Bookish Travel with Travelocity

The travel firm’s sometimes hilarious recommendations for films, music & reading

By Jerry Griswold

From 2005 to 2007, the online travel agency Travelocity (now owned by Expedia) offered a “Virtual Care Package” to premium customers like myself. Before we departed on a journey, clients received an email recommending films and music and reading appropriate to their particular destination and to traveling in general. Travelocity partnered with Blockbuster Video, iTunes, and Barnes and Noble to offer these suggested items. It was a great idea, and the people who put together the recommendations sometimes had a twisted sense of humor.

Take the films related to travel in general and meant to get you in the mood for a trip. “Lost in Translation” was an inspired choice but what was a frequent flier to make of the suggestion for “The Wizard of Oz”? And since these recommendations were coming from Travelocity, I was surprised by how many of the recommended movies were stories about journeys gone bad: “Thelma and Louise” (car over the cliff), “Easy Rider” (motorcyclists blown off bikes by shotgun-toting rednecks), “Out of Africa” (plane crash), “and “Titanic” (every cruise ship’s nightmare).

As for tunes that I could download to add a soundtrack to my trips, “Hit the Road Jack” and “Truckin’” seemed obvious choices. And I confess that “Out of Africa,” via my iPod earphones, did once put a skip in my step and add a kind of symphonic grandeur to an otherwise humdrum trip to Cincinnati. But I wondered about “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Country Roads.” Weren’t these counterproductive? Instead of inspiring wanderlust, songs about homesickness seem at odds with the interests of Travelocity.

But for a bookish person like myself, where the “Virtual Care Package” really shined was in its reading recommendations. The choices for travel in general (Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Kerouac’s “On the Road,” for example) were pretty generic. But the booklists tailored for 25 American cities were both brilliant and dotty.

The first clue I had that these lists were the work of English majors were the entries under Baltimore (H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe), though entries under Minneapolis (Sinclair Lewis and Garrison Keillor) might have suggested the same. Even so, these listmakers were not predictable: for Atlanta, we got “Gone With the Wind” as well as a biography of Ted Turner; for Chicago, both Saul Bellow and Mike Royko; and San Diego was represented by Tom Wolfe’s account of surfers (“The Pump House Gang”) and a biography of Dr. Seuss.

Of course, it may be reductive to think of Las Vegas only in terms of Hunter Thompson and Mario Puzo. But elsewhere, Amy Tan provocatively rubbed shoulders with Dashiell Hammett (San Francisco), Emeril stirred the pot with John Kennedy Toole (New Orleans), and Dave Barry mixed it up with Jimmy Buffet (Miami).

Sometimes the choices seemed right on the money, as was the case with Seattle: Tom Robbins’ “Still Life with Woodpecker” and Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life.” Other times, the recommendations didn’t seem to square with the place I know; Washington D.C. is a town of Tom Clancy readers, but it was represented exclusively by nonfiction (“All the President’s Men” and “Profiles in Courage”).

There were, as well, some missed opportunities. If under New York a line was implicitly being drawn between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” then shouldn’t an intermediate stop have been made at Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City”? At other times there were moments of quirky genius: Nathaniel West is logical for Los Angeles, but who would think of adding John Fante and a book about Gidget?

That said, there are places that, unfortunately, seem to lack accompanying literature — places that (to quote Robert Frost) remain “unstoried, artless, unenhanced.” These kind of locales apparently challenged the listmakers. As a result, under Phoenix appeared “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” along with a note (“Although the fifth book of the popular series takes place nowhere near Arizona . . .”). A similar note ought to have accompanied the pairing a Florida town with Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando.”

Maybe it’s not surprising Travelocity discontinued this service; while fans like myself relished the moments of quirky humor in the “Virtual Care Package,” those occasions might also have suggested the listmakers were running out of juice. In any event, it was a great idea and I hope somebody will revive this notion of pairing media with locales. In this way, we can look forward to learning what movies might ready us for a visit to Spokane, exactly where we should be listening to “Hotel California,” and what town would be best for reading, say, “Valley of the Dolls.”

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Jerry Griswold writes about Literature and Culture. The author of seven books, he has also published dozens of essays in the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Paris Review, The Nation, and New Republic. He has taught at a number of universities, including San Diego State University, UCLA, and the National University of Ireland in Galway.

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11. May 2015 by
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