Even in the best of times, travel is a precarious business. Subject to all manner of influences beyond a traveler's control - from economic depressions, national emergencies, and international eruptions to political machinations and meteorological perturbations.
Across every sector, this is also an industry affected by notoriously low profit margins, rapidly changing technologies, and an increasingly irascible and frustrated public - irritated by the overcrowded, cattle-car conditions, by a maddening inability to access vital information from service providers, and by a frequent lack of common courtesy from industry employees and public servants alike.
When wars, hijackings, bio-terrorism, and other scares are added to this already incendiary mix, then the travel business slips from marginally glamorous to downright ugly.
And that is where we find ourselves today - in the worst of times. Hundreds of thousands of travel-industry employees are already idled or permanently out of jobs. Travel agents, whose airline commissions (and lifeblood) have been gradually eroded, have also lost serious portions of their business to the Internet. And that was before Sept. 11. Now the trouble is even deeper than before, and many have already closed up shop.
Hotels worldwide are running up massive losses with occupancy rates of 50 percent or less. Cruise lines, with a surfeit of mega-ships built in times of plenty, are now frantically chasing clients with every kind of incentive. Airlines large and small, foreign and domestic, are struggling to stay in the skies - some have already announced bankruptcy - or they are being bailed out with massive infusions of government funds.
And all this doesn't begin to account for the hundreds of thousands of ancillary businesses tied to the travel industry - the tour operators and the car-rental firms, the souvenir shops and restaurants, the business conferences and the country fairs, the B&Bs and the local pubs.
The sense of industry gloom is very real, so it's scarcely surprising that friends who know that we earn our own precarious living by organizing small group tours and writing about travel have inquired as to how recent events have affected our little business, and what we plan to do in the future.
Our first instinct, of course, is to hide our heads in the sand, pull up the covers, and batten down the hatches (to boldly mix a few metaphors). But after a moment's honest reflection, we know we won't be doing any of that. Because travel for us is more than a business - it's a passion.
And while our travel plans for 2002 remain intact, there will be a few small changes in light of Sept. 11 - changes having to do with personal security that might, in fact, be considered by anyone who travels for business or for pleasure.
We'll start by immediately downsizing our luggage. Once again. Traveling lighter, more flexibly, and more inconspicuously than ever before.
With most airlines now allowing only a single 22-inch carry-on (plus small purse or briefcase), we'll be aiming for an even more compact 19-inch bag that should fit into every overhead compartment. In addition, we'll be making an itemized list of every single thing we pack that can be shown to anyone who cares to ask.
There won't be any national identification on any of the clothes we wear either. No baseball caps or university sweatshirts. (We'll leave that to the foreigners!) No lapel pins, patches, or flags. Our aim will be to blend as much as possible with the local population at all times.
Travel arrangements will be streamlined and simplified wherever possible. Especially in regard to airports and airlines. The fewer the connections, the fewer the chances for disruption.
With the probability that airport stays will be more protracted than ever - check-in, security, fewer scheduled flights, etc. - we will be taking along more things to keep us occupied. And because airport food is neither attractive, nutritious, nor fairly priced, we will be packing our own snacks, sandwiches, and bottled beverages.
A pocket-sized AM/FM/short-wave radio will now go with us everywhere. There's no better way of keeping informed about national and international events and learning about local conditions, and English-language broadcasts are available throughout the world. The extra few ounces are worth their weight in gold.
Ditto a cell phone that we can use overseas. Remember, however, that because most U.S. cell phones are not usable outside the country, the best plan may be to rent a phone on arrival or check one of the U.S. companies that rents phones for use overseas. For more information, check the Web site http://www.etravels.net/travellikeapro and click on technology.
Finally, we'll be taking even greater care with our personal documents. Passport thefts, in particular, have been increasing dramatically, so we'll either be concealing them safely on our persons or leaving them in secure hotel safes, along with other items and travel documents of value.
The bottom line is that we plan to travel when and where we like, bandits and biological threats notwithstanding. But we'll do so with a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings ... and yes, we will have a wonderful time!
Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.