Marc Peyser came to Budget Travel magazine as deputy editor in February 2011 after more than 20 years as a writer and editor for Newsweek. Recently promoted to editor, Peyser's passion for bringing newsiness and immediacy to travel journalism shines in both the magazine and in this interview. When we spoke on the phone last month, Peyser shared stories from his favorite trips along with practical advice for—what else?—stretching your budget while traveling. For more on Budget Travel, visit the magazine's website, like it on Facebook, or follow @BudgetTravel on Twitter.
Tell me about your favorite place you’ve ever visited.
Norway. Because it’s in Europe (obviously), I didn’t expect to be all that surprised by it, but I was really blown away. We went in the summer, so the light was very different—it didn’t get dark until close to midnight. The food, especially the seafood at the outdoor market in Bergen, was amazingly fresh, though I never had the heart to eat whale meat, which was advertised everywhere. And then there was this weird disconnect between this almost entirely homogenous population of blond, blue-eyed people living in this landscape that was unlike anything I’d ever seen: sparkling fjords, the emerald countryside, and the breathtaking, sheep-dotted hills. It was exotic in a way I never thought exotic could be.
What’s at the top of your bucket-list, and why?
What I really would love to do most is take a snorkeling cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. I've been to the barrier reef once, for just a day. I'm not generally an adventurous person in an outdoorsy sense, but it was really just literally and figuratively another world, and I always thought that I would like to be a part of that in a longer term way. They have cruises where you can be in the water constantly, and that's really what I would love to do.
What’s the best place you’ve ever spent the night?
The Meridian Hotel in Brussels, which is a lovely hotel but not necessarily the most expensive hotel in the world. We were in Brussels just for the day and night, and waiting to go back to the United States from there. We had one night there, and it was a miserable, cold, rainy day—it never stopped raining. So we were lugging our bags around and then night comes and we didn’t have any place to stay. We went into the Meridian, and not only did they have a room, but because it was well after dark when we got there, they gave us half off the room because they were not able to sell all their rooms.
They put us in an enormous suite, so we went from the end of a vacation—cold, wet, miserable, ready to go home—to this absolutely luxurious existence, which of course we didn’t want to leave and couldn’t have afforded to stay anyway.
But the fact that it came under those circumstances and was such a good bargain to boot made it so incredibly memorable.
And the worst?
Fortunately I don’t remember the name of the place. I studied in France when I was in college. It was my last night in Paris, and I was by myself. Of course I had no money left and I found a place to stay in the Marais district, which is now very trendy but was then not very trendy. It was 10 dollars a night, which I thought was great. It seemed fairly clean and quiet, and my room was perfectly nice.
Night time comes, it was hot, it was the summer so the windows were wide open, and there were women in the courtyard in the back beating laundry, and it dawned on me the next morning that I think I was staying in a house of ill repute. I didn’t sleep a wink. It was probably the worst $10 I ever spent in France.
Finish this sentence: The funniest thing that’s ever happened to me while traveling is…
We were staying with friends in Germany, in Bonne, and our flight was the next morning—very, very early, like 6:00 a.m. The plane was leaving from Munich, which is quite a drive from Bonne. So everybody got up around 2:00 in the morning. Our friends came downstairs and made us breakfast, and then we packed everything up and got into the car. At this point I took out the tickets and I saw that our flight actually didn't leave that day—it left the next day. So I'd gotten everybody out of bed, and they were very good-natured about it, they smiled and went back to bed, but I just felt like an idiot.
What's your most practical tip for travelers?
I would say it's lunch. By which I mean, I like to eat in nice places as much as anyone else, but dinner is expensive in nice places and lunch is often less expensive, especially if you travel like I do, which is to spend a whole day walking around. I like to really just walk a ton when I'm visiting a place. It's great to have a nice leisurely break in the middle of the day and just refuel and rest. That way I feel like I've had my big culinary experience for the day, and dinner can be a much lighter thing, whether it's just a drink and something at a bar or picking something up at a local food cart. So I would say people should focus more on lunch when it comes to making your big meal splurge because I think your money would go farther.
Your most essential carry-on item?
Water. You can never have enough. Staying hydrated will help you in so many ways, not the least of which is helping you not get jetlagged.
What led you to seek a career in the travel publishing field? What kinds of experiences led you down this road as a career path?
It kind of chose me. I had been at Newsweek and it was going through a lot of change. I was leaving and I knew of Budget Travel because Newsweek and Budget Travel were both owned by the Washington Post Company. So when I noticed they had a job opening I applied. And even though I didn’t have any travel editing experience, [former Budget Travel editor] Nina Wildorf thought that I would work out.
I don’t know that she would have hired me if I hadn’t traveled as much as I had, but in a certain sense I found that travel journalism isn’t that different from any other kind of journalism. It's really telling people something they don’t know in a way that makes them want to finish the story. So in that sense, it's not that different than writing about anything else.
Best meal you've ever had while traveling?
It's not necessarily the most lavish or expensive meal I've ever had in my life, but one that was part of the larger journey. In this case it was a place called the Mussel Boys, which is a mussel shack in New Zealand. I think it was in Havelock.
We were driving through New Zealand and somehow had hit upon this place which was just in the middle of nowhere. It feels like there's nothing around and then there's this little shack, and the mussels were literally pulled from the back yard of the restaurant and smothered in all of these different kinds of sauces. They were green mussels, which I had never seen before, and they were just unbelievably fresh. You felt like you were eating New Zealand (in the best way possible). And if food is a way to learn more about a culture, I felt like I had really found my way there. It was just delicious.
Your favorite book about travel?
Just like I don’t think travel journalism is all that different from regular journalism, I don’t necessarily think that novels or fiction need to be specifically about travel to be thought of that way. Which is a long way of saying that my favorite travel book is A Movable Feast, because it just really brings you to that place and those experiences and those people. Actually, there's a lot of Hemingway that I think is wonderful travel writing. It's just a very rich experience.
Planned itinerary … or just wing it?
I just like to wing it, generally. I just like to drop into a city and spend however much time I have there walking around and exploring.
What's the best part of your job?
When someone finds out that you work for a travel magazine they always say, "So you get to travel a lot?" And I do get to travel some, but I wouldn’t say that's the best part of the job. The best part is how much people seem to get out of the magazine. Our readers love Budget Travel. I know it sounds self-serving, but coming from a place like Newsweek where people complained all the time, it's very refreshing.
Budget Travel is a very service-oriented magazine. I love feeling like people are actually using the information that we’re giving them in ways that they enjoy. In that sense I feel like it's about journalism with a higher purpose, and I love that.
SmarterTravel's "Travel Talk" takes you inside the minds of seasoned travel professionals who dish on everything from favorite foods and favorite places to insider tips and funniest on-the-road experiences. Read our previous interviews here.