Rich and Trendy, or Rich in Experience?

A walk through the rarefied air of luxury travel magazines.

As a travel writer, I feel like I need to be up on what’s going on, so I read a ton of magazines. Even when they seem downright silly, which is how I often feel while leafing through many of them. Why do I always seem to have a smirk on my face when flipping through Travel and Leisure, for example?

Well, here’s a good reason. The current issue gushes about a stylish restaurant in Marrakesh, one featuring minimalist/modernist decor, jazz music, international cuisine, and “not a belly dancer in sight.” Let’s forget for a moment that belly dancers are not exactly a common sight this far from Cairo–I didn’t see a one in the three weeks I was there. More importantly, why would you travel across the world just to go to a restaurant where “you’ll think you’re in Notting Hill”?!?!

This comes two pages after a short piece on UK travel agency Thomson trying out a new “multimedia Virtual Holiday” in 20 of its branches. “Travelers short on time and long on wanderlust can now visit Egypt without boarding a plane.” I’m not sure why there would be a need for this, but apparently you see video, hear sounds and smell, yes smell the spice market and a pharoah’s tomb. (Can I choose to smell a hookah and a perfumed belly dancer instead?)

And of course the big stories are all about spending loads of money on spas and personal butlers, with the kind of luxury you are (well, they are) used to at home. When one letter writer asked about a private tour in Peru, they touted a 12-day tour from $4,380 per person before airfare or a 7-day tour from $3,595 per person before airfare. Hmmmm, something tells me I won’t be spending anything close to that when I go down there in June.

Does everyone who reads these kinds of magazines spend that much money on a vacation? Of course not, but there’s plenty of lux-envy going on when people of more normal means read these publications. The magazines perpetuate the myth that travel is and has to be expensive.

Everyone doesn’t have to stay in 5-star hotels and be sheltered from the real flavor of the destination, just as everyone doesn’t have to wear $300 sunglasses, carry $1,500 purses (modeled by Uma Thurman), or drive the $60,000 cars–all products advertised next to these travel articles.

So what are the rich getting for all this luxury travel money? Back to Peru again, and a big feature article in Town and Country Travel. The writer did an Inca Trail hike which costed the participants over $3,000 each for 4 days. But apparently the cost came from acting like it was the 1800s and they were part of a British Empire expedition. The group of 13 women traveled with fifty-four porters (no, that’s not a misprint) who carried toilet tents, massage tents an oven, 18 bottles of wine, 35 gallons of bottled water, china for dining, glasses and silverware, and eight hundred pounds of food, including eggs.

If you really think this is an interesting way to travel and you have more money than you know what to do with, then go for it. If not, remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. My wife and I are hiking the Inca Trail in June with one of the best companies there, one with a reputation for good food, fair treatment of porters, and respect for the environment–as in not carrying 35 gallons of bottled water when you can just purify what’s already flowing freely all around. Our tab for 4 days? $335–including a dedicated porter to schlepp our belongings. Something tells me we won’t miss the wine glasses and fine silverware…

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