Battle Of The Upscale Travel Mags

Suppose you were stuck in the middle of Paris with the euro equivalent of $10,000 in your Chanel wallet, but no clue where to spend the night. Queldilemma! Would it be better to consult Conde Nast Traveler'sJanuary issue, whose cover trumpets the "Gold List--World's Best 700+ Places to Stay"? Or should you turn to Travel + Leisure, which provides "Our Guide To the World's Best Hotels"?

This hypothetical (and I'd give my last croissant to have such a problem) leads us to today's burning question: is there really a difference between the two biggest travel magazines?

On first glance at their January covers, they do seem oddly similar. Still, there are ways, subtle but real, to tell the two fierce competitors apart. It's time for a showdown at the upscale travel corral!

(Full disclosure: I once wrote an article for CNT, and covered the publication favorably while a reporter on several travel trade magazines.)

Numbers, Please: According to Publishers Information Bureau figures, last year T+L trumped CNT in ad revenue and number of pages. T+L's revenue total was $144.18 million, roughly 0.5 percent more than CNT's revenue of $136.9 million. T+L also tracked 55.77 more pages for the year than CNT. Winner: T+L

Hotel Ratings Guides: Entries in CNT's guide are "intended to reveal a property's character rather than catalog its facilities," with Zagat-like quotes from readers who ranked the hotels. Not bad all around, though readers sure can write banal, travel brochure-like copy--"Sunsets on the beach are spectacular" (duh!), is one entry for a Hawaiian hotel. T+L's entries, ranked by readers but written by reporters, are organized by categories that more consistently provide such practical information as which rooms have the best views or amenities. I checked out write-ups on properties I knew, like the ultra-exclusive Adirondack resort The Point, where I took my last trip as a travel writer (sigh...). CNT fell down here by providing a broad range of prices instead of specifics--The Point was in the "$400 and up" category. But I'd argue that one can't accurately gauge the "character" of this resort without knowing that its rates start at $1,250 a night. Winner: T+L

Reader-Service Features: Both mags do a thorough Q+A page, answering reader's random questions ("Can you recommend some [flamenco cafés] that aren't too touristy?") But CNT captures this category. T+L has nothing comparable to CNT's pioneering "Ombudsman" column, which aims to get justice (and sometimes refunds and compensatory damages) for wronged travelers--this month, for airline passengers stranded 145 miles from their intended destination. CNT also wins with a more thorough section of listings (shopping, dining choices, etc.) on featured destinations, even including a recommended reading list. Winner: CNT

News and trend-spotting: January is the month for fortunetelling, and T+L's "Forecast 2006" does a great job of it with a whole section of themed articles on such topics as technology (including mention of Google Map). Another piece in the section, "The Next Design City," excels at two jobs: 1) analyzing the creation of a new trend, the destination marketed for its design--and 2) providing a quick portrait of Montreal. CNT's "What's Next," containing shorter, sidebar-type items, is cursory in comparison. Winner: T+L

Journalistic integrity: CNT also pioneered the "truth in travel" approach to press trips, and this phrase is its tagline. In a little box beneath the editor's note, the mag notes that its writers will pay their way, unlike much travel industry practice, and, "as far as possible," will travel anonymously. T+L has a similar statement on its editor's note page. How much of a difference does this approach really make? As one who used to take (gasp!) the immoral kind of press junkets, I'd admit that a company's sponsorship of a trip usually stopped me from emphasizing the worst aspects of its products--though I would at least mention the negatives. Winner: Draw, though CNT gets points for being the first with this approach.

Where in the world: CNT's destination pieces aim to document the feel of a place through a writer's experience of it, a technique that can create a great view of local color. Witness this description of a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border: "I'm not young, spry, or desperate, and I could make it over this thing in thirty seconds." Yet the look-Ma-I'm-traveling technique can also create scary overwriting, as when the writer of "Shangri-la's Last Stand" describes "a waveform of emotion," that "causes me to squat down on my pack and let out a quiet gasp." In its favor, T+L has a slightly less subjective approach, coming off like a snappily written guidebook--and gets points for timeliness with a whole feature about Turin, Italy, destination of next month's Olympics (Though CNT does have a short item on the city, as well.). Winner: Draw

Investigative journalism: CNT owns this category with its "Stop Press" section, which takes a hard-hitting look at the sometimes-ugly underbelly of travel. This issue includes excellent, well-reported pieces on such timely topics as piracy on the high seas (Ahoy, matey! Did you know there's actually a Piracy Reporting Centre?) and the possibility of a global flu pandemic. Each article handles a potentially fearsome topic with just the right tone of matter-of-fact objectivity. T+L's one in-depth piece investigates the difficulty of cashing in frequent flier miles--an interesting, but hardly fresh, topic. Winner: CNT

Graphics: CNT is pretty good with the requisite photos of beautiful scenery and exotic villages. T+L goes beyond that, though, with several shots that approach poetry on the page, like a moody, gray-toned view of a Turin bridge. T+L also uses graphic elements and illustrations cleverly; whimsical drawings of hotel bathrobes even introduce the hotel guide. Winner: T+L

Bottom Line: T+L looks better and wins more--mostly traditional travel mag--categories; it's also great at spotting trends. Meanwhile, CNT excels at out-of the box investigative reporting and advocacy journalism.

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