The best decade to travel was the Eighties – a great time to be young and have fun

·5-min read
travel in the Eighties, the greatest era for travel, what was the golden age for travel
travel in the Eighties, the greatest era for travel, what was the golden age for travel

After the trouble and strife of the 1970s, the 1980s were a great time to be young and have fun. It was an exuberant decade synonymous with yuppies, a roaring economy, synth pop and a new sense of optimism. But – apart from charter flights and packages to the Costas – travel was still an expensive indulgence. Freddie Laker’s SkyTrain was a ray of hope, but it collapsed in 1982, and EasyJet, Eurostar and Airbnb were still pipe dreams.

If, like me, you were more interested in seeing the world than in developing a career in the City, it was still possible to make tracks – you just had to think creatively. So while some of my friends jumped on the gravy train to the Material World, I joined the Midnight Runners and turned instead to the night ferry. This was the cheapest way to get out of the country for a weekend break – especially since I had a friend to stay with in Paris. To avoid taking time off work, I would leave London Victoria in the early evening and – after boarding the ferry at Dover and an overnight train at Calais – I would be in the Gare du Nord at about 6am the next morning. I’d make the same journey in reverse on Sunday and go straight from the station into work.

The return ticket was £38, which sounds cheap, but it was still about half my week’s take-home pay and far more than the equivalent cheapest Eurostar fare today. The real cost, of course, was the loss of two nights’ sleep on a train. But that was a small sacrifice for enjoying a hedonistic Saturday evening on the boulevards at a time when Paris was also on a roll and nouvelle cuisine was an exotic experience. And next morning you could walk into the Louvre without having to queue.

Paris in the Eighties - Alamy
Paris in the Eighties - Alamy

If travel was expensive, it was so much more of an adventure. Booking accommodation in advance was tricky, so you had to rely on instinct to find somewhere affordable to stay on arrival. As my salary increased a little, I ventured further, often by train, occasionally – when I could find a rare bargain fare – by plane. A trip to Bruges and Ghent is a happy memory. It snowed overnight and the medieval cities, completely devoid of tourists, seemed even more ancient.

Remarkably I also saw snow on a winter break in Rome – I think I found a ticket from a bucket shop ad in the Evening Standard. The agent was selling cheap fares with Kenyan Airlines on flights that had a stopover in Italy en route to Nairobi.
In many parts of Europe, you didn’t have to travel in winter to avoid other tourists. I remember exploring Sicily in 1989: most of the sights – including the famous ruins at Agrigento – were entirely empty, even in June. A friendly old man, intrigued to see a foreigner, stopped me in the street in Marsala.

“I remember you lot bombing us during the war,” he said with a smile. I struggled to find a cheery response.

My biggest trip was by train from London to Hong Kong via the Trans-Siberian Express. I’ve written about travelling the Soviet Union elsewhere, but the weeks in China were just as remarkable. Most vivid in my mind is crossing on the Mongolian border late at night. We had to disembark from the train and present our passports in the station office. Steam engines were chugging in and out of nearby platforms and the air was so cold it was like stepping into a deep freeze. In Beijing – which I still thought of as Peking – I remember looking out of my hostel window in astonishment as the sun rose on the first morning. The enormous boulevards were absolutely solid with bicycles. Only the occasional car or lorry wove its way among them.

Beijing in the Eighties - Getty
Beijing in the Eighties - Getty

I’d met a couple of Swedish girls on the train and we went out to try to find some breakfast, but couldn’t find anywhere with a menu in English. In the end a waiter took us into the kitchen at the back of the restaurant and we pointed to what we wanted – eggs, greens, meat, rice and so on. We assumed we’d get a small portion of each on a single plate. But we were served an entire course made up of each and every ingredient. We failed to finish, much to the waiter’s amusement.

For the first journey out of Beijing, we travelled overnight to Xian in the cheapest class – hard seat. It was extremely cramped – people were sitting on the floor and standing in the corridors – and spitting was ubiquitous. I remember the cleaners coming through the carriages with big brooms two or three times an hour. They would simply prod people to wake them up and move them out of their way. After that, we paid a few Yen more to travel in a soft sleeper – two bunk beds in each compartment and a dedicated restaurant carriage.

The food was truly terrible, though – still no English menus and I’m pretty sure I ate dog on one occasion.

In Xian itself, Westerners were rare, only a smattering of people went to see the excavations of the terracotta warriors, and small crowds would sometimes gather in the street simply to stare at our pale faces.

China seemed exotic to us, but to them, we were the exotic ones.

Here's the rest of the series, with recollections of travel during the Sixties, the Seventies and the Nineties.

Did you travel in the Eighties? Please share your memories in the comments section below.

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