Business Travel: A Brief History

How has business travel changed over the centuries? And what does this mean for the future of our travels? With large suitcases out, and minimalism in – can luggage’s past help predict its future?

In today’s blog, we’ll look to answer these questions as we dive into the fascinating history of travel.


A quick preamble

Humans have always been travellers by nature, and journeying around the world – for business or pleasure – has a long history.

Business travel has often been the preserve of the wealthier classes. But throughout history, you can find examples of humanity’s basic need to seek out new experiences, and make professional connections with people from far-flung places.

But was there a distinction between different kinds of travel? 

Throughout the Pax Romana, merchants roamed across the continent along dead-straight Roman roads. Credit: Cristina Gottardi


The history of business travel & leisure travel

As long ago as 2000 BC, kings in the Middle East were being praised for providing roads and way stations to aid and protect travellers. By the time of the Roman Empire, travelling for business was an established way of life. Throughout the Pax Romana, merchants roamed across Europe along dead-straight Roman roads, bringing together the mystique of the East and the wildness of the West.

Whether you wanted Iberian steel or Arabian frankincense, you’d be able to find a merchant who’d walked a thousand miles to hawk it in the Forum.

Similarly, leisure travel was so commonplace (at least among the rich) that jaunts to coastal resorts like Baiae in Italy, and spa towns like Bath in England, were both perfectly normal and extremely popular.

Of course, the concept of “business” travel was slightly more nuanced back in the day. In ancient China, for example, pilgrimages were popular among the nobility, with the wealthy elite making special trips to visit the Five Sacred Mountains. This idea of travelling for religious reasons – business of the soul, if you like – really took off in Europe in the Middle Ages. Pilgrimages to places like Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Canterbury (as immortalised in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) became a standard way to clear your spiritual debts.

Religious orders like the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers even set up hostels for weary pilgrims – arguably giving traction to the modern concept of cheap dorms.


The emergence of travel writing

As with travelling itself, travel writing has also been a constant throughout history. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, could almost be considered a proto-Bill Bryson – but writers had been chronicling their adventures for centuries before even Chaucer made it big!

Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer, wrote Description of Greece” in the second century AD, while John Moschos – a sixth-century Greek monk – wrote about his ancient travels in his Spiritual Meadow. Secular travel pieces also emerged in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in China, with the likes of Su Shi and Fan Chengda. Soon after, Europe followed the trend in the thirteenth century with Petrarch and Michault Taillevent.

“I am … setting off for Argos amidst the usual creaking, swearing, loading and neighing of sixteen horses and as many men serving.” – Lord Byron in Albania


Leisure travel & Lord Byron’s “Grand Tour”

Merchant explorers like Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Vasco da Gama soon set off on wild trips to find new, exotic lands – not unlike some of today’s gap year conquistadors. They came back with tales of “lost” tribes, fertile river valleys, and incredibly bizarre new crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peanuts.

But modern leisure travel really took off with the advent of The Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour has been immortalised by tales about Lord Byron and his wild, debauched forays across Europe – seducing men and women alike – while leaving a trail of remarkable stories in his wake. However, the Grand Tour was also a staple for many young, well-to-do European men looking to broaden their knowledge of the world.


Luggage: carriages not cases

“Grand tourists” would travel with an entire retinue of friends, servants, donkeys and hangers-on, and often transported a significant proportion of their worldly possessions with them. Luggage, in those days, essentially had a carriage or two to itself.

With the advent of industrialised transport – both rail and steam – travel became far more accessible to a far greater proportion of the population. If you’ve ever seen the old packing cases or steamer trunks, however, you’ll know that luggage was still vast – and that “packing effectively” meant being prepared for every kind of triumph or disaster.

At a time when you might reasonably be expected to change outfits up to three times a day, your luggage was overwhelming – and even something of a status symbol. Of course, this meant that travelling for business remained quite an undertaking. Alongside your personal packed items, you would probably have to carry bulky goods and wares to sell.

Even if budget airlines had existed at the time, it’s safe to say that the one-bag movement wouldn’t have been quite so popular.

As snail-paced steam ships have given way to stingy airlines, the challenges of travel have evolved. Credit: Emiel Molenaar


Modern travel, modern luggage

And so we get to truly modern travel. Mass tourism and the growth of global commerce and services mean that travelling the world – for both business and pleasure – is now the norm. No longer the domain of a wealthy elite, holidays abroad are now standard practice throughout society and across cultures. The concept of “travelling for work” – even just for a few days – wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

With the increased popularity and flexibility of travel, has come a decline in the size and comprehensiveness of luggage. Giant suitcases and trunks are out. Muleteers are out of business (except on Santorini). And the new watchwords are “minimalism” and “packing light”, rather than “fetch my sixteen horses.” Even the large, wheeled suitcases of only a few years ago are now outdated – with advanced backpacks, capsule wardrobes and more flexible fabrics meaning people can pack lighter than ever and still look smart at dinnertime.

A one-bag style now rules the roost for business and leisure travellers alike. Somewhat more convenient than lugging all your worldly possessions halfway around the globe, the trend for minimalist packing makes business travel in particular easier than ever. In turn, this has transformed business itself. Companies can now send their employees further, faster and for longer periods of time – overcoming the natural bounds of geography.


Ditch that donkey, surrender those suitcases

As history shows, business travel has always been not only popular but necessary – and that’s especially true today. As the opportunities for travel continue to evolve, so too do the methods.

The camel caravans of the tenth century, and the suitcase-wielding salesmen of the twentieth century? They all did the best with what tools they had to overcome the unique challenges of the day.

Now, as highway bandits and snail-paced steam ships are (mostly) giving way to stingy airlines, and laptops are replacing vast quantities of powdered wigs as our most typical possessions – the challenges have evolved. And so has our luggage.

Check out more of our blog to learn more about the right luggage options for you, and how to travel in the most post-Byron manner possible.

1 comment

Loved being reminded of travel from a historical perspective…
We’re older generation but have embraced Minaal’s ‘carry on’ luggage. Last time we checked in bags they went missing for a week (wrong airport) and my husband had to hand wash clothes to attend his conference! Never again.
Minaal replied:
Thanks for the comment Dawn – we’ve got nothing against hand-washing per se but it has to be voluntary, not forced!

Dawn M July 17, 2022

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