Travel magazines target the 1%

An image of a striking, leggy blonde standing in the shadow of a seventeenth-century church in Mykonos graces the cover of the March issue of Condé Nast Traveler. She’s wearing a short, silky dress and, as we find out on page 122 in the magazine’s “where to buy” segment, it costs $6,900.

And if you like dresses that cost ten times the per capita GDP of Haiti, you’ll love Condé Nast’s suggested nine-and-a-half hour day trip in Mykonos, which will set you back $3,140, not including accommodation.

I like to indulge in the fantasy world of glossy travel magazines as much as anyone else. But I’ve always disliked how many of these publications cater to sybarites who stay in hotels that charge more for one night than most people pay in a month’s rent — the kind of people who view travel as nothing more than an excuse to go shopping. It can be fun to see how the other half lives, but it can also be depressing.

I can’t help but feel poor every time I read Afar, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast and other magazines. Let’s face it, the pages of most glossy travel and city magazines these days are awash in conspicuous consumption – eat, shop, drink, spend, consume. For every nugget about the people the writer met, there are ten about all the expensive places they ate/drank/slept/shopped.

I’ve been a compulsive traveler for decades and the question I always get from friends is, “How can you afford to travel so much?” But in nearly 40 years of traveling around the world, I have never, ever spent more than $200 per night on a hotel. Maybe I’m missing out, but I don’t feel that way.

I understand that these magazines are trying to lure high-end advertisers and are targeted toward people who have more money than me. It’s also undeniably true that $800 per night hotel suites and $78 entrees look more appealing on a page than Motel Six and diner food. And I don’t fault anyone who likes to travel in style or treat themselves to $7,000 dresses.

If you’ve got the cash, go for it. The global economy is built around consumer spending so we need you to get out there and do your thing. But the relentless focus on luxury in the travel media contributes to the false notion that travel is for the rich.

I reviewed one recent issue of six national travel magazines and made some calculations on the cost of recommended accommodations. This is not a scientific study but I think it gives a pretty accurate snapshot of the lifestyle that’s being promoted on the pages of these magazines.

Below you’ll find the median starting price for recommended hotels along with general observations about each magazine.Afar$392- 16 hotels mentioned in March/April 2012 issue

Afar is one of the most visually appealing magazines in the world but all that beauty doesn’t come cheap. The March/April issue has a delightfully vulgar spread on luxury tents, including a place called Banyan Tree in the Maldives that runs a cool $3,165 per night, and the Oberoi Rajvilas Jaipur, where one night of luxury camping will cost you just a bit less than what the average Indian makes in a year. There’s nothing like retreating to an $898 per night tent after a day spent experiencing India’s grinding poverty, right?

Even most of the volunteer opportunities Afar recommends are beyond my budget. One offers guests with $1,190 to spare the opportunity to spend three nights in a boutique hotel in Cambodia that helps feed and educate children, and another, Liz Caskey Culinary and Wine Experiences, charges guests $550 per day for the chance to take a food and wine tour and help build shelters for earthquake victims in Chile. Hopefully they build the shelters first and drink the wine afterwards.

Condé Nast Traveler$310- 29 hotels recommended in the March 2012 issue

The pages of CNT are filled with great writing and compelling photography but are also saturated with hotels, restaurants, and products I can’t afford. There is one recommended hotel where rates start at less than $100 and 11 with rates starting at more than $400. They also endorse: a navy Louis Vuitton jacket that goes for $3,050; an ugly, ostentatious, $1,850 Proenza Schouler camera case; and a $256 tasting menu at Noma, a swanky restaurant in Copenhagen.

Zimbabwe is supposed to be a more affordable safari destination compared to South Africa or Namibia, but CNT contributor Joshua Hammer admits that his 10-day trip costs $6,708, or just about 10 times what a Zimbabwean makes in a year. Good for Hammer, though. He may have singlehandedly provided a jolt to Zimbabwe’s faltering economy.

Travel & Leisure$210- 46 hotels recommended in April 2012 issue

T + L is always jam-packed with good travel tips and they slum it with more moderate hotel recommendations than some of the other magazines. But it’s still a showplace for wildly expensive hotels, restaurants and products. The April issue offers some T + L “reader exclusives,” like a $500 per night hotel in Dublin (K Club Hotel & Spa) and a $329 per night hotel on Lake Como, (Grand Hotel Tremezzo) that aren’t exactly a steal.

T + L also recommends Noma, along with a $3,200 snakeskin leather purse, an $845 nylon jacket by S’ Max Mara, and the Il Pellicano Hotel in Porto Ercole, Italy, where room rates start at $819 per night, not including breakfast.

National Geographic Traveler$227- 10 hotels recommended in March/April 2012 issue

This is my favorite travel magazine and not just because they once flew me to Oaxaca, Mexico (from Macedonia, no less). You won’t find many examples of mindless consumerism in NGT but their hotel recommendations are still usually of the high-end variety.

Lonely Planet Magazine$151- 48 hotels recommended in March 2012 issue

This U.K.-based magazine manages to look pretty while featuring plenty of moderately priced accommodation and dining options. The Lonely Planet guidebook series has tried to go more upmarket in recent years but you won’t find $3,000 purses and the like here. Still, only 10% of their recommended lodging options start at $100 or less.

Budget Travel$122- 6 hotels recommended in March/April 2012 issue

I love this magazine, which is geared towards skinflints like me, but where are all the advertisers? At 76 pages, its most recent issue is considerably skinnier than the others mentioned above, which suggests that advertisers don’t give a damn about reaching people like me.

Perhaps all the high-end recommendations the glossy travel magazines make are just good business sense. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t like these magazines. They’re all worth reading, especially in light of the fact that they’re all pretty much giving away subscriptions these days. Still, it’d be nice to see a bit more on places and things I can actually afford. What about you, would you like to see travel publications focus a bit more on moderately priced travel options?

Note: The rooms at the hotels surveyed could cost a bit more or less depending on when you book, how many are in your party, etc. A few of the recommended hotels include half or full board or other amenities but the vast majority does not.

Images via Nelson Theroux, Carendt242, and John Picken on Flickr.