History of the Holiday



Holidays form the basis of our best stories. They’re those rare occasions when we break free from our daily routine and give ourselves the freedom to focus on new experiences and most importantly ourselves.

The best holidays, those which we remember until the day we die are the ones in which we create these experiences ourselves. We may travel alone, or with loved ones, but what matters is that we have a say about the experience we create.

But where did the first idea to go on holiday come from? Was it a moment of genius, or a case of an individual who was just desperate to be anywhere else but here?

Like any good story, we need to go right back to the start. In our case, that starting point is the Ancient Romans who, when they weren’t busy conquering most of the known world, were infamous for enjoying themselves. We all know about their love of gladiator fights and eating until they were sick, but did they have any concept of what we’d now consider a holiday?

From there we’ll explore how the holiday has evolved over the past 2,000 years, separating the fact from fiction and putting ourselves in the shoes of those enterprising travellers. Finally, we’ll dust off our crystal ball and take a look at what the future might hold.

Roaming around the world

If you took a traveller from Ancient Rome and set them in 21st century Europe, most of life would look and feel completely alien. Our tech would bewilder them, as would the diversity of countries and ways of life.

But, they may take comfort in knowing that the holiday – an idea they first pioneered – is still going strong. The Romans were the first civilization to indulge in what we’d now consider travelling for pleasure. But, rather than the one to two weeks we manage to get away for, wealthy Romans would look to get away for a staggering two years!

Tony Perrottet - author, historian and traveller - explained that the Romans were the first nation to travel because foreign holidays required a period of peace and prosperity. The Roman Empire was the first civilization to enjoy such a period and put the infrastructure in place to allow for holidays to happen.

The work of the army and navy in securing borders and transport against banditry, along with the ever expanding borders of the empire, gave citizens freedom to travel without ever technically leaving Rome’s jurisdiction. This freedom led to the establishment of inns, restaurants and tour guides, everything a budding traveller would need to enjoy their trips.

The Romans even had guidebooks, with Pausanias' Description of Greece setting the standard for what a travel guide could look like. It’s a classic of its kind, providing insights on everything from the geography of Greece through to religious art and architecture via a detour into the details of an ancient ritual.

But, it came in 10 parts and without Kindles, it was more of a shelf filler than something to idly flick through in the Forum as you planned your day. Unless of course, you had a servant or two to lug the different volumes around for you.

Into Darkness

With the Fall of Rome and the ascent of the Dark Ages, the holiday as we know it took a break of its own. Travel throughout the Dark Ages and for much of the medieval period happened for one of two reasons – finding new land to call your own or raiding the lands of your enemies.

The first image to come to mind when most of us think about the Dark Ages is probably of Viking raiders – hardly something that would encourage people to venture beyond their own front door.

This constant threat of battle, combined with unsafe travel routes meant that for most people across Europe, the furthest they ever travelled was to their neighbouring village to celebrate the occasional wedding or holy day.

The exception, (and there’s always an exception) was people who felt a religious calling to embark on a pilgrimage. Such travellers were brilliantly satirised by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, but in reality there were highly structured foundations allowing the medieval pilgrim to tread ancient paths.

The south of Italy acted as a bridge between two of the key pillars of Christian Europe – Rome and Jerusalem – and there was a whole network of inns, traders and monasteries which provided all the support a pilgrim could ever ask for. More ambitious travellers could cover most of Europe on their pilgrimage, as illustrated by Matthew Paris’s 13th century masterpiece - Map Of The Itinerary From London To Jerusalem.

“Wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s [Kublai Khan] dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold” – Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo

If you weren’t up for the life of a pilgrim, but still wanted to travel, your best bet was to become part of a merchant’s convoy. The name Marco Polo may be more familiar to most of us as a swimming pool game, but his fame comes from his epic 24 year long trip, documented in The Travels of Marco Polo. We’d find most of his tales remarkable today, but for his contemporaries, it was his description of how people across China used paper to denote currency that was most shocking. Most of Europe used coins minted from metal and this use of paper was unheard of.

“Wheresoever a person may go throughout the Great Kaan’s [Kublai Khan] dominions he shall find these pieces of paper current, and shall be able to transact all sales and purchases of goods by means of them just as well as if they were coins of pure gold” – Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo

What’s apparent from these different travels is just how long they all took. Without access to anything more sophisticated than a horse or a boat, foreign travel was a lengthy undertaking. And, as with most luxuries from this period, travelling for pleasure was restricted to a tiny minority – those wealthy enough to go without work, but also without any significant responsibilities to discharge in their home towns.

If you were one of these lucky few, then medieval travel would open your eyes to a whole new world. If not, your journeys were probably limited to the occasional trip down the road to celebrate a Saint’s day or the wedding of a family member.

Tudors on tour *


During the Tudor period, leisure travel was reserved for royalty and the court. Holidays taken by monarchs were called “royal progress”, and usually involved the King or Queen travelling to different towns where they would stay, sometimes for as long as a month.

Although some royal progress was taken purely for leisure, monarchs mainly travelled to other towns for publicity. Without Twitter and OK magazine to provide the masses with a quick photo update, the King or Queen rode around each town on horseback, meeting important people and providing the common people with a glimpse of his face. In 1535, King Henry VIII took a progress to present his new wife Anne Boleyn as Queen, and to promote the reformation of the Church.

Progress usually happened twice every year, once in summer and once in winter. As summer saw London rife with diseases, uncomfortable heat and bad smells, progress was particularly popular during this season. An escape to the quieter neighbouring towns provided the court with a chance to relax, hunt and enjoy the warm weather. During winter progress, the monarch travelled around the Thames Valley and hosts provided indoor entertainment and feasts.

The court mainly travelled to nearby towns, with favourites being Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court (such a fond favourite with Henry VIII that it soon became his own), and Nicholas Poyntz’s Acton Court in Gloucestershire. The furthest that Henry VIII travelled on progress was to York.

In June each year, a travel itinerary called a “giest” was published. This provided the court with every important detail about the upcoming progress. Such details included locations, the duration of each stay, instructions on who was to accompany the monarch on the trip, and how much mileage would be covered between stops (usually six – 14 miles per day).

The most popular method of transport for royal progress was on horseback, as it was at the time still the fastest way to travel. Occasionally, the monarch and the court would travel by boat, usually if rivers needed to be crossed.

Hosting the monarch was an honour but hugely stressful and expensive. When Nicholas Poyntz hosted Henry VIII at Acton Court, he built an entire new wing and commissioned new tableware. Hosts were so anxious to ensure that the monarch enjoyed their stay that they even had game shipped in and released into forests to improve the hunting.

It was commonplace for a Tudor monarch’s luggage to extend to dinnerware, tapestries, bedding and even beds!

Generally, around 1,000 people accompanied the monarch on progress. On one occasion, Henry VIII took 4,000 people with him. However, the monarch would often escape to a smaller, private lodging in the grounds of the residence, taking just a select few friends with him.

The Tudors did not have to worry about customs and baggage allowance, which was lucky as it was commonplace for the monarch’s luggage to extend to dinnerware, tapestries, bedding and even beds! In true diva-King style, Henry VIII was usually accompanied by his own cook, organist and choir on his travels. The monarch’s possessions would be organised and packed by officers of the wardrobe, and then placed onto a cart or a mule and unpacked and arranged by the grooms of the Privy Chamber upon arrival.

The length of stay at each location varied from one night to 15 days, however this could change depending on weather, food shortages and the even the outbreak of disease. In 1535, Henry VIII and Anne intended on travelling through the West Country to Bristol as part of their progress, but an outbreak of the plague in the city forced them to abandon their plans and stay for a longer period at Thornbury Castle. Henry VIII was also well known for quickly removing himself from a lodging upon the smallest hint of an illness outbreak.

Renaissance Travel

During the early Renaissance period, travel was mainly used for trade and battle. Means of travel was limited; roads were uneven and treacherous, with robbers lurking and setting traps. Only the rich could afford to travel safely, with groups of soldiers protecting them. Sea travel was also dangerous, with pirates patrolling the seas and storms frequently wiping out whole ships.

Inns provided shelter and were popular amongst travellers. However, they were expensive, dirty and uncomfortable, with guests often sharing single beds. These inns were commonly used by merchants, not by holidaymakers. Those people lucky enough to be on holiday would usually be found staying with friends or relatives, where they could receive the comfort they’d expect to find at home.

The renaissance era saw a rise in the popularity of exploring. Advances in shipbuilding saw galleons replace rowing boats, which encouraged more men to take to the sea in their curiosity for the undiscovered world and to experience sights and sounds that none of their peers ever had. Explorers such as Henry Hudson (with his discovery of the Hudson River) took to the seas and made history. Explorers noted the use of salt as currency in many of the countries that they discovered, which is where the term “salary” came from.

This thirst for adventure was high risk, but brought great rewards – for them and for us. Can you imagine life today without the potato? Or without chocolate? Both are products that we take for granted, but which we have explorers to thank for.

Steaming ahead *


In the 18th century, artists and aristocrats revived the Roman tradition of taking a Grand Tour of Europe. On one such tour, Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein. It is believed that her experiences in Germany and Switzerland inspired much of the story.

Despite being 1500 years more advanced, travel was now more difficult. The old Roman roads had faded away, which made the land harder to navigate and more dangerous to traverse. Those privileged few on a Grand Tour would tend to hop from relative to acquaintance to passing introduction as they searched for places to stay.

This network of acquaintances also underpinned something equally crucial – getting your hands on foreign currency. Tony Perrottet explained that this was done in two ways. The first, and simpler way was carrying your own strongbox of cash, but this was risky and would only get you so far.

The second, more practical way involved carrying letters of introduction. Renaissance travellers would take these letters to the local consulates and be given local currency on the promise of a payment being made back home in their own currency. These letters were travellers’ lifeblood – without them you were reliant on good will and the cash you could carry with you.

Luckily for everyone else, the industrial revolution saw the rise of the steam train, which enabled the common Victorian to up sticks and travel to new locations. With the introduction of the bank holiday in 1871, people jumped aboard these trains to spend the three-day break by the sea, and so the long weekend, shorter holiday as we know it today was born.

For Victorian beachgoers, horse drawn contraptions called bathing machines provided the upper classes with a changing room in which they could slip into their bathing suit whilst travelling from sand to sea.

Donkey rides and sandcastle building quickly became popular, with seaside towns benefiting from the new volume of holidaymakers. Piers popped up along coastlines, and ice cream vendors began to enjoy a roaring trade. Marionette puppets Punch and Judy settled into the seaside scene, with shows attracting huge crowds on the newly fashionable piers. During this period, the Victorians made their name in history as the inventors of the Great British seaside holiday.

Ice cream, fish and chips and piers are all components of the holidays that we still enjoy today, but there were some holiday traditions that lived and died in this era. Famous for their modesty, the Victorians remained covered from head to toe in loose fitting clothing– even whilst on the beach.

Horse-drawn contraptions called bathing machines provided the upper classes with a changing room in which they could slip into their bathing suit whilst travelling from sand to sea. Once at the water’s edge, they jumped quickly into the water so as not to be seen by other beach goers. When they wished to return to their deck chairs, they simply hopped back inside to dry off and change back into their clothes. Some bathing machines even had a “dipper”, whose delightful job it was to wait at the shore and push people into the sea. The dipper would then drag people back into their bathing machine once they had finished swimming.

It was not only the very wealthy who enjoyed trips to the seaside in this era. Blackpool and Southend-on-sea became especially popular with the working classes, with newly built pleasure palaces offering entertainment to visitors. The entertainment included music, dancing, theatre performances, aquariums and zoos. For many, their retreats to the seaside gave them a glimpse of life as they had never seen it before.

Going Global

For the wealthy, holidays were not limited to the seaside. Steamboats allowed travellers to visit different continents and explore new lands.

Photographs taken from this era show wealthy tourists climbing the pyramids in Cairo (before this activity was outlawed), riding zebras and posing with native African tribes. For those travelling abroad, guidebooks were published with useful tips for exploring unknown countries and cultures. In L.C Davidson’s book entitled “Hints to Lady Travellers”, women were given advice on correct cycling attire, tipping abroad, drinking tea in foreign countries and choosing a suitably positioned deck chair aboard a cruise ship.

The most popular foreign holiday destinations in this period were Niagara Falls, Cairo, Oslo, Shanghai and Paris. Foreign hotels welcomed tourists, and travel operators began to set up systems by which tourists could pay for hotels with hotel coupons. Travellers could also obtain local currency using a “circular note”.

These were a practical method for banks with foreign branches to provide a rudimentary currency exchange service. Individuals would pay the bank in their local currency and receive a note promising that value of currency in return. These notes could then be cashed in their destination currency.

Over time, the concept of the circular note would evolve into the Travellers Cheque, something most of us are familiar with today.

Just getting into other countries was a mission in its own right. There was no passport control and crossing borders was notoriously difficult. Travellers and their luggage were frequently searched, and countries placed high taxes on the import of luxury items such as tobacco. Smuggling became a popular way to sneak luxury goods into countries, and many travellers took to bribing customs officers.

The Industrial revolution did open up new means of travel – the Orient Express ferried people across Eurasia, while the steamboat opened up sea travel to the masses. Of course, these journeys still took a lifetime compared to the plane rides we enjoy today – a steamboat crossing from London to New York took an endurance testing nine days.

But, such journeys were iconic and the launch of a new ship would be front page news. We remember the Titanic today as a disaster, but the initial launch was greeted with a wave of optimism. Such travel was an example of all that was great about human progress.

In 1903, the Wright brothers’ pioneering work on the concept of the aeroplane would pave the way for a breakthrough that would change the way the world experienced travel, forever.

The early 1920s saw the rise of entrepreneurial employers such as Henry Ford, who provided higher wages that enabled more people to travel for leisure.

Thanks to mass production, automobiles were now affordable and could be purchased by those other than just the very rich. The automobile quickly became the favourite mode of transport for holidaymakers, because it was cheap and provided more freedom than steam trains.

For mass travel, trains and boats were still the most widely used mode of transport, with more and more people beginning to explore more exotic, foreign nations. This saw the rise of the suntan, and bronzed skin became a sign of status and something that was envied.

Towards the end of the 1920s, air travel was advancing at a great pace. Although aeroplanes were at this point used mainly for mail delivery, people were beginning to imagine the ease and speed of holiday travel by air.

In 1928, a German airship named Graf Zeppelin carried 20 passengers and 43 crew members in the first ever commercial flight. In September the following year, Graf Zeppelin landed its first round-the-world flight.


Wealthy New Yorkers meanwhile, would adopt the old Tudor habit of vacating the city for the summer. These excursions are where our use of the word vacation to describe a holiday come from. People would literally vacate Manhattan for the summer, enjoying the kind of trip to Long Island or the Hamptons we see celebrities take today.

Winging it *


Holidays truly came into their own in the 20th century. Thanks to the likes of Harry Warner and funfair entrepreneur Billy Butlin, there were around 200 holiday camps at different seaside locations in the UK by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Post-war and into the affluent 1950s and early 1960s the holiday camp industry thrived. This was further helped by the introduction of two weeks paid holiday and a level of prosperity that gave the young, free and single spare cash for clothes, luxuries and holidays.


Whilst today, British holiday parks like Centre Parcs spoil guests with added extras like luxurious spa treatments, water slides and a list as long as your arm of sporting activities from rock climbing to archery, back in the 50s knobbly knees contests, human pyramids, tombola and three-legged races were top of the agenda – and were also free!

Where trains made travel within land masses easy, the aeroplane put foreign holidays within the reach of the general public. By the 1970s holiday camps were deemed a relic of the past and were shunned in favour of the package holiday - new, exciting and above all cheap!

In the UK Thomas Cook began promoting foreign holidays in the early 1950s with charter flights marking the first mass holiday packages to the likes of Corsica, Palma, Sardinia and of course the Costa Brava. With the promise of Mediterranean sun, wine at nine pence a bottle and "meat-filled meals" what was there not to like?

But what started out as trips to idyllic fishing villages with half a dozen tiny hotels and a couple of bars quickly turned into a full-blown industry in its own right. Whole new cities emerged across the Spanish mainland, complete with skyscrapers, swimming pools, tennis courts and endless bars and nightclubs. Not to mention the en-suite bathroom, shower and bidet. Brits were amazed and confused by these in equal measure.

According to Dr Susan Barton, the author of Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, “In terraced houses in the UK in the Fifties and Sixties, the toilet would be at the bottom of the garden. And you wouldn't have a bidet or shower. British people liked a bath…no one knew what bidets were. I was told of tourists complaining that the baby's bath was too small. But in the Seventies and Eighties there was a spate of bidets in British bathrooms. I think people had them just to look adventurous and cosmopolitan."

By 1972 Spain had established itself as the favourite destination of the British abroad, and the once beautiful Benidorm was named the "Manhattan of Spain", with the highest number of skyscrapers per capita in the world.

Over the next decade or so these package holidays began attracting more specific audiences – from honeymooners and families to the fun-loving Club 18-30 crowd.

However the advent of budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair and online travel booking sites like Expedia in the late 1990s suddenly saw consumers switch to putting together their own holidays, with just 15% of Brits now saying they were planning on booking an all-inclusive holiday in 2016.

By 1972, Spain had established itself as the favourite destination of the British abroad, and the once beautiful Benidorm was named the “Manhattan of Spain”, with the highest number of skyscrapers per capita in the world.

Travellers became more independent, no longer valuing the hand-holding offered by a package holiday, the too-tanned-and-cheerful reps and cheesy organised excursions.

Instead they wanted new experiences, discovering hidden gems off the beaten track that they could call their own. From tracking orang-utans in Indonesia and then catching a fishing boat to the Gili Islands to horse-back riding in Argentina and then onto Brazil through the Iguazu Falls, people from all over the world wanted to explore, on their own terms.

It’s not just planning our own holidays that intrigues us today. The last decade has seen a huge rise in travel shows filling our TV screens. From Michael Palin, Louis Theroux and Richard E Grant to Gino’s Italian Escape, Las Vegas with Trevor Macdonald and Country Wise with Ben Fogle… whether you’re on Netflix, Amazon Prime or a more traditional cable TV package, there’s a travel show out there to inform, inspire and entertain everyone.

Our thirst for discovery and unique experiences shows no signs of being quenched as new generations get the travel bug. Each year a fresh batch of gap-year students set off post-exam results to backpack round the world, joining the late twenty-somethings taking sabbaticals from their careers, the honeymooners who are having one more adventure before settling down to have kids and the empty nesters, finding yoga and spending three months in an ashram in North India. Our search for the ultimate adventure, whatever our age or circumstance, continues.

Goldsmith not needed

The 1970s saw the growth of non-bank foreign exchange providers, which gave consumers an easy way of getting hold of foreign currency when going abroad. Going from the high street to the seaports and ferries and then finally into airports themselves, by the mid-80s the bureau de change was a staple part of the holiday industry and a fast and easy way for travellers to get their hands on local currency. We’ve come a long way from going to the local silver or goldsmith!

In 1976, the first Travelex store was opened in Southampton Row, London by entrepreneur Lloyd Dorfman. As we celebrate our 40th birthday this year, Travelex has grown from that one store to over 1,400 stores across 29 countries.

Tomorrow’s holiday


Why do holidays capture our imagination, and why are we so obsessed with creating new experiences for ourselves? The answer is that it’s in our nature. Our history is one of pioneering, of uncovering new frontiers and asking ourselves what’s next. It’s why in 2016, we’re sat asking ourselves what future holidays will look like.

What’s next is what drove us to explore new horizons, to see what was on the far side of the ridge and to venture beyond the confines of our planet. We don’t ask that because we’re dissatisfied with what we can do today. We ask because it’s human nature to be constantly exploring and asking what comes next. And for travel, the obvious next is space.

Space travel has always captured our imagination. We dream of visiting the moon and beyond. But, for the first time in human history we’re now seeing serious effort being put in to creating actual colonies in space. That effort is coming from Elon Musk and his Space X project. Musk has a stated goal of helping humanity create a sustainable living environment on Mars, but sadly, he doubts he’ll be alive to see it.

However, for our grandchildren and their children, the prospect of holidaying on Mars is a very real possibility. More than that, it’s something which actively excites our imaginations – 51% of brits said they expected holidays in space to be common by 2116.

Elon Musk has stated his goal of helping humanity to create a sustainable living environment on Mars, but sadly, he doubts he’ll be alive to see it.

In the meantime, a short trip to space is becoming an option – even if only for the very wealthy. But, as we’ve seen throughout our deep-dive into the history of the holiday, what starts as a luxury for the wealthy almost always becomes accessible to the rest of us one day. 700 people have already signed up to fly into space with Virgin Galactic, and they will surely be the first of many.

For people who can’t wait that long, what do holidays of the next 10-15 years hold? We’re likely to see improvements in the form of technology, with a report by Skyscanner suggesting that in 2024 we’ll no longer interact with humans when we arrive at a hotel. Instead our hotel rooms will be fully digital, where even our pillows will contain electronic features to wake us up in the morning.

The deep seas will also become open to us as a travel location. There’s so much to see and experience down there, some will question why we’d ever want to go to space? Why go and see blackness, when you can see the wonders of the deep seas.

It’s impossible to consider how we’ll holiday in the future without considering the impact of consumer friendly virtual reality devices.

Who wouldn’t want to check out their Tenerife villa, New Forest yurt or Caribbean cruise liner before handing over the deposit?

And, by integrating the latest reviews into the virtual experience you can peruse each element of, say, a cruise ship and get not only a visual sense of the magnificent dining room but a factual sense as to whether the service is Raymond Blanc or Basil Fawlty.

Marriott hotels are already offering virtual reality services to their clients and we’ll see more and more chains offer the same in the future. Tools like the Oculus Rift make virtual reality something all of us can enjoy, rather than a hobby for the techy few.

We may never be able to travel back in time, but through our future trips we’ll capture the spirit of exploration that drove our ancestors to travel.

Whether we’re plumbing new depths or ice-skating on Mars, the holiday will continue to capture our imaginations. We’ll continue to push the boundaries of our own experiences, striving to achieve those perfect moments we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

What era should you holiday in?

When would be the dream time period for you to holiday in? Take our quiz and find out where a time machine should take you.

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Start quiz

In a perfect world, how long would you spend on a single holiday?

A couple of years - time to really relax

2-3 weeks - enough time to switch off, but I can't just leave forever

A few days at most

Where is your dream destination?

A city break - taking in the cultural aspects of my surroundings

Something adventurous - take me skiing or on a trek somewhere man doesn't normally go

The seaside - find me a sunbed, a pier, some fish and chips and I'm happy

What do you enjoy eating when you're away?

Mediterranean cuisine all the way

A large bowl of pho - preferably cooked in front of me

Fish and chips - with or without the mushy peas

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