Before the pandemic, podcasts helped me stave off boredom on long-haul flights and kept me company during sleepless nights when my body was in one time zone and my mind was in another. Now, the digital audio shows are my only form of travel. If I can’t physically travel, at least I can mentally move around the globe.
With limited activities, people are spending more time tuning in to podcasts. Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer Tracker discovered a 30-minute uptick in listening times, to 6 hours 45 minutes per week. The listeners’ locales have also shifted. “I can say that ‘at home’ is overwhelmingly the top location for podcast listening,” said Tom Webster, a senior vice president of Edison Research.
As of Dec. 9, Podcast Industry Insights reported about 1.7 million podcasts on Apple Podcasts, the No. 1 podcast app. However, according to data from Daniel J. Lewis, a podcast industry expert, only about 700,000 are active, meaning the shows have published an episode in the last 90 days. Podcasts are arranged by categories, such as Comedy, News and True Crime. Places & Travel falls under Society & Culture, which claims the highest number of shows (nearly 259,000) and level of engagement, according to a spokesman with Apple Podcasts. Clearly, we are looking for an escape, even if all roads lead inward.
“The sonic environment of a place is so evocative that putting on your headphones and entering that landscape can immediately transport you,” said Galen Beebe, an editor at the Bello Collective, a publication about the podcast industry. “You can easily go from a tourist trap to a back street that’s thick with locals, or from the heart of the city to a dense and quiet forest.”
Travel podcasts have not garnered as much attention as blockbusters such as “Serial” and “Stuff You Should Know”; they are still finding their voice. Lauren Ober, podcast host of “Spectacular Failures” and previously “The Big Listen,” said the genre can be challenging. The most engaging shows incorporate audio from the destination — honking horns, bleating lambs, scraps of conversation in a foreign language — but sending a reporter into the field is expensive. So many shows rely on studio interviews or guests recapping their adventures ex post facto — the equivalent of Aunt Jane prattling on about her trip to Tuscany over the phone.
“It’s an underserved area of podcasts,” said Zach Mack, a senior podcast producer at Vox Media. “But it’s picking up. The interest is there.”
Last month, Mack debuted his own travel podcast, “Greetings From Somewhere.” His inspiration was more “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” than “Meet the Press” on a light news day. “I can’t do what ‘Parts Unknown’ did with scenic montages and rich colors,” he said, “but I can bring in characters and noises. My goal is to show, don’t tell.” His podcast will join such new releases as “Let’s Go Together,” “Driving the Green Book” and “Passport” and such stalwarts as Skift’s “Airline Weekly Lounge”; “Dis Unplugged,” which covers the universe of Disney; and Expedia’s “Out Travel the System.” (One guilty pleasure dating from 2005: “Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase,” created by a flight attendant.)
To be sure, there are enough travel podcasts to fill the weeks and months until your vaccine appointment. I sampled dozens and pulled together a playlist that touches on a variety of topics and storytelling styles. I chose only active podcasts, though plenty of shows ended before the pandemic, in case you are interested in time travel. Here are my picks and their target audiences:
If you start every morning with a cup of fair-trade coffee and talk shows . . . “Zero to Travel” caters to travelers who suffer from a severe case of wanderlust and, with a little encouragement, might be ready to break their lease for a life on the road. Host Jason Moore chats with experts who share tips harvested from their real-life experiences, such as a couple who paid off their $70,000 debt to travel full time and a woman who left her corporate job to work on a yacht. Many episodes speak to those with more modest ambitions, such as his travel guide to Argentina and a rundown of the world’s least expensive destinations (in 2019 currency). On “The Thoughtful Travel Podcast,” Amanda Kendle leads discussions that are equal parts practical and philosophical. Recent episodes have delved into such sensitive subjects as animal tourism, disabled travelers and visiting Australia after the wildfires. She also brings on high-profile guests, such as award-winning author Paul Theroux, and runs a book club. The most recent literary selection: “Down Under,” by Bill Bryson.
If you have a Rosie the Riveter tattoo, rainbow flag and/or poetry collections by Maya Angelou . . . In “Globetrotter Lounge,” Lisette Austin, who goes by the nickname Jet Set Lisette, sits down with accomplished and inspiring women who have locked arms with their travel muse. Recent guests include Deesha Dyer, a former White House social secretary who co-founded beGirl.world, which empowers Black teens through education and travel; Alison Van Dusen, a backcountry park ranger; and Nour Brahimi, the first female Algerian travel vlogger. Kellee Edwards, a force in the travel world, celebrates other doers in Travel and Leisure’s “Let’s Go Together.” The pilot, scuba diver and Travel Channel personality trains the spotlight on such diverse explorers as a quadriplegic who climbed Machu Picchu, a pair of transgender travelers and the founder of a hiking group for Indigenous women.
If you watch “Parts Unknown” with a box of tissues on your lap . . . “The Trip” was started in 2018 by Bourdain and foreign correspondent Nathan Thornburgh, who took over as host after Bourdain’s death. However, every episode seems to contain the late chef’s unquenchable curiosity and willingness to go there, such as a boozy festival commemorating the dead in Madagascar and the search for a porn star in Cuba. Many shows involve drinking with fascinating individuals, like Asya Khramchenkova, who owns Bar Khroniki in St. Petersburg, and Jade George, the Middle East chairwoman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “Armchair Explorer” is ear candy for listeners eager to advance from soft to hardcore adventures. In each show, a fearless traveler shares his or her adrenaline-pumping escapade, such as a 5,000-mile expedition through the Middle East, great white shark cage diving in Australia and a rickshaw race across India.
If you wish Yogi and Boo-Boo had taken their show on the road . . . Brad and Matt Kirouac, plus their dog, Finn, traded in their Chicago apartment for a 26-foot RV and a road map of National Park Service sites. In “Parklandia,” they share tips, history and comic pratfalls under such clever headings as “The Mary-Kate and Ashley of Arches National Park” and “Abe Lincoln Is the Beyoncé of Gettysburg National Military Park.” They also peel back the sun shade for an inside-the-rig peek. For example, in “Marie Kondo-ing the RV,” we learn that they had to leave behind their tiki mugs and purge their glassware because of the clattering sound. In May, the hosts announced that they were retiring “Parklandia” and starting a new venture called “Hello, Ranger,” which showcases the national park communities. They already have 20 episodes in the (bear-proof) bag.
If you are a fan of “This American Life” or “Serial” without the murder . . . In “Far From Home,” Scott Gurian, a former public radio reporter, roams the earth with his recording equipment, passport and unflappable disposition — he rarely gets rattled, even when his radiator tank springs a leak in Iran. In the first season, Gurian and his brother participate in the Mongol Rally, a nearly 11,000-mile drive from London to Mongolia. In subsequent seasons, he takes smaller brushstrokes, such as foraging with a medicine man in Peru and learning to throat sing in the republic of Tuva. “Far Flung With Saleem Reshamwala,” part of the TED Talks dynasty, turns an investigative eye on a locale and doesn’t blink until the subject matter — the centuries-old Oberammergau play in Germany, for instance, or Easter Island without tourists — is thoroughly dissected. “Passport” fuses radio-style reportage with sweep-you-away storytelling: Neil Innes and André Bartos, filmmakers who live in Barcelona, interview on-location correspondents who share their adventures — and affections — for, say, train travel in India and the filming of “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, with a special appearance by an Irishman who worked as an extra on the HBO show.
If you are a [insert destination name here]-phile . . . Kerning Cultures Network, which runs the “Kerning Cultures” podcast, is the Middle East’s first venture-funded podcast company. It is also helmed by women. The stories are based in the Middle East and North Africa and resemble a tray of assorted Arabic sweets. A few plucked from the gold-plated platter: the meaning of coffee to a Sufi, Emirati and Yemeni; baklava tales; and a Lebanese man’s quest to visit all 47 U.S. towns named Lebanon. (The Bello Collective included the latter piece in its 100 Outstanding Podcasts of 2019.) “The Musafir Stories” bounces around India, with each episode exploring a specific city, region or theme, such as “Land of Pashmina” or “Yoga in Netala.” Its website includes helpful travel info, such as the closest airport and itinerary highlights. Greg Young and Tom Meyers, who created the Bowery Boys, have been tawking about New Yawk since Mike Bloomberg’s second term as mayor — that’s 2007 to non-New Yorkers. The longtime NYC residents have released more than 340 episodes with a historical and cultural bent, such as a retrospective of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which celebrated its 150th anniversary this year, and a special edition of the Bowery Boys Movie Club on “Ghostbusters.”
If you are drawn to influencers who predate Instagram . . . Rolf Potts is a pioneer of the digital nomad lifestyle, which he called vagabonding back in his day (the early aughts). The Kansas native started “Deviate With Rolf Potts” three years ago with the idea of expanding his field of interest. Some episodes are firmly rooted in travel, such as “The Art of Being a Better Bad Tourist” and “How to Travel With No Luggage at All,” whereas others tangentially touch on travel, such as an interview with White Zombie guitarist J. Yuenger, the former heavy metal rocker and expat. You don’t need to see his rugged face to recognize the man behind “The Wild With Chris Morgan”: His plummy voice and expertise on wildlife give him away. The British conservationist and TV host introduces listeners to the inhabitants (bears, wolves, Arctic terns) of some of our favorite places (Scotland, Norway, Washington state), plus the folks dedicated to protecting them.
If you are ready to upgrade your white-noise machine . . . In “Field Recordings,” global contributors tape their immediate surroundings, turning their setting into a concert stage: waves crashing on a beach in the country of Georgia, branches crackling in a snowy forest in Canada, grasslands awakening after a rainstorm in Senegal. Close your eyes and fly away on Aural Air.