Travel magazines depress me. For no particular reason, I've always imagined that they're read mostly by unhappily married women in the Midwest. I envision these women longingly gazing at one posh villa after the next, all the while knowing that they'll never have the time or financial means to visit any of them. Then I slap myself back into reality and return to the task of slogging through another bloated commentary on "Tuscany's Secret Treasures." This is not a glamorous job that I have.
I quite like National Geographic Traveler, though. It strikes me as the only literal-minded travel mag on the market today (that's a compliment) and the only one that caters to readers who have little patience for semi-travel-related fashion frippery ("beach beauty balms" and comparable alliterative gobbledy-gook). It leaves the "travel is a lifestyle" tag for others to claim; its perspective is something more along the lines of "travel is an activity you do." You know, like panhandling or black-arts sorcery.
Paging through the July/August National Geographic Traveler, what struck me first is that the mag offers more practical, actionable information in the 20 or so pages of "Smart Traveler" than rival publications do in six months. The section takes a quick look at scenic train trips - few of which are likely on the radar of self-appointed travel gurus - and then upshifts into a spirited discourse on cell-phone etiquette, which is accompanied by a list of locales devoid of cell towers. So wait, I won't be able to check my rotisserie stats via phone in Gustavus, Alaska? Sigh - looks like it's the Jer-Z shore again this summer.
The section also explores downtown Knoxville, Tenn., lists a handful of legit travel deals (plus gives a link for more up-to-date info on the mag's Web site), and presents a primer for travelers hitting the U.S. interstates this summer. The latter item, "Code of the Road," might be the most useful one-pager I've seen in a magazine in weeks. It serves up a host of I-should-know-this tips (north/south interstate highways have odd numbers, east/west ones have even numbers) as well as links to invaluable travel resources like GasPriceWatch.com, where road warriors can locate the cheapest fill-up options along their route.
Then there's an investigation of sorts, which explores whether there's any factual basis behind chat-room rumors that Firefox browser users get consistently better travel deals than those using Internet Explorer. National Geographic Traveler debunks the myth - and relates the whys and hows in a way that even a tech doofus could understand - in a neat few paragraphs. It's worth saying again, in obtrusive, font-defying capital letters: STORIES LIKE THIS ARE THE VERY REASON FOR TRAVEL MAGAZINES TO EXIST. There, I feel better now.
The July/August issue offers a whole lot of goodies beyond "Smart Traveler," most notably a comely fold-out spread on 13 uncongested U.S. highways and a thankfully critical evaluation of 55 National Park regions (visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park anytime soon? Watch out for what the mag describes as "terrible traffic, vista-choking haze, invasive species, and crowded trails"). In the end, though, it's "Smart Traveler" that makes National Geographic Traveler the category's best offering. Would-be competitors might be advised to take notes.