Why are there so few good TV travel shows?

There are plenty of real-life travel and adventure books out there for those of us — like me – who are avid armchair travelers. But there seems to be a shortage of good quality travel shows on TV — the main networks, such as ABC, CBS and NBC seldom broadcast what I would describe as a travel show or documentary.

Of course, if you have cable or satellite, you have a lot more choice. Some of the channels such as Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel offer some choice, although one problem with having all those channels accessible 24 hours a day, is that you have to hunt to see what’s on — and then figure out how to program your VCR. At least I do.

And if you have cable or satellite, you probably get the Travel Channel included in your line up of programming. The Travel Channel — as the name suggests — naturally shows travel, vacation and adventure type shows and documentaries. But they also seem to show a lot of programs that I wouldn’t consider being travel related — some recent offerings include “Professional Poker Tour” and “Most Haunted” (though haunted vacations are still fairly popular) as well as “Monster Trucks”. And “Epicurious” should really be on the Food Network.

One of my favorite Travel Channel shows is “Vacation Home Search” in which people with far too much money choose from a selection of three stylish and pricey vacation homes. On each episode, every house costs several times as much as my home — and these are just their vacation homes! I can’t help wonder what their regular home is like.

CBS does have an excellent travel-themed reality show — The Amazing Race which, if you haven’t seen it, is literally a race around the world, in which teams have to solve various clues and reach the next point as quickly as possible to avoid elimination. A recent episode of the current season had the teams flying from Warsaw to Hong Kong. Apparently, the contestants do eat and sleep, but you never really get to see them doing it.

The “Amazing Race” shows you the world, along with plenty of local atmosphere and sights – but part of the show’s appeal is that it tends to also show the less glamorous side of travel. Teams on the show are seen dealing with unhelpful taxi drivers, trying to change money and dealing with the language barrier. Contestants on the show also spend a lot of time standing in line to buy plane tickets, and dealing with today’s typically overcrowded airports. And not surprisingly, there’s plenty of arguing and bickering too — as befits any reality show.

But my favorite TV armchair traveler has to be Michael Palin, of “Monty Python” fame. Palin made a series of travel documentaries for Britain’s BBC network, in some of which he traveled around the world in 80 days, crossed the Sahara and traveled the entire length of the Himalayas. His shows appear on PBS and the Travel Channel periodically, and are also on DVD. Catch one of his documentaries and see how good TV travel can be when it’s done well.

Written by guest travel blogger, Mancunian

Filed Under: Travel writing

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Comments (14)

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  1. Ray Anderson says:

    I agree, there needs to be more travel programs on tv. The Travel Channel does the most, however I would rather see more economical options on lodging and eats. Samantha Brown is definitely a ‘hottie’, but how many of us can afford to stay at a $1,000 a night, five star resort?

    PVIE has my two favorites, Rick Steves and Travels with Rudy. Steves has lived the ‘world tour’ all his life and offers many options.

    My least favorite travel programs are two young people who go on a short trip and pronounce everything they did: “as the best”. This format is nothing more than a string of anecdotes with no real knowledge or options of what the travel place has. We would rather see travel focusing on the geology, history, biology and the people, rather than the best expensive restaurant and tourist shops.

    Too bad the major networks have no real travel programs other than the sporadic shorts on the news. Time to wake up. The Boomers want to travel.

  2. Kay says:

    I agree completely. Especially do not understand why The Travel Channel shows the Poker, Monster Trucks, food, etc., in other words, shows that have nothing to do with travel. IMO, this is a subject crying out for someone to produce to give us travelers in depth travel information/entertainment. And also this programming would be great for all the “armchair” folks who cannot or do not wish to travel. “Amazing Race” takes us to places but we never get to see enough due to the “race” aspect of the show.

  3. Cheryl says:

    I’ve been saying this for ages! There are so many interesting and wonderful places in the world to see – why anyone would want to watch “poker” is beyond me. MORE travel!

  4. Graden says:

    Find and watch Globetrekker on PBS. Entertaining hosts take you to exotic locales and places that you did not realize were exotic until viewed through a fresh perspective. The Globetrekker programs offer history, adventure, quirky side-trips, food, and festivals around the world. Search for Globetrekker on the web where videos for purchase and videos on demand are also available. You will feel as though you have truly traveled the world from the inside out. Please find and watch this series on PBS. I am sure that it needs your support and you will be rewarded with a deeper lust for travel.

  5. Craig says:

    You must try “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain. (If you watch that much travel TV I’m not sure how you’d miss it, but I didn’t see it mentioned.) It’s hands-down the best travel series I’ve seen. You really feel like you’ve seen the culture, even more so than with Globetrekker. He tends to go to odd places, not really the big attractions, but it’s very interesting.

  6. Al says:

    I agree 100% with the comments given. Why do most of the programs have the idea that everyone is rich. Rick Steves and “California Gold, State Parks” with Huell Howser try to meet the need of people on a limited budget but their programs are only on PBS. Some of the Spanish speaking programs in the San Diego area do give some tourist highlights of Mexico but they are far and few between.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share!

  7. jeff says:

    I agree also. In my opinion most ‘travel’ shows focus on the traveler (host) instead of the destination.

  8. Phil Dikeman says:

    I’d like to see more “travel” and less “poker”

    Just doesn’t make sense to have poker tournements on the Travel channel.

    Kinda like having bowling on the food network….

    not that they do, of course…

  9. Taryn says:

    I thought I was the only one in the world who felt like this. I totally agree with you. I was so excited when I got cable and I could finally see some good travel shows on the Travel Channel. I was so disappointed when all I saw were shows about haunted houses and poker. After awhile, I was beginning to think that all there was to travel was Las Vegas, Disney World and U.S. national parks. Where was the travel to Africa, South America, Asia, etc? I guess I was expecting a Rick Steves show on the Travel Channel. I would say though, that it is starting to get a little better.

  10. Brett says:

    You guys are on the money! I wholeheartedly agree… keep poker on the – well not sure there’s a good place for it on TV, as Poker isn’t a sport (ESPN) either….

    Ditto for haunted houses, cooking, truck shows, and world’s most expensive and unlikely for viewers to stay at hotel shows…

    Aside from Globe Trekker and Passport to Europe, Travel Channel is a total misnomer… PBS (Rick Steves and Rudy Maxa) is MUCH better – albeit intermittent / infrequent..

  11. BETI says:

    Amen, Amen! Oh Travel Channel Program Director, what are you thinking? So many places you could take us in documentary programs. Peru, Tibet, Easter Island, Taj Mahal, the Serengeti, the Pyramids, the Congo, Portugal, Canary Islands, Sicily, all of Italy, the Dordogne, Honfleur, FR, Pacific Northwest, all of Italy, Cambodia, Russia, Dubai, Caribbean islands and on and on. Get a crew together and do this right. As a reader commented, focus on the destination, not the traveler. Be a true “Travel Channel”. And no hotels please, we can find those on the Internet. AND NO MORE POKER, P L E A S E ! Thanks for listening.

  12. kris says:

    A good one to watch is Anthony Bourdain No Reservations, he’s very real and doens’t stay or eat in trendy expensive places. He likes to go where the locals go. He’s a very interesting guy, I think he’s a chef, so he really knows his stuff. The show is not always on, but it is a Travel Channel show, check your listings.

  13. Ray Anderson says:

    Is it only me or is the new ‘1000 PLACES TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE’ a lame excuse for travel information??!

    Once again we are stuck with the familiar format of a young couple eating, shopping and staying in expensive resorts. I tried watching it several times and fell a sleep.

    Here’s a good example: The Australia episode had them in Sydney where the only outside activity they did was to walk on the top of the famous bridge. Right next to the Sydney Bridge is the interesting Rocks (historical buildings) and the busy harbor with numerous public ferries. Across the harbor is a great zoo. Yet none of these attractions were covered. At least they did show the outside of the wonderful Opera House, but did not cover it.

  14. chris coates says:

    I agree, infact my name is Chris Coates and I live in São Paulo, Brazil. I tried to start making a travel programme starting in São Paulo, Brazil and working around the states of Brazil.

    In the end it just proved too difficult to sell. See below and let me know what you think. Ideas would be great.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbjXmwWjvIM

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