This year marks the 35th anniversary of what is widely considered the best Thanksgiving movie of all time—Plans, Trains & Automobiles. Paramount is marking the occasion with a new remastered 4K release featuring over an hour of deleted scenes from the original film (which initially clocked in at a hefty three hours). The two-hander starring Steve Martin and John Candy as a pair of unlikely travel companions trying to get home for Thanksgiving has stood the test of time when it comes to the brilliantly paced comic beats, but with each passing year, it becomes a little more dated. With a possible remake in the works (or maybe not, considering Will Smith’s image isn’t what it was back in 2020 when the project was announced—imagine how that rental car meltdown would play now) we had to wonder how much of Neal and Del’s disastrous journey could be avoided today with all the innovations we have at our fingertips.
In an age of smartphones with access to the internet, digital wallets, and apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, there are so many solutions that make traveling easier than it was in 1987. We even have virtual meeting software that makes travel less necessary , so Steve Martin’s character might not even have had to be in New York to present a physical ad campaign to that indecisive client at all. Without that business trip two days before Thanksgiving there is no movie, but where else would it have stalled out along the way? Let’s take it beat by beat.
The first sign that we’re living in a very different era is the fact that one of the first things Neal (Martin) does is check his watch. Besides it being a very ’80s watch, the time is also remarkable. It’s a quarter to five and he has a six o’clock flight. The fact that he still expects to make it when he leaves the meeting shows how far we’ve come, and not necessarily in the right direction. This is probably the one case where things were simpler back then. Neal’s more worried about the hold-up of finding a cab than getting stuck in an airport security line (he’s actually beaten to an available taxi by Kevin Bacon in a memorable cameo). With no Uber or Lyft service he has to pay a businessman cash for his cab, then loses it to Del (Candy) in the opposite of a meet-cute.
Neal arrives at the airport at 5:58 thinking he’ll still be able to board the plane if he hurries. There’s no wait to go through security, no ID or ticket checkpoints (the TSA didn’t exist yet), so he sails through (we don’t actually see this, but the timing suggests only a few minutes between arriving at the airport and reaching his gate). We’ll never know if he would have actually made the original flight, because by the time he gets to his gate it’s been delayed.
When Neal finally gets on board with his paper ticket he discovers he’s been assigned a coach seat despite paying for first class. Could that happen now without the passenger being aware of it before getting on the plane? Neal and Del meet for a third time (after an awkward airport encounter) as seatmates, cementing the growing animosity between them. Their forced landing in Wichita, due to a snowstorm in Chicago, unfortunately, is something that still plagues travelers today. The aftermath, however, is a different story.
What’s the first thing you would do if you were forced to make an unexpected landing in a random city and might have to spend the night? Get on your phone and start looking for a hotel room, right? And failing that, you might turn to Airbnb or VRBO or a travel site for more options. What you wouldn’t have to do is wait in a long line for a pay phone and risk all of the local rooms being gone by the time you got to the front. That’s what happens to Neal, and it’s the leverage Del uses to stick with him a little longer. If Neal had any other options, he’d wait out the storm and get on another plane the next day. And that would be the end of the movie.
He’s out of options, though, so he heads with Del to the Braidwood Inn. Here’s another instance where a rideshare app would come in handy. They have to settle for the ’80s equivalent, Doobby’s Taxiola, a tricked-out cab with a shady driver who insists on taking the “scenic route” in the middle of the night. Both men hand over their Diners Cards (which still exist!) to the hotel clerk who rings them up with a manual carbon credit card machine and mixes them up when handing them back. This could probably still happen today, but the mistake would be evident much earlier.
Despite not specifying a smoking room (you weren’t required to back then) Del smokes in the room. Don’t try and imagine what it must have smelled like in there; It’s not a fun exercise. That night, while the guys are sleeping, a teen breaks into their room and robs them (fun fact: in a deleted scene, the same teen delivers a pizza to the room earlier in the night and Del stiffs him on the tip, so this is his revenge). If the door had an electronic card reader like most hotel rooms do now, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the intruder to get in. They would have still had their money the next morning, and one less thing to fight about.
A plane to Chicago still isn’t looking good (a weather app would take the guesswork out of it), so the next phase of the trip involves taking a train. They get as far as Jefferson City before the train breaks down and they have to walk to a bus station and catch a bus to St. Louis. Again, a Google search, a call to the credit card company, and a rideshare would take care of all of this and Neal would be home for Thanksgiving. End of movie.
Without any money for more tickets, Del goes into salesman mode and makes some cash selling shower curtain rings (which, by the way, are also mostly obsolete now), he helps Neal out, and after sharing a meal at a diner in St. Louis, they once again go their separate ways. We might as well take this opportunity to note how many pay phones Neal uses in this film to call home. His wife has no idea where he is so she can’t reach him directly. She can only wait for him to call her with his travel updates from her as Thanksgiving creeps ever closer. It’s unfathomable.
Neal’s next travel mishap is getting dropped off in a rental car parking lot with a set of keys to a car that isn’t there. The bus drops him off and… just leaves him there. There’s no other airport shuttle on the way. He’s completely stuck. Again. This final straw leads to the famous “fucking” tirade aimed at Edie McClurg as the rental car agent, after he’s had to walk through the snow across a highway and the actual airport runway to get there. The punchline is that he’s the one who’s “fucked” because he’s lost his paper rental agreement. It would be a snap to look up nowadays, if he did n’t already have it accessible on his phone, but no such luck for Neal
Del comes to his rescue again with a rental car that he was somehow able to acquire with Neal’s Diners Club card. He lights up a cigarette just like in the room, and we’re willing to bet that he didn’t have to request a car you could smoke in. The near-death experience they face when going the wrong way on the highway could have been easily avoided by using a navigation app. That wouldn’t have helped when the car caught on fire, though.
The last hotel where they spent the night together won’t take their toasted credit cards (another phone call and this problem could have been resolved too) so Neal trades his fancy watch to get a room. On their final leg, they are stopped by a state trooper (played by Michael McKean) who impounds their burnt-out car. According to McKean there was a cut scene where he tells them they’ve overshot Chicago by about a hundred miles (which a navigation app would also have told them). Finally, Del comes through with another primitive rideshare—a three-hour ride in the back of a cheese truck to downtown Chicago.
They seem to go their separate ways again, and if Del had asked Neal for his email address instead of his home address, he might have given it to him. Del definitely would have found him on social media and followed every account. But that would have taken away from the feeling of reluctant parting that makes this scene so heartwarming. If Neal hadn’t put the pieces together on the train and gone back, there’s a real chance they’d never have seen each other again. We’re glad he does, because it makes for a perfect ending.
A clever writer could still make Plans, Trains & Automobiles work in the present day with a few tweaks. Taking their smartphones out of play early on, for instance—due to damage or theft or whatever—would put the modern versions of Neal and Del in a position pretty close to where they were in 1987. The question isn’t whether it can be done, but whether it should be without John Hughes around to at least consult on the project. His gifts for characterization and storytelling—not to mention the performances of Martin and Candy—are what made the original more just than a silly comedy of errors. The characters have stuck with us for this long because they’re fully realized, flawed human beings who get under each other’s skin, then go deeper to find the beating heart within. That’s what keeps us returning to this film year after year, and why it will never become outdated.