Each journey has three elements: anticipation, participation and retrospection. The first is to be savoured, with the help of guidebooks, maps and possibly a travel agent, rather than a few perfunctory clicks of a mouse. I tend to enjoy the experience of a trip if I manage to avoid food poisoning, arrest and folkloric dancing (throughout the whole journey, not just at the airport). And afterwards? Well, many adventures are best relished as reflected in life's rear-view mirror, when time has erased sufficient minor travel calamities to entice you to venture away once more.
Sometimes there is a fourth component: a mix of disappointment and regret. Several thousand British travellers experienced both emotions last weekend when their flights to Italy were cancelled due to a strike by air-traffic controllers. As they found themselves grounded at Gatwick rather than dining in Florence, melancholy merged with remorse about booking an Italy-bound flight for a September weekend; only one Saturday out of the four this month is free of an ATC-related stoppage (it's next weekend).
One recurring source of travel unhappiness concerns me: Northern Lights trips during which the lights stay off. To create the "Aurora Borealis," charged solar particles are trapped by Earth's magnetism. When these ions collide with the upper atmosphere, Arctic skies fill with billowing sheets of colour from crimson to turquoise.
Well, that's the idea, but sometimes nature is disobligingly fickle. When you have gone to the considerable trouble of locating yourself close to the Arctic Circle in winter, cloudy skies may obscure the spectacle. And even if the heavens clear, your journey of 1,000 miles may coincide with a cosmic calm 93 million miles away that produces barely a solar breeze. I urge anyone keen to experience the Northern Lights to plan instead a wintry adventure – and if the Aurora happen to show up, thank the heavens.
Now, though, a Norwegian travel firm has come up with the closest yet to a guarantee against the wrong kind of sky. The enterprise is Hurtigruten, meaning "coastal express". Its main task is to provide a daily ferry link between communities dotted along Norway's corrugated coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes on the Russian border. Yet it combines essential public transport with a cruise-like experience that is sold to British holidaymakers to fill space that would other wise go empty. The "Northern Lights Promise" aims to boost sales this winter. Book by 31 October for an 11-night trip, and: "If the Northern Lights don't appear, we'll give you another six-night voyage completely free."
"Completely free" is not the way I see it, because the beneficiaries must pay their own air fare to Norway. But it is still a generous offer – and a shrewd business move on the part of Hurtigruten UK's acting managing director, Philip Price. A star academic at the University of Tromso in northern Norway, Professor Camilla Brekke, has concluded: "There is a 90 per cent chance that you will see the aurora on an 11-day trip between September and April."
Assuming her forecast prevails this winter, and one in 10 passengers is a "winner" (or loser, depending how you look at it), the unusual Hurtigruten business model means the cost of fulfilling the pledge is far from, well, astronomical. In the course of a winter season, the coastal ferry has oceans of spare capacity. Naturally the firm will offer the free voyage only on dates with empty cabins. The company stands to incur only relatively modest marginal costs for housekeeping and catering (the cruise includes meals), and even these expenses may be offset by repeat visitors buying excursions and drinks.
Northwest by north
Another northerly nation has made a travel impression this week: Iceland. Not because of bothersome Bardabunga (which I believe is both the name of a volcano and a mild expletive in Icelandic of the sort you might utter when you learn your flight is grounded by volcanic ash), but because its national airline has completed the conquest of the Pacific Northwest.
The US states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and the Canadian province of British Columbia, comprise the most ravishingly beautiful corner of North America. Yet the region has long been annoyingly difficult and/or expensive to reach. British Airways once flew frequently from Heathrow to Alaska's biggest city. But as soon as BA acquired the long-range planes and Russian overflying rights to serve Tokyo and Seoul from London without refuelling, it dropped the route. Further south, just as Delta resumes its route from Heathrow to Seattle, its partner Virgin Atlantic announces the cancellation of flights to Vancouver. The other great Northwest city, Portland, has never had a link from the UK. But on 19 May next year, Icelandair adds Oregon's biggest city to its schedules. Lunch in Glasgow or Gatwick, tea at Keflavik airport and dinner in Portland is on the menu; the journey time from Scotland or Sussex drops to 12 or 13 hours respectively.
You can anticipate a dramatic journey over southern Greenland and Arctic Canada en route to the Pacific. You'll search in vain for the Northern Lights, though; it's a summer-only service, at latitudes where twilight prevails through the night.
The same airline is offering three-night Northern Lights packages from the UK to Iceland this winter for just £299 – but the chances are higher if you go for a longer trip, as featured in our Traveller's Guide to Stargazing Holidays. Whichever you choose, manage that anticipation – or be prepared for rueful retrospection.Reuse content