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Passport Travel Newsletter - a review

Fantastic bure - or frightful shack? Where do you turn to for advice when choosing a 'special' travel experience?

A resource like Passport Travel Newsletter can help.



The Passport Travel Newsletter and its associated website describes itself as 'America's oldest luxury travel information source since 1965'. It has a good reputation and a loyal following.

With an annual subscription of $99, this is either very good value - if it truly helps you - or very expensive if it doesn't. Which is the case? If you're looking for upmarket travel experiences, and willing to pay top dollar in return for best quality, the advice of a publication such as this could be invaluable.

Note - now seems to be defunct.

The Newsletter

Your annual subscription gets you twelve issues of their monthly newsletter.

Each newsletter is twenty half-letter pages (about 9500 words) in length. Twelve contain nine mini-features on various regions, four pages are a feature on an international destination and the other four are a feature on a domestic destination (anywhere you can travel without needing a passport). During the last four months, the featured international destinations have been Bologna, Scotland, Southern India and Vienna; while the featured local destinations have been Oahu, Mexico City, High Country Golf and Charleston.

The nine mini-features include sections on London, Paris and Rome every month (due to the popularity of these destinations with readers) and other destinations on a rotating basis to round out its coverage of the world.

Perhaps disappointingly, the newsletter is printed only in one color. It doesn't have any photos in it, but is a purely text driven publication. It is not intended as a 'coffee table' glossy magazine a la Conde Nast Traveler, but rather as a factual reference resource.

The Website

The companion website has a clean and appealing structure and layout - no frills or bandwidth consuming 'eye-candy', it also embodies a 'just the facts' approach. A limited amount of material is available for free, the remainder is restricted to paid subscribers only.

If one starts to 'drill down' several layers into the website structure, one discovers that the built in navigational aids, should one wish to then retreat back up to a more general level, are incomplete and sometimes absent. Sure, one can always reach for the 'back' button in one's browser, but not having these navigational features as part of the web page design is a small oversight. No frames or other navigational aids are used, but sensible use of opening new windows for new pages provides some navigational assistance.

The site contains the data from the last twelve newsletters in online form, and then has this information (and more from earlier newsletters) indexed by destination so you can quickly get to exactly the information you wish.

A 'Travel Tools' section gives links to nine selected travel resources (such as a global weather site, currency converter, etc), and a 'Recommended Links' section has links to seven travel suppliers. These are fairly sparse, and while the company says that no company ever buys listings or recommendations from them, the descriptions in the Links section read more like advertisements with too many superlatives, rather than impartial statements of fact!

As with the newsletter, the main function of the website is merely as a content delivery system. And so, let us now turn to the content of the newsletters and the website.

The Content - Quantity Issues

My unrealistic hope (and possibly yours, too) was that the site would be an encyclopaedic resource for most of the major travel regions in the world. And so I checked several places in the US and internationally that I'm very familiar with to see if this service had information on my own favorite places to stay, eat at, and sightsee, and also to see if it also had information on the tourist traps and places to steer well clear of. The results were mixed and sometimes disappointing.

The regional travel reports are very brief and may not only state contentious views as if they were facts (eg recommending not to take a Sydney harbor cruise!) but also omit important information from the attractions they do recommend (eg, in Sydney, people taking the harbor bridge climb are breathalysed first - if you had a 'liquid lunch' then went to take the bridge climb, you'd be refused).

There seems to be little consistency in the selection of featured hotels. One would expect to see consistency in the quality of selected properties and of the coverage within each region. Some of the hotels are no better than three star and do not belong on a website that claims to provide luxury travel information; other hotels that definitely should be included in covered cities and areas are completely omitted. Even more puzzling is the featuring of one hotel but the omission of its sister hotel.

Restaurant recommendations are also far from complete. Of course, we all have our own favorites, but I was very dismayed to see that, for example, in Salzburg, no mention was made of the excellent brewery/restaurant complex in the monastery on one side of the city - a meal (and more than a few beers) there was definitely one of the highlights of my visit to that city. I'd also have expected the sightseeing portion of the Salzburg review to discuss the 'Sound of Music' tour - perhaps the most popular local tour, and definitely the biggest disappointment of my Salzburg visit!

There are some surprising omissions of entire cities and regions. For example, in Britain, no mention is made of York - surely one of the prime tourism gems. In Greece, almost none of the islands are mentioned at all - nothing on Mykonos, or Santorini, or most of the other islands.

The site has a section on cruising that comprises merely one very long page of writeups, variously of cruise lines in general, or of specific ships and/or itineraries. Alas, nothing is dated, so there is no way of knowing what is current and what may be out of date, and after reading through what seem like dozens of similarly glowing reports on different ships and companies, one is left with very little clear guidance as to which cruise to choose.

Even the summary ends up recommending six different cruise lines, plus adding another five cruise lines as being 'worth consideration' - between the eleven different cruise lines, something in excess of 90% of all cruise ships are included in their recommendations! Hardly a useful short list at all, and an area where most people truly need helpful advice.

The Content - Quality Issues

Hotel reviews range from very brief factual recitations of how many rooms, location and contact details with no actual review or opinion at all, to more detailed writeups on hotels. A review of one hotel (the resplendent Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg, Russia) sounded to me like the reviewer had never even walked into the hotel (he commented on the lack of a lobby area - the lobby does exist but is not visible from the street)!

Strangely, few of the hotels' contact details include a website or email address, even if the hotel has these. Reviews are generally undated so one does not know how up to date the comments (or the quoted room rates) may be.

There are two things I'd love to see - first of all, some negative comments about things! For example, I read through the hotel recommendations in Sydney (only seven hotels listed) and there wasn't a negative critical comment about any of these seven hotels. Are all seven perfect in every respect? Absolutely not! Surely this service should expose the shortcomings - luxury travelers expect the highest standards, and by ignoring the negatives and only detailing the positives, the service is not being completely helpful.

The other thing that would be helpful is to rank hotels from a 'best choice' to a 'worst choice' category, or even to assign some type of stars, or in some other way to answer the question 'So which hotel should I stay at?'. Using Paris as an example, the service lists 67 hotels, with reviews averaging a brief 110 words (a similar length to this single paragraph). Almost without exception, all hotels are given excellent reviews, and one is left with no sense at all of what would be the 'best' or 'second best' choice to make.

Of course the concept of 'best' varies from person to person, based on their individual preferences, but even so, it would be very helpful for the service to not just list a confusingly large number of hotels, but also then to provide some 'best in category' designations to help direct readers to what are likely to be the most appropriate hotels.

The unanswered question in all cases is 'if I don't see a hotel listed, is it because it is not considered good enough, or because the service just plain hasn't reviewed it'?

Other inconsistencies are also present. In the Airlines section of their Travel Report area, they provide a review of an Alaska Airlines flight, but have no information on, for example, American, Continental, Delta, or Jet Blue, and although they have information on Varig, they have no information on British Airways or Lufthansa or Virgin or Qantas or Singapore or just about any other major international carrier. Surely a Luxury Travel Information Source would feature a discussion on the relative merits of BA and AF Concordes, a discussion on the new sleeper beds, and other such things of interest to premium cabin travelers! (The newsletter publisher advises that they strictly limit their reviews only to airlines that they personally travel on, they do not accept second hand reports, hence the limited, but slowly growing, coverage.)

Summary - Should You Subscribe?

As I observed at the start, the newsletter does have a loyal following of people that have subscribed for a long time, and so obviously it is doing some things very well. The monthly newsletters do provide interesting news, either semi-indepth features or briefer overview comments, and if you're considering traveling to a new destination for the first time, and the destination appears in one of these features, you might well get great value from the service. With a typical luxury hotel costing $250 (or very much more!) a night, and a typical luxury vacation being somewhere from mid four figures up into five figures and above in total cost, a $99 investment in a bit of research seems very mild.

In total, in a typical year, you'll get 72 mini articles, monthly updates on Rome, Paris and London, plus 12 major features on other foreign destinations and 12 major features on domestic destinations. That's quite a lot of material.

But the service doesn't make bold and strong recommendations, and neither does it aggressively tell you which hotels and restaurants to avoid - surely that is as valuable and essential as giving you a partial list of hotels/restaurants that are satisfactory!

If you travel regularly - especially to London, Paris, and/or Rome, and feel the need for additional ideas and suggestions, then you will probably get value from this service. However, the service could add a great deal more features to make it more generally useful to a wider audience.

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If you're interested in this newsletter, why not sign up for it - they offer a full money back guarantee. You can cancel any time during the life of your subscription for a full refund! You can't get a fairer offer than that.

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Originally published 26 July 2002, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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