7 ways travel has changed since the days of "Downton Abbey"

December 04, 2014                 5m read time
Ailsa Ross

From the late 19th century until WWII, ocean liners were the way to travel between Europe and North America. By the ’60s, however, the Jet Age looked well and truly here to stay. Here’s our guide to seven ways travel has changed since the Golden Age of ocean liners a century ago.

1. 100 years ago, ocean liners offered the ultimate in opulence.

Many people in main dining room of the S.S. Normandie. Wikipedia The main dining room of the S.S. Normandie.

Many people in main dining room of the S.S. Normandie.


The main dining room of the S.S. Normandie.

Ocean liners were floating palaces with mahogany-clad smoking rooms for the gents and refined drawing rooms for the ladies. One particular art deco dream, the French S.S. Normandie, greeted passengers with a marble-filled entrance hall and an 18-foot-tall gilded statue of a toga-clad woman.annotation The British ship, the RMS Mauretania earned the nickname “Mauretania the Magnificent,” because of its ornate interior. Three hundred Palestinian woodworkers spent two years carving the vessel’s railings, pillars, and panels.

Today, a privacy curtain can feel like a luxury, but a growing number of airlines are offering private suites, fully flat beds, and sleek showers.

Abu Dhabi airline Etihad recently upped the fancy ante with its new “residence class.” For a mere $20,000, passengers can relax in a 125-square-foot suite. The private apartment-in-the-sky includes a sitting room with a 32-inch TV and a refrigerator stocked with champagne, a bedroom with a double bed lined with Egyptian cotton sheets, and a bathroom with a shower. Sure, it’s not as spacious as an ocean liner, but we can get across the Atlantic in just a few hours now.

2. 100 years ago, the cost of transatlantic travel was prohibitively expensive.

On the Titanic, a single berth in first class cost £30 (around $4,175 today), and prices rose to a whopping £870 ($115,701 today) for the most luxurious suites. Even third-class passenger tickets cost between £7 to £9 (about $1,063 today) for a one-way journey.

Today, flight prices are low, low, low.

Flying economy class from London to New York shouldn’t cost you much more than $400. And if you want to relive the Golden Age of ocean travel and sail from Southampton to New York aboard the RMS Queen Mary 2, you can book a room for as little as $587 for the 7-day trip.

3. 100 years ago, first-class passengers came to network and conduct business with other wealthy folks.

Men in suits drinking ZOZI

Men in suits drinking



Whole guidebooks were dedicated to ocean liner etiquette. In Roydon Freeman’s 1936 book, "Sea Travel: The Humorous Side and the Serious Side," he suggested solo travelers seek out other passengers in order to put together a rockin’ dinner party table: “Even if you get some rebuffs, it won't matter. If you persevere in your hunting, the net result will be a jollier … table-full than if you left it to chance.” He also advised readers to carry around a pocket-sized chart of anecdotes and funny stories for more successful networking encounters, and recommended organizing treasure hunts onboard.

Today, airplane passengers can connect via in-flight social networking apps.

Virgin America’s in-flight app Here On Biz allows fliers to locate LinkedIn connections at the airport or on their specific flight. They can also use the app’s geo-location technology to connect with passengers on other Virgin America flights in the air or fellow travelers at their destination. Similarly, KLM’s Meet & Seat program encourages travelers to share details from their Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn profiles so that they can choose seatmates based off of shared interests or potential networking opportunities.annotation

4. 100 years ago, first class food was unbelievably good.

Man in suit eating large drumstick while woman looks on exasperatedly ZOZI

Man in suit eating large drumstick while woman looks on exasperatedly



Dinners were often ten-courses long and filled with the finest French foods, such as filet mignon, oysters, and foie gras. And if third-class passengers were provided with onboard food (rather than having to bring their own, as was the norm), it was often better than what they’d get back home.

Today, having a celebrity chef design in-flight menus is practically a given.

Airplane food continues to get a bad rap, but more and more airlines are fighting to change that. The menu that Joël Robuchon (the world’s most Michelin-starred chef) created for Air France included caviar, fried scallops in coralline sauce, and shredded duck confit with truffle and potatoes au gratin. Iron Chef and James Beard Award-winner Michelle Bernstein’s five-course tasting menus for Delta have featured pomegranate-glazed lamb and grilled beef tenderloin with chimichurri. Always a standout when it comes to luxury, Emirates serves passengers seven-course meals on fine bone china.

But still, it’s almost impossible for airplane food to taste really good. Pressurized cabin atmosphere, combined with all that dry and recycled air, “makes your taste buds go numb, almost as if you had a cold,” explained Grant Mickels, the executive chef for culinary development of Lufthansa's LSG Sky Chefs, in the Conde Nast Traveler story, “Why does airline food taste so bad? Turns out, it’s all your fault.”

5. 100 years ago, to pass the time onboard, people drank.

Moet ice buckets French Finds

Moet ice buckets

French Finds


In first class, Moët was as popular as it is today, and Manhattans, John Collins, and Tom Collins were the coolest cocktails to order.

Today, to pass the time onboard, people drink cocktails poured from teeny-tiny liquor bottles.

Or, you know, they try Ambien for the first time, and turn into possessed passengers, a la Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, that have to be wrangled by the poor flight attendants. In the Yahoo Travel story, “Confessions of a Fed-Up Flight Attendant: Attack of the Ambien Zombies (Part One),” the author describes one of these “lumbering, slumbering zombie passengers” walking down the aisle stark naked. Luckily, the flight attendant managed to get the sleepwalking passenger to put his pants on.

6. 100 years ago, traveling aboard a passenger liner was a rarity.

SS Normandie at dock Wikipedia

SS Normandie at dock



Maybe it was due to those high prices or just the fact that the global population was less than 2 billion a century ago compared to over 7 billion today, but between 1880 and 1930 only 27 million people crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner. The vast majority of these passengers were emigrants seeking a better life in the New World.

Today, plane travel is no big deal, and more than 8 million people fly every day.

7. 100 years ago, traveling by ocean liner took forever.

Even the journey from Liverpool to New York took an average of 12 days.

Today, we can hop across the pond by plane in just six hours.

And remember the Concorde? If you had the money, up until 11 years ago you could have crossed the Atlantic in less than four hours.


According the New York Times, the 1,029-foot-long ship "burned in a spectacular blaze at a Manhattan pier in February 1942, and had to be removed over 17 months."

In her Financial Post article, "How to network on an airplane - without being an annoying bore," Camilla Cornell noted that “business people say they connected in a range of places, including the gym, restaurants and bars, with 17 percent specifically mentioning airplanes.”

Ailsa Ross

Special projects editor for Matador Network and a contributor to National Geographic online, Nerve, and Thought Catalog, Ailsa is a Scottish writer focusing on travel, nature, women adventurers, and indigenous culture.

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