Traveling off the familiar grid

From the 1950s to the late 1960s, Americans’ overseas travel was heavily focused on tour groups or wealthy individuals who traveled only to major tourist cities and stayed primarily in upscale hotels.

Our good friend Chesley Pruet, who passed away a few years ago, told me that he traveled Europe on a budget of $1,000 a day.

Most of us aren’t in that league, but things changed in the 1960s. With cheap airfare and a little research, Americans could afford to travel to many countries doing what I call it “traveling off the grid”.

Vertis and I had never traveled when I was posted to Benghazi, Libya to work as a well geologist. Our immersion in off-grid travel came 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 this was going to be a test of the new travel book we had bought: Frommer’s “Europe for $5 a Day”. We jumped on East African Airways at 4.30am, with a reservation to return four days later.

When we arrived in Athens, it was January 17 and it was spitting snow. We spotted a hotel in our travel guide and walked into a cozy little lobby as the receptionist ran around to help us with our luggage. They had lots of rooms.

A point-to-fish-and-calamari dinner in a glass display case (calamari cost the equivalent of 25 cents) was our first stop at eating and drinking off the grid at local establishments. Over the next two days, we took a bus to Delphi, walked from our hotel to the top of the Acropolis, and hiked through historic Athens, still holding our guidebook off the grid.

On our last European vacation before returning to the US from Libya, we flew from Benghazi to Rome. The first night was at a retired Catholic cardinal’s mansion adjacent to the Vatican. It was spectacular and cost $8 a night. (Remember these are 1960s dollars); our best off-grid find.

After Rome, we took a train to Cannes, and since our first choice of hotel was full, we settled into a hotel near the station. I was worried when I prepaid $1.80 for the room including breakfast. When we entered the room, Vertis shook his head. It was a hallway set up 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 leaving tomorrow.” She wouldn’t walk on the floor of the room without her shoes. Without a doubt our worst hotel.

We left the next day and took the train to Zurich, Switzerland. The weather was cold and it was snowing lightly. Our little hotel was wonderful. After a warm welcome and a hot cup of tea, we went to a spotlessly clean room and piled into bed under a down comforter.

Things have changed since the 1960s, and in 2020 budget tour guides were touting Europe at $85/day. But you can still have an off-the-grid vacation on a budget.

The key is to go local and stay away from crowded places around the city’s main attractions. Take municipal transport and go from town to town by train. You’ll quickly find that most travel destinations are happy to see you.

Europeans know that tourism is a major contributor to jobs and businesses in their country. Riding the great Swiss trains and staying in small villages can be one of the best holidays you can have, in a country with great scenery, great food, a welcoming attitude towards visitors and lots of people who can converse in English.

This combines with a special pass that allows you to use almost any means of transport and travel at a reduced price. As a bonus, he has free entry to Swiss museums.

Driving is a great way to travel off the grid. But before you travel, get an international driving license and pre-rent a car. (Go to AAA and you’ll be fine.) I’ve driven Mexico City, Paris, London, and all over Libya with no problems, and if you drive, you’ll definitely see more, eat and drink locally, and you’ll find yourself with a better vacation. I especially remember a walk in Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall to see the big difference between communism and democracy.

When traveling to another country, be sure to check out its local holidays and festivals. On vacation in northern Italy, we joined townspeople in marching from a fortified upper part of town to the lower part 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 all of Western Europe and most of Central and South America; the best memories are of off-the-grid experiences, like crawling through a narrow passage to a tomb in Egypt, rummaging through an ancient Mayan dump where broken pots and arrows were strewn, or catching Elton John at a concert in Copenhagen.

Then there’s the drive around Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, or spending two weeks in a French chateau in the wine county. Or visit a museum in Norway where we saw an ancient Viking ship. Or drive through acres of tulips on a spring trip to Holland. Or hop off the train in Switzerland in a small town to watch a Swiss military parade. All of these and dozens more would never have been part of our travel experience had we not traveled off-grid.

As travel expert Rick Steves would say: “Keep traveling”, and I would add: “But off the grid”.

Email Richard Mason at [email protected]