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You’ve settled into your seat, a middle with no way out. There is no in-flight entertainment monitor. You left your iPad on the rental car counter. Things are looking grim.
But then you realize you’re not condemned to hours of boredom: Your salvation is coming in the form of a little handheld friend in the seat pocket in front of you. If it’s nearing the end of the month, it’s probably dog-eared. Yes, it’s that relic of another era, the humble in-flight magazine. Maybe you missed it, sandwiched behind the laminated safety card but, especially when it’s your only option for entertainment, you’ll be glad it’s there.
The inflight magazine doesn’t get always a lot of respect in the publishing world, in part because historically it was more about fluff, and was also always sort of just there, an anodyne interlude between the welcome announcement and landing, seemingly just plopped into the seat pocket by the airplane fairy. But early iterations like Pan Am’s Clipper magazine and KLM’s still-thriving Holland Herald were the airborne cousins of the kind of classic travel writing of that age before apps, when Jan Morris essays and guidebooks entranced readers.
Then as now, the inflight mag’s an anomaly for another reason: its readers are a high-altitude captive audience. Airlines naturally set the style and tone of their signature publications to reflect their brand, and that’s why inflight magazines aren’t all about travel all the time. The kinds of stories you’ll find are wide-ranging and, unwittingly or by design, tend to reflect the culture of the airline’s home country as much as the company itself. So it’s no surprise that American inflights come with the requisite dose of celebrity worship; for a magazine like American Way or Delta’s Sky, Sarah Jessica Parker may symbolize New York City more than the Empire State Building. Air France’s chic mag goes heavy on the beautiful photography. Others, like Norwegian’s n, can be so self-consciously cool that trying to decode it may prove too much work. (Full disclosure: I used to write for Sky Magazine.)
There are the old guard tomes of the legacy carriers, like United’s Hemispheres, that have tried with debatable success to reinvent themselves, and there are the post-moderns like JetBlue which dispense with inflights altogether. Granted, you’ll get DirecTV at every seat, but there’s something to be said for those suspiciously cheery letters from the CEO at the front of the magazine, the pages with the fleet details to delight AvGeeks, the route maps with all those sinuous red lines to fire up your wanderlust.
With all that in mind, here are some seat-pocket standouts — you might even want to take some of these slick babies with you, in case any downtime comes up in between flights. Don’t worry, it’s okay: Inflight mags are made to take away.
Title: Holland Herald (KLM)
Style: Packs of lot of information into its pages in a magically uncluttered way, a pleasure to peruse — and great route maps, too.
Substance: Strikes the perfect balance between stories unique to Holland (one issue featured an enlightening longform piece on Dutch DJs) and those with broader appeal to the international traveler, plus mini city guides.
Likely fan: You’re on a plane to Amsterdam for reasons that may involve Vincent van Gogh and/or pot. Or not.
Sample stories: A profile of 85-year-old Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen; a story on the secrets of the Dutch Old Master painters; Big Apple Stopover; insider takes on Beijing, Florence and Athens.
Take it or leave it?
Title: EnRoute (Air Canada)
Style: At 155+ pages, this airborne book’s nothing to sniff at. Basically a bright and cheerful package, much as you would expect from always happier-than-America Canada.
Substance: You’ll find a lot of classic travel coverage, nicely presented, with other lifestyle-y content (food, design, sports). Nothing overly daring, but to its credit it does get you thinking about destinations you may not be familiar with yet.
Sample stories: Quick Trip to Winnipeg; The Air Canada Travel Design Awards; Hungary’s Tokaj Wine Country; Kyoto Zen and Now (or Kyoto reste Zen: the wordplay doesn’t quite work in the French version of this strictly bilingual mag, whose title even works in either language.)
Likely fans: A lot of people: The world’s second-largest country welcomed 20 million visitors in 2016.
Take it or leave it?
Title: Ling (Vueling)
Style: Intergalactic. If Desigual were to design an inflight magazine, it might look something like this. But this gem is probably better: color in capable hands is a beautiful thing. Vueling isn’t well-known in the US, but it is in Europe: It’s the low-fare unit of IAG, the airline group that owns British Airways and Spanish flag carrier Iberia.
Substance: Lots actually. Its designer, Madrid-based Brands & Roses, “created a medium that talks about Vueling cities through interesting things that happen in them.” (Makes more sense as you page through it.)
Likely fan: Tilda Swinton and/or Timothée Chalamet
Sample stories: Rock Mounds: Attracting Energy, Spoiling the Environment; The Best Thing About Rome Is the People; When Jimi Hendrix Hammered His Guitar in Mallorca
Take it or leave it?
Don’t just take it, frame it.
Title: n (Norwegian)
Style: Lots of right angles in the layout; Scandinavian – minimalist, but the weird version; n as in needs work?
Substance: Visibly de-prioritizes typical travel content, which is quite fly on some level, but much content is arcane to the point of useless: “How do you make a carrot sound good?”
Likely fan: Swedish EDM producer with a shared loft in Dumbo.
Sample stories: Paragliding with vultures; Jellyfish for Dinner; hipster [sigh] Austin
Take it or leave it?
Leave it for the next passenger to figure out.
Title: Ulisse (Alitalia)
Style: The type is small, which might be because it’s half in English, half in Italian: other airline mags do the bilingual dance more deftly. The layout’s a bit stuffy, but with story categories ranging from “Takeoff” to “Happyend” with “Wow” in the middle, you’ll like having this Italian in your hands. The English translations can sound strange, like they’ve been run through a needlessly lyrical Google Translate.
Substance: Whether you’re Kendall Jenner or a melting glacier in Antarctica, there’s room for you on board these quirky pages. The Italian obsession with fashion and cars comes through, making the travel stories seem a bit perfunctory.
Sample stories: Philippe Daverio, author of I Finally Understood Italy, explains the Middle Ages feud between the Guelphs and the Ghibellins; a short piece on starchitect museums; a review of a Tuscan spa; Vibrating Museums; Mickey Mouse Turns 90; Seoul for gourmets.
Take it or leave it? Take it, you might need something to read on the train to Venice.
Title: Wow (Wow)
Style: Clean look, tickles of purple in all the right places, like a tall clear glass of cold grape juice
Substance: Lots of travel content tied to Wow gateways; features skew light and breezy but can get a little political, too
Likely fan: Bjork’s presumed army of interns
Sample stories: The wonders of the Vatnajökull region; an underwhelming 12 must do’s in Paris; Cat Spotting in Iceland; 8 great conversation starters for Cincinnati (why, of all places? They fly there, it turns out); “your WOW Horoscope” and “your WOW Sudoku.” Wow!
Take it or leave it? Aw, take it.
Title: Blue (Aegean)
Style: For a bilingual title (English and Greek) it’s fairly easy to read, but a bit word-dense. Heavy book too; you’ll never find this on Ryanair (see below). For some reason there’s always a pretty woman on the cover, but never a handsome dude.
Substance: Almost encyclopedic in scope, Blue packs a lot in and while it does a good job of showcasing the mainly European destinations Aegean serves, it can seem like a print info overload. Good roundups of Greek cultural happenings.
Likely fan: Traditionalist.
Sample stories: Aegina, island of light and artists; destination pieces on Rome, Madrid and Crete (same writer for each and a bit prosaic); story on regenerative agriculture in Cyprus; Treasures of Kos; Warsaw on a Plate.
Take it or leave it?
Rip out the pages most relevant to your trip.
Title: Runway Retail (Ryanair)
Style: Spectacularly cluttered
Substance: None, but you can amuse yourself by counting up the numerous and varied cosmetics, fragrances, watches, and doodads for sale and perhaps more usefully, food items and snacks for purchase in the exciting “Getaway Café” section. Hey wait, how does this even qualify as an inflight mag? Back page route map! (although next to this one, the New York City subway map is pure Picasso.)
Sample stories: N/A
Likely fans: Those who thrill to snapping up Beyoncé’s Heat Kissed at 30,000 feet; watchers of British reality TV shows that would probably terrify most people.
Take it or leave it?
“Please Do Not Remove From the Aircraft. Thank You.”
Featured photo by Natalia Moroz/Getty Images
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