Once the privilege of fashionable aristocrats seeking cultural, historical and artistic fulfilment, the grand tour of Europe is now within the grasp of most people.
Cheap flights, high-speed trains and better roads – as well as low-cost accommodation - have opened up new opportunities for the modern tourist, where once only large sums of money would permit them to navigate the vast expanse of Europe. And, as you might imagine, the way in which grand tourists made their journeys has undergone quite the transformation over the years.
Forget the battle to reduce your baggage allowance, the grand tourists of old didn’t merely pack clothes. The finest cloths, furniture, ornaments, book collections and even servants came along for the ride, all crammed aboard elaborate carriages. It simply wouldn’t do back then to endure any level of discomfort in the quest for culture – and other less admirable pursuits.
Agonising over purchasing gifts at the airport Duty Free certainly wasn’t a concern for our well-to-do ancestors. Fine wines, cheeses, extravagant self-portraits and colossal tomes were transported across Europe to flaunt in front of high society back home.
But to re-live the style of travel experienced by those moneyed people of yesteryear, would it be so expensive today? Our nerds have crunched the numbers to see how much it would really cost to travel as the grand tourists did throughout history.
From the immense wealth squandered by nobility to the penny-pinching of more meagre travellers, we look at the price of travel during the heyday of the Grand Tour, and what it would cost today, using accounts from some historical wanderers.
The Seventeenth Century
Rich travellers from Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands all embarked on grand-tours to garnish their minds with culture. But what they permitted themselves to spend on a trip varied greatly between the countrymen.
For Dutch travellers, a grand-tour could easily cost them around two thousand guildersi - the equivalent of between £28,380 and £51,280 today, depending on the year of travel. But this sum pales in comparison to the vast wealth frittered away by other European nobles, who insisted on bringing their servants from home, despite the expense.
The big spenders
While we may not feel the need to live to such excesses while meandering the continent, Ferdinand von Fürstenberg, a German noble of the highest birth, felt a little differently. On a trip to Paris in 1680, he blew more than 900 Dutch rijksdaaldersii a month, or £32,850 today.1
Not much later, in 1712, the Count of Bergeyck, Jan van Brouckhoven, spent an enormous 22,269 livresiii – or £177,900 today2 - on his trip to Spain.
A well-intentioned gent, rich textile businessman Allard de la Court lived frugally while touring Germany in 1707. He spent less than 128 stuivers a dayiv – about £65 today3. But a trip to England’s capital three years later saw him rack up a total of 400 stuivers a dayv, £152.854 in today’s money, due to his eye for fashionable boots, silk stockings, stylish periwigs and rare prints, as well as London’s many coffee houses.
The Eighteenth Century
While its beginnings lie in the seventeenth century, the grand-tour was considered a quintessentially eighteenth century privilege. James Cecil, the 6th Earl of Salisbury – also known as “the Wicked Earl” - was recorded to have spent £3,300vi – or the equivalent of £478,2005 today – on his grand tour. However, other travellers at the time could spend as much as £5,000vii, roughly £709,4006 today.
Without access to a bank for many miles, and no sign of a credit card or the internet for at least another 200 years7, travellers would transport gold in a pouch about their body, and hope not to encounter robbers en route.
According to Scottish poet and scathing travel critic Tobias Smollett, if a gentleman didn’t succumb ‘to follies, vices and fopperies’viii, a tour of France could be reasonably inexpensive. Smollett clearly took his own advice as his own tour lasted eighteen months, and cost less than £150ix or £19,8208 today.
However, getting to France in the first place was a little more complicated. Five hours or morex was considered the appropriate allowance for crossing the channel ‘in a fair wind.’ This didn’t help English music historian Dr Charles Burney who, in 1772, spent nine days held up in Calais, waiting for weather considered safe enough for sea passage.
The cost of travelling through Italy, when converted to today’s prices, might seem a little steep. Making his way from Rome to Naples9, botanist James Edward Smith paid just over three guineasxi or £36110 today, for all expenses except tipsxii. For a distance of 141 miles, this was considered very reasonable.
While this may seem expensive, given the speed and ease with which you can now pass between major Italian cities, in the eighteenth century large areas of Italy were navigated using only dirt tracks. According to friends of Smollett, on occasion a ‘dozen oxen and as many men’xiii were needed to free their carriages from potholes.
But what it lacked in transport, Italy made up for in accommodation. Living in Rome in 1778, Lady Knight paid just £36 a yearxiv or £4,138 today11, for lodging ‘surrounded by palaces.’ In England, at this time, this sum would have paid for ‘just two months’ of apartments’xv, in not so grand a setting.
The Nineteenth Century
It’s been 200 years since nineteenth century celebrities John Polidori; Mary and Percy Shelley, and their son; and Claire Clairmont and former lover Lord Byron conducted a tour of their own. Famously journeying across the French border into Switzerland in 1816, it was on Lake Geneva that young Mary Shelley wrote the gothic horror novel Frankenstein.
According to an issue of The Continental Monthly, the cost of a Grand Tour around the mid-nineteenth century12 ‘depends greatly on the manner in which it is made.’ The article states that, depending on the level of luxury and pomp with which you conduct your tour, costs for American tourists visiting Europe can range from as little as $400xvii, or £5,575 today, to the vast sum of $5,000xviii (£69,696 today)13.
Travelling on the road
Complaints about travel conditions were no rarity in the nineteenth century. With just 500 miles of paved roadsxix across what was then Prussia, it was said that travelling on nineteenth century German roads required ‘a good constitution and Christian patience’xx and evidently, pretty deep pockets.
Touring a rustic Germany for 300 miles, roughly the distance from Bognor Regis to Blackpool, Lawyer and diarist Henry Crabb Robinson paid two and a half guineasxxi, or £273.4014 today.
Touring France, however, where the roads were considered a little sturdier, author and agricultural innovator Morris Birkbeck travelled with his party for 86 days in the year 1814 spending, on average, 16 or 17 shillingsxxii – about £53.6215 today - every day.
Touring by rail
Fortunately for tourists, travel during the nineteenth century transformed dramatically. The arrival of steam trains made travel cheaper and safer for touristsxxiii, particularly the journey to Geneva which could be made by train through Paris, at a cost of £5, 17 shillings and 9 pencexxiv for a first class return in 1877.
The Twentieth Century
Captivated by the bells, whistles, tassels and all-round extravagance of the latter half of La Belle Epoque, a period in which peace, culture and the economy flourished in Western Europe, grand tourists in the twentieth century only travelled in style. The style and excesses of the Orient Express, one of the most famous and luxurious trains in history, were immortalised in Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express.
On the Orient Express
Tolstoy, Trotsky and Marlene Dietrichxxv were just some of the esteemed passengers to board the blue and gold, luxuriously upholstered ‘King of Trains.’
Luxury came at a price though and travel could vary greatly depending on the destination and route. In 1936, on the Simplon Orient Express, a single fare from London to Constantinople - now Istanbul - cost £25, 12 shillings and 5 pencexxvi, about £1,570 today16.
This daily service, which passed through Venice, held the same fare as the original Orient Express, although it only departed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and went through Vienna.
Touring before and after the Great War
During the early twentieth century, travel prices changed considerably. Fares tended to increase due to inflation during and after the First World War.
According to the eminent cartographer, printer and publisher George Bradshaw in his 1914 Continental Railway Guide, travelling from London to Florence, taking in Dieppe and Paris, would cost tourists £12, 13 shillings and 11 pencexxvii (£1,099 today) for a first class return.
However, in 1936, train fares from London to Florence increased to £24, 9 shillings and 1 pencexxviii (£1,498 today).
The modern tourist can visit more of Europe in one month than the tourists of old could in a three-year long Grand Tour, whether it’s aboard a budget airline flight, peacefully reclining in the seat of a cross-country train or cruising down well-maintained motorways.
Cheaper travel options exist today than ever before, from low-cost airlines to package coach trips. These bring tourists from around the world to appreciate the same culture, architecture and scenic beauty that attracted grand tourists years before.
Modern tourists can even board the Venice-Simplon Orient Express but, given the hefty price tag, this is more about reliving the high life of luxury travel from a bygone era than merely touring through Europe. Today, a return ticket from London to Venice costs a hefty £3,760xxix per person. The cost of the classic route from Paris to Istanbul rises to £6,340xxx for a one-way trip.
But, for the majority of modern travellers, the speed and accessibility of transportation today has made travel much cheaper. If we were to travel now as our ancestors did, crossing entire countries on dirt roads and in all conditions, in heavy and expensively manufactured horse-drawn carriages, chances are it would be rather more expensive to travel.
If the cost of travel through Europe has whetted your appetite for more fun with finance, you can take a look at our article, A curious means of exchange, to discover our weird and wonderful modes of payment through history.