On Sept. 11, after we had heard the news about the terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, I was standing on the balcony of my apartment in Los Angeles on a rare night when I wasn't on the road. Suddenly I realized that something was different about the night sky. With commercial planes grounded across America, it was eerily silent and more scary and empty than I could ever recall.

That was the most memorable moment of my year in travel. Whenever I think of it, I'm forced to wonder whether things will ever return to normal, and what the coming year may hold. Will we ever again be able to go where we want, when we want, with a minimum of trouble and fear? Is the freedom to travel an American birthright or a luxury now too expensive to afford?

Evidence suggests that people are starting to travel again--or at least are thinking about it.

At Off the Beaten Path, a Montana company that specializes in guided and custom trips to the Rocky Mountain West, Alaska and Patagonia in South America, CEO Robert Hietala says people are asking, "What do I want to do next summer?"

Surveys by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a Florida-based marketing, advertising and public relations company, found that 22% of American leisure travelers polled in November say their travel plans will be influenced by the threat of terrorism, compared with 37% in September and 27% in October.

Asked recently whether travel will ever be the same, William Maloney, executive vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said, "Absolutely. This is a robust country. The urge to roam is a part of our national character."

Of course, it's in the best interest of the travel industry to point these things out, just as the airlines often note that it's more dangerous to drive a car than to fly. All the same, the post-Sept. 11 public may still be unsettled, even fearful, about traveling.

As Rick Steves, the author of "Europe Through the Back Door" and host of public television's "Rick Steves' Europe," says, "There's a difference between danger and fear. Danger is a matter of statistics. Fear is an emotion."

Indeed, one of my friends told me she is staying home because flying would force her to revisit what it must have been like for the people aboard the hijacked planes.

I can't argue with that or tell people not to worry about getting stranded in case of another terrorist attack.

But the more I talk with people, the more it seems clear that many of those who have decided to hunker down just want to avoid the new hassles of flying, created largely by a tightening of security at airports.

The extra time required before takeoff, the long lines, the carry-on baggage regulations, the X-ray machines set to a highly sensitive level--these I can personally address.

I saw all of them at LAX on my way to Washington, D.C., five days before Thanksgiving. It took me an hour and a half to check my bags and get through security. As my airline had suggested, I had given myself plenty of time. Once I got to the gate, I still had plenty of time.

That was OK. There was no one in the bookstore on the concourse, so the clerk had a chance to show me where to find the mystery section. Fellow passengers were quiet and civil, offering one another help and advice.

There was no line at the concourse coffee bar. Restrooms were tidy. People didn't crowd the gate during boarding, and my flight left on time.

Dulles International Airport, where I landed, was emptier than usual, as was LaGuardia in New York, where I caught a flight home two weeks later.

For me, that trip was the most surprising of the year. There were hassles, but none I hadn't planned for.

It was the positive aspects of post-Sept. 11 air travel--the orderliness, small crowds at the gates, camaraderie among passengers--that struck me most.

I don't think the trip was an anomaly. Before that, on post-Sept. 11 flights to and from Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Boise, Idaho, I noticed the same calm, order and esprit de corps.