.
After Rome, we took a train to Cannes, and since our top hotel pick was full, we checked into a hotel near the train station. I was concerned when I paid $1.80 in advance for the room, which included breakfast. When we went to the room Vertis shook her head. It was a converted hallway with a bed and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. However, when Vertis checked the bed, she nodded. “Clean sheets, but we’re checking out tomorrow.” She wouldn’t walk on the room’s floor without her shoes on. Without a doubt our worst ever hotel.
We checked out the next day and took the train to Zurich, Switzerland. The weather was cold and lightly snowing. Our small hotel was wonderful. After a warm welcome and a cup of hot tea, we went to a spotlessly clean room and piled up in bed under a down comforter.
Things have changed since the 1960s, and in 2020, the budget tour books touted Europe on $85/day. But you can still vacation off the grid on a budget.
The key is to go local, and stay away from crowded venues around major city attractions. Ride municipal transportation and go from city to city via railway. You will quickly find out that most travel destinations are happy to see you.
Europeans know that tourism is a major contributor to their countries’ jobs and businesses. Riding the great Swiss trains and staying in small villages can be one of the best vacations you can have, in a country with great scenery, quality food, a welcoming attitude toward visitors, and plenty of folks who can converse in English.
That combines with a special pass that lets you ride almost every form of transportation and travel at a discount. As a bonus, it has free entry to Swiss museums.
Driving is a great way to travel off the grid. But before you travel, get an International Driver’s License and pre-rent a car. (Go to AAA and it will fix you up.) I’ve driven in Mexico City, Paris, London, and all over Libya without any problems, and if you drive you indubitably see more, eat and drink locally, and end up with a better vacation. I especially remember a drive into eastern Europe shortly after the Berlin Wall came down to see the vast difference in communism and democracy.
When you travel to another country, be sure to check out its holidays and local festivals. On a vacation to northern Italy, we joined the townspeople to march from a fortified upper section of town to the lower section to celebrate an ancient victory over the Moors, and in Ragusa, Sicily, we joined a parade to follow a huge float of St. George, the dragon slayer.
Vertis and I have vacationed in every western European country and most Central American and South American countries; the best memories are experiences off the grid, such as crawling through a narrow passageway to a tomb in Egypt, rummaging through an ancient Mayan garbage dump where broken pots and arrows were scattered around, or catching Elton John in a Copenhagen concert.
Then there’s the drive around the Peloponnesian Peninsula in Greece, or spending two weeks in a French chateau in the wine county. Or visiting a museum in Norway where we saw an ancient Viking boat. Or driving through acres of tulips on a spring trip to Holland. Or hopping off the train in Switzerland in a small town to watch a Swiss military parade. All of those and dozens more wouldn’t have ever been part of our travel experience if we hadn’t traveled off the grid.
As travel expert Rick Steves would say: “Keep on travelin’,” and I would add, “But off the grid.”
Email Richard Mason at [email protected]