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Monday, April 6, 2009

Top secrets of travel writers: how to create an itinerary that is inspirational and useful

So you're a travel writer about to create an itinerary? Above all, it needs to be inspiring. You want people to read it and get excited about going to this place. You want them to rip the thing out of the magazine/paper or print it off the web and book a holiday. If you've been commissioned to write the itinerary, it's for a reason. The destination might be hot or emerging, but most likely an airline, hotel or travel agency has bought ad space and they want bums on seats or bods in beds, eg. in the case study of my last post, the itinerary was the result of a junket hosted by the airline and tourism body. As a travel writer, your other main priorities are to ensure the itinerary is useful and that it's loads of fun. Because your ultimate goal is to show your readers the best time they're going to have. Here's how to do it:
1) Keep your readers firmly in mind: your editor will give you a brief, but also research the publication's audience. You'll find this info on the advertising section of their site. Build a mental picture of a typical reader or range of readers and every time you select something ask yourself whether that traveller would enjoy it. For a book we wrote last year a high priority for our readers (mature British travellers) was an evening beer at an alfresco cafe/bar with a view and compelling people-watching. Knowing that influenced the choices we made.
2) Refer to a model itinerary:
ask your editor for an example of an itinerary he/she think best represents their format. If you haven't been commissioned and are gathering content for future stories, use a model you like, one that inspired you.

3) Write about places you know intimately: writers on 5-day junkets should stick to writing reviews or features on specific experiences. Leave itineraries to writers who know places well. Otherwise, readers who are residents and writers like myself will easily pick up mistakes. That means a loss of credibility and a bad time on the part of the reader following your advice, not good for you or your editor.
4) Do thorough research: prep before you go by studying other itineraries, reading up on the destination, and highlighting things that intrigue you. When you're on the ground, visit those places. Talk to ordinary locals as well as those in the industry (ie, your guides/PR rep). Ask people what they like to do, where they like to eat, how they spend their time, and when the best time is to do what they're recommending.
5) Include a few surprises: in addition to the tried-and-tested and must-do's, make your itinerary stand out from the others by including latest openings, local favorites, hidden gems, and things off-the-beaten-track.
6) Test out your itinerary: develop a rough itinerary, then test it out. Follow the whole itinerary yourself. If you arrive some place and it's dead, ask people why and find out when it buzzes and has the most atmosphere. Plan to return at the time suggested to verify their advice.
7) Consider the pacing:
when you're testing out your itinerary, think about how long it's taking to do things. Sure, we're all different: one person might spend 3 hours in a museum another will rush through in an hour. Use averages. But if you're rushing around and not enjoying yourself then you need to spread activities out, no matter how much your editor wants nice neat brackets of time.
8) Avoid including day-specific activities: try not to include something only on a particular night of the week, unless it's really special and then mention it as an aside, rather than the main activity for a specific time.
9) Check practicalities and facts meticulously:
note down opening hours, address, contact details, prices, and map location for every place on your itinerary. Don't rely on distances and durations from Google Maps, but ask locals how long it takes to get between places at different times. For instance, a 25-minute 7am taxi ride from Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La to Emirates Palace might take over 45 minutes on a Thursday/Friday night. If a restaurant needs to be booked 6 weeks in advance, say so in the itinerary.

10) Create an evocative itinerary:
to inspire readers, include details that evoke the atmosphere of the place and intrigue and excite people enough to want to go there. When you visit the place, don't just make notes about your hotel room, meals and museums, but observe the rhythms and details of everyday life and include description about the sights, sounds and smells.

Pictured? The Lebanese night at an Abu Dhabi club; inclusions like these will set your itinerary apart from the rest.


Alanna said...

Perfect timing! I'm just writing a blog post promoting an itinerary and realize that the sum is so much greater than the parts... it sparked a new angle on the post.

Adventure Rob said...

Interesting points and all simple and logical in reality! The main point definately is keeping the readers in mind though, museum tours are not high on the agenda for the clubbing sort of people, and vice versa.

jessie voigts said...

excellent, lara. i appreciate this, as i am often putting together itineraries for places i've been, for friends. great tips!

Vietnam Traveler said...

Thanks for those helpful tips. Keep up with the good work!

previously.bitten said...

consider the pacing... good tip. I rarely tend to do this. Mind you, I then just sacrifice sleep, which probably isn't for the best - but...

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Alanna - thanks so much! Let me know when your post is up. I can't wait to read it!

Hi Rob - they are simple and logical, you're right. So, how then do established and experienced travel writers get these things so wrong?! I don't get it. Too busy? Too lazy?

Hi Jessie - glad it was helpful. Thanks!

Hi Previously-Bitten - I used to be the same. Terry and I would rise at dawn, run around all day, and head to bed late. We just don't do that anymore. Too old? Perhaps? More discerning about how we travel? Definitely.

Thanks for your comments everyone!

AngelaCorrias said...

as usual invaluable tips!

Prêt à Voyager said...

these are great tips, lara! i just started a continuing ed class entitled "the art of getting published in magazines" so it's wonderful to hear your breakdown of process.


Lara Dunston said...

Hi Angela - thanks!

Hi Anne - I'd love to hear about your course; I'm always intrigued about those kinds of courses and what they reveal - or don't. What else can I help you with? :)

Thanks for your comments!