With summer winding down, time is running out to plan your vacation. The New York Times travel section can help. Or it could, if you ever looked at it. You might never have perused the pages of this section, even if you’ve been a subscriber for years. With its hundreds of thousands of words a day, even dedicated readers don’t have time to explore the obscurer corners of the publication. And after all, this is a newspaper that can turn shopping for a stool into an excruciating exercise in status-symbol posturing. One might naturally be reluctant to find out just how snobbish they can get when the subject is Thai yoga retreats or fine dining in Paris.
The Travel section does offer some helpful, informative pieces, written from a neutral perspective and designed to help the typical traveler find her way. But this format is difficult for a jaded journalist to pull off, lacking as it does in personality or narrative interest. And the periodical format’s hunger for novelty makes it inevitable that some scribes would package their experiences as news. Furthermore, world-weary professional travellers can sometimes lose touch with the mindset of overworked provincials. Thus the matter-of-fact articles are often overwhelmed by those that try to juice up their subject with trend-piece glamour, or drag it down with angsty moaning and luxury-problem griping. So, in this, the first in a (very occasional) series on the lesser-read sections of the Times, we’ll explore the most common Travel pitfalls to watch out for.
1. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better!”
The lack of symbolic, ego-stroking luxuries in a context where one might expect to find them is often a cause for gnashing of teeth. For instance, Jesse McKinley reports being disappointed in today’s so-called first class, explaining that “My seat was wide, the armrest was enormous,” but when the flight attendant handed him a damp towel, it “had the unmistakable, oft-used texture of a bargain washcloth.” Similarly, a visitor to a Caribbean resort complain that solo travellers have to “endure hotels where the Jacuzzi is little more than a kiddie pool.” And at a lavish Miami hotel, “my ‘deluxe’ room was large, though the mattress and linens were thin; the toilet felt as if it were in a broom closet.”
But the downsides of exotic accommodations are even worse when you’re hoping to stay for good, as Danielle Pergament laments in “Viva la Villa!“: “Technically, I’m in Tuscany on vacation with my family. But only slightly less technically, I’m also here to look at houses to buy.” But only thirdly less technically, I’m here to make money writing about my life experiences for the Travel section. How busy am I, right?
Pergament’s “dream” is to own a house in Tuscany, but she is beset at every turn by hurdles. “A few years ago, my husband and I started a savings account and I actually named it the ‘Italy account.’ Our budget depends on whom you ask. I say a million euros! My husband would say something closer to … half that!” What a wacky argument! This is just when normal couples argue about whether to pay all of the electric bill right now, or just the part that’s overdue.
Anyway, she finally did find a piece of available Tuscan real estate, only to have her dream crushed into dust once again. “To be fair, [the house] had some qualities to recommend it: it was big and had a small annex that would come in handy for renting out. The backyard was the selling point: great view, large brick patio and a respectable-size pool. It even had a mini-vineyard.” How… fair. So in the plus column, we can write down “has patio, annex, pool and mini-vineyard; is a villa in Tuscany.” But it’s too late, the minus column is already full. “When it was time to check out the interior, I couldn’t look past the stripes. I glanced inside only long enough to get depressed by the low ceilings and — I know I would redecorate but still — sad, floral bedspreads.” There goes my plan to sell Danielle Pergament my gently used Bentley. Why did I ever insist on plaid upholstery?! Anyway, here’s the stripey villa:
Now I’m depressed, too.
2. “Wallowing in Luxury Is the New Black”
Fortunately, not all travel experiences are going down the tubes; some are getting better. Enterprising travel-preneurs have sought to defeat the tedium and staleness of V.I.P lodgings by mashing them up with forms of travel that are more original, but too hard to actually do in real life, like camping. Jennifer Conlin’s “Camping, but Not Quite Roughing It” shares the good news: “If the eco-friendly idea of falling asleep under the stars and roasting marshmallows around a campfire appeals to you, but the reality of pitching a tent and sleeping on bumpy ground does not, glamping, the new term being used for upscale — or glamorous — camping, could be your ideal green vacation.” Has today’s culture of designer canvas bags and organic juice bars wrought such confusion about the nature of ecology, any activity that involves viewing or touching nature is now thought to be “eco-friendly”? I always assumed the purpose of camping was that you get to enjoy being in nature, not that you’re doing nature a favor by deigning to grace it with your presence.
In any case, benevolent nature-visitors have plenty of options. Tahoe getaway Basecamp is a climber-inspired hotel “with a modern, eco-chic touch,” the “DNA” of whose “brand” the owner describes as “a riff on the idea of roughing it.” I always said the problem with camping, as a rich, immersive sensory experience, is that it isn’t high concept enough. There has to be a way to make the infinitely complex moment-to-moment apprehension of the phenomenal world chic again.
And that’s just what glamping is trying to do: “Though dismissed by hard-core leave-no-trace campers (who don’t so much as move a rock for fear of affecting the area), glamping can still be an environmentally sound outdoor experience.” Truthfully, I would much rather have read an interview with these hardcore campers. They sound like fascinating individuals. With their purist anti-rock-moving stance, they’re like the vegans of weekend getaways. I can just imagine them rolling their eyes when their friends claim that “I could never be a hardcore camper, I love moving rocks too much.” All rubbing two sticks together as they cast contemptuous glances at other campers’ portable stoves and Starbucks Via. These people are not fucking around. Let them see you carve your initials into a tree, and they’ll cut ties with you because “If you’re not a hardcore camper now, you never were.”
But the freedom to disarrange inert aspects of the landscape is a bare fraction of the luxuries glamping affords. “At Paws Up, a ranch resort… campers can pass up the cabins and stay in Tent City or in one of the newly built tents at River Camp on the Blackfoot River, complete with king-sized beds and art on the walls, a personal butler and private master bath (though it is a short walk away). Rates start at $695 per night for two but include three meals a day.” Well, if it includes meals, count me in. My camping budget is $200 a night, maximum, but my significant other and I typically spend $495 a day on food, so it’s a wash.
“’We call it nature on a silver plate,’ Terre Short, Paws Up’s general manager, said. ‘I think glamping has really hit its stride this summer as the ultimate connect with nature.’” Sounds like a value-add that could really leverage the great outdoors’ core competencies. An opportunity to interface with the existence of organic substances and biological life, while harnessing nature’s bandwidth to optimize mission-critical deliverables. Can I buy shares in Nature’s IPO?
3. “Lifestyles of the Budget-Conscious and Stupid”
Maybe a four-figure fake campsite isn’t in your budget. Fortunately for people like you, the Times is intermittently aware of your existence. Matt Gross’s “Going Deep for the Cheap in New York” informs would-be visitors that “For those of us who live here, the expense of New York City is something we’ve long since adjusted to. Designer tank tops for $140, truffled hamburgers for $150, studio apartments renting for upward of $3,000 — even in the midst of recession, these things seem somehow normal, the price of admission to the greatest city in the world.” Why, back home in podunk, you could get a truffled hamburger for $79.99! And when it came to designer tank tops, Jolene would whip you up some in the woodshed in exchange for an apron full of fresh eggs. It does indeed seem like spending inflated prices for obscure luxury niche products is “just one of those New York things.”
But for visitors, these prices cause sticker shock. The Frugal Traveler is here to help. “Check out the Cheap Eats issues of both Time Out New York (under $10) and New York Magazine.” You… can do that? Just recommend another publication? I’d like to see what would happen if the A section tried the same thing. “President Obama blasts opponents in new speech — for more, go to Google, type in ‘Obama,’ and click the tab thingy on the left that says ‘news’!”
“Check Chowhound.com‘s message boards for on-the-ground intelligence about what to eat and where.” Don’t tell people about message boards! You’re putting yourself out of business!
“To figure out what’s going on, you could scan the event listings of New York magazine, The Village Voice or Time Out.” What if I go to Village Voice or Time Out, and they’re just like “ask your Facebook friends for ideas on what’s fun to do?” And then my Facebook friends are like “I don’t know, try asking your waiter or hotel concierge.” Then the concierge is like “may I venture to suggest you peruse the New York Times Frugal Traveler column? It’s all a big round robin. I’m beginning to suspect that the concept of “things to do in New York” is a mere façade, propped up by a laborious series of deferrals.
No no, the Frugal Traveler has located some concrete suggestions. “As I write this, [TheSkint.com] tells me, ‘nigella lawson’s still in town … enjoy free samples of her christmas rocky road and cranberry + white chocolate chip cookies while she signs her “nigella christmas” @ williams-sonoma chelsea.'” If you’re a typical New York tourist, this tip will dramatically slash your celebrity-autograph-and-white-chocolate-chip-cookie budget. Assuming you pay list price for the $35 book Nigella Christmas, that’s a savings of… negative $25.01! (I am also assuming that New York cookies are more expensive than regular cookies.)
But that’s not all. “There are daily links to free mp3s (the Futureheads, Sinatra, RJD2) and hey, cool, a coupon for a $49 dental cleaning…. With all the money you’ve saved so far, you can certainly afford to go shopping.” With all the money I’ve saved by not paying retail price for a Futureheads album? All kidding aside, you’d have to pay me to listen to those MP3s. And I just got my teeth cleaned, so I’m out another $49. Let’s stop here, before the total savings from these tips exceeds negative $100.
Anyway, budget constraints are not the sole topic of useless tips. In “A Battle Plan for Jet Lag,” Stephanie Rosenbloom explains why travellers’ internal clocks betray us so. “’It’s only in the past 100 years that we’ve been able to jump time zones,’ said Steven W. Lockley, a consulting member of NASA’s fatigue management team, who is also a neuroscientist specializing in sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard in Boston. ‘We haven’t evolved a way to adapt yet.’” I love that “yet.” This dude is really optimistic about the potential for selection pressure to produce jet lag-adapted humans. With the rate at which people die of jet lag, it should only take a few more centuries, right? And the radiation from the security scanners could help us develop beneficial mutations.
“There are, however, ways to cope. Begin by determining whether you are traveling east or west.” Can do. I’ll just look it up in my trusty Atlas. It’s right here in front of me, on my bookshelf, so I’ll begin by determining which direction to walk in order to approach it. Next I’ll have to determine which foot to put in front of the other foot, and which hand to grasp the Atlas with. Maybe I should just stay home!
4. “The Accidental Douchebag”
If you’re not a budget-conscious but technologically and geographically illiterate would-be tourist, then perhaps you’re an Important Business Person who’s on the way to a Very Important Meeting. This reader is addressed in Stephanie Rosenbloom’s “How the Tough Get Going.” The piece presents words of wisdom from Tim Ferriss, a lifehacking guru whose advice exists in some nexus midway between Tyler Durden, Steve Bruhl, and the anonymous hero who came up with the idea of party balloons as condoms. Rosenbloom describes how Ferriss recently saved time at the airport: “Using Uber, a cashless car service, and Clearcard, a fast-pass for airport security, he zipped from home to gate in 20 minutes. A friend making the same flight spent 33 minutes on the security line alone.”
As much as I dislike the “first class ain’t what it used to be” trope, this approach is even worse. Ferriss and his ilk are always looking down with Olympian disdain on anyone who didn’t budget enough time for Abu Ghraib-style strip searches on the way to grandma’s. If only shoe removal and gel confiscation hadn’t proven to be so maddeningly effective, we could all save time on the way to the gate the old-fashioned way, by walking fast. Fortunately, hour-long security lines aren’t just the best way to foil terrorists; they also provide material for the burgeoning travel tip industry. “Air travel is essentially a microcosm of a society in which widening class divisions force ordinary citizens to endure troubling invasions of privacy and disregard for Constitutional rights which the wealthy can simply pay to avoid, plus you might miss your flight. Quick fix: Have lots of money, and pay for better treatment. Those suckers in the security line will feel like idiots!”
“’I had lunch and polished off two conference calls before my friend even got his shoes back on,’ Mr. Ferriss said.” Why do business dudes always brag about all the time they save so they can spend it on conference calls? It’s like bragging about all the meals you skipped so you could eat a jar of room-temperature Hellman’s mayonnaise.
“Oh, the monotony of cutting and pasting details from confirmation e-mails — plane tickets, hotel reservations, car rentals — into your online calendar.” Is this a real problem, though? How many confirmation e-mails could you possibly receive? It seems like another case of “Skymall Syndrome,” a disorder in which the sufferer is driven to devise abstruse and recondite inconveniences which she then experiences as oppressive burdens to be ruthlessly eliminated. Air travel seems particularly conducive to a sense that if only you could clear your life of mundane irritations (insufficiently tan feet, inefficient pancake batter dispensation, disorganized watch collection, lack of underwater cell phone capacity, necessity of manually grasping wine, coffee and blow dryers), you could break free from quotidian routine and spend your days doing — what? Some activity of such inherent meaning, value and purpose, such ontological plenitude and transcendent immanence, that your nagging sense of alienation and ennui would drop away, leaving you to flow gently with life’s current — at one, finally, with a numinous present. Of course, the obsessive pursuit of convenience serves only to defer autotelic experience ever further with the purchase of each astronaut pen or cell phone wrist strap. As meaningful life experiences recede endlessly over the horizon, the means/ends dichotomy inherent in the capitalist value system collapses in on itself, leaving existence blanched of meaning, the quest to avoid wasted time paradoxically elevated to the status of an empty (and time-consuming) goal. You’re worse off than when you started — much worse, because now you have a Brobdignagian sporting-event chair.
Ferriss uses some app to avoid cutting-and-pasting; he is also reputed to avoid checking suitcases, and to “[sleep] with an eye mask and earplugs.” But not all his suggestions are quite so predictable. He advises saving money by parking illegally on the street, instead of paying for the airport lot. “A monthlong trip cost him $115 in parking tickets compared with $540 for airport parking.” Poor Ferris: A four-hour work week, a six-minute gym routine, an eight-second suitcase packing protocol, and nobody likes him enough to drive him to the airport. The un-hacked state of Tim Ferriss’s social life aside, this is the only potentially useful tip in the article, so naturally it’s the one that drove the New York Times editorial staff insane. Frank Bruni objects: “Don’t pay for airport parking, [Ferriss] advised in The Times, if the accrued tickets from leaving your car on the street won’t be as expensive. Sure, you’re unlawfully hogging a space someone else might make legal use of; maybe you’re thwarting street sweepers, too. Not your problem. A conscience is for chumps.” Alternate-side street sweeping: an ethical challenge for our times. It’s nice to be conscientious, but am I really supposed to pay $10 a day just to avoid the karmic guilt of depriving a law-abiding citizen of a plum space in front of Olive Garden? Actually, I’m not sure where you’re supposed to be doing all this illicit parking; it’s not like there’s street parking near the airport. Maybe you’re supposed to park near a hotel and use their free shuttle service? Wait a minute, I think I just… invented a time-saving travel tip. This is such a rush. Lifehacking power flows through my veins like ichor. I feel like a God!
“Recently San Francisco International Airport visitors who had Klout scores of 40 or higher and were using the site’s iPhone app were given free access to the Cathay Pacific Airways first- and business-class lounge, even if they weren’t passengers of the airline.” What a convivial time must have been had in the Cathay Pacific Airways first- and business-class lounge that day. Even the actual first-class passengers were probably like “who are these douchebags.”
5. “Idyll, Interrupted; or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bahamas”
No matter how efficiently you prepare for your vacation, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a good time once you get there. TV critic Alessandra Stanley begins her account of a doomed Miami resort trip with the pseudo-Wildean line “One of the good things about divorce is that you get to see less of your children,” and it only gets worse from there. But that’s nothing. In the angstily-titled “Single in the Caribbean,” Stephanie Rosenbloom recounts her time at the Turks and Caicos Club Med, where she was forced to “[escape] from a mob of bronzed bodies dancing under the stars in whipped-up, blissed-out unison to a 1980s disco hit.” Sounds terrible, but that’s how it is at the Med, and always has been. “A 1970 article in The New York Times described a Club Med in Martinique as rife with semi-nude swingers and a sensual atmosphere ‘that middle age should not be forced to endure.’” Now that you mention it, the Times hasn’t changed much over the years, either. How can the wary visitor avoid all that sensuality and fun?
Easily, in fact. Rosenbloom describes herself as “reluctant to drink the Club Med Kool-Aid”; highlights of her trip include being “sober,” “[slipping] into bed shortly after midnight,” and “[observing] aqua gym class from my lounge chair.” Unaccountably, she was left sitting alone at dinner. “All around me, the restaurant was abuzz with laughter, the sound of wine splashing into glasses.” What are they doing with that wine, pouring it out of a helicopter? Keep it down! I’m trying introspect over here!
“One culinary note: if you take nothing else from Club Med, take the sublime white chocolate bread.” You flew thirteen hundred miles to a tropical paradise, and you’re impressed by a pastry?
Because the Caribbean was so traumatic, Rosenbloom tried the solo travel thing again in a less intimidating locale: Chicago. “Parachuting into a major city on one’s own has its perils. It’s not like lolling on a beach or rafting through the Grand Canyon. In a city, there are dodgy neighborhoods, dodgier men and jammed bars and restaurants where you’ll be parked at a table for one.” But the risk of murder and ostracism aren’t the only surprises in the Windy City. “At the front desk the staff was so friendly I suspected they were overcompensating for some unpleasant news they were about to spring. But all I got was a warm cookie and a key…. The geniality was almost unnerving.” I suppose the 12 percent friendliness differential between New York and Chicago would take some getting used to. It’s a good thing Rosenbloom didn’t go to Little Rock, or she’d have developed schizophrenic hallucinations.
Anyway, the hotel was nice. But Rosenbloom didn’t go there to make friends. “I was there for convenience, including easy access to Roof — my first stop.” She’s really “hacked” the hotel room-bar transportation issue. Have she and Tim Ferriss ever been photographed together?
Proving that travel writers are just like us, Rosenbloom did indeed head to the hotel bar first. “I took a seat. Panoramic views from the deck and floor-to-ceiling windows made it easy to be simultaneously present and miles away.” That is one way to describe the effect of windows. It could also be stated, more prosaically, that they allow you to sit in a chair while looking at objects. “Gazing out at Marina City’s towers, rising like two corncobs (as the locals call them) from the banks of the Chicago River, I daydreamed about what it might be like to live there.” It’s just like the charming rusticity of Chicagoans to compare skyscrapers to corncobs. You sweet, naïve yokels. In fact, I understand Chicago natives compare all their local landmarks to corn. The Sears Tower is the “single corncob.” The shore of Lake Michigan is “maize beach.” The Museum of Science and Industry is “huskers’ heaven.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House is “the ol’ corn-grillin’ pan.” Union Station is “the big indoor cornfield.” Cloud Gate is “the shiny bean-shaped corn kernel.” It’s a little laborious, but Midwesterners have a lot of time to kill.
On a three-day trip, Rosenbloom didn’t have time to do everything, so her account is strewn with wistful subjunctives relating all the activities she would, could, or might have tried. “I could have stayed in the tony Gold Coast amid lavish town houses, or in artsy Wicker Park with its laid-back bars, or in another of the city’s dozens of neighborhoods… If I could have squeezed it into my itinerary, I would have attended a Windy City Explorers MeetUp…. I ended up hailing a cab to the Pump Room, but if I hadn’t, I could have texted for one…. You could spend a whole weekend in places like Wicker Park and Bucktown with their neighborhood bars and denim-and-flannel dress code.” And back at Roof, “had I peered through the telescope, I might have lingered even longer, zooming in on one real estate fantasy after another.” Daydreaming about all the places you’ve never seen is one thing, but fantasizing about what it would have been like if you’d daydreamed about something is just sad, and kind of confusing.
(Although, it would be great if Rosenbloom would take over Thomas Friedman’s column. She’d be like, “I glanced across the rain-drenched Dubai streets at a waiting taxicab. There were hundreds of cabs, each containing a no doubt articulate and insightful local driver. If I’d taken a cab, I might have gazed at the driver’s ID tag, fantasizing about what it would be like to ask him what he thought about the Arab democracy revolutions. But my destination was only a block away. I decided to walk.”)
Of course, she might have seen more sights if she hadn’t spent so much time boozing it up at hotel bar. “On a different evening at Roof, this time well past midnight, two go-go dancers twirled like woozy tops, flanking a D.J. who was blasting Paula Abdul’s ‘Straight Up.’” You’ve really captured this experience with Flaubertian richness. Is there some manual out there for lazy writers stipulating that to create local-color descriptions of bars, you must mention the wackiest thing you saw there and name the one song you recognized playing over the P.A.?
One experience that really got its hooks in her was a boat tour. While at first annoyed because “there weren’t enough good seats or cookies,” she ultimately found it magical. “’Density,’ said our guide, pointing up at the skyline shimmering in the dying sun, ‘creates vitality.’ I shivered. This time, it wasn’t because I was chilly. It was because the Windy City blew me away.” Oh, brother. That must have been some lecture on urban planning. “Then my hat flew off my head towards the ceiling. This time, it wasn’t being sucked upwards by a malfunctioning vent. It was in astonishment at the variety of choices on the menu.”
Later, in the hip neighborhood, “People in their 20s and 30s adorned with clunky 1980s-style headphones and glasses were reading and eating alone on couches, or clacking on their Macs. ” Atmosphere! That sounds like people in their 20s and 30s, all right. “But back to the Public hotel, where, outside, women were teetering in stilettos — tipsy, smoking, gabbing on cellphones, or all of the above. Had I been teleported to the meatpacking district?” Stupid women! What with their stilettos, and their phones, and the fact that they drink and smoke in bars. I have a feeling that you could as graceful as a prima ballerina in your heels, and Travel/Leisure writers would still accuse you of “teetering.” Welcome to the world of colorful descriptions, where people on cell phones are always “gabbing”, women in heels are always “teetering,” music is always “blasting,” skylines are forever “shimmering,” the setting sun is eternally “dying,” computer keyboards are inevitably “clacking,” wine is everlastingly “splashing” into glasses, beach bodies are universally “bronzed,” and every cookie is mouth-watering.
Bonus Question: What’s With All the Cookies?
Without even trying, we’ve already encountered several references to cookies and related delicacies. And the cookie theme isn’t just a coincidence — it’s a full-blown obsession. In “Which Bus Should I Take to the Hamptons,” Rosenbloom evaluates the perks of different services. “I was on my way to Montauk on the hushed Hampton Ambassador bus… as the pleasant man in the polo shirt went from seat to seat with newspapers, chips, cookies, coffee. I was almost hoping to get stuck in traffic.” A rival bus line offers “party mix, cookies, granola bars, coffee, water, lemonade and wine, all included,” while yet another features “little bags of pretzels, chocolate chip cookies and other diet busters at a bar at the back of the bus, all included.” But it’s not just Rosenbloom. Wherever there are cookies, you’ll find carb-starved scribes taking up their pens in praise. Bill Pennington celebrates the presence of “free cookies” at a Beaver Hill, Colorado resort; Bob Tedeschi looks back gratefully on “free cookies” at a Philadelphia International Airport lounge. The Frugal Traveler is especially cookie-conscious, reminiscing about a “tray of free chocolate chip cookies” at a travel convention, and scavenging for “free cookies as big as your face” in Boston,” and feasting on “warm cookies and cold milk” in business class, and being offered “coffee and Swedish cookies” by a Nordic innkeeper.
In the erratic world of travel, all this points to a comforting certainty. Okay, so airfare and lodging may be ruinously expensive. So you may encounter myriad humiliations before even reaching your gate. You may find all your fears and inhibitions waiting for you at your destination, and be mocked or ignored by the locals. You may spend a week shivering in a leaky tent, or sighing in an underwhelming Tuscan mansion. The whole ordeal may serve only as a depressing reminder that your that your life is slipping through your fingers faster than you can experience it. But at least you can be sure of one thing: Wherever you go, there will be cookies. And New York Times travel reporters need a bigger food budget.