The Travel Piece
If one of your passions is experiencing up close and personal the many wonders the world has to offer, it won't take you a New York minute to decide that travel writing is where you can shine. Recounting a travel adventure can be an exciting way to let loose your creativity while connecting with others who share your continuing urge to get up and go. It can also be a great way to explore personal or global issues that are important to you, meet people with different backgrounds and interests, and experience other cultures.
While many travel articles provide the lowdown on exotic destinations, a good number of travel writers choose less expensive and more accessible spots to focus on. Travel pieces can detail not just the makings of dream vacations for those with the means to cruise the Caribbean or be whisked straight to Paris in a first-class seat. They also share information about more down-to-earth — and still immensely appealing — attractions, making it possible for travel writers of all resources, interests, and hometowns to find intriguing locations to write about.
Destination articles are written for travelers who are considering a trip to a certain locale and are interested in obtaining tips and advice from someone who has already been there. Many such articles concentrate on frequently visited tourist destinations and offer a fresh outlook, detail an overlooked but intriguing spot, or cover the latest restaurants or attractions. Rather than a simple recitation of the facts, service articles should stir up readers' interest and encourage them to say, “Now, that's a place I want to visit.”
Doing the Research
Because the information in this kind of article is intended to help readers with their travel plans, it's essential that all the details be correct and current. That means research, and often a lot of it. Depending on the breadth of the piece, you may need to provide the skinny on getting there, where to stay, where to eat, where to shop, how to get around, what the weather will be like, motels that will accept canine travelers — the works. This can be done through a variety of sources.
Before You Go
Before you head out the door, you can request brochures or information from appropriate tourist or travel organizations (including the nearest embassy or consulate if you're writing about a foreign country); review cultural, geographic, historic, and other material available at the library; and speak to friends or colleagues who recently visited your chosen travel destination.
Look at road maps and atlases and browse through the newspaper archives for general background information. The Internet, of course, is a huge source of facts and photos. You may also want to consult travel guides for their ideas on must-see sites and places to stay.
If you know in advance what the focus of your article will be, you can also obtain information from target sources. If you're going to be writing an article on traveling in England with a baby, you may want to talk to a pediatrician, check out current equipment that's available for tot toting, and talk with new parents who have recently been brave enough to travel en famille. If you have a contract to write a piece for a particular magazine or newspaper, you'll want to look for information that will help you focus your piece to their audience. If you're writing an article on traveling with a baby in England for an upscale magazine, you may want to query English four-star hotels to see which provide babysitters, infant strollers, and massages for mom and dad.
While You're There
Visiting your destination of choice is, of course, an exciting part of writing a travel article. But once on location you'll have work to do. In addition to experiencing the place, you'll need to search out the whys and wherefores of what makes it an excellent spot for travelers to visit.
Good note taking is essential. You'll want to write down details about everything you see: not only scenery and structures but also sounds, smells, colors, how the light falls, the mood, the feel of the place. Remember, your job as a travel writer is to not only provide the facts but to provide them vividly and in a compelling way. Descriptive, sensory language will add much to the appeal of your piece.
Many chambers of commerce, tourism bureaus, or visitors' centers will gladly e-mail writers high-quality photos in hopes of free publicity. Ask the tour guide, museum director, or hotel manager if they can recommend a good resource for you to obtain photos.
In addition to taking notes, you'll also want to collect brochures, fact sheets, bus schedules, event flyers, or museum admission information — anything that will add to your knowledge base. It's also a good idea to talk to people in the area in order to gain their perspective, tips, and advice. If you think you'll quote residents or experts in your article, be sure to get the correct spelling of their names.
Structuring Your Article
Adventurers turn to destination articles for the who, what, where, when, and how of being in a particular part of the world. That means you need to provide those essentials within the description and story of the piece. You also need a great “hook” to interest readers in the first place, and a closing that reinforces the central idea.
The best travel pieces start with a lead that captures the reader's attention and sets in motion what the article will be about. Kathryn Brockman's story in the San Jose Mercury News that compares spending time in a Kenyan game reserve with a “safari lite” stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando, Florida, begins, “A cloud of dust trailed our mini-van as we hurtled over large stones, then dropped into potholes on our journey into the heart of Kenya's national parks.” In seconds, we're right there in Kenya with Brockman, and we want to know more about her trip. Another tantalizing beginning, from an article by Larry Bleiberg in the Dallas Morning News, teases, “Every day, a tiny outpost of England comes to a handful of U.S. airports.” What will that be? We need to read on to find out. (If you're wondering, it's the better-than-U.S.-airline food, service, and amenities the author enjoys by traveling on British and other foreign flights.)
Things change. Museums switch to off-season hours. Restaurants go belly up. Hotel rates rise. If an article you write is published several months after you wrote it, you will need to verify the facts or include a disclaimer that the information was correct as of the time of the writing.
Sometimes leads just naturally spring to mind, but other times they'll show themselves once you've begun writing. However you find your lead, your following paragraphs should all relate to it, and your closing should circle back to it.
In between the lead and the conclusion, you'll need to transmit the information the reader is looking for:
Location: Where in the world the point of interest lies (this should happen in the first few paragraphs).
Season: The time of year the article refers to.
Reason: Why the reader should go there.
Author: Who the writer is and his or her viewpoint (someone on a trip with an alumni group, a first-time traveler to the Far East, etc.).
Useful facts and tips: Trains or planes to take, relative costs, don't-miss sights, problems encountered — everything you feel will help a fellow traveler get the most out of a trip to that spot.
Some facts are best presented in a bulleted list — for example, how and when readers can access each of the ten best places to picnic in the area — but the majority of travel articles are presented in the form of a narrative. Anecdotes showcasing high points or unusual aspects of a trip will also give readers a good feel for the writer's experience and what they might come up against or enjoy if they make the trip. Captivating, can't-put-'em-down travel articles interweave facts, description, quotes, dialogue, and anecdotes told through the writer's unique perspective.
Although it's not critical for travel writers to be good photographers, it certainly helps. Offering to provide photos along with your article not only increases your chances of getting published, (“Great! Now we don't need to fly a photographer to India!”) but it also can increase the amount of money you get paid.
Try It Yourself
A convenient — and inexpensive — way to try out travel writing is to focus on places close to home. Putting a fresh face on a familiar location or discovering something unusual about seemingly ordinary locale can intrigue a newspaper editor as well as your neighbors. Parks, historic buildings, private homes, and new restaurants or attractions can all be the center of appealing travel pieces. Pretend you're a visitor to your area and take a close look around. What's the history behind the sculpture in the center of town? Does the café that draws a crowd every summer evening serve an unusual dish? Are the beautiful homes you see ever open to the public? Do the research and write the article.