100 Years of Summer Vacations

100 Years of Summer Vacations

By Scott Laird, TravelPulse

A Century of Vacation Trends

© MichaelJust/iStock/Getty Images Plus

There are plenty of ways to vacation, but many popular vacation types travelers know today simply didn't exist a century (or in some cases a few decades) ago. As modes of transportation and global events shape how Americans vacationed over the past hundred years, destinations and travel types floated in and out of the traveler's zeitgeist.

Here are a couple of vacation trends for the last hundred years.


The 1910s - Outdoor Recreation

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National parks existed before the system was formalized later in the decade, but city-dwellers flocked to outdoor spaces during the summer. In the Northeast, vacationers camped and hiked in the Poconos, Adirondacks, and the Delaware Water Gap, while the most well-heeled retreated to the rarified environs of Newport, Rhode Island, where the millionaires of the day had built oceanfront mansions.

With personal vehicles still a rarity, most long-distance travel was undertaken by rail or steamship, which limited vacationers of more modest means to outdoor spaces nearer their homes. Californians took to Lake Tahoe, Texans enjoyed the Gulf Coast, and the Great Lakes were destinations for much of the MIdwest—all by rail, of course.

Another popular tourist activity of the day was to hire a car and driver (typically available at railway stations) for scenic drives. From 1914, the First World War cut off much tourist traffic to the European Continent, and Americans stuck to North America for much of the rest of the decade.



The 1920s - Fleeing Prohibition

© Public Domain

Europe was the hot summer destination of the 1920s. Thousands of Americans who had spent military or Red Cross service in Europe during the First World War returned in the subsequent decade as tourists. Reformed immigration laws turned off the tap of immigration from the Old World, and shipping companies repurposed their vast steerage compartments with modestly priced accommodations for leisure travelers, putting a European vacation within the budgets of a much larger slice of American society.

Prohibition also drove Americans to prefer foreign destinations where alcohol could be legally obtained. Not only Europe, but Canada, Mexico, and Cuba rose in popularity as vacation destinations during this period. As long as the ship wasn't U.S. flagged, the bar opened as soon as the ship had cleared American territorial waters. Some shipping companies even offered one or two-day "booze cruises" or "cruises to nowhere" just beyond the six-mile limit.



The 1930s - Modern Tourism

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The economic ruin of the Depression and changing government perspectives on the value of tourism drove tourism trends in the 1930s. Most notably was the introduction of the government tourist board, which promoted that country as a tourist destination in the United States. France was an early adopter, taking out large advertisements in U.S. newspapers extolling the virtues of the country's resorts. The newly-formed Soviet Union had even created an entire tourism bureau, called Intourist, designed to offer low-cost tours of the country, many of which were led by American writers (who were of course sympathetic to communism) such as Langston Hughes and John Spivak.

The vacation home rental also boomed in the 1930s, in spite of the economic situation. While many Americans found that a vacation to an exotic destination might exceed their budget as economic uncertainty drove Americans to save more of their discretionary income, more looked to vacation homes as a reasonable alternative. Vacation homes were often less than a day's drive from a major city, so men could send their wives and children for the season, to join them on long weekends, typically on a lake, seashore, river, or other bucolic locales.

Cruises also came into vogue in the 1930s, as shipping companies coped with the drop in Transatlantic demand. Famed-but-aging greyhounds like Cunard's Mauretania were pressed into service cruising to Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Canada.



The 1940s - Wartime Tourism

© Accor Hotels

Quite unbelievably, European tourism remained popular among Americans until the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941; diehard (and well-moneyed) travelers could even continue travel to neutral Spain and Portugal throughout the war years.

In North America, travelers faced obstacles. Airlines had their fleets requisitioned for military use, rubber tires and gasoline were rationed, and military traffic took priority on crowded trains. German submarines hunted U.S. coastal waters, effectively curtailing passenger traffic to Bermuda and the Caribbean.

Yet recreational travel and tourism was considered essential to national morale. In the then-Territory of Hawai'i, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was requisitioned by the Navy as a rest and recreation point for submariners, while the government published tourist guides for war industries workers in the Hawaiian Islands.



The 1950s - The Great American Road Trip

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The West was a draw for many Americans in the 1950s, and many of them explored National Parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion in their own automobiles. Highways connected many major cities in the US from the 1920s onwards, and roadside eateries and motels had sprung up in the decades following, but auto travel reached its zenith in the 50s, particularly after the Interstate system was approved and construction began in 1956.



The 1960s - The Jet-Set

© Public Domain

Travel by air had grown steadily since the airlines first began operating in the 1920s, but the introduction of the jet airliner in 1958 made it fast and affordable enough to fit more modest vacation allotments and travel budgets. Destinations like Hawai'i that were once a day or more distant from many parts of the country could be reached in a few hours, making even long weekends feasible.

Terms like "jet age" and "jet-set" entered the travel lexicon, and by the end of the decade, most air travelers in the country flew by jet.



The 1970s - Cruises

© Princess Cruises

Cruises had been around for around 50 years in the 1970s, but it was the hit television series The Love Boat that got a new generation of Americans curious about vacationing at sea. Discovering the joys of fine dining in sophisticated dining rooms, midnight buffets by the pool, and only have to unpack one time for a multiday journey to an exotic destination, cruising has been on a growth trajectory every since.



The 1980s - All Inclusive Resorts

© Sandals Resorts

Land-based all-inclusive resorts were another vacation type that came into their own decades after their first introduction. The members-only Club Med had resorts in Europe and the Caribbean for years on an all-inclusive model, but the segment really took off in the 80s, particularly as interest in vacations in the Caribbean (where all-inclusives are a popular model) grew.



The 1990s - Multigenerational Vacations

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In a new twist on family vacations, extended family vacations got going in the 1990s. It was no longer just enough for retirees to go off on their own; they started taking their adult children and grandchildren along with them. Destination family reunions also grew in popularity, as did multigenerational groups on land tours, cruises, and at theme parks, and the travel industry adapted to cater to these groups' particular needs.



The 2000s - Ecotourism

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Around the turn of the millennium, travel conversations began to revolve around concerns of travel's impact on the planet. Adventure travelers studied "Leave No Trace" principles, travel operators began to examine how to make their operations "greener" and reduce carbon emissions, and traveler and operator concern about sustainability grew roughly in line with the yearly increases in travelers. Conversations about environmental impact and sustainability are still hot-button in the industry.



The 2010s - Social Travel

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If you went somewhere and didn't post on Instagram, did you really go? The rise of social media platforms in the 2010s also changed how travelers of the decade researched and took their vacations. Travelers turned to the platforms for inspiration, and also to share their experiences with friends and followers seeking to crowdsource their own vacation plans.

Whether it's selfies in the 2010s, long scenic drives in the 1910s, or wondering what might possibly lie in store for travelers in the 2020s, one thing is for certain—it's difficult to imagine wanderlust ever going out of style.

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