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Robert having a lonely lunch while hiking the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France (Photograph courtesy Robert Reid)

How to Travel Like a Travel Writer

Everyone’s talking about “traveling like a local” these days. Travelers, bloggers, tour operators, souvenir clerks, industry types in pleated slacks—they all seem to say it’s the best way to get to know a place. Go local or go home, right?

Well, not me.

I’ve spent a dozen years doing research for travel guidebooks, articles, and videos on trips that have taken me to cities on stilts in Siberia, abandoned kingdoms in Burma—even Queens on the 7 train. And while I’m likely to remember the locals I meet more vividly than the badly lit history museums I breeze through, I’ve learned there’s a resource on the ground that’s better than any local you’ll ever meet.

You.

It takes outsider eyes to really “see” a place. I would have never found unexcavated ruins in the backwaters of Bulgaria or “coffee clubs” at classic farm-town diners in the Great Plains if I had passively relied on advice I got from locals on the ground. If we’re being honest—at least in America—doing so often means being steered toward Applebee’s, shopping malls, and grande lattes at Starbucks. (I still refuse to say “grande.”)

How did I find these places? I was visiting as a travel writer. That means not traveling “like a local,” but in the company of locals—a subtle, but important, difference.

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Me shooting video at a festival in Yakutsk, Russia (Photograph courtesy Robert Reid)

Travel writers—at least good ones—don’t just drop into Bogotá or Brussels to see what happens, as fun as that can be. They do as much research as they can, devouring novels, articles, TV shows, and films about where they’ll be going to track down an angle, a hook, or a mythology that grabs them. Then they use that angle as a lens that sets them on a path. And that path can lead to unexpected, marvelous things.

It’s time to play with what makes up “travel.” The goal isn’t being “different” in what you do, it’s being personal.

Seriously, what do you like? Find ideas by looking at the “top 25 most played” songs in your iTunes account, “recently played” documentaries on Netflix, or those old keepsakes you keep in a box under your bed. That chunk of lava your dad got you when you were six? That worn-out VHS tape of Duran Duran videos? Anything can turn into a makeshift guidebook if you approach it the right way. (For instance, my friend, David Farley, once used Lee Harvey Oswald as a lens for exploring Minsk.)

Looking back at my travel biography, I realize I’ve subconsciously used trips as patches for the punctured dreams of my childhood. The result? I became a Civil War reenactor in a march at Gettysburg, drove a ’72 Moskvitch in the former Soviet bloc, and used a Monopoly board as a guide to Atlantic City.

I went even further with Billy Joel. As a recovering “Joelnik” (a big Joel fan, usually of the pre-“Uptown Girl” variety), I created a road-trip itinerary around Hicksville, New York, based on lyrics he wrote about his hometown in Long Island. I got to drive the actual “Miracle Mile,” get coffee at Cold Spring Harbor, and walk into the music room of his old high school.

And the “village green” where Brenda and Eddie met up in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”? Turns out it’s a couple blocks from Joel’s home. When I finally pinpointed it, I met a guy with a broken nose who used to live across the street from Billy and remembered hearing him practice the piano.

I’ll never hear those songs the same way again.

Why do this? It’s empowering. It’s memorable. It builds on things that are already dear to you and introduces you to things you never knew you were looking for. It’s also fun.

You might not want to “travel like a travel writer” on every trip you take, but you should try it at least once—as if the technique itself were a “once in a lifetime” destination. I can promise you I learned more about Atlantic City trying to find Marven Gardens (turns out the Monopoly folks misspelled it) than I would have in any boardwalk casino.

This summer, I’m going to take you with me on some unexpected journeys using offbeat itineraries to inspire you to do the same.

Meanwhile, if you’re brave enough, share a few things you’re fond of (The Brady Bunch Grand Canyon episode, junior high obsessions, whatever) in the comments section, and we’ll see where it takes us.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.