Whatever happened to the journey?

What’s more important to you — the journey or the destination?

This is as good a time as any to ask the question (with apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Change is in the air, whether it’s the switch between summer and fall, or the upcoming presidential election, or a wobbly economy that’s unable to decide between recession and recovery.

So I asked my readers about their journeys. And their destinations.

The responses were telling.

“It is both,” says veteran travel agent Tommie Imbernino, who has taken the time to answer my annoying questions since my coming-out as an opinionated, troublemaking travel columnist in 1996.

“It is the excitement of getting ready, putting out your clothes so you can decide what to take, making your list. The excitement that you are going to become an adventurer — no matter how many times you have traveled, or how many places you have been. There is something so exciting about the thought,” he adds.

He’s right, that’s how it should be. Travel ought to be an adventure. All of it.

But that’s not how it is for many of us.

In interview after interview, travelers told me they dreaded the journey. The thought of going to the airport, dealing with the TSA, being snarled at by a flight attendant, the delays, the overall apathy, made many readers want to just stay home.

“The way things are these days, the destination surely is the draw,” says Gary Koenig. “Flying the unfriendly skies sure doesn’t qualify for much other than being an ordeal.”

Over and over, I heard the same thing: The journey sucks.

It isn’t just flying, although airlines are complained about most frequently. The once-great American road trip is frequently marred by traffic, road rage and the worst kind of lodging experience you can imagine.

No one takes pride in their hotel anymore; it is nothing more than a franchise opportunity, where everything from the towels to the napkins at the eat-all-you-want breakfast is dictated from the corporate office. Why should anyone care if their property is any good when a suit in the New Jersey suburbs says it meets standards?

And cruises. Ah, cruises! Now there’s an example of journey being as important, and perhaps more important, than the actual destination. After all, some Caribbean ports are little more than crumbling concrete docks connected to a customs house connected to a flea market selling shell necklaces made in China.

But there, too, the thrill is gone. Where once you could take a deep breath of salty air after you boarded the ship, anticipating the voyage ahead in relative peace and quiet, now crewmembers are buzzing around you, offering extras that will turn your vacation into an ancillary revenue windfall for the company. Everything from the picture they take of you as you clear the walkway to the after-dinner show, costs extra. Someone always seems to have his hand out.

Swatting away come-ons from crewmembers is hardly the ideal way to enjoy the journey, don’t you think?

What’s even more upsetting to me is that there seems to be no shortage of industry apologists who have convinced us we wanted it like this.

We’re the ones who asked for the $9 airfares, the $29 motel rooms, the “free” cruises. If we want to know why the journey is so unbearable, they add, maybe we should take a good look in the mirror.

(If we don’t like what we see, they smugly add, we should pay top dollar for tickets and become frequent fliers like them. Then we can sit in first class and make snide comments about the “little people” in the back of the plane.)

But that’s preposterous. I’ve been covering this business for a long time, and I’ve never heard someone ask to be nickel-and-dimed to be mistreated and to be squeezed into a space that makes a coffin look roomy. No one ever requested this.

Yeah, we want to travel cheap. Truth be told, we’d pay nothing for our vacations if we could. That’s no excuse for turning the journey, which was once the best part of the travel experience, into torture.

“Most of the time, it’s when you get to the destination that the trip becomes enjoyable,” says Tabby Stone, also a longtime reader.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The next time you board a train or get into a car to go somewhere, tell yourself that. When you shake your head and mumble, “That’s ridiculous!” remember this column, and for goodness sakes, do something.

Get off the bus, check out of the hotel, disembark the cruise ship and tell them you won’t be coming back until they make the journey as good as it can be.

Safe travels, everyone.

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