On the Red Couch with AFAR Editor-in-Chief Julia Cosgrove

Shona Sanzgiri / August 10, 2016

Photo by Ilana Diamond

Photo by Ilana Diamond

The life of a travel editor has its perks—exploring distant destinations, immersing yourself in new cultures, always having something beautiful to post on Instagram—but it’s also a job that requires a particular skill set: the ability to cultivate new voices capable of “getting beneath the surface,” managing the day-to-day needs of a major publication and business, and constantly thinking of ways to get readers to see the world in a new light, all the while keeping your own passion for travel alive.

One person who does all of the above exceedingly well is Julia Cosgrove, editor-in-chief of AFAR Media. Under Julia’s leadership, AFAR is the only brand to win a Lowell Thomas Award every year since launch—Best Travel Magazine every year, Best Website for the past four years, and Best Travel App in 2014—and the only brand to be an ASME finalist for General Excellence across both print and digital. Last year AFAR won six top FOLIO awards, including Best Full Issue and Best Website.

Based in San Francisco, she was close enough for us to sit down and chat about travel trends, what separates AFAR (available on Flipboard) from other publications, and plenty of tips about worthy tourist traps, people to follow on Instagram and why you might think twice about avoiding Dubai.

How does AFAR differentiate itself from other travel magazines?
Since we launched in 2009, AFAR has been dedicated to getting beneath the surface of places and inspiring readers to have deeper, richer, more fulfilling experiences. Our magazine inspires people to travel more deeply through evocative storytelling, unusual photography, and modern, bold design. In each feature story, we try to reveal something about a place in a personal way. At our core, AFAR is not about escapist travel—plunking down on the beach with a mai tai—or about sightseeing-driven travel—trying to check every place off your bucket list. We have a section in the magazine called Wander, and that was a very deliberate word choice: I believe there’s tremendous value in stepping outside your fixed itinerary and allowing yourself to get a little lost when you travel. That’s usually when the best stuff happens.

[We] also take a different tack digitally than our competitors in print. Our digital products help to enable users to travel more deeply—like our curated guides to more than 120 destinations around the world that are updated regularly by local experts who live in those destinations, so the information is fresh. Users can also upload content about places they’ve been and experiences they’ve had from the road, so we’re constantly looking at our own site for destination hotspots.

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Courtesy of Julia Cosgrove

What do you look for in a great travel story?
I want to learn something new about a place, and I think the best way to do that is to tell stories through the people who live there. The more personal, the better. I also want stories that go beyond the conventional and expected. The worst kind of travel story is a recap of an itinerary. Nothing is more boring to me than a story that tells about a trip in a linear, shallow way. Beautifully conjured stories surprise the reader by evoking a place and eliciting a particular emotion. Here are some recent examples from AFAR—yes, I’m biased: A Lone Star Story; The Incredibly True Story of Renting a Friend in Tokyo; This is How You Live on Swiss Time.  

The best stories transport you to a destination and give you some greater insight into the lives of the people who live there. Travel also presents a lot of philosophical questions, and we try to delve into some of them in AFAR. Our recent Exceptional Travel Experiences package explored destinations that are on the brink of change—cultural, political, environmental—and explained why you should go there now.

Which places exceed your expectations? Disappointed?
I was in Dubai in February for AFAR Experiences (our immersive event series that has brought me to Cairo, Sydney and many other wonderful destinations), and I brought many preconceptions with me on the 14-hour flight. After I arrived, the nuances of the place and the people opened up to me in unusual ways. For example, I met with a group of women who are behind the Dubai Design District, a wildly ambitious development that makes Vegas feel like small potatoes.

Places rarely disappoint me. I can always find something I like about a place—the slightly off-kilter elements that you have to work harder to discover.

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Courtesy of Julia Cosgrove

Who’s one person that every traveler should follow on Instagram?
Well, I’m biased but I have to say @afarmedia is killing it right now with our #traveldeeper hashtag. It’s really taken off and our feed is made up of amazing contributions from our followers. Personally, I get major wanderlust from local Instagrammers: @storiesofiran in Tehran; @lostncheeseland in Paris; @katiearmour in Copenhagen; @miss_moss in Cape Town; and @katieparla in Rome. And @ashleahalpern always makes me want to get on a plane, in my car, or on a train and Just Go.

When you’re going somewhere new, do you like to do a ton of research, or wing it? How do you choose where you travel?
A combination. I do research on AFAR.com, I read the NYT Travel section religiously, and I ask my networks for recommendations. I always like to wing it a bit—most recently, in Denmark, I had a rough idea of an area I wanted to explore. So I got on Airbnb and looked for cozy cottages in that general vicinity. I found a great one and booked it with very little sense of where it really was and what we would do once we arrived. After four days of touring a castle, playing rounds of mini golf, and eating amazing Danish breakfasts, we didn’t want to leave. (We were staying outside Svendborg for anyone who’s interested in a very Danish vacation spot.)

What do you like to read on vacation? Any travel writers in particular?
Before I traveled to Istanbul a few years ago, I read as much Orhan Pamuk as I could. For the south of France, Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. For New York—which is where I go the most these days—some of my favorites are Rona Jaffe (every young woman who is obsessed with New York should read The Best of Everything), Mary McCarthy, Dawn Powell, Mary Cantwell and Gay Talese.

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Courtesy of Julia Cosgrove

Any tips for traveling with kids?
Do it! Don’t be afraid of the flights and the jetlag. If you’re a working parent, you will spend more uninterrupted time with your kids on a trip than you do during normal life. And that is powerful. In terms of what you can accomplish on a trip, if your kids are little (I have a toddler), you have to learn to lower your expectations—pretty dramatically.

I was in Copenhagen in May with my husband and daughter, and I had wildly ambitious plans to eat in as many wonderful restaurants and drink in as many natural wine bars as I could. We did manage to hit a few of them, but we also spent a lot of time in playgrounds that we would stumble on while we were meandering around the city.

Slowing down the pace was really great for me. I’m prone to trying to pack too much in to a trip; having a young child corrects that pretty quickly. One tip for parents of young children: If you’re taking a long-haul flight, check ahead of time to see if the airline offers amenities that could make the journey less arduous (bassinets, nanny services, etc.). I was surprised by what was available and the fact that the airlines try to make life easier for new parents. And if you find yourself stuck in the Zurich Airport after missing a flight (yep, true story, it even happens to travel editors), get yourself to the family services room, which is free and available to any family in the airport. It was equipped with everything parents and kids could need—a total lifesaver!

If you could assign any writer to cover any location or event, who would it be, where, and why?
My favorite writer in the world is Joan Didion. She’s not a travel writer, per se, but throughout her long career she has written numerous books and stories deeply entrenched in place—Manhattan, Los Angeles, Hawaii, El Salvador, the Central Valley of California. We have a department in the magazine called Spin the Globe, in which we send a writer to a randomly selected location with as little notice as possible. Over the years, we’ve sent Susan Orlean to Copenhagen, Jorma Taccone to Nairobi, and Ruth Reichl to Frankfurt. Their only assignment is to return with a good story.

Would I like to send Joan Didion somewhere? Absolutely.

What’s always in your carry-on?
A stack of old New Yorkers and bright red Chanel lipstick.

When your job is part of the travel industry, how do you keep from getting jaded?
At the end of the day, I believe that traveling makes us better, more interesting, and kinder people. Travel is both an antidote to fear and the best form of education. When people from different cultures and places meet and talk to one another, fear melts away and we realize that we are more alike than we are different. If I can play even a small role in spreading that gospel, then “jaded” will never enter my vocabulary.

Don’t forget to check out AFAR on Flipboard!

~MiaQ and ShonaS contribute to The Weekend