The Golden Age of Holidays:
Then or Now?
Imagine a world in which your flight includes a three course lobster dinner, in a cabin brimming with legroom and glass dividers that could shatter during turbulence.
Now imagine a world in which flying is the safest form of travel, where you are treated to endless forms of in-flight entertainment and just enough room to do in-flight exercises.
These are just a few of the differences between the 1950s and the present day, two eras that couldn’t be more different as far as the jet-set were concerned.
The former, known as the ‘Golden Age’ of holidays, was a time of complimentary luxuries and the promise of adventure. Today, on the other hand, commercial air travel is more renowned for cramped cabins and the chore of getting through airport security.
But when you dig deeper, which era actually is the Golden Age of Holidays? Then or now?
The words ‘aeroplane’ and ‘comfort’ don’t really go together, do they? When we think of flying, we think of swollen ankles and aches and pains, but this wasn’t always the case…
Holidaying during the 1950s was all about comfort, space and, most of all, luxury. Walking into first class was like walking into a modern hotel room, while economy was more akin to the business class cabins we see today. In fact, passengers right across the aircraft benefited from three to six inches more legroom than we’re offered on modern aeroplanes.
Comfort was a huge priority. The higher stewardess-to-passenger ratio meant that travellers were waited on hand and foot, while design flare was incorporated into everything from the silverware to cabin interiors.
No wonder passengers felt like something akin to royalty.
That is, if you ignore how noisy and bumpy their piston-powered aeroplane was. The planes of yore vibrated fiercely, and were often grounded due to ‘adverse’ weather conditions. They even struggled to make medium and long-haul trips without multiple stopovers, which meant that travelling anywhere could be a boring, frustrating process, especially with the lack of in-flight entertainment available. But more on that later…
The present day
Today, luxuries outside of first class are few and far between.
While our flights pass in relative tranquility, and most can be completed in one direct journey, we have to endure cramped legs and boring, but functional cabins.
Home comforts don’t come cheap, either. Meals, snacks and drinks often come at an extra price, while unlike the ‘Golden Age’ of holidays, alcohol isn't poured straight from the bottle and served in a glass. It comes pre-measured, packaged in a can, and is drunk from plastic cups.
In business class and first class, it’s a different story.
Here, passengers delight in extra legroom and space to recline their seat without bothering the person behind. In some planes there are curtains to draw around your seat when you want to catch 40 winks, and pod-like seats that mean you aren’t squeezed between other travellers in tightly-packed rows.
One of the most divisive aspects of flying in the modern age is, undoubtedly, aeroplane food. Dubbed tasteless and disgusting, many people long for the days when plane fare was more tempting…
Once upon a time, your in-flight meals were delivered with silver service. You could indulge in a three course meal with soup to start, meat and vegetables for main and a hearty dessert. You could even have your beef carved in front of your very eyes by a smiling air hostess.
And the best part? This all came part and parcel of your journey, whichever class you were flying in.
Many airlines even offered lobster dinners, lavishing as much luxury onto their loyal passengers as possible.
We won’t deny that our mouths are watering at the prospect of such indulgent aeroplane food, but there is one thing to remember: although free, it did come at a price. Flying was an extraordinarily expensive pastime that was usually reserved for the very wealthy, who would expect nothing less than a spot of lobster at 20,000 feet. However, you’ll hear more about that further down…
The present day
Aeroplane food as we know it today definitely isn’t something to write home about (unless you are flying in first class with airlines like Emirates, Virgin and Singapore Airlines, where passengers can expect stir-fried lobster, roast chicken, seared prawns and partnerships with top chefs).
These days, aeroplane meals rarely come free outside of longer haul flights, and even then leave a lot to be desired. Nowadays, we are greeted with grub that’s either high in spice or overly – varying between curry dishes or meat and sauce (usually chicken or fish), with a side of uninspiring vegetables and a bread roll.
Pretty uninspiring, isn’t it? Well, aeroplane food has evolved this way for a reason.
Firstly, the travel industry was deregulated, which led to a host of companies clamouring to offer passengers the lowest-price fares. This meant cutting down on luxury to make up for lost revenue: in this case, food quality.
Secondly, there are the changes our taste buds undergo at high altitude, meaning all of that lavish 1950s cuisine may not have tasted so great after all. The altitude, coupled with the dry atmosphere of the plane cabin, can drop our perception of saltiness and sweetness by around 30 per cent. Not only that, but arid cabin air dries out our nasal passages, dulling the olfactory sensors that help us distinguish different flavours.
The question is, would you rather eat semi-tasteless beef, or saltier-than-usual chicken and gravy?
The in-flight entertainment
Some people maintain that we live in a world where we care more about our gadgets than what’s going on around us, but you can’t deny that they come in very handy when we need a distraction. One thing is for sure: the passengers of the 1950s must have had admirably high boredom thresholds!
In the 1950s, airlines provided no in-flight entertainment whatsoever! Well, not what we’d consider entertainment today, anyway.
Instead of films and games consoles, passengers had postcards.
These were handed out as you boarded the plane, free of charge, so you could while away your flight writing home to a loved one about your impending adventure. Once you’d finished your postcard, however, and hadn’t thought to pack some reading material, you were stuck in the same predicament – there wasn’t even an option to plug in headphones until 1985!
Instead, one could drink as much alcohol as one could manage, free of charge and served in a real glass, just like on the ground. As you partook in a cheeky tipple or five, you could light up a cigarette and smoke in any area of the plane, meaning spacious cabins quickly filled up with clouds of noxious smoke. It makes all of the effort spent on impressive décor (or, in the case of Air France, on paintings commissioned from artists) seem like a bit of a waste, as it was often all lost in the haze.
The present day
What a stark contrast it is to the wealth of distractions we have today. Our terminals are filled with shops selling books, newspapers and magazines. We can also take portable games consoles on board aeroplanes, as well as iPads, iPods, eReaders and our mobile phones.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Aeroplanes are equipped with television screens showing newly-released films and a huge variety of television programmes, not to mention technology that offers passengers the option to plug in their headphones and choose from a range of radio stations.
It’s near-impossible to get bored on a flight nowadays.
Many passengers get nervous about the thought of boarding a big lump of flying metal to travel to another country. However, modern aeroplanes are incredibly safe – an advancement that could only have arrived after learning from the failings of the ‘Golden Age’.
Despite all that comfort and luxury, the stark truth is that flying during the 'Golden Age' was, statistically, far more dangerous than it is now. Aeroplane crashes and in-flight accidents were terrifyingly common, with fatal accidents occurring about once every 200,000 flights during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s an unpleasant statistic to stomach, but not surprising when you think about it.
1950s aeroplanes were largely about aesthetics and indulgence, with much less consideration given towards safety.
For example, those low ceilings and inferior seatbelt designs meant that a patch of turbulence could cause serious injury! Those fancy glass dividers separating first class from economy were a risk during turbulence too, and could shatter over passengers.
Even walking to the toilet had its dangers: one stumble and you could land on top of some of the aircraft’s extravagant décor. We can’t imagine coming off too lightly after making contact with the sharp corner of a table!
Safety measures were often basic. Our modern escape slides were made out of fabric until the late 1950s, incorporating an almost identical approach to those used to evacuate burning buildings in the 19th century!
The first real advance towards better safety standards came when these slides were redesigned. The newer version incorporated a central tube, with two side-rail tubes, but still had drawbacks. Being so bulky, five separate operations were required to position and inflate the slide – all after the plane door was opened. The entire process took around 25 to 38 agonising seconds…
The present day
Modern flights might be far less comfortable than they were back in the day, but the fact that we’re living in the Golden Age of Safety more than makes up for it.
Where fatal accidents occurred around once every 200,000 flights during the 1950s, they now occur less than once every 2,000,000 flights. In fact, the worldwide safety record is now ten times better than it was back then.
We have huge advances in aeroplane safety to thank for that.
Modern seat design ensures that seats stay in place and absorb energy during impact. Not only that, but the actual seat backs are designed to protect those sitting behind from head injuries.
Secondly, there are the fire precautions. Aeroplanes are now full of fire-retardant materials, with the bottom half of the fuselage insulated with materials specifically designed to resist burn-through from fuel fires. Then there are the smoke detection and fire extinguishing systems, oxygen masks, life jackets, practical yet sturdy escape slides, and lights leading the way to emergency exits.
Affordable foreign holidays are something we tend to take for granted. In the 1950s, on the other hand, a jaunt to the seaside was considered a treat.
One of the things about holidaying in the 1950s that certainly wasn’t golden, was the cost.
Take high season: to most of us modern folk a week’s package trip to Spain wouldn’t break the bank, but back then, it would have cost around £35 per person.
That’s the equivalent of £1,026 in today’s money!
It’s also almost five times the average weekly wage for the time, which came in at around £7.08.
Nowadays, a trip to Costa Brava costs around £558 per person.
The present day
We’re very lucky to live in an age of low cost travel that can be accessed with just a few taps of a keyboard, as opposed to an appointment made with your local travel agent. Flights can now be bought ludicrously cheaply (albeit at the cost of in-flight luxuries), while hundreds of websites clamour to offer itchy-footed travellers special deals, all-inclusive package holidays and last-minute offers – and not just to places like Europe.
It doesn’t matter whether you want to go on safari or relax in Caribbean luxury, you are bound to uncover some kind of deal.
There are even companies offering wildlife tours to far-flung places like Guyana, complete with a full package of travel, accommodation, food and the guided tour, all in one.
Back in the 1950s, even those who could afford to travel would never have dreamed of this kind of adventure becoming an accessible and reasonably-priced reality.
Ah, 1950s fashion: a combination of striking dresses and personally tailored suits that still influence clothing trends to this day. Holidaymakers went all out with their clothes back then…
Holidaying in the 1950s was a big event, which meant that you dressed appropriately. It wasn’t unusual to see passengers boarding aeroplanes in their finest frocks and sharpest suits – some women even wore corsages!
And the fashion show didn’t end once everybody had vacated the aeroplane.
Beaches and streets were peppered with tourists sporting slacks and shirts, sundresses and full skirts: clothing with as much focus on comfort, practicality and social norms as sophisticated style. Even the effortless and enduring combination of cigarette trousers and Breton tops wasn’t uncommon among women during the latter half of the 1950s.
Swimwear, too, made waves, with pieces like high-waisted bikini bottoms, long-line tops, full-cup tops and swimsuits incorporating low-cut legs and side-ruching that still influences swimwear today.
The present day
Although some vintage fashions still grace modern shopping rails, the style of our holiday garb is dramatically different 60 years later.
Instead of dressing to the nines for plane journeys, it’s more common for today’s Brits to wear things like sandals, vests, t-shirts and shorts, regardless of the weather back home! This longing for sun, sea and sand reaches a crescendo on arrival at our destinations, where the focus is on baring as much skin as possible in pursuit of a glowing tan.
The colour of our clothes is generally much brighter and more vibrant – reflecting the sunny promise of an escape from dull and gloomy England – and commonly involves items like miniskirts, crop tops, shorts, sandals and sky-high heels.
It’s easy to take for granted the number of destinations we can visit today. Imagine living through the 'Golden Age of Holidays', where a trip to Spain was considered an exotic and far-flung adventure!
Holidaying in the 1950s was still very much about home soil, especially since annual holiday time in the UK consisted of, on average, around 10 days, and costly trips abroad were mainly the reserve of the middle and upper classes.
During this decade, the phenomenon of the humble holiday camp took off.
Butlins was, undoubtedly, the king of them all, catering to families with numerous camps offering a no-frills, no-stress experience filled with silly games and communal dining halls.
Different families bonded over knobbly knees competitions and evenings spent dancing. They couldn’t get enough.
Others leaned towards the sunny shores of Britain’s beaches. Blackpool boomed and attracted northerners in their hoards, while Brighton was the glittering destination of choice for those in the south. People rarely ventured too far from their part of the country – a trip to Torquay for somebody from Yorkshire would have seemed very exotic indeed!
Not that those flying abroad had plenty of choice: the large holiday resorts found across the Mediterranean and beyond hadn’t yet been developed, which meant a jaunt to France's cosmopolitan Côte d'Azur was usually the order of the day. However, the late 1950s saw a surge in popularity of the package holiday, opening up the exotic worlds of Corsica, Palma and Costa Brava to holidaymakers hungry for the sun.
The present day
Fast-forward to the present day and we can visit almost any destination on the planet!
Whether you want a week in the sun in Tenerife or the experience of a lifetime in Madagascar, you can make your dream holiday a reality. Even places that most people would never have dreamed of reaching in the 1950s are completely accessible.
Adventurous types and nature lovers are regular visitors to exotic lands like the Galapagos Islands and Papua New Guinea, where they can glimpse rare birds, trek through rainforests and meet local tribes.
Culture vultures can visit places like Italy, China and Japan to soak up the rich wealth of history, while those seeking a challenge can climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – all bookable with just a few taps on a smartphone screen or computer keyboard.
The possibilities are endless, especially with the 25 days annual holiday to which many of us are now entitled.
Even the most crowded holiday resorts were, at some point, quiet local towns. When commercial aeroplane travel took off, however, many towns transformed beyond recognition.
Once upon a time, sleepy Spanish villages were still just that. Tranquility reigned and tourists were few and far between – the perfect environment in which to get away from it all.
Take the Catalan coast. In 1954, it was not made up of high-rise hotel complexes, but of quaint fishing villages and about half a dozen tiny hotels. The average Catalan village held just a couple of bars and a few restaurants offering cheap local cuisine, and a single shopkeeper who changed traveller's cheques.
It’s hard to get more idyllic than that.
It isn’t hard to see just why foreign countries held such allure for travellers who wanted to experience something different. However, this kind of holiday was just a dream for some, and the vast majority of Britons spent their time off at home instead.
We loved to be beside the seaside back in the 1950s, with Blackpool becoming a top destination for travellers. Beaches became so packed that, viewed from above, it was difficult to see the sand for all of the towels and tourists.
Visitors didn’t just go for the day, either. They went for a proper holiday, staying in guesthouses and B&Bs. Hotels were still the preserve of the wealthier classes.
At holiday camps like Butlins, guests stayed in simple chalets or caravans, and had the run of a holiday park peppered with swimming pools, fun activities and communal dining halls where they could mingle and chat with fellow guests.
The present day
Nowadays, holiday resorts are dramatically different. Our British beaches, once overflowing with activity, now offer much more room to spread out your towel, while the overseas resorts of the 1950s are now anything but exclusive.
Once the Catalans caught onto the magnetism their destinations held for foreign travelers, they began developing holiday resorts to lure in more holidaymakers.
Countries across the globe soon followed suit, but there are still plenty of places offering peace, quiet and culture.
One joy of travelling in the modern age is the number of destinations and resorts offering atmospheres and experiences for every taste. Some places are loud, vibrant and cater to party animals. Others are adults only, while many are family friendly, offering special facilities and clubs for children.
At the other end of the scale, some resorts are very isolated, offering luxury and complete tranquility to those who want to leave the rat race behind.
And the Golden Age of Holidays is...
Will it be the fabulous 1950s or the magnificent modern age?
It has been a difficult decision to make, but after much deliberation and some serious research, we have concluded that the 1950s may not have been quite so golden after all.
Although a time of beautiful fashions, gourmet plane food and room to stretch your legs, it was also a time of fatal accidents, lax safety measures and restrictive holidays.
That’s right: we are living through the Golden Age of Holidays now!
Impressive advancements in technology and design have significantly improved safety standards, making flying statistically the safest way to travel. Not only that, but we can now travel virtually anywhere on the globe, and snag a last minute trip to Europe for comparatively little.
We have more annual leave from work, resorts to suit our differing needs, and plane food we can actually taste properly, even if it can be less than inspiring.
Yes, we’d love to fly in a spacious and luxurious plane cabin, wearing our loveliest dresses and best suits, but it’s a small price to pay for safety and the opportunity to embark on a real, far-flung adventure.
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