May 24, 2024

20 years of travelling – how backpacking has changed

All this talk about our 20th birthday has made us feel a bit nostalgic. We’re thinking back to a simpler time, when the Backstreet Boys ruled the charts, we were all rocking chokers and dodgy denim, and our first wave of intrepid hostel travellers were booking their beds and setting off on the adventures that changed their lives – and ours!

As we look back from the wise old age of twenty, it’s clear that the backpacking game has transformed over the last two decades. Gone are the days of paper maps and internet cafes – from the places we’re exploring, to the kit in our backpacks, meeting the world in 2019 is a whole different ball game. If you’re wondering how backpacking has changed since we came on the scene, get ready for a major travel throwback!

how backpacking has changed - girl reading map in car

? @leio

Oh, and one more thing. We’re not the type to make a fuss or go on about our birthday or anything… but if you’re stuck on what to get us, we’d be happy just seeing your face at The World’s Biggest Hostel Party. You’ll find us at 20 hostels worldwide throughout August, where you can expect fun themes, crazy challenges and free drinks – what are you waiting for?

Where were we travelling in 1999?

Back when we were just starting out, the historic cities, picturesque green scenery and bargain nightlife of Europe were top of our backpacker’s lists. This hasn’t changed – Europe is still our most visited region – but cities like Dubrovnik and Budapest are no longer ‘off the beaten track’ and beer isn’t cheaper than water in Prague anymore.

how backpacking has changed - charles bridge in prague


The landscape of the Balkans, Europe’s current coolest corner, looks totally different to what it did 20 years ago too. The former Yugoslavian nations of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo still formed one country, as the latter didn’t gain their independence until 2006 and 2008. Due to the Balkan War that devastated the region throughout the 90s, this area was rarely visited by our first wave of hostellers. Nowadays though, the Balkans are safe and thriving – they’re a dream for backpackers who are eager to discover the fairytale-like countryside of Slovenia, beautiful beaches of Croatia, wild parties of Serbia and Bulgaria and vampire legends of Romania.

Over in Asia, Myanmar opened its doors to the world in 2011, and backpackers slowly began to discover its immaculate temples and hot-air balloon filled skylines. Changes to Sri Lanka’s tourism act in the mid 2000s saw the tiny teardrop-shaped island turn from an under-the-radar choice to one of the top backpacking destinations on earth. We can’t believe we were missing out on those epic surfing beaches, flavoursome curries and incredible wildlife experiences for so long!

how backpacking has changed - men on poles fishing on the beach

? @danielklein

And these weren’t the only hotspots that were off-limits to most travellers in 1999.  You probably would’ve been met with gasps of shock horror if you announced 20 years ago that you were headed to Iran on your gap year, and while it’s still likely to make your Nan worry, it’s one of the most exciting and inviting countries for backpackers to visit in 2019. Unless you don’t like colourful mosques, bustling bazaars, traditional tearooms and welcoming locals that is! And while you might have struggled finding somewhere to stay back then, we now have over 80 hostels in Iran to create your perfect Persian adventure!

how backpacking has changed - beautiful palace with pool in Iran

? @morteza_fsh

Similarly, in 1999 Colombia had a reputation as a dangerous, no-go country – something it’s worked hard to shed and make its way to the top of the travel bucket list. Nowadays the chilled vibes of Medellin, quirky colourful houses of Guatapé and pristine beaches of the Caribbean coastline are taking over our Pinterest boards and Insta feeds. In fact, Colombia now has so many hostels that it’s outnumbered only by backpacker originals Thailand and Vietnam – something we never would have predicted in 1999 – and the standard is outrageously good. Just look at Viajero Tayrona Hostel & Ecohabs. It’s got a private beach, outdoor pool, tropical beach bar and luxurious eco habs, and it’s hosting a Sk8ter themed shindig for The World’s Biggest Hostel Party on August 4th!

how backpacking has changed - Viajero Tayrona Hostel & Ecohabs - people playing volley ball

? Viajero Tayrona Hostel & Ecohabs

How were we travelling in 1999?

It’s hard to imagine a time before there was an app for literally everything, a time when we had to think of solutions instead of letting our phones deal with everything *shudders*. Thankfully those dark days are far behind us, but our first generation of adventurers were truly venturing out alone!

how backpacking has changed - woman walking alone with backpack

? @airguitarbandit

For starters, there was no Google Maps to navigate on the other side of the world, so they had to rely on a trusty paper map – awkwardly folding out one of these in the street is the fastest way to label yourself a tourist! And this wasn’t the only extra they had to cram in their backpacks. Hefty guidebooks took up a big chunk of space, but back when there were no inspirational travel bloggers these were a backpacker’s best mate. No smart phones meant that all travel hook-ups happened the old-fashioned way, and there were no handy translation apps to quickly clear up embarrassing communication errors. But the biggest stress was trying to contact home in a pre-Whatsapp world – instant messaging was a futuristic dream, so a 5 page email sent from a dodgy dial up connection in an internet café, or a pricey pay as you go phone call every few weeks were the only ways to update your family on your adventures.

There was no chance of causing envy with your travel snaps either. The word ‘selfie’ wasn’t even invented yet, and you only had one chance to get that killer shot. Film is expensive, and with no way of seeing your shot until you got home and had them developed, you just had to hope for the best – no flicking through hundreds of pictures of the Bali swing in your camera roll! But with no Insta or Facebook feeds to show off our travel galleries, this wasn’t even on our radar. Not to mention that without social media it was virtually impossible to stay in touch with all your new travel friends. And influencers?! Pfft, the most influential thing back then was the third-hand stories from friends of friends who knew the coolest underground bars in Berlin.

how backpacking has changed - map with camera and money

? @chrislawton

Without trusty travel cards, you practically had to be an accountant to work out all the different currencies you needed for a backpacking trip. Interrailing around a pre-Euro Europe in the days before Monzo was a mathematical nightmare! And combine that with the fact we weren’t around yet to help you find incredible hostels, authentic experiences and amazing deals… travellers of the 90s, we take our backpacks off to you!

Where were we staying in 1999?

Today, our ever-expanding global fam consists of 16,500 hostels in 179 countries (our Christmas card list is out of control), but back when we started out our list of properties was in double figures. And it was none other than Avalon House in our hometown of Dublin who joined us first – thanks for the leap of faith guys! They’re still with us today, providing affordable accommodation in the heart of the city, plus a free buffet breakfast, lively games lounge and on-site cinema room with a giant 65” screen!

In fact, several of our faves have been with us since the early days. The insane parties and rooftop BBQs at Kabul Party Hostel Barcelona are still going strong after two decades, and The Yellow hasn’t ever stopped supplying an army of backpackers with the cheapest drinks in Rome (with a nightly capacity of 350+, that’s a whole lot of shots!) Over in Amsterdam you’ve still got a lot of love for Flying Pig Downtown, and with its unbeatable city centre location, buzzing DJ nights and awesome freebies like walking tours, we can’t say we’re surprised. London is a city travellers will never tire of, and the same can be said for St Christopher’s Village’s epic skyline views, cosy capsule beds and legendary burgers. And the warm, family vibes of Hostel Ruthensteiner in Vienna have been welcoming travellers for twenty years too – because who wouldn’t love to jam in their music room while sipping a beer from their very own microbrewery?

how backpacking has changed - kabul party hostel, barcelona, lounge area

? Kabul Party Hostel, Barcelona

It’s no secret that hostels have always been the love of our life, but we have to admit that 1999’s hostel game had nothing on the dreamy dorms of today. While our 90s tribe were happy with a cheap roof over their heads, with so many out-of-this-world properties to choose from today our 2019 travellers prefer something a bit more Insta-proof. And when infinity pools, sunny roof terraces and colourful artwork are par for the course, this isn’t hard to find! Nowadays we can live the Californian dream at a beachfront hippy haven straight out of the 60’s at USA Hostels Ocean Beach, act fancy AF at a traditional Moroccan riad with a beautiful pool or gaze over the Montreal skyline from a rooftop hot tub at M Montreal without breaking our budget. Seriously, has there ever been a better time to pick up that backpack?!

how backpacking has changed - woman sitting on the tiled floor by fountain in a riad

? @dontmesswithreceptionist

Are you an old school backpacker who misses the good old days? Or a first-timer who wouldn’t go anywhere without your legion of trusty travel apps? Let us know about your adventures in the comments below!

P.S, if you love hostels, fancy dress and surprises, then don’t forget to join us at The World’s Biggest Hostel Party. Find out where we’ll be below, or join in the fun on our Instagram page throughout August. Here’s to another 20 years of meeting the world!


August 1st – 1999 – Party like it’s 1999 – Christopher’s Berlin Mitte – Berlin, Germany ??

August 2nd – 2000 – Millennium Party – USA Hostels Ocean Beach – San Diego, USA ??

August 3rd – 2001 – Double Denim Party – Selina Cancun Downtown – Cancun, Mexico ??

August 4th – 2002 – Sk8ter Party – Viajero Tayrona Hostel & Ecohabs – Tayrona National Park, Colombia ??

August 5th – 2003 – Under the Sea Party – Lub D Phuket – Phuket, Thailand ??

August 6th – 2004 – Funky Gym Party – Unite Barcelona – Barcelona, Spain ??

August 7th – 2005 – Jungle Party – M Montreal Hostel – Montreal, Canada ??

August 8th –2006 – Farewell Pluto Party – White Rabbit Hostel Siem Reap – Siem Reap, Cambodia ??

August 9th – 2007 – Pirate Party – Wake Up! Sydney – Sydney, Australia ??

August 10th – 2008 – Lost Temple Party – JO&JOE Paris – Gentilly – Paris, France ??

August 11th – 2009 – Vampire Party – Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv – Tel Aviv, Israel ??

August 12th – 2010 – Greek Myths Party – Puri Garden Hotel & Hostel – Ubud, Indonesia ??

August 13th – 2011 – Witches and Wizards Party – Wild Rover Hostel Cusco – Cusco, Peru ??

August 14th – 2012 – Superhero Party – Rodamon Riad Marrakech Hostel – Marrakech, Morocco ??

August 15th – 2013 – Festival Party – JUNGLE by thehostelcrowd – Goa, India ??

August 16th – 2014 – Emoji Party – Wombat’s City Hostel Venice Mestre – Venice, Italy ??

August 17th – 2015 – #MeetTheWorld Party – Emblem Hostel Nishiarai– Tokyo, Japan ??

August 18th – 2017 – Unicorn Party – O De Casa Hostel Bar – São Paulo, Brazil – ??

August 19th – 2018 – Superstar Party – The Independente Hostel & Suites – Lisbon, Portugal ??

August 20th – 2019 – Birthday Party – Palmers Lodge Swiss Cottage – London, UK ??

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