On the cover of a glossy travel magazine I see this lovely woman, Ray-Bans perched atop her hair and the faint shine of jewels on her earrings, running barefoot in a clingy dress across a white sand beach toward a seaplane. The plane's door is wide open, as if to say, Let's go upscale. This is a fantasy, of course, and travel writing has always been at least part fantasy literature. But what makes me feel I don't belong in this scene is the matter of her luggage. Where is her suitcase? I can identify with the dream of being whisked out of paradise in a roaring seaplane, but not with having someone else carry my bags.
Fortunately, there's a different class of travel magazines for people who want to experience other cultures around the globe more profoundly than just tipping a helpful porter. These magazines emphasize authenticity, not luxury. They offer tales from the road, not just lists of hot spots. Their purpose is to give you a window on the world, not a primer on cosmopolitan consumption.
Escape magazine, filled with lush photographs and real-life tales from exotic locales, can trace its origins back to editor and publisher Joe Robinson's first backpack tour of Europe while he was a student at Cal State–Northridge. "I had just landed and was lost in the German city of Koblenz, with my map spread out on the sidewalk, trying to find the local hostel," he recalls. "A group of German students came up and asked if I needed a place to stay. I stayed with them for the next three days, had a great time, and learned a lot about Germany. I didn't often see that kind of travel written up in a magazine."
Robinson, now 47, kept traveling light—to the South Pacific, to Asia—in between working in journalism and the music business. The idea and name for a new kind of travel magazine leapt into his head one night while he was reading novelist Graham Greene's autobiography. Greene, a lifelong global wanderer, coined a term for his own travel writing: escapes. Robinson spent six years launching the magazine, writing a book on entrepreneurship at the same time to help him learn the nuts and bolts of business.
Since its first issue, in 1994, Escape has grown to a substantial 100-plus page quarterly with a circulation of 70,000 and ads from, to name a few, outdoor gear companies, record labels, and South American airlines. Articles focus primarily on out-of-the-way places, mixing adventure narratives with reports of far-flung ecological and political developments. There's substantial coverage of world music and departments that fill you in on practical matters like staying healthy and finding cheap plane tickets. Robinson writes an intriguing column, The Inner Journey, on the personal dimension of travel.
"The established travel magazines still see travel as sightseeing," he explains. "We see it as something you are in the thick of—participant travel. Travel, in a sense, is a quest; it's a spiritual ride. Out on the road, away from the clutter of home, you find out things about who you are and come back with a different perspective."
Big World taps into the same spirit but puts more emphasis on traveling cheap. In spite of its magazine format, this quarterly has the feisty feel of a zine: black-and-white graphics, snapshot-style photos, and first-person accounts from places like Laos, Bosnia, and Mobile, Alabama. Adventure travel and way-off-the-beaten-path destinations characterize the articles, along with gritty social commentary and political analysis. Tips on how to score bargains in airfare, train tickets, and accommodations fill several pages.
Editor Jim Fortney, 31, says the idea for Big World came to him just outside Taos on a cross-country car trip when he realized that he and his friends never looked at travel magazines, even though they loved to travel. "There was a need for a magazine that helped travelers to use their own eyes, to experience other places the way people who live there do," he says. So he returned to Pennsylvania, quit his job on a small-town newspaper, and launched Big World three years ago. "It's for people who travel the world independently on a low budget" he adds. "I'm surprised how many people do this—not just young people but folks in their 40s and 50s." The magazine now has 5,000 subscribers—enough to pay for itself but not to give Fortney a salary, so he does freelance writing to stay in business.
Three other engaging alternative travel magazines are even more tightly targeted. Aiming directly at the Generation X audience, Blue takes us on strenuous adventures in thoughtful, well-written articles. The over-the-top graphics, however, might test the patience of anyone who isn't post-literate. Transitions Abroad, a bimonthly guide to opportunities for working and studying overseas, includes articles about adapting to other cultures as well as profiles of various destinations. Out & About, a handsomely designed newsletter that appears 10 times a year, caters to gay and lesbian travelers with useful info and opinionated commentary.