Summer of '76

Getting to Europe in the ’70s

Icelandic ad from autumn 1975

Icelandic ad from autumn 1975

Americans hiking around Europe came there in a variety of ways, just like they used a variety of ways for getting around the continent once there. The undisputed “hippie airline” was Icelandic (or Loftleiðir). In the 1960s and 1970s airfares from the US to Europe were regulated by IATA (the International Air Transport Association). However, Loftleiðir was not a member of IATA, and so free to set its own rates for the crossing. That also limited them to where they could land in Europe. Fortunately for them, Luxembourg worked as a gateway, and was centrally located on the continent.

When Loftleiðir (which became Icelandic Airlines in 1973) announced that they could fly you to Europe, with a stop in Iceland on the way, for often much less than the other airlines, the young people responded. For many an American college age backpacker, stepping off a plane at Findel Airport in Luxembourg was their first contact with Europe. (The savvy ones among them knew to take the city bus into town, thereby saving some money compared to the airport shuttle busses).

While Icelandic was the “hippie airline”, that’s not to say that there were not many young Americans who flew in on the other airlines of the day: Pan Am, TWA and others. While most travelers flew in and out of the same airport, others chose to start their European journey on one end of the continent and leave from another part. It all depended on what they wanted to do while in Europe.

In 1977 a new player entered the scene: Sir Freddie Laker’s Skytrain. His business idea was simple: Low, low fares. No reservations. Tickets sold on day of travel, first come, first served. The first no frills airline. Service was from Gatwick outside London to JFK in New York. I spent 3 days in line at Gatwick in August 1978, waiting to get on a flight. It was actually a fun time waiting. Kids had brought guitars and we all made friends and looked out for each other. Folks from the airline came by and updated us every so often. Early each morning they handed out cards to the number of people at the head of the line who would be able to purchase tickets that day and fly out that afternoon. By the time the plane landed in New York, everyone cheered and applauded.

Getting to Europe (and back) was part of the experience. When you were planning to travel Europe on $10 a day (or maybe even less), a no frills flight fit right in. And honestly, flying on those flights was really more pleasant than many a flight I take today, in a totally different airline environment.

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