Cost and time to cross the Atlantic has dropped by more than 90% in the last 500 years.

Columbus’ Ships. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Transatlantic travel time has dropped radically in the last 500 years.  Time to transit the Atlantic has dropped about 99% and cost has dropped about 95% by my calculations.

Let’s look at several data points for cost and time, then calculate one indicator of improved quality of life.

(Article cross-posted from my other blog, Outrun Change.)

Human Progress provides fun data points on August 2, 2018 in their post, A Reminder of How Far Transatlantic Travel Has Come.

Columbus’ first trip

The 1492 trip by Christopher Columbus took two years of lobbying before the king and queen of Spain approved 2 million Spanish maravedis to fund the trip. A professor has calculated that would be comparable to about US$1,000,000 today.

The cost seems low to me. I’ll look at that more later.

Crew size was 87 according to this article. The accountant in me is driven to calculate the cost per crewman.  That would give an average cost of $11,494. I’ll round that to $11,500 and ignore any adjustment for several crew members who died on the trip.

His trip took two months, nine days, which I calculate at 70 days (30+31+9).


Mayflower. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Pilgrims traveled on the Mayflower, with cost of five pounds, which would be about $1,000 today, according to the article.

That cost seems extremely low given the technology, the times, and that the only income from the trip was from the Pilgrims. Thus I will ignore that data point.

That was 1620. Trip across the Atlantic took 66 days, not counting the month and a half the Pilgrims lived on the ship as they made a few false starts.


Article says first steamship to cross the Atlantic took 207 hours back in 1819. That is 8.625 days.


Titanic. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

I previously provided some travel costs and time. See Titanic exhibit in San Diego – dollars and time to cross the Atlantic. Scheduled transit time was 7 days, with goal of setting record at 5 days. Let’s go with 6 days.

Cost for second class ticket was equivalent to around $1,200 today and third class tickets ran from $298 to $793 today, according to an article I found, which is cited in my discussion. Since we are looking at the economy seats through this discussion, I’ll go with average of the third class prices. Also, since the cost of Columbus’ voyage was round trip and pricing of airplane flights is round trip, I’ll infer a round trip on the Titanic.  Thus the price I’ll use is $1,100 rounded up from $1,091 ( (298+793) / 2 for average * 2 for round trip).

Air travel

Boeing 767-300. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

What about today?

A round trip airfare cost an average of $1,248 in 1990 and $1,175 in 2013 (2013 dollars) according to the Human Progress article.

Today I checked an on-line flight shopping service for flights from Madrid to San Salvador a month in the future.  Nine flights are available with costs from $556 to $803 for a round trip. Nine options with cost between $804 and $895. Ten more still under $1,000. Let’s go with $800.

Two shortest flights are 13 hours 40 minutes and 14 hours. Let’s go with 14 hours flight time, add 3 hours travel to airport and early check-in, plus another hour to get out of the airport. That is 18 hours travel time, which is .75 days.

 Drop in cost and time

Let’s put that data into a spreadsheet. Here is the above data, sorted by time, with the year, travel time in days, and approximation of per person cost.


reference point year days cost
Columbus 1492      70.00  $     11,500
Pilgrims 1620      66.00  $       1,000
1st steamship 1819        8.63
Titanic 1912        6.00  $       1,100
airfare 1990  $       1,218
airfare today 2018        0.75  $         800


For purposes of calculating the drop in time and cost, I’ll use only the info for sailing ships on Columbus’ trip, steamships in the Titanic era, and airplanes today.

reference point year days cost
Columbus 1492      70.00  $     11,500
Titanic 1912        6.00  $       1,100
airfare today 2018        0.75  $         800


Here is the drop in travel time and cost as percentages:

reference point year days cost
columbus to Titanic 420 -91.4% -90.4%
Titanic to today 106 -87.5% -27.3%
cumulative 526 -98.9% -93.0%


So, let’s ignore the range of uncertainty around the older reference points. Let’s ignore the rough conditions of steerage on the Titanic and the harsh, life-threatening conditions on the Santa Maria. Let’s don’t infer any extra value to the air conditioning, foam padded seating, and non-worm infested food on a modern plane.

Given those assumptions, the more precise calculation shows travel time has dropped 91% in 420 years plus another 87% in the next 106 years, for a cumulative drop in travel time of 98.9% over the 526 years.

Travel cost has dropped 90% and another 27%, for cumulative drop in cost of 94% in the same timeframes.

If we wanted to increase the drop in travel cost, we could add in the lost wages of spending 2 months at sea compared to one day out of your schedule. I suppose we could factor in the modest probability of dying in transit during the trips by Columbus or the Pilgrims.

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