A personal view on travel articles

I subscribe to quite a few travel blogs, facebook pages and twitter streams. This morning I received an email from a travel group, and looking at the list of story headings, I realised that the travel writing industry seems to have fallen prey to the formula approach.

Each story had a number in it: 7 places to make love, 2 ways to pack a bag, 25 of the most romantic places, 7 things to know before you go, 8 ways to stay healthy, 5 reasons to take a career break. Or, they were ‘how to’ stories: how to travel long distance by bus, and how to travel around the world.

I know these articles fall into a particular type of travel writing, but for me they are no longer terribly useful, mainly because they say the same things you have already read on hundreds of other similar lists. How many times can you read a story about how to pack a suitcase? That started me thinking about what sort of travel stories I read now, and why I read them.

First, what I don’t want. I don’t want an article written to a travel writing school’s formula. For example, I don’t need flight or accommodation information in sidebars, because I prefer to do that research myself and I read lots of user reviews to make those decisions. I don’t particularly want details of conversations had with locals, or to see pictures of people, both of which travel writers are advised to include to provide local flavour.

I need travel stories that help me understand what the town or area I’m going to is like – the feel of it, what there is to do, whether I can walk to the best sights, and how long it will take. I need to know what areas are safe and whether the locals are friendly.

I need to know where the best people watching spots are, and how I get to the places where there are no people. I need to know the best tourist attractions and all the information that goes with that, and where the best non-tourist places are.

I really need to know if the place is going to overrun with tourists and the streets lined with tourist shops. Yes, I’m one of the tourists but that doesn’t meant I want to be swamped by crowds of people. I can get crowds at home so I’d like to know how to avoid them while I’m on holiday.

I was really disappointed with Santorini because of this – a gorgeous looking place, but all about the tourists – I might not have stayed there long enough, but I didn’t want to. It might also be, of course, because I don’t like heat or beaches all that much! On the other hand, Capri is also all about the tourists, but an uphill walk through the town to a spot where there are Roman ruins, away from the crowds, was a real find. Venice was like that too – head to St Mark’s Square and you’ll be swamped, wander a few laneways away, and you are in squares where locals live – it’s quieter, calmer, and you get a much better sense of what Venice is all about – and I did that because I’d read a trip review about it. I knew Ephesus was going to be very, very crowded because of what I’d read (it was).

And, I would like to know if the locals actually like tourists – I think the drivers in Skagway had a secret game called ‘scare the tourists’, because on several occasions, I had near misses crossing the road – on a pedestrian crossing , mind you.

In many ways, the best travel articles are those reviews written by travellers – that tell you their story, what they saw, what they experienced, what they liked and what annoyed them. I don’t mind if the reviews are day by day descriptions, as long as they are detailed – but this is not encouraged by the travel writing schools. What I’m looking for, I think, is information that will allow me to set my expectations at the right level.

This has set me thinking about my travel journals and whether they meet my criteria – I’m not sure they do, but in my defence, I’ve not really thought about this before. My aim for our next trip – the 2011 Adriatic Cruise – is to see if I can generate entries that are the sort of travel articles I like to read.

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