Secrets of a Travel Writer

Everyone is a travel writer, but not everyone knows it. Tweets, snapshots, and scribbled notes are threads in a yarn that only you can tell. So what’s the difference between your trip and a travel writer’s? A deadline. You can come home from Bhutan with a smile; a writer had better return with a story. Here are ten tricks of the trade, secrets that travel writers swear by to turn creative sparks into narrative arcs.

Secret #1: Assign yourself

Travel writers go with a goal that propels their journey. Give yourself an assignment, a task, a challenge. Come up with a mission that defines your trip (or at least your day). Hunt truffles in Périgord. Try your hand at falconry in Abu Dhabi. Make a pilgrimage to Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury or David Bowie’s Berlin. Read Thoreau and visit Walden Pond. Learn to cook khao soi in Chiang Mai. Weave a journey around Peruvian textiles. Get a suit made in Hoi An. Go ape over gorillas in Rwanda and learn all you can about rhino poaching in Kenya. Your assignment is to come up with a challenge that will propel you along and lead to meaningful discoveries on the road.

Why it works: A quest is the beating heart of a good story. Traveling on a quest means not merely that you go someplace but also that you travel in a directed way and derive insight from your expedition.

Secret #2: Ask a million questions

For some magical reason, being a travel writer gives you carte blanche to ask almost anything you can think of. So pack a pile of question marks on your next trip. Start asking about the city’s best coffee shop, walkable neighborhood, or hidden museum. Ask about famous artists who once lived there. Then ask how much a house costs, who really runs the town, and what scandals have locals abuzz. One of the best questions to ask is, “What does no one ever ask you?” It’s not necessarily expertise that separates a travel writer’s trip from your own. It's urgency, an appetite for discovery, and an absolute necessity for answers.

Why it works: The more questions you ask, the closer you’ll get to figuring out what really interests you. As Stephen King wrote, a writer’s job isn’t to find ideas “but to recognize them when they show up.”

Secret #3: Hire a guide

Think travel writers know everything? Well, we at least know enough to hire guides to show us around. Last year, I took an art deco tour of Napier, New Zealand; a Citroën tour of Paris; a food tour of Singapore; a moped tour of Ho Chi Minh City; a crafts tour of Cambodia; and a market tour in Durban. I loved every minute of a koala hike in Cape Otway, Australia, a fig forest stroll near Mkuze, South Africa, and a rice terrace hike outside of Ubud, Bali. The best tours take you to a city’s less polished places: street markets, countercultural bastions, marginalized neighborhoods. Some guides were brilliant, and each tour gave me new perspectives. Budgeting for a guide is the wisest way to extract value from your travel investment. If you’re in a pinch, pay a taxi driver (or take a city bus) for a loop around town.

Why it works: Guided tours unite the two skills most essential to traveling well: walking and listening. Seeing new places with a local is the best gift you can give yourself and the best way to come away with tales to tell.

Secret #4: Skip the grid

“Go local” is the travel writer’s mantra. In some places, merely walking on a side street will uncover a world of wonder. But looking is not enough; engagement is the goal—and it doesn’t have to be awkward. Visiting a grocery store, hardware shop, or farmers market will reveal a lot about local life, current trends, and expenses. Dining alongside residents in food centers or small, undistinguished restaurants can serve up heaps of insight. Attending a cultural or religious service can be a deep dive into the values and customs of a community. Getting a suit made, a shoe shined, or a haircut can help scratch the surface. And guided learning—a cooking class, a museum lecture, a nature walk, a cemetery walk—can cast new light on a place. So give Bangkok’s Buddhas to the tuk tuk tourists; you can take a Co van Kessel bike tour and see the city’s surprisingly cool canals.

Why it works: By wandering off the map you sidestep the crowds and sharpen your senses for new perceptions. Every little detail seems revealing when you add an explorer’s sense of daring.

Secret #5: Get dirty

Give in to gravity. Let your feet be your guide. Walk like crazy—and when you can’t walk anymore, bike or hire a pedicab. Get a moped, hop a bus, or ride a camel. Sit in the front seat of a cab and talk to the driver. Rent a car and wrestle with road maps. Take the subway or train. Zip-lining, bungee jumping, and pogo-sticking have the benefit of working your core muscles. Hot-air ballooning, safari flights, and ultralight gliding are technically above ground but close enough to terrestrial travel to give the kind of physical engagement that makes a place come alive.

Why it works: The closer to the ground you are, the closer you’ll be to knowing a place. The chance to stop, inspect, ask questions, touch, and smell are the difference between slow travel and a drive-by.

<p>Boulder, <a href="" target="_blank">Colorado</a>—the happiest city in America according to the National Geographic Gallup Special Index—is best explored on two wheels, with over more than 300 miles of dedicated bikeways.</p>

#1: Boulder, Colorado

Boulder, Colorado—the happiest city in America according to the National Geographic Gallup Special Index—is best explored on two wheels, with over more than 300 miles of dedicated bikeways.

Photograph by rafalkrakow/istock editorial, Getty Images

Secret #6: Get coffee

Look for a vibrant but not touristy neighborhood, find a cafe with a great window, and camp out for two hours. Before you know it, you’re localizing. Strike up a conversation or tap into apps. Traveling Spoon is a social sharing platform that connects hungry diners with home cooks around the world; you make a booking and show up for food and conversation. Couch surfing is well established as a tool for finding a place to crash; it can also help you track down like-minded travelers and locals. Meetup connects you with events tailored to interests (jogging, photography, jazz). Travel bloggers will quickly help demystify your destination. Just google buzzwords such as “hidden gem,” “undiscovered,” “local,” “neighborhood,” and “secret.”

Why it works: Because people are social animals and some are highly opinionated social animals. Lose your pride, find your voice, break the language barrier, and make a connection.

Secret #7: Take notes

Some travel writers are debonair types traipsing from town to country; others are are eager beavers geeking out over Grecian urns. Whether natty or nerdy, they all travel with a notepad. For some reason, having a pen in hand invites inspiration. Writing things down is a way of processing information, a tool for arranging ideas and discovering new interests. Here’s an idea: When you first pass through a new place jot down things that interest you—galleries, cafés, parks—and record your first impressions. After you’ve been there a while, look back at your notes. Did your perceptions withstand scrutiny? Were your errant assumptions in some way revealing? In both cases you have a tale to tell. Lists are great ways to bring order to the chaos of travel and to remember things that are easy to forget, like your hotel’s name.

Why it works: The act of transcription gives form to fleeting ideas and commits observations to memory. Snapshots, tweets, and found objects (matchbooks, menus, brochures) add to your arsenal of ideas.

Secret #8: Take a break

Travel is about movement, of which physical movement is only one kind. Great destinations can be emotionally impacting, intellectually engaging, romantically energizing, and spiritually satisfying. It’s a lot to absorb! So give your brain a break. Chill out on a chair in Luxembourg Garden. Take a siesta in Oaxaca. Go to the spa in Gstaad. And don’t feel guilty about it. You’ll be surprised by how at home you can feel after giving yourself a time-out. If you have a compulsive need to plan your downtime, check out an app called Magic Hour, which tracks sunrise and sunset times around the world, and situate yourself in a perfect place to kick back and let the sun do the strolling.

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Why it works: Tuning out for a spell gives your mind time to collate all the new information you’ve gathered. And it just feels good. Even travel writers need vacations.

Secret #9: Embrace change

Writers know that a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. But real-life travel is a lot messier than our linear narratives suggest. Sometimes the glue that holds together an article is as much a product of luck as it is planning, so remember this: Good luck only works when you have the gumption to take advantage of it. The plans you made before you arrived should not be nearly as cool as the ideas you’ll collect once you’re on the ground, so don’t be afraid to burn the itinerary. Scrapping a dinner reservation, lingering longer in a place you like, or changing a flight is often the best thing you can do to make your trip sing. All you need to do is trust your instincts and follow your curiosity.

Why it works: Planning prepares you to embrace the unexpected. So go with a plan but be willing to follow a new opportunity even if it means deviating from your intended itinerary.

Secret #10: Let go

Set aside the person you’ve always been and commit yourself to living in the moment. See a place for what it is, not for what you need it to be. Don’t compare, don’t anticipate, don’t vacillate, don’t cogitate. Simply embrace the present possibility of having an enlightening experience that reveals something you didn’t know about the world—or about yourself.

Why it works: The easiest way to travel light is to leave your emotional baggage at home. And the easiest way to move forward is to jettison whatever’s holding you back. Just let go.

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