Bad hotels, worse food, and clouds of cigarette smoke: What holidays in the 1970s were really like

Anthony Peregrine
·9 min read
No riff-raff - Getty
No riff-raff - Getty

Contemplation of the 1970s is breaking out all over, possibly as a refuge from the awfulness of the 2020s. In general, it is treated with levity, a cartoon decade of lava lamps, Bay City Rollers, disco balls, bean bags and all the gaiety that was Hugh Scanlon. That said, it was also my heyday, partly because I roared through it fuelled by Party Sevens, Players N°6, and the fact that I looked pretty good in loon pants.

And partly because I suddenly became old enough to travel. The Seventies and I had our moments. This is how it was when overseas was less foreseeable and less hygienic, and few people were interested in pictures of your meal in Budapest. (They still aren’t, but the message got stalled somewhere.)

Anthony is the devilishly handsome chap on the left
Anthony is the devilishly handsome chap on the left

Overland to India

Among 70s moments I didn’t have was the one where you Magic Bus-sed it via Kathmandu to some ashram out east. Everyone else did – the trip is in every single 1970s travelogue – but, even to one with standards as low as mine, it sounded like filth, and hell, on wheels. For what? To take drugs – I always preferred Watneys – and/or hang around with a wizened bloke with a beard and a sheet to be enlightened. Friends of mine went. They’d return, ragged and radiant. “Found myself,” they’d cry. “Me too,” I’d say. “There you are!” Enlightenment and drugs had generally slowed them down. “Tell me all about it,” I’d say, and then leave at once.

Planning

These days, travel planning may take longer than travel. Limitless websites – airline, hotel, villa, review and price comparison, “the best meze in Slovenia” and similar – leave you quivering, sleepless, at dawn. Back then, there were two preparatory options. You went to the travel agents and booked a fortnight from the brightest blue of all the brochures. Or, more usually in my case, you loaded people and stuff into a Fiat 126 and set off. This worked OK for a couple of years, though generally caused cramp by Lyon. We tootled around France and Italy, with much to learn. (Passenger One: “Firenze – terrific place, but where the hell is Florence?”)

What could possibly go wrong? - Getty
What could possibly go wrong? - Getty

Tragically, the Fiat croaked one night in Le Puy in the Massif Central. We were two couples crammed in there. We conked out on a town centre car-park and tried to sleep. At 2am, a fellow tapped on the passenger window with a machine gun. He was one of three gendarmes. There had been a bank robbery in the main street and he thought we might have been involved. My French future wife agreed that we might have been. Three young English people and one young Frenchwoman could indeed have pulled off a bank job, jumped into a getaway Fiat 126 and sped off a full hundred yards before pulling over to spend the night in the car. “We are nothing if not professional,” I recall her saying. Irony rarely impresses law enforcers. They had us all out of the car and emptied the damned thing onto the tarmac. Then they left. We pushed the car to a garage next day. Later, it hiccupped heroically home to expire in Lancashire.

Hitch-hiking

Car-less, one joined squaddies, students and associated unemployables on motorway slip roads or on the edge of town, trying to look as unlike a thieving murdering rapist as possible. One way to achieve this was by having an attractive female companion. You’d leave her by the side of the road and hide yourself behind a nearby bush – to emerge, the leering lothario’s worst nightmare, when some bloke in a BMW pulled up.

The chap really ought to be hiding somewhere - Getty
The chap really ought to be hiding somewhere - Getty

There were good people, too, mind. Including a logger who drove me across Oregon and didn’t understand a word I said. “Where you from – Salem?” “No, England.” “Whassat – Eugene?”. “No. England. I’m English.” “Whaddya say – that northa here?” “No. About 8,000 miles west.” “I hear ya right? English? Well, I’ll be goddamned. Son of a bitch. English, you say?” The logger’s perspective on Indian rights, coastal fishing, Lyndon Johnson and logging pay was one I was unlikely ever to get from any other source. We later played pool over pitchers of beer. I’d have had him as an uncle, no question.

Planes

A rare pleasure as air travel was usually the costliest element of a holiday rather than, as now, half the price of a picnic lunch. And it was a pleasure. Airports hadn’t yet ceded control to under-powered illiterates, you were treated as decent person unless you offered evidence (Walther PK automatic, syringe, moustache, etc) to the contrary, and one could smoke from around Row 25 to the back because 1970s science had established that, at 27,000 feet, smoke couldn’t possibly drift forward to Row 24. In truth, 1970s science didn’t give much of a toss about non-smokers. Plus air crews still embraced excess. On exiting the plane, an air hostess friend of mine, and her colleagues, would slide drink-trolley miniatures into the top of their tights – as many as they could fit while remaining upright and not clanking – to ensure evenings went with a swing.

A 747 in the Seventies - Getty
A 747 in the Seventies - Getty

Buses

The Greyhound bus was the poor man’s ticket to the USA, travelling among Americans who, as a Californian friend said, appalled: “Can’t even afford a car.” I’ve rarely been happier than among decrepit cowboys, alcoholic Mexicans, and others whom one could win money at card games simply by changing the rules. “Sevens high, this hand,” you’d say, and sweep up a couple of dollars. Plus you could use the overnight bus for sleeping, saving £££s on accommodation. Showers came with stop-offs in university towns where you’d make for the sports centre changing rooms. Anyone challenged you, you said you were on the Euripides exchange programme from London. And they’d reply: “Say that again; we love your accent.” Then they’d invite you back to their shared house for beer, dinner and to show you off to other residents of Nebraska.

Basics

Back then, accommodation wasn’t reviewed by half the world, so you could still come upon campsites where the bathroom block was built around an open sewer. Things hadn’t been entirely tidied up in the hotel business, either. I recall filthy underwear behind a cistern in St Raphaël, a spot in Paris where surprise was registered that anyone should want a room for a full night (“We price by the hour”) and another in North Wales where we had to step over the recumbent owner to get into the breakfast room. Dead, we feared. Drunk, we discovered. The lady of the house stepped over him, too, to serve us a full English.

Despite the Romans having been leaders in the field, plumbing was something continental Europe hadn’t quite re-mastered by the 1970s but, my, could they do food. My fellow 70s travellers frequently stashed tea, corned beef, Marmite, marmalade and maybe custard powder about their luggage, armour-plating themselves against the greasy unknown. By contrast, I thought that getting away from tea and banana custard was reason enough to go abroad. After years of institutional food, I fell upon seafood platters, spaghetti Bolognese and beef bourguignon as if I’d died and come back as a sybarite. It wasn’t all sunlit uplands, mind. A rogue dish of rabbit despatched me to the bathroom for days, leaving me thinner, greener, wiser and decided never again to use a fake student card to eat at a French university canteen.

"I fell upon seafood platters, spaghetti Bolognese and beef bourguignon as if I’d died and come back as a sybarite" - Getty
"I fell upon seafood platters, spaghetti Bolognese and beef bourguignon as if I’d died and come back as a sybarite" - Getty

Destinations

USA: Weirdly, the 1975 US seemed old fashioned. Macy’s in New York felt like a 1950s department store in Britain. In Kansas City, it was my birthday. We went to a posh restaurant, ordered steak. “You have a wine list?” The waitress looked askance. “Certainly.” She came back with a folded sheet of paper. On one side it said “red”, on the other “white”. “We’ll have red,” I said. “Good choice,” she said. And, in Nashville, my chum caused a ruckus in a bar which turned out also to be a brothel. The police arrived. “Be on the next coach out of town, boys” they said. Just like in Dodge City, c. 1878.

New York in the Seventies - Getty
New York in the Seventies - Getty

Mexico: Magnificent country – as long as you made clear right away that you were British, not American. They’d still rip you off, but with empathy.

Paris: You could, in the 1970s, just keep body and soul together by collecting and returning deposit bottles, as long as you were diligent and your needs few.

Jersey: French hippies – ok, ne’er-do-wells – migrated to the Channel island for the potato-picking season. Maybe still do. They were a surprisingly tough bunch. We got on fine down on the farm, partly because I too could pick spuds all day but mostly because I translated Bob Dylan lyrics into French. (“C’est quoi, un tambourine man?”)

Italy: Sleeping out in the park near Rome’s main station was quite agreeable on two conditions: that you were equal to the larrikins who’d slice the bottom of your sleeping bag with razors to get at your passport and cash and, secondly, that you stirred before the automatic sprinklers came on.

USSR: Never went – but did supply several pairs of jeans to a chap who had heard that selling same on the Moscow streets would fund his trip. We shall never know. He got the whole lot confiscated by Soviet customs on arrival. He returned broke. Russia still owes me.

France: I got a job teaching English to factory workers who didn’t really want to learn English. Then I began using Playboy as a text book. Enthusiasm shot up – and academic progress was impressively brisk, among both sexes. I pass on the tip for free to those presently involved in teaching English to the reluctant.