Nine tips for newbie travel writers

by Nurilda Nurlybayeva
Oct 30, 2018 in Freelancing

So, you finally got your first travel story assignment. You know where you're going, what sights you're likely to see and you have your camera ready.

Whether you're an experienced hard news reporter or a beginner starting a blog, there are practicalities to consider before heading out on your first travel story.

Christopher Reynolds, an award-winning Los Angeles Times Travel staff writer, shares his top tips for newbies, from how to present yourself while reporting to what to include when you write.

  1. Set the rules of the road with your editor. Travel writing standards vary widely around the world, though major American newspapers (including the L.A. Times) won’t take freebies or press discounts, the practice of doing so is common among other publications worldwide. Make sure your editor knows what you’re doing and that you know how much personal opinion is expected. Also check whether first-person narrative is forbidden, favored or optional.

  2. There’s no need to declare yourself up-front to hotels and restaurants. If you’re paying your way, then don’t volunteer that you’re writing a travel story when you arrive at a restaurant or check into a hotel. Instead, let them treat you as they would a typical customer. After you’ve paid, then you can explain what you’re up to, ask more questions and check facts. (It's also easier now to fly under the radar since so many people are in the habit of taking photos of their food.)

  3. Declare yourself to individuals. Anybody you’re quoting by full name deserves to know you’re a reporter.

  4. To check out a hotel where you’re not sleeping, show up between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., when they’re most likely to have clean, unoccupied rooms. Ask to see the most common room type, not the presidential suite.

  5. Even if there’s another narrative at center stage, the most helpful stories include information on at least two restaurants and at least two lodgings, with a range of price levels. Try to eat in at least one restaurant that has opened in the last year and at least one that’s been around for decades. Treat Trip Advisor reviews the way you treat Wikipedia information – they are usually helpful in combination with other sources, but never alone. When in doubt about whom to include, favor homegrown independents over national or global brands – tips on indies are far more valuable to a newly-arrived consumer.

  6. Don’t confuse a travel assignment with a real vacation. Plan on doing three times as many things per day as normal tourists do. If you’re shooting pictures or video, don’t eat breakfast until after you’ve capitalized on the first hour of light and don’t eat dinner until you’ve capitalized on the last hour of light. If you’re traveling with a significant other, negotiate this in advance.

  7. Just because you’re allowed to write in first-person doesn’t mean you have to. But if you do, come clean on your own experience – mention how long you were at the destination and what time of year.

  8. Don’t go nuts collecting quotes – most will end up on the cutting-room floor. Instead, go nuts collecting service information: contact information for restaurants, hotels and other businesses, especially their prices. There’s nothing more annoying than a travel story with no prices in it. (If you ask hotel reservationists for the hotel’s year-round price range, their heads are likely to explode, because the reservation software doesn’t spit out info that way. If the answer isn’t on the hotel website, save the price-range question for a phone call to the sales department.)

  9. Tighter focus is better. Writing about a neighborhood is almost always better than writing about an entire city. And if you don’t include a tight, colorful description of how some spots look, sound and smell, you may be short-changing readers.

Christopher Reynolds has spent two decades writing about travel, the outdoors, arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times. He’s also been investigating Los Angeles and Orange counties for a series of detailed and opinionated guides, Southern California Close-ups.