Quick, name the last three travel magazines or newspaper sections you read.
Now, think hard and try to remember how many articles you saw about traveling on a tight budget.
Those two answers probably sum up everything you need to know about why people travel the way they do. Where I live in the US, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel has done a good job of showing the mainstream reader how to get a better deal, but its circulation is dwarfed by that of Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, magazines that are really aimed at the most affluent citizens of the one of the world’s most affluent countries. Big city newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune contain some great travel writing, but only a fraction of the typical Sunday travel section pays more than passing attention to finding the best values. It’s a little better in Europe and Australia, but most publications still tilt disproportionally toward expensive travel—after all, that’s where the ad dollars come from.
This was true even during the travel slump and worldwide recession of the past few years. You see lots of luxury, luxury, luxury, as if every traveler boarding a plane is on their way to a five-star hotel and a spa treatment. Over time this warps readers’ perceptions and makes them think every vacation has to cost a fortune.
A fellow travel writer calls these swanky publications “travel porn” and I can’t think of a more apt description. I once saw a cartoon in a men’s magazine in which a woman is standing next to a pot-bellied man in an easy chair. “Why do you watch that stuff?” the woman asks, pointing to a pornographic movie playing on the TV. “Because it makes me feel like everyone in the world is having a wild and crazy time,” he replies. “Well, everyone except me.”
The idea of fantasizing about a life you can’t lead yourself is a big part of the “armchair traveler” appeal of glossy travel magazines. A typical issue contains dozens of advertisements for diamond watches, luxury sports cars, and handbags that retail for over a thousand dollars. Between the ads are stories about resorts we have no business frequenting unless we’re in that lofty portion of the population who has more money than they have time to spend. It’s nice to look at the stunning photos and read about locations if that’s as far as it goes. For too many non-millionaire tourists, however, they look at those stories and think that’s how everyone travels-everyone except them. So when they pick up the phone or log on to make travel reservations, they go in with the mindset that travel is, and should be, expensive.
Next time you leaf through a travel magazine, take a look at the non-travel advertisements. Do those products match up with the way you live your life? If not, try a different magazine-and a different kind of travel.
Some great magazines for independent travelers got killed off when the recession hit, including Escape, trips, and Big World. A few good ones have stuck around however:
Published in Toronto, with a Canadian perspective. Was always great, but is now hands down the best travel magazine in North America for thinking, independent travelers. Insightful and culturally sensitive writing, with a view from the ground, not from the Four Seasons balcony.
I’m biased since I have a regular column in here, but it’s a great resource. Created in 1977 as the “antidote to tourism,” it is the definitive guide to working, studying, or volunteering overseas. They also publish some brief travel articles that provide plenty of no-nonsense advice. The publishing company is known for some very helpful books and directories for those planning to live overseas for some time. Click here to subscribe or check a quality bookstore or library for a copy to see for yourself.
Modern Nomad (Update – this one’s gone)
Only published in fits and starts, but this magazine manages to combine an experimental edge with a corresponding usefulness for all nomads. Not afraid to tackle taboo subjects and is open-minded enough to cover Asbury Park, NJ and Vietnam in the same issue. Also contains interesting book and world music reviews.
Frommer’s Budget Travel
This is a corporate magazine mostly geared toward package tourists, and a lot of articles are about the usual suspects (Italy, the Caribbean, etc.) but it does focus on independent overseas travel a fair bit. You can subscribe for next to nothing by checking the Web subscription sites, so you’ll certainly get your money’s worth from the web links and resources alone. Has some good info about value destinations and how to get good airfare and hotel deals.
This UK magazine is a great find if you can get a Europe-bound friend to pick it up or you live near a magazine store that carries imports. (Or if you live in England of course.) Literate travel articles, great travel book reviews, and beautiful photography, but all the while still remembering that most travelers aren’t living off $500 a day.
* If you have another good magazine to recommend, post it in the comments below!
Of course there are dozens of good Web magazines for independent travelers. Here’s a link to quite a few of them.