Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

We take leisure travel for granted today, but something set me to wondering about the origin of traveling for adventure and pleasure. I exclude voyages of conquest (Vikings, conquistadors, etc.), spice trade and other merchandise shipping since that was business travel.

Just as today, many travel planners wanted nothing to do with business travel.

In the Middles Ages, leisure travel was often part of a religious pilgrimage. I found that leisure travel and planning then and today are eerily similar.

Where to go?

Planning has always been the key to a successful trip. The pilgrim traveled for various reasons. The destination and itinerary might revolve around a particular saint, a saint's particular specialty in healing illnesses or restoring business and more. A knowledgeable travel planner would be invaluable.

A good planner had to stay current on canonization of new relics or saints. For example, a man possessed by the devil, on arriving at St. Denis near Paris, was chagrined to learn the local French saint had stopped curing the ill so that Thomas Becket, the new and relatively unknown English martyr, could make a name for himself.

New destinations popped up regularly. Pilgrims passed by Saintes in France on the way to Santiago de Compostela until St. Eutrope of Saintes healed a blind man and Saintes quickly became the go-to healing destination.  

News spread quickly, and miracles occurring in the south of France attracted pilgrims from Scandinavia and other Northern Europe countries. Having knowledge of and information on so many destinations became a major challenge for both travel planners and providers, which led to advertising and promotion.

Churches spent tremendous amounts of money decorating shrines and reliquaries. Flyers extolling the miracles of the saint, which included testimonials from satisfied customers, attracted many. First person testimonials from preachers and others created interest and awareness. Moreover, just as we have jingles in broadcast advertising today, pilgrim songs associated with a destination were part of the Top 40.

And don't forget direct mail. It was not unusual for a shrine to send flyers to those in other cities reminding them that a particular shrine was closer but offered advantages and benefits over those farther away. They went so far as to point out that miracles had occurred at their shrine only after other saints and shrines had failed.

Subtlety was sometimes pushed to the background, with one ad reporting that a sick person who had gone to Rome heard a voice asking why he was wasting time there, admonishing him to return home to a specific monastery to be healed.

Trip cost:
Pilgrimages were not cheap. The cost might easily be a year's income, with most pilgrims advised to go in poverty and on foot. Rich pilgrims seldom did either. There were land packages and cruises back then, too, to suit discriminating tastes.

Clothing: Pilgrims had to have a uniform, so buying new clothes for the journey was an important part of the experience.

Getting there: Whether doing the land package or taking a voyage, travel was difficult, time consuming and often dangerous.

Fortunately, there were guidebooks (an early version of "Europe on Two Pence a Day," perhaps) that provided information on roads that were often poorly marked and maintained even more poorly, with tips about toll roads and their cost. These guidebooks also contained information regarding places to get food and drink, where not to drink the water, which times of year were unsafe for travel and more.

By the early 14th century, an overland pilgrimage was all but impossible. Long-distance travel by ship in the Middle Ages was likewise dangerous and uncomfortable. Venice to Rome was a popular itinerary back then, as well, except it took six weeks to get from one to the other. Food was terrible. Having the livestock, kept on the ship as a food source, get loose and trample the guests was a problem.

Ship guides advised that passengers take their own food and water and sleep on the deck if they could. Of course, there was no cruise director, so activities revolved around drinking, gambling and playing games. For many, the days were spent people-watching or gazing out to sea.

Like today's hotels, inns along the route varied significantly in quality. Some were literally fleabags, and innkeepers were often accused of cheating pilgrims with high prices and poor quality food. Then, as now, the currency exchange rate in the hotel was the worst -- and only -- place to change money in the days before banks.

Souvenirs: Pilgrims needed to prove where they'd been. T-shirts and baseball caps having not yet been invented, they bought lead badges to pin on their hats, clearly showing the shrines they had visited.

Fellow passengers and stops: Pilgrims were ignorant of the customs and habits of people who lived in the lands through which they passed or in places the boats anchored, just as today. Pilgrims characterized the locals as badly dressed, ill-mannered in their eating habits, dishonest, quarrelsome and untrustworthy. One group from what is now Spain was deemed so dreadful that they had to have come from Scotland. They didn't have much good to say about Greeks or Arabs, either.

Traveling alone from the 12th century onward was really not an option, so the majority of pilgrims traveled together. They were cautioned to choose companions carefully, as some people masqueraded as pilgrims and, having gained their fellow travelers' confidence, would rob or even kill them. Some even dressed as priests to gain others' confidence.

And there you most likely had some of the first travel scams ever recorded.

I'm frustrated of late with the number of stories from all over the country recounting how a "travel agent" has cheated innocent, trusting people of thousands of dollars. Within the last two years or so alone we have seen:

  • A young dance group cheated out of more than $60,000 for a trip to a Florida theme park.  
  • A high school band group cheated out of $360,000 by a Utah-based agency it had paid for a trip to Hawaii that had to be canceled.
  • The owner of the same Utah agency stealing $782,480 and being sentenced to five years in federal prison without parole.

I could go on for hours with other examples of travel agent theft. The ones who deserve the greatest scorn, though, are those who clothe themselves in their religion as a proof that they are honest and aboveboard.

I have not even touched on the frauds that lure gullible people into shelling out hundreds of dollars to become an "instant travel agent." Granted, there are legitimate host agencies that offer valid services for an initial investment and monthly fee. Somehow, the image of what we do being incredibly easy, with zero threshold to get in, limitless wealth and free travel has become embedded in our culture.

A common thread to some of the swindles I found involves people who think they have found a way to put one over on a travel supplier. They believe some travel agent has found a secret way to cut out some unidentified chunk of cost and is passing it along. Another common element is the "get rich quick" scheme involving little or no effort or work.

It's like this: I share a common belief with probably most travel professionals that unless and until there are standards one must meet before being allowed to present oneself as a travel adviser, people becoming instant travel agents is not going to stop. Lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, even barbers and hairstylists have to demonstrate professional ability before being allowed to ply their trade. It should be no different for travel professionals.

On the other hand, until someone finds a way to strip avarice, greed and the desire to make a lot of money for doing nothing, we'll continue to read about gullible people cheated of their life savings.

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