Why do we travel?

Ever notice how when you sit still for a few hours without moving, you suddenly get up and find your legs are cramped, or asleep, or feel tense? That’s because they’re not meant to be still…at least not for long. We’re meant to move. Our limbs have to be in motion almost constantly.

Humans have always been on the move. Our skeletons and muscle structures have evolved to facilitate gathering our food, escaping from predators, and to satisfy our animal curiosity. As our brains grew larger, so did our inquisitiveness, and driven by different reasons, humans began to travel.

The Early Explorers

In the Neolithic age we saw the first sailing vessels and the invention of the wheel, both designed to move us around in different ways.

Nomadic hunters and gatherers moved in search of food following seasonally available wild plants and game.

Then Ancient man began to build roads to facilitate the movement of troops through empires, and eventually civilians began to travel in caravans (camel caravans). Travel for the purpose of commerce and trade took explorers to strange lands to meet other people, and bring back riches of unfathomable value.

Wealthy Greeks and Romans began to travel for leisure to their summer homes and villas by the sea in cities like Pompeii and Baiae.

The freedom of travel in the Roman Empire brought many Jews to flourishing cities of the ancient world, and Jesus himself is thought to have traveled a great deal with his disciples.

We know that Vikings had a particular skill for sailing and a keen interest in exploring.

Through perilous voyages they conquered areas such as Iceland and Greenland, and were even the first to accidentally discover America in 985 A.D, when a ship was blown off course on the way to Greenland.

In 1001, Norseman Leif Eriksson sailed back to explore it further and called it Vinland, or ‘Land of Pastures’.

Vinland shows two large inlets, the northern one ending in an inland sea and seeming to represent Hudson Bay, while the southern seems to represent the Gulf of St. Lawrence.


Enter the Dark Ages

In Medieval times, the most notorious travelers were pilgrims and missionaries. Driven by their religious convictions, pilgrims made dangerous journeys to places like Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, and Jerusalem while missionaries traveled to heathen areas to evangelize the people, such as the Celts in Ireland.

In the late 16th century it became fashionable for young aristocrats and wealthy upper class men to travel to important European cities as a crowning touch to their education in the arts and literature, designed to enlighten Europe’s young elite.

This was knows as the Grand Tour. London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome were visited by these grand tourists to expose themselves to the great masterpieces.

The French revolution marked the end of the Grand Tour as was known, and with the coming of rail transit in the early 19th century, travel was revolutionized.

Travel was no longer limited only to the privileged as it became cheaper, easier, and safer to travel. Young ladies began to travel too, chaperoned by an old spinster as was appropriate, as part of their education.

Steam and Steel Age

The Industrial Revolution brought leisure travel to Europe. The new middle class now had the time to travel thanks to industrialized production with efficient and faster machinery. They had more money and more time to relax and take part in recreational activities.

For the first time ever, traveling was done for the sole pleasure of it. This was how Thomas Cook, in 1841, put together the first package holiday in history. He started off with tours in Britain but with his rapid success soon moved unto other European cities, where Paris and the Alps were the most popular destinations.


Cook’s idea to offer excursions came to him while walking from Market Harborough to Leicester to attend a meeting of the Temperance Society.With the opening of the extended Midland Counties Railway, he arranged to take a group of 540 temperance campaigners from Leicester Campbell Street station to a rally in Loughborough, eleven miles away.

On 5 July 1841, Thomas Cook arranged for the rail company to charge one shilling per person that included rail tickets and food for this train journey. Cook was paid a share of the fares actually charged to the passengers, as the railway tickets, being legal contracts between company and passenger, could not have been issued at his own price. This was the first privately chartered excursion train to be advertised to the general public, Cook himself acknowledging that there had been previous, unadvertised, private excursion trains. During the following three summers he planned and conducted outings for temperance societies and Sunday-school children.

In 1844 the Midland Counties Railway Company agreed to make a permanent arrangement with him provided he found the passengers. This success led him to start his own business running rail excursions for pleasure, taking a percentage of the railway tickets.

On 4 August 1845 he arranged accommodation for a party to travel from Leicester to Liverpool.

In 1846, he took 350 people from Leicester on a tour of Scotland, however his lack of commercial ability led him to bankruptcy. He persisted and found success when he claimed that he arranged for over 165,000 people to attend the Great Exhibition in London.

Four years later, he planned his first excursion abroad, when he took a group from Leicester to Calais to coincide with the Paris Exhibition.

The following year he started his ‘Grand Circular Tours’ of Europe.

During the 1860’s he took parties to Switzerland, Italy, Egypt and United States. Cook established ‘Inclusive Independent Travel’, whereby the traveler went independently but his agency charged for travel, food and accommodation for a fixed period over any chosen route. Such was his success that the Scottish railway companies withdrew their support between 1862 and 1863 to try the excursion business for themselves.

Panels from the Thomas Cook Building in Leicester, displaying excursions offered by Thomas Cook


In 1872, he formed a partnership with his son, John A Mason Cook, and renamed the travel agency as Thomas Cook & Son.They acquired business premises on Fleet Street, London. By this time, Cook had stopped personal tours and became an agent for foreign or domestic travel. The office also contained a shop which sold essential travel accessories including guide books, luggage, telescopes and footwear. Thomas saw his venture as both religious and social service; his son provided the commercial expertise that allowed the company to expand.

In accordance with his beliefs, he and his wife also ran a small temperance hotel above the office. Their business model was refined by the introduction of the ‘hotel coupon’ in 1866. Detachable coupons in a counterfoil book were issued to the traveler. These were valid for either a restaurant meal or an overnight hotel stay provided they were on Cook’s list.

Conflicts of interest between father and son were resolved when the son persuaded his father, Thomas Cook, to retire in 1879. He moved back to Leicestershire and lived quietly until his death. The firm’s growth was consolidated by John Mason Cook and his two sons, especially by its involvement with military transport and postal services for Britain and Egypt during the 1880’s, when Cook began organizing tours to the Middle East.

By 1888, the company had established offices around the world, including three in Australia and one in Auckland, New Zealand, and in 1890, the company sold over 3.25 million tickets. John Mason Cook promoted, and even led, excursions to, for example, the Middle East where he was described as “the second-greatest man in Egypt”.

However, while arranging for the German Emperor Wilhelm II to visit Palestine in 1898, he contracted dysentery and died the following year.

Thomas Cook pioneered all the common services that travel agencies undertake for the passenger today: accommodation, travel tickets, timetables, attractions, currency exchanges, travel guides and tours.

Air travel began after World War II, when a surplus of aeronautical technology and ex-military pilots who were more than ready to fly. Only the rich could afford holidays with air fare, whereby an all-inclusive two week holiday in Corsica cost around £ 32 in those days.

The Modern Age

Affordable air travel soon contributed to international mass tourism, pretty much as we know it today. Over the years different developments in tourism have changed the way we travel, such as technology, safety and security, costs, social changes, etc.

The Grand Tourists of the 17th and 18th centuries echo today of the hoards of backpackers and gap-year students who, not content with traveling through one continent, do so throughout the entire world.

Much like the young European aristocrats of the time, we today also consider traveling as a rite of passage, an initiation, a transition, an opportunity for soul searching.

With tourism currents like Eco-travel, Ethical Travel, Volunteering, Mystical tourism, Dark Tourism, Pop-Culture tourism, Cosmetic Surgery tourism, and Independent traveling, the travel industry has reached an apogee never before seen.

So when we wonder why we travel, and where it all started, it might be comforting to think about our predecessors, and how they moved first out of necessity, then for religion, migration, emigration, commerce, enlightenment and finally for pleasure.

Today each of our personal reasons may vary, but one thing is certain: there will never be rest for a species that can only move, move and keep moving.



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