Travel Writing Advice

Michael Luongo

It’s a question I can never escape, how can I be a travel writer too, from other journalists or the curious. It’s much more than sipping mai-tais at pools.

The travel writer’s day is often spent waiting, in transfer, juggling schedules, figuring out a new place he or she might have never been to, all while jetlagged.

Gathering information when travel writing is not the same as sitting at one’s desk calling other people for interviews. At the same time, that prep work is important, especially when traveling to other countries. Do you know other journalists who might have been where you’re going? Use your ASJA (or other writer) contacts. For my international trips, I find the local immigrant community is often a great resource. Travel agents in those neighborhoods often have better flight deals than you can find online. And they know the country like no computer algorithm ever will.

You already know the Five W’s of journalism. What you might not know is that the most important thing in good travel journalism are the five senses. No other form of journalism is as personal and as sensory as travel journalism. It’s not enough to see the beautiful blue sky in Miami Beach, or the rows of art deco buildings strewn along the palm fronded boulevards. What about the burnt smell of sizzling palomilla, thin, beaten Cuban steak, and the greasy-sweet taste of sidewalk churros? How about the feel of the warm sand under your feet as it trickles and tickles through your toes, and the laughter of children on the beach as you wander through to the roaring water? There, count them, all five senses in one paragraph.

The senses bring your readers where you are. And don’t just explain things from your point of view, get a quote from someone on the beach to explain why he or she loves coming, or talk to the fusion chef to understand how she reinterprets the blend of cultures on the street to her restaurant. Bring a camera, even a small point and shoot. You might surprise yourself with your photos, plus it helps you remember food items and color schemes when you go back.

For established writers and journalists, talking to editors about potential travel assignments should be relatively straightforward. You might already be in an area which is an easy fit. I often find for instance, science and environmental journalists find themselves in locations amenable to travel articles. The same is true for anyone writing on business and culture. You also don’t have to travel to write about travel. Be on the lookout for ideas in your own hometown. What do you like to do? What are some of the new restaurants? What’s your favorite historic district?

I like to tell other journalists and my writing students polite persistence is the way to work with editors. Also, get to know the magazines. Budget Travel is very different from Conde Nast Traveler.

Don’t expect to make a lot of money as a travel writer. There is so much competition and more than enough people wanting to do this for free, often in exchange for free travel. Which brings me to another point. Most publications will not accept articles based on what are called press trips or free travel, and you can completely ruin your integrity this way. At the same time, you will almost never make back your expenses. At least they’re tax deductible.

Freelance travel writing has however made me wealthy with experiences. I have met Queen Rania at Jesus’ baptism site in Jordan, and I rode on Juan Peron’s coffin through the streets of Buenos Aires and got locked in his tomb when he was reburied in 2006. These are the crazy, surreal experiences that make travel writing worthwhile.