3 Travel Writing Tips that Can Boost All Your Writing

Whether you are writing a travel article that you want to submit to a well-known magazine or you are just developing an ideal setting for your fiction writing, the basic tenants of travel writing can help you establish solid writing habits.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when exploring a new destination in words:

1. Stay in the Moment:

Unless you are being paid to write those kitschy travel postcard kind of articles that say “Savannah, Georgia is Eccentric” or “Paris is for Lovers” steer clear of writing that’s clichéd. The best way to do this is to stay present when you travel and absorb everything you can with your five senses. Start with the basics.

What do you see? Don’t overlay images from movies or friend’s vacation photos but really focus in on what you are seeing with your own eyes right here and right now.

What do you hear? Sounds often take a back seat when we write, but they can set a scene. Capturing exactly what your ears pick up can help your readers get into the moment with you.

What do you taste? This one seems easy, but can be harder to describe than we think. We assume we know what a giant bowl of freshly made pasta will taste like when we arrive in Tuscany, but you’re not watching the Food Network at home, you are living it.

What do you feel? Be honest about your inward emotions as well as what is happening around you. In retrospect, the climb up the hillside of Bisbee, Arizona seems picturesque and like a small price to pay for the grandeur of the view. But in reality, it was over 100° outside, I was exhausted, sweaty, hungry, and had to go to the bathroom. The idea of mounting one more step was a monumental effort. Still, expressing that feeling while holding onto the wobbly railing that led up to our room was a specific experience that many people might not have encountered. Don’t neglect the misery of the baking sun or a full bladder.

What do you smell? Nothing catapults me back to my grandmother’s house more quickly than getting a whiff of roses and Southern fried chicken. My grandparents were florists and my grandmother only allowed my grandfather to eat fried chicken when I would visit. Now that they’re both deceased this is a big deal for me. But smells are so often left out of the scenery of a place. You have the power to transport a reader just by introducing them to what you smell. Detail smell well and you connect readers to another place and time.  

2. Your Perspective Matters:

One of the biggest mistakes new writers make when describing their travels is to describe something that’s new to them using tried and true clichéd language or to describe a destination the same way it has been presented in previous travel magazines.

We feel like we SHOULD love our adventures around the world, but what if we don’t? Or what if we have mixed feelings about the place we’ve waited so long to explore? I have a love/hate relationship with nearly all my travel destinations.

I spent years looking forward to living in Savannah only to discover there was such a huge economic and racial divide that the place wasn’t for me. My trips to the ghost towns of Arizona definitely fit in with my quirky need to investigate what’s off the beaten path, but every time I get there I think about how difficult it would be to live in such a dusty, dirty, hot place far from regular grocery stores and hospitals. And I’ll never forget the machismo that permeated Madrid, Spain with the hotel staff asking me my plans every time I left the hotel. I was a single woman traveling alone for two weeks and apparently a rarity. My self-consciousness was palpable.

Just because you have mixed feelings about the places you visited doesn’t make the travel any less valuable or intriguing. I find that being honest and capturing my true experiences of a place helps my writing stand out from writing that sounds tired, fakey, and overused.

3. Write like a Journalist, Not a Tourist:

All the above lends itself to you seeing your travels more like a journalist than a tourist. Investigating places that the locals suggest instead of going to the tourist traps can make the difference between a lackluster piece that’s been done before and a travel article that puts a new spin on an old spot.

Every Minnesotan I’ve spoken with would never be caught dead going to the Mall of America, but all my flight attendant colleagues rush over when we get a Minneapolis trip. For a change of pace, I dug around and discovered there was a Museum of Questionable Medical Devices there.

A shuttle driver in Houston, Texas asked me if he could take me to the mall once on my layover. I laughed because I had set my sights on the Museum of Funeral History instead.

These experiences have landed me in a writing fairytale land with stories so unique they’re almost too good to be true. The only way to write about something different is to experience it firsthand.

Take the travel challenge and see how it affects your other writing. Don’t go into a destination (setting) with an itinerary mapped out. Ask locals (characters) for suggestions. Or go somewhere you’ve been many times before, but investigate the least touristy spots. Now write a travel scene that doesn’t fit into the stereotype of that place.

Let me know how you've applied these travel writing tips to your fiction or memoir writing.