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Travelling long haul in 1939: Melbourne to New York

Travelling long haul in 1939: Melbourne to New York
Our Ask a Librarian team turn time travel agents
29 September 2015

Sometimes we can only guess at why a question is asked:

I am looking at Australia in 1939 and I am trying to find any possible details on overseas travel FROM Australia. I would like to know what sort of overseas travel was available in 1939 for somebody travelling from Melbourne to New York. I would also like to know what would it cost, how long, the stops anything to give me a general idea on how it was possible.

Was this question about how a family member would have travelled in the past, or is it an investigation for a story or novel? In any case, I found it an interesting little research puzzle.

I speculated that we should look at travel before September 1939, as the start of the Second World War would bring other considerations when travelling. Regarding the cost, when prices were available I used the Reserve Bank of Australia's inflation calculator which gives an idea of the cost of fares at today's prices.

By air

I felt that flying to the US from Australia in 1939 would be unlikely for the average person, but thought I should consider this possibility.

A look at 1920–1950 : Q.E.A. milestones shows that flights to the US were not made by Qantas.

1920–1950 : Q.E.A. milestones, Qantas Empire Airways  1950, centre pages,

Qantas through the years shows that Qantas began flights to San Francisco and Vancouver in 1954.

Sydney to London within eight days! : Intercontinental Airways K.N.I.L.M (c 1938) advertises the flights our traveller might have taken to Europe, from Sydney, and includes photographs of stops along the way. The plane flew low in the sky compared to today’s flights, and passengers could enjoy views from the air from the low-flying aircraft. The well-to-do passengers may not have opted to fly to New York via London, assuming the service was available, but they would have been able to sail across the Atlantic.

In July 1939 several newspapers carried a report about transatlantic flight trials. Meanwhile, PanAm announced passenger services across the Atlantic from June 1939, at a cost of £93/15 ($7,713.38 in 2014). In June 1939, 30 people flew across the Atlantic with PanAm. Given this information, an Atlantic crossing by passenger liner would be the most realistic option for our traveller.

Pamphlets and ephemera are particularly fascinating, with their essential information for passengers, for example, staff are not permitted to accept gratuities, cigarette smoking is permitted but cigars and pipes may cause discomfort to other passengers, and the ‘aircraft notes’ about the noises you might hear when taking off and landing. Airlines also distributed illustrated notepaper for the traveller to jot down the places they could see from the air and other information about the flight. Unfortunately our collection only contains blank sheets of this notepaper.

By sea

If our traveller was well-heeled and wanted to enjoy the comforts of luxury sea travel, he might have considered Cook-Wagon-Lits World Travel Service.

Overseas travel 1937 : Cook's and Wagon-Lits World Travel Service was a special publication in 1937, as this was the Coronation year. It gives itineraries for Australians going to London for the Coronation celebrations as part of overseas or round-the-world tours. It includes the itinerary for visiting America on the way, then departing from New York to England in time for the Coronation.

Cruise liner S.S. Mariposa, New South Wales  ca. 1930s (detail),

The basic route is given on page 57:
27 March, Depart Melbourne by SS Mariposa
Stopping at Sydney, Auckland, then via Suva, Pago Pago, Honolulu, Los Angeles and arrive in San Francisco on 19 April.
19 April to 4 May: escorted tour across America by bus and train from San Francisco to Niagara Falls and New York, then on the Queen Mary to Southampton.

The all-inclusive fare (Sydney back to Sydney) was £260/13/9 ($22,548.24 in 2014).

As our traveller wanted to go to New York, he may have taken up the option to travel across the US by air; passengers could sail to Los Angeles and fly to New York via Chicago. The fare to New York was $160 single and $288 return (US$ in 1937).

While Cook’s and Wagon-Lits World Travel Service conducted this tour, the Mariposa was owned by the Oceanic Steamship Company, the Matson Line. The route across the Pacific is shown in The S.S. Mariposa, S.S. Monterey : new ships in a new service, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, California.

Route of the Mariposa and Monterey through the bewitching South Seas to the California portals of America, in The S.S. Mariposa, S.S. Monterey : new ships in a new service, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, California, 

Unfortunately this advertising brochure does not give the cost of the cruise (if you need to ask, you can’t afford it).

Promenade Deck, in The S.S. Mariposa, S.S. Monterey : new ships in a new service, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, California, 

Travel at home and abroad outlines conducted tours and suggested itineraries for Britain, Europe, Asia, New Zealand, with some advertisements for America. It also gives details of the route as well as the prices, but the itinerary is for 1930–31. The following options are given:

  1. Matson Line: Sydney (Nov 1)–Suva (Nov 6)–Pago Pago (Nov 7)–Honolulu (Nov 14)–San Francisco (Nov 20). Other sailings departed regularly (usually fortnightly) throughout the year, so basically for 20 days at sea, Sydney to San Francisco. The prices were:

    Single ticket:
    First Class - £73
    Second Class - £50/10/-
    Third Class - £31/10/-

  2. New York from Sydney (times and stops are not given); Canadian-Australasian Line: 

    Single ticket:
    First Class - £95/9/6
    Second Class - £72/19/6
    Third Class - £53/19/6

  3. New York from Sydney; Union R.M. Line/Matson Line:

    Single ticket:
    First Class - £95/14/-
    Second Class - £73/4/-
    Third Class - £54/4/-

Via the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal opened in 1914, and there was a route to the Eastern United States through the canal. This was apparently used mainly for cargo, although there was provision for passengers. The article, Shipping notes (1940) gives some information, and more details may be found by searching the advertising pages.

The Traveller’s companion  

On a related note, I also found a little booklet, The Traveller's companion : including guide to deck sports and entertainment at sea. This mainly looks at trips to Europe and the UK, and gives an idea of what life was like on board ship in the 1930s. The booklet is subtitled A Guide to Deck Sports and What to do aboard ship and ashore.

The Traveller's companion : including guide to deck sports and entertainment at sea, pp 20–21, 

Not sure where to start your research? Stuck somewhere along the way? Ask a Librarian. 

Hi, can you tell me if the Mariposa's first voyage took her first to Sydney and then onto Melbourne or vice versa. I'm researching a book I'm writing.
Hi Lyn, My apologies, as I only saw your comment today! The timetables aren’t available right now, but from a search of the Trove shipping reports and advertisements, it seems that the Mariposa did not visit Melbourne at all on its first voyage in 1931. December 1930 – expected in Sydney in two months’ time: 1st February 1931 – Expected Sydney (Mariposa listed here): 1st February 1931 – Sailing from Sydney Feb. 27; no mention of Melbourne: You can contact us through Ask a Librarian if you need more information.
Thanks for this research as its very useful in writing stories about my family and others .
Dear Librarian My mother and her husband left Sydney for London by ship in (I think) January 1939. They were not wealthy so the trip would have been basic. Can you please advise what ship this may have been. I am writing a family history and this information would be very useful. My email is Many thanks
My mother and her husband left Australia on the Esperance Bay on April 29th 1939 bound for Southampton. Can you please advise when they would have arrived. Many thanks
I'm trying to find out what airlines flew between Melbourne Australia and Los Angeles back in 1979..? I believe it was on two, PanAm and QANTAS ?? But I'm not sure.. Can you help me??? Ch Dennis
I hope it is not too late to comment on the original question of travel out of Australia in 1939 - Melbourne to New York. Correctly you have suggested the most economical method would have been by sea, either across the Pacific or via the Indian and Atlantic Oceans to the UK and then across the Atlantic to New York. There was no air travel between Australia and the US at the time. An air service had been envisaged by Pan American between the US and New Zealand by flying boat but it never materialised. If you did want to fly you might take the Kangaroo Route to London and then fly the Atlantic. A Qantas Empire Airways, Imperial Airways - Indian Transcontinental Airways and Imperial Airways service had commenced in 1934 from Brisbane taking 12 days and including a train leg over the Alps. During 1938-1939 a brief halcyon period occurred when this was shortened to 7 days by using Empire C Class flying boats from Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour (Sydney's first International Airport). You would then have to fly from London to New York, or go by ship from Southampton. I cannot quote prices, except to say, very expensive - at least two years' average pay.
Further to my earlier comment, I omitted to observe that in 1939 there was a service by Pan American flying boat from Auckland to Hawaii via Canton Island. Travellers from Australia could cross the Tasman in a TEAL flying boat and in Hawaii join air services to the West Coast and on to New York. Still prohibitively expensive
Thanks everyone for your comments. They are useful for other interested readers, but unfortunately this is not a good place to ask questions. For any specific questions about the topic, please use Ask a Librarian; we will get back to you within 7 days.