Top travel innovations of the past 40 years

/ Source: Independent Traveler

October 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of wheeled luggage — which of course was probably never meant to be stuffed in an overhead bin, but that's another topic for another time. Wheeled luggage inventor and businessman Bernard Sadow recently recalled the Eureka moment he had on the way home from a trip to Aruba: "I knew it was going to change the industry the second I thought of it."

That it took humans that long to put together two very early inventions — the bag and the wheel — is somewhat of a mystery, but Sadow made the connection, and made history (and also very likely a lot of money). This got us thinking about what else has come along in the 40 years since then that has had a similarly revolutionary impact on travel; here is my list of seven more innovations that have changed the face of travel in the past four decades.

1. The backpack
I list the backpack first due to its ancient pedigree, but its status as a common travel accessory is relatively recent. Like the wheel and the bag, the backpack dates back to ancient times, and the word itself was coined in the 1910's — but it wasn't until 1967 that Greg Lowe would invent the modern internal frame backpack that has become a staple of hostel-flopping, gap-year young adults trekking throughout the world. Subsequently Lowe founded LowePro 40 years ago, and the rest is history.

By now backpacks are everywhere — few folks can recall the last time they saw a lunchbox in the hand of a kid getting on a school bus, as kids all have backpacks now — and serve everyone from professional people with computer backpacks to the same youthful European trekkers with their country's flag sewn on the back.

2. The hotel keycard
On the rare occasion that I stay in an old-fashioned motel, a mountain lodge or a B&B, it is hard not to be taken aback when the proprietor hands me an actual metal key to gain access to my room. A hotel keycard brings many conveniences: you can keep it in your wallet, you can easily get a replacement if you lose the original, you can get multiple copies for all your family members and the hotel can change the code for the room with each new visitor so no previous tenants can copy keys. Also, you no longer really need to check out; many are the travelers who leave the keycard in the room and walk off into the pre-dawn fog to head home.

That said, it isn't a perfect system, particularly if the front desk gets sloppy; stories abound of travelers who checked in and were given a keycard to a room that was already occupied, with considerable embarrassment to follow. It happens — I know from experience.

The current credit card-style keycard is a relatively new invention; travelers in the 1970's and 1980's will recall punch-hole-type plastic cards, which were invented in 1975 by Tor Sornes.

These days it isn't just your hotel room for which you use a keycard; subway systems, parking lots, public phones and more use the same technology. The hotel keycard isn't the most exciting innovation on this list, but it is undeniably everywhere you travel, unobtrusive and ubiquitous enough that we barely give it a second thought these days, only a generation or so on.

3. Sabre comes to CompuServe
Sabre is the original computer reservations system, developed by American Airlines starting in the 1950's as a solution to the inability of its erstwhile entirely manual reservations system to keep up with the post-war boom in air travel. You can find a fairly concise and interesting history of the system here, but it is a single line in that history that is of import to us: "By the 1980s, SABRE offered airline reservations through the CompuServe Information Service and Genie under the Eaasy SABRE brand. This service was extended to America Online in the 1990's."

It was on these systems that many "regular" travelers were first able to research their own airfares — I can recall doing so from a command prompt system on CompuServe very early on. From there, there is a direct line to the booking engines that almost every traveler alive uses today in some way, as well as to the aggregators, consolidators, bidding sites, and more that compile travel information in ways we take for granted today. I recall vividly that, as a young traveler, those early command prompt searches felt like a secret world had been revealed, and history has borne out that premonition entirely.

4. Airline price wars
Driven in part by the public's newfound access to reliable competitive airfare information, and freed up by the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry, in the 1990's the major airlines engaged in price wars to end all price wars. They were sometimes just competitive, and sometimes undeniably predatory, but in the end one unstoppable outcome became clear: the larger American public bought the fares and took to the air, and flying became an almost commonplace activity for U.S. citizens of almost every economic stratum.

With $121 roundtrip fares from coast to coast, nearly anyone could afford to fly, an activity that not so long ago had been exclusive to folks with, well, a lot of money.

The radical affordability of flying — some say the democratization of the airways, but that may be going too far — led to a reliance on rapid travel over large distances that has become part of the fabric of American life and travel, for better and worse. No price wars, quite possibly no twice-yearly visits to Grandmom or Disney World — but also no loopy flight attendants hammering beers before jumping out the emergency exits.

5. The laptop
Business travelers tend to be the advance guard and early adopters of things that will become almost commonplace in the future — but not without getting grief about it. In the same way that business travelers conducting meetings on cell phones right up until takeoff are the object of jeers today, business travelers banging on laptops got the same treatment not so long ago.

It may not have looked that cool at the time, but the notion of a truly portable office freed up businesspeople in a way that few other innovations had, and it wasn't long until the general public clued in, stopped laughing and started typing.

Where the laptop once was truly a traveler's accessory — you transferred things you needed for your trip onto your laptop before traveling, and transferred them back to your desktop computer when you got home — the laptop is becoming more of the go-to computer these days. Today, in the same way that cell phones are making landlines obsolete, laptops have become powerful enough to handle people's day-to-day computing loads as well, and many frequent travelers simply have a docking station at the office for their laptop (I do).

And it's not just business folks pounding on laptops at airports and in flight these days; nearly everyone has a computer with them. Packing a laptop has become as routine as packing clean socks.

6. The cell phone and smartphone
According to a pundit speaking at a mobile marketing conference, 4.2 billion people worldwide own toothbrushes, and 4.5 billion people own cell phones. Whether this stat is reliable or not, there is no denying that the cell phone has become an essential part of a traveler's daily life, if not his or her minute-to-minute existence. For some folks, it is actually hard for them to imagine life without their cell phone; how did people function without them — just 10 years ago?!?

While the simple cell phone mostly just kept you in touch with your day-to-day life back home, and proved essential in getting travelers out of jams (when they were late or lost, when cars broke down, when flights were canceled, etc.), the smartphone is beginning to provide a whole new level of connectivity and access to information — the world in your hand, really. It is almost sci-fi stuff. The creators of the Jetsons were almost right — they thought our watches would be phones, but it turns out our phones are watches, and a whole lot more.

Although it feels like smartphones are everywhere already, this isn't really the case; even in the United States, where smartphones are booming, only 17-20 percent of mobile device users have a smartphone — everyone else has "just" a cell phone. Adoption of smartphones has accelerated considerably lately, however, and this trend will continue, and with it you will have access to truly incredible amounts of information, tasks and activities. Despite how ubiquitous they feel already, in truth we have not seen even the beginning of the extent to which smartphones will be a part of the traveling life.

7. The Internet
Why even try to explain this one? Of course the reason that Sabre is important, and laptops are important, and the cell phone/smartphone is important, is because of the Internet. There is almost nothing you can't do from the road using the Internet — you can even set up a Twitter burglar alarm to let you know if your home is being ransacked while you are away — and there is only more to come. Enough said.