Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Travel, when done correctly, is deeply transformative.
But often when we try to share our travel experiences with others, we find ourselves floundering, unable to articulate what exactly we found so compelling about that little park we stumbled on around the corner from our vacation rental, or how that trip to the Tibetan monastery altered our worldview.
Happily, though, there are some tried-and-true tricks that can help you make your travel tales compelling to a wider audience.
Follow these seven simple rules, and you’ll never have to say “I guess you had to be there” again.
Rule #1: Be authentic
Good travel writing isn’t just about a place, it’s about a person. Specifically, it’s about the author and their unique perspective on the experience of visiting that place.
Anyone can tell you, for example, that the Vatican is in Rome.
But I can tell you what it feels like to descend the worn marble staircase to the basement where they keep the statues of historical figures who have fallen out of favor with the church, and what it smells like when the dust of several decades dislodges from one of their muslin shrouds, dances across a sunbeam from the small rectangular window above, and hits you full in the face.
We as humans have an easier time placing ourselves in a scene when we can see it through the eyes of an individual. In this case, that individual is YOU.
That means your writing needs to be an authentic reflection of your personal experience of the place.
What areas and aspects of the culture were you drawn to?
What stands out in your memory?
What did you find especially amazing and delightful, or particularly abhorrent or disturbing?
Write about those things.
This is YOUR travel tale, so use your own voice, in all its glorious idiosyncrasy. How do you tell the story when you’re relating it to friends and family? Try to write the way you talk, minus the vocal tics and filler words. Keep the quirks, they’re what make your tone uniquely your own!
Rule #2: Be specific
As in all writing, you want to show, not tell. Strip out any vague language and unnecessary hyperbole, and focus on the specific details of what you actually observed and experienced.
For example: “In Bangkok I went to this super tasty restaurant that was amazingly cheap,” becomes, “I had dinner at The Sixth, just around the corner from Wat Pho (a.k.a. Temple of the Reclining Buddha) in Bangkok. The green curry with tofu was the most fragrant and flavorful I’ve had anywhere in Thailand, and the entire meal cost me less than $10 U.S.”
The idea is to give us a window into your particular experience of a place, so the more specifics you can relay, the more it will bring the scene to life for your audience.
Rule #3: Be selective
That is not to say that you need to share every minute arbitrary detail of your stay.
We don’t need to know what color bathrobe you wore at the spa, or what flavor gum you purchased at the corner store, unless those details help you explain something about the culture as a whole and how it affected you.
You’re not a guidebook or an Encyclopaedia; we want your curated insights, not a comprehensive overview.
Be selective in the specifics you share.
Choose a few representative vignettes--short scenes that reflect the larger experience--to describe for your audience, and then bring them to life with as many specific details as you can recall.
If you’re not sure which vignettes to share, pick those things that created the strongest emotional response in you.
The best stories are those that take us through your darkest moments (misery loves company: reading about other peoples’ travel nightmares is entertaining and makes us feel less alone), through to a moment of realization and relief. The classic happy ending is a classic for a reason.
For example, I could tell you that “West Africans are very hospitable people.”
But that doesn’t really do them justice, nor does it make for an interesting read.
So here’s a representative vignette to show you exactly how hospitable they are:
When I was traveling through Mali, the American friend-of-a-friend I was supposed to stay with in Bamako flaked out on me. So there I was at the empty bus station, low on cash, and no idea where to find an ATM machine, let alone a safe place to stay the night.
I was about to resign myself to picking a random direction and start walking, when I remembered that a man from Bamako had given me his business card when we met in Burkina Faso a couple of months earlier. I took a chance and called him up, hoping he might give me some helpful insider tips on where to stay.
He remembered me right away, and ten minutes later, his two teenage sons and ten year old daughter met me at the train station and escorted me back to his home. There, his wife fed me a hearty peanut stew with couscous and rice after a nice, hot bath.
Then the kids taught me a song in their dialect, and I fell asleep under a blanket of stars on a mattress on their roof.
Now that’s what I call hospitality!
Rule #4: Keep us in suspense
Another important aspect of being selective is choosing what to show your audience right away, and what to keep hidden at first. One of the most effective ways to suck readers into your tale is to give them a mystery to solve.
For example, let's say the first sentence of my travel story is:
“It's time I returned to Lydia what I stole from her ten years ago.”
You're intrigued, no?
You want to know who Lydia is and what I stole from her, not to mention why I have decided to return it now.
You might even be wondering where she lives and what might happen along the way.
In contrast, let’s say I started that same story by saying, “It's time I went to visit aunt Lydia in Chicago to give her back that necklace I took from her jewelry box ten years ago.”
Not so intriguing now, right?
All your questions are answered in advance, and it all seems pretty mundane. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided not to read on at all.
Rule #5: Tell us why
Why did you decide to go on this trip?
Why to this destination, why at this time?
What were you hoping to experience or achieve?
What, in short, was your quest?
Every journey moves us from one place to another, both physically and metaphorically.
What were you moving away from by taking this trip?
What were you moving toward?
Were you running from something back home?
A person, a painful memory, or a pattern of behavior perhaps?
Were you looking for an emergency exit from mundania?
An escape route from expectations?
A bridge over the river boredom?
Or were you headed toward something new?
What were you hoping to find at your chosen destination?
What were you hoping to experience on the way?
And what did you actually find?
Your motivation doesn’t have to be grandiose, of course. It could be simple curiosity, wanderlust, or a quest to find a nice purple pashmina scarf for your Mom.
There’s always a reason, though, and we want to know yours.
Often these answers only become clear in hindsight.
Maybe you told yourself you were going to Cancun for spring break to get drunk and get laid, or because your friends rented a house down there and you didn’t want to miss out.
But once you got there you realized you were actually there to get over that jerk who broke your heart last semester.
And once you were home again, you discovered that the trip had ignited in you a passion for the Spanish language you never knew was there, and now you’re toying with the idea of changing your major.
The transformative magic of travel is unpredictable, and works in mysterious ways. Stay open to the myriad possibilities and accept that you may not know until the journey is over what you were actually there to do.
That's the beauty of travel writing: it allows us to reflect on our experiences and solidify our learnings by sharing them with our readers.
Rule #6: Show us how it changed you
Travel transforms. That’s why travel stories are so compelling: every trip is a miniature hero’s journey and no worthy protagonist comes through the experience unchanged.
That’s also why we keep on traveling, despite the hassle and the expense and the danger and the disappointment. Because it changes us, and because we love to be transformed.
Your readers don’t just want to know where you went and what you did there. They want to know how that experience affected you.
How are you different now, because you took that journey?
How did that place and those people transform you into the person who is now recounting this tale?
Maybe you accomplished what you set out to.
Maybe you didn’t.
Maybe your quest turned out to be a fool’s errand or a wild goose chase.
Maybe it led you down a path of self-discovery that turned out to be far more valuable than what you set out in search of.
Regardless, you experienced something.
You learned something.
You are no longer the person who got on that plane or jumped in that car or stepped onto that boat. Now you are a traveler, and you’ve got a story to tell.
The truth is that every journey is one of self-discovery.
While experiencing a new place, we are also experiencing new aspects of ourselves.
We learn who we truly are and what we’re capable of by seeing how we respond to new stimuli and are affected by shifting circumstances.
That’s why every travel memoir is also an autobiography of sorts. Embrace the intimacy of the medium, and let us see the terrain through the lens of your metamorphosis.
Rule #7: Show us what you want more of
Like attracts like, and so you are most likely to get back more of the same signals you’re sending out.
If all your stories are ‘Here, smell this sour milk”-style horror stories, or complaints about experiences that did not measure up to your expectations, don’t be surprised if you continue to attract less-than-stellar experiences.
If, on the other hand, you are sharing tales full of joy and transcendance, connection and gratitude, I guarantee you will pull in more of the same.
Gratitude in particular is a powerful tool for inviting positive future interactions. Be sure to express your gratitude to everyone and everything that made your experience possible, and wonderful.
It really works!
Now, that doesn’t mean you should be inauthentic or gloss over the negative aspects of your experience with a sugar-coating of false cheer. The gratitude must be sincere to be effective.
Make a genuine effort to find the silver linings and angels-in-disguise, and you may be surprised at what you discover!
Go talk to strangers,