Top 10 Travel Innovations


Top 10 Travel Innovations

The travel industry is a vast, multi-faceted phenomenon that has come a long way over a short space of time. Some things have changed dramatically (budget airlines, online booking and online check-in) while others have stayed the same (cruise ships sinking and hefty charges for excess luggage). This month we’re taking a walk down memory lane to review the Top 10 Travel Innovations throughout history.

1800 – 1900

10. Package Tours (1841)

It was our friends at Thomas Cook (TC) who first took a group of temperance campaigners on a short journey from Leicester to Loughborough by train. This was the first ever packaged tour, way back in 1841, when the travel industry was but an embryo. After trumpeting reviews, the concept soon snowballed into a holiday package that offered trains, planes and automobile options. TC began offering these all-in getaways to the general public to destinations across the world. Today you'll find package holidays to just about any country with deals that include everything from hotels to hired vehicles, sports, entertainment, meals, drinks and sightseeing tours. And package tours continue to be amongst the biggest selling holiday deals for three main reasons: they're affordable, convenient and well-marketed. Those are qualities of a product that compel it to thrive in any economic climate.

1900 – 1970

9. Travel Insurance (1919)

Travel insurance is one of the fundamentals of every trip, whether it’s a weekend in France or a year long backpacking excursion. You just don’t travel without it. But there was a time when taking out travel insurance wasn't possible, because it didn't exist. Traveler's Life & Annuity was the first company to offer insurance, way back in 1919, after disasters like the Titanic had set the standard for “what could possibly go wrong?” From that point onwards, salesmen had a full-proof answer to that question: LOTS.

8. The Polaroid Camera

vintage Polaroids

The old Brownie Cameras of the 50s were somewhat cumbersome and seeing pictures meant waiting several weeks for film to be developed, plus the added stress of having a stranger look through your personal photographs. Although film cameras would dominate for several decades, the Polaroid Camera was a breakthrough for tourists who wanted instant results. It was as simple as point, shoot and et voilà! The photo quality wasn't the best, but there was nostalgia attached to the images that made them perfect for documenting candid holiday memories. Even today, people recognise the size and texture of a Polaroid picture and nobody scoffs about it looking a bit shoddy.

7. Computer Reservations System (1946)

Before computer reservations systems, the process of booking flights was left solely to the airlines who managed all bookings manually. Without a system that could store information and provide real-time data about seat availability, times, cancellations and seating preferences, the aviation industry was stuck using technology that couldn't keep up with the growing demand. The introduction of a computer reservations system was slow at first and took many years of fine tuning, but once it had been tweaked and tested, it took the entire travel industry to a new level. The technology we use today to book everything from flights to car rentals, hotel rooms, movie tickets, airport parking and plenty more, all started with the original Computer Reservations System of 1946, pioneered by American Airlines.

1970 – 1995

The Walkman

6. The Walkman (1979)

Before there were MP3 Players or even portable CD players, there was the Walkman. Better than a portable radio, the Walkman put the power of choice into the hands of the consumer by allowing him or her to play their own cassettes. This ushered in the first generation of serious headphone-wearers. For travellers, it meant a new dawn for layovers and long-haul flights, where the sound of bored children, safety announcements and shared in-flight entertainment were the most you had to look forward to. Coincidentally, the walkman also pushed the level of batteries to new heights, as manufacturers struggled to keep up with the need for longer lasting power.

5. Wheeled Luggage (1972)

Luggage on Wheels

Thousands of years ago, the invention of the wheel revolutionised the lives our barbaric, hairy, hunter-gatherer forefathers. It’s almost shameful to note that it took the travel industry until 1972 to apply the same logic to improve the lives of people carting luggage around airports, buses, trains and ships. It might not seem like such a big deal, but if you’ve ever gone on holiday with a wheel-less bag you’ll know exactly how annoying it is. It’s like dragging a stubborn pet around.

It was Bernard Sadow, former president of the luggage company Briggs & Riley, who noticed what luggage was missing. After building a prototype in 1970 that convinced the powers that be of his idea’s worth, he put the wheels in motion and production began. By 1972, wheelie bags were flying off the shelves faster than people could carry them - luckily they didn't have to.

4. Family Video Cameras (1982)

One of the biggest breakthroughs in holiday technology was the introduction of family video cameras. For the first time, you could take live footage of your holiday and play it back, rather than capturing single moments with a camera. Since then holidays have been documented in agonising detail, often with parents giving running commentary on all the events unfolding. Households were known to build up libraries full of VHS cassette tapes that could rival national archives and put video shops to shame.

1995 – 2000

3. The Internet

Online Travel

The internet as a working concept goes back a long way before the nineties, but the commercial concept that we understand today is the most important development of the last several hundred years. This list could be about the 10 most important inventions of anything, and the internet would be on every one of them. It has literally changed everything. Looking at the travel industry specifically, the net has given a world of information to normal people. Travel blogs, forums, online booking, online changes, cancellations, e-mailing agents, airlines, hotels – besides the act of getting on a plane, train, bike or into a car and going somewhere for a visit, the entire experience can be booked, paid for, researched and documented online.

2000 – 2010

2. Skype

Anyone who travelled before there was Skype can testify to the exorbitant cost, poor quality, inconvenience and hassle of making calls from across the world back then. If you had issues with a credit card and needed to contact your bank ASAP, using a hotel or pay phone would be a nightmare. Backpackers on gap years who'd become sick and needed to find out crucial information to get proper healthcare would be terrified of making the expensive and crackly calls back home to speak to worried mums and dads. Business calls across continents would rack up phone bills that cost hundreds of pounds. Basically, before there was Skype, phone calls across the world meant something else entirely.

2010 – Present

1. The Tablet

This is not to discredit the value that laptops and smartphones have made to the travel industry, but the latest tablets and infinite apps available take travellers to a new level. It's all your best technology (computer, phone, MP3 Player, GPS, camera – everything) rolled into a convenient, A4 sized gadget that has a futuristic battery life to boot. You have all the benefits of the online world and more at your finger tips. It's the culmination of a hundred years of growth and development. Tablets might not offer people anything we can't get from other devices, but you can bet your boots it is the start of a new era in computer/travel technology. Besides, you all know the feeling of sitting next to someone on a plane or train who is tapping away at their tablet – it's jealousy.

Notable Mention: The Compass (1190)


Although early explorers were highly skilled navigators, their methods of using landmarks, the stars and monitoring which way seagull droppings fell all had limitations. At the time, people thought that sailing too far out would take them to the edge of the world. The compass came along and completely opened up the floodgates to travellers, as the cardinal points now offered the brave a way back if they strayed too far off course. This in turn gave birth to new maps and our understanding of the world at large.

Last Updated: May 2012

Clayton Truscott

Clayton Truscott

Clayton is a comfortable traveller, having grown up in a small city that was far away from everything. He spent lots of time in the car as a child, driving up and down the coast of South Africa on surfing trips with his family. After studying abroad in the United States and spending a year working in London, he moved to Cape Town, where he completed a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. He now works as a freelance writer for various travel, surfing and action sports publications.