The #1 question all travel writers should ask

This post is by Sue White, intrepid travel writer and Australian Writers' Centre Travel Writing and Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1 course presenter.

WOOEE. You’re on the road. You’ve planned a great travel writing itinerary, maybe even sold a story or two, and you’re out there doing it. Nice work! But now what?

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh god. The pressure’s on. I need to get me some great material.”  Good plan.  But where is this great material going to come from?

Part of the answer will come from the destination itself.  The activities you are doing and the people you are meeting are all  potential story fodder. But how do you know you’re going to the right places?  Or talking to the right people?

You may have landed in a destination with a pretty solid idea of where you think it’s cool to eat, drink or hang out.  But what do you know? You’re just a blow in from somewhere else, right?

The answer, and also the answer to the number one question all travel writers should ask is this.

1. Find a local.

2. Ask him or her: “What would you do?”

For example:
“Where would you go to eat/shop/walk at sunset?”
“Where do you buy your clothes/gifts/fruit and veges?”
“Where is the best cafe/bar/eating spot around here?”

The key: make it personal.

Sounds obvious, but many new travel writers simply rely on the information they receive from flyers, brochures or the local visitors centre to figure out the most interesting things to do in town.  Sure, those might be interesting, but a reader hardly needs you to dig those out: they can do that themselves.

What readers need from you is this: they need you to go the extra mile. Figure out insider’s tips. Find places that are off the beaten track. Get inside a destination beyond what the average tourist does, so his or her own trip can be more interesting as a result.

Of course: residency doesn’t automatically make someone a good local ‘tipster’. But when you travel a lot, and use this technique a lot, you’ll quickly be able to suss out if someone has tips of value to add.  I try asking the question in a couple of different ways, to see if that gets me a more ‘real’ answer.  If the lucky local looks confused, or just comes up with stuff I already know, I just say “Thanks, that’s awesome,” and move on. The person will never know I think his or her tip is hopeless. (Cause that would be impolite.)

If I’m unsure whether it’s a hot tip and I should head to this shopping area/beach/walk/whatever straight away, or it’s a dud tip, I just ask more people. Don’t give the game away though. Start them from scratch.  If you think they’re on the money, feed in the tip you just learned to start building up a ‘case’ that somewhere/something is worth you going to check out. “I heard the blue trail walk is a good one. Someone told me locals always head there before work – does that sound right?”

Basically, you are vox popping the local population. Just keep asking variations of this same question, every time you want to dig out the best places to go, shop, eat, drink, swim etc.

Yes, it gets a bit repetitive. But I can’t emphasis enough how often this one question has proven its worth to me. I’ve used it hundreds of times across the globe. Here are a few examples:

In Miami, I asked the hotel concierge, “Where should I head out tonight?”  He gave me his standard answer and started pointing me to a touristy bar. “No, I don’t want to go to a touristy spot. Where would you go if you were heading out around here tonight?” Completely different answer.  He pointed me away from the beach strip to a salsa spot the locals love. Far more interesting for my readers.

In San Francisco, I was chatting with a waitress about the city. I started asking her about clothes shopping. Vaguely interested, she pointed me to the main malls and said people love going there. (By people, she meant tourists. Boring.) Checking out her style, I decided she definitely shopped somewhere more interesting than that. “Where do the locals go for clothes shopping? Where doyou go if you have the afternoon off to go clothes shopping?” Completely different answer.  She pointed me to an up and coming section of town becoming known for one off boutiques and vintage clothes. I never would have found that one in the tourist brochures.

In Cairns, I asked the guy at the tourist information centre where the best beaches in Cairns are.(Disclaimer: Cairns is not known for its beaches, and I already knew there were far better beaches a couple of hours either direction out of town. But still, I wanted to check out the best possible beach option, so I might point readers that direction if they were so inclined.) “Well, there’s Palm Cove,” he says.  Boring. Obvious. Easy to figure out myself. “Yes, but where do locals go? What if they are going out for an afternoon beach BBQ or just hanging out on the weekend? Where do yougo?”  Completely different answer. (PS. It’s Holloways, or Yorkeys. Still a bit muddy looking, but nice long strips of sand.)

Remember: when you are on the road for a travel writing story, make it personal. And keep asking this question, even when you think you know the answer. I promise – it works.

For the comments below: How about you? Had any great tips from locals when using this question? Do you think it might help you get better material for your stories?

Sue WhiteSue White is a freelance features and travel writer whose stories have featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Vogue Australia, Travel + Leisure (Australia), Sun Herald Travel, Women’s Health, Vogue Entertaining + Travel, CNN Traveller, the South China Morning Health, Good Health, various ABC outlets,Green Living, Green Lifestyle magazine and numerous other publications in both Australia and overseas. She teaches a number of courses including Travel Writing with the Australian Writers' Centre.
This post originally appeared on Sue's blog.

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