For a perfect symbol of how travel has changed over the last 20 years, I vote for that little cheese-yellow box of Kodak film. Oh, the debates we had about how many rolls of 24 or 36 exposures to cram into our bags. How we crossed our fingers every time we pushed the shutter button. And then came the antsy wait for the prints to come back from the drugstore. Subtract the rolls that didn’t rewind right, the thumbs in front of the lens, the over-exposed sunsets, and you felt lucky to end up with a dozen or two really terrific shots.

As we look ahead to our 20th Anniversary in 2015, I find myself reminiscing on the past two decades, comparing then and now. I sure wouldn’t trade the speed, reliability and instant gratification of my digital camera for anything. The same goes for e-tickets. (Admit it: at least once in your life, you dumped a backpack or a purse onto an airport floor in the frantic search for a paper ticket that was actually in your jacket pocket.) Travel apps trump half-pound guidebooks full of slightly out-of-date info any day.

Group of people in front of lavender field in Provence
Classic Journeys is founded in 1995, and kicks off with a cultural walking tour of Provence among 8 trip regions in 4 countries.

Way back in ’95, your Bon Voyage party could tag along to the boarding gate at some airports…and you didn’t take your shoes off until it was time to try sleeping on your overnight flight (in a seat with inches of width we’ve kissed goodbye forever). You couldn’t visit Montenegro (because it didn’t exist) or travel to Myanmar (because nobody was allowed in). Somewhere in a drawer, you had an envelope full of leftover French francs that you couldn’t use on your next trip to Italy or Spain. Vive la euro! 

You can probably add a dozen more changes to the list. But here’s one you may not have thought about. In this flatter world – where travelers swim in a sea of Wiki entries and crowd-sourced reviews – it’s gotten harder than ever to have the spontaneous, authentic experiences that are the Holy Grail of avid travelers. Is there a pho shop in Hanoi that hasn’t been rated? An inch of the Inca Trail that hasn’t been Instagrammed? A Croatian village that doesn’t have its own website?

I call it the democratization of travel, and mostly it’s an excellent thing. It opens minds to new ideas and inspires people to head for places they never considered before. But how crazy is it that the easier it becomes to research and travel to destinations, the harder it is to feel like you’ve actually been there in a real, deep-in-your-soul sort of way? Uncounted thousands have crossed Machu Picchu off their bucket lists in the last two decades, but how few of them got more than a drive-by, greatest-hits visit?

This is where our job at Classic Journeys has become extra challenging…and a ton of fun. All along, our idea was to turn left when everybody else turned right, to track down or create experiences that would be one-of-a-kind. One of my co-founders, Steve Snapp, has been heard to joke that, “Edward never met a shepherd he didn’t love.” Guilty as charged! We reward our local guides for connecting us with people and places that don’t show up on other trips. If we can make pasta in a private Amalfi home on top of a cliff, my day is made. Introduce me to a truffle-hunter or a floating farmer in Myanmar or the Quechua children in a remote Peruvian school or a cigar-roller in rural Cuba, and I’m a very happy camper. I love it when we can break down a barrier or shatter somebody’s preconceived notions. One of my favorite shepherds is a Sardinian named Tonino. He makes us lunch and we eat on cork plates in his garden. His only exposure to Americans used to be via SkyTV. Even mainland Italians are outlanders to him. Our time with him shows us a world that we can barely believe still exists. But his eyes have been opened in nice ways too. That’s the power of travel at its best.

Chef preparing fresh pasta.
In 1999, a casual cooking session in a friend’s Provencal kitchen inspires Classic Journeys to create culinary tours in France and Italy.

Finding authenticity is definitely not a static process. We’re on a constant quest for new twists and ways to refresh a trip. Sometimes it takes years to gently convince someone – oh, say, a goatherd – to invite us into his mountainside hut. Much of the originality happens on the fly. We’ve always empowered our guides to go with the flow, to zig off to a one-day village festival that wasn’t in the plan. It’s one of the ways technology has made a huge positive difference. A quick text message or email lets us fire off a suggestion or respond to a guide’s suggestion in real time. We’ve been known to look at long-distance weather forecasts and suggest switching a coastal walk to today because it looks more ideal than tomorrow.

Family in Costa Rica
Classic Journeys launches Family Journeys in 2003. Costa Rica tops the list of early favorites.

Travel’s democratization has also made a major difference in how you shop for and book vacations. Everybody has access to just about every pixel’s worth of travel info on the Internet. In our own case, we started when websites were still optional. Our original site had a couple of dozen pages; we’re up to thousands now. Google the phrase “Tuscany tour”, and you get “about 15,500,000 results.” You could book who knows how many hundreds of them with a couple of minutes at your computer keyboard…without ever exchanging words with another human. Happily, we see that what hasn’t changed is that travelers still love to talk. A lot of you really crave conversation and need it more than ever in order to sort through all of the options. You won’t find anyone who’s happier to oblige than we are.

For us personally at Classic Journeys, the most recent change is that we’re heading into our 20th Anniversary Year as the World’s Best Tour Operator in the latest Travel + Leisure Reader Survey. This is our seventh appearance on one of the T+L World’s Best lists in the last 10 years and our first time as #1. Back in 1995, we couldn’t have predicted that any more than we would have said we’d use our iPhone as a flashlight on an after-sunset stroll in a Croatian garden.

I’m just so happy that we’ve been here to see it all. That our style of immersive experiential travel has grown to matter more than ever before. And that travelers who like to get under the skin of a place know that we understand them and can make it happen. I’m not brave enough to predict everything the next 20 years will hold, but I’m willing to bet there will never be an app for that. Explore all of our current tours and trips to find your next adventure.