How to Travel Like a Travel Writer

Everyone’s talking about “traveling like a local” these days. Travelers, bloggers, tour operators, souvenir clerks, industry types in pleated slacks—they all seem to say it’s the best way to get to know a place. Go local or go home, right?

Well, not me.

I’ve spent a dozen years doing research for travel guidebooks, articles, and videos on trips that have taken me to cities on stilts in Siberia, abandoned kingdoms in Burma—even Queens on the 7 train. And while I’m likely to remember the locals I meet more vividly than the badly lit history museums I breeze through, I’ve learned there’s a resource on the ground that’s better than any local you’ll ever meet.


It takes outsider eyes to really “see” a place. I would have never found unexcavated ruins in the backwaters of Bulgaria or “coffee clubs” at classic farm-town diners in the Great Plains if I had passively relied on advice I got from locals on the ground. If we’re being honest—at least in America—doing so often means being steered toward Applebee’s, shopping malls, and grande lattes at Starbucks. (I still refuse to say “grande.”)

How did I find these places? I was visiting as a travel writer. That means not traveling “like a local,” but in the company of locals—a subtle, but important, difference.

Me shooting video at a festival in Yakutsk, Russia. (Photograph courtesy Robert Reid)
Me shooting video at a festival in Yakutsk, Russia (Photograph courtesy Robert Reid)

Travel writers—at least good ones—don’t just drop into Bogotá or Brussels to see what happens, as fun as that can be. They do as much research as they can, devouring novels, articles, TV shows, and films about where they’ll be going to track down an angle, a hook, or a mythology that grabs them. Then they use that angle as a lens that sets them on a path. And that path can lead to unexpected, marvelous things.

It’s time to play with what makes up “travel.” The goal isn’t being “different” in what you do, it’s being personal.

Seriously, what do you like? Find ideas by looking at the “top 25 most played” songs in your iTunes account, “recently played” documentaries on Netflix, or those old keepsakes you keep in a box under your bed. That chunk of lava your dad got you when you were six? That worn-out VHS tape of Duran Duran videos? Anything can turn into a makeshift guidebook if you approach it the right way. (For instance, my friend, David Farley, once used Lee Harvey Oswald as a lens for exploring Minsk.)

Looking back at my travel biography, I realize I’ve subconsciously used trips as patches for the punctured dreams of my childhood. The result? I became a Civil War reenactor in a march at Gettysburg, drove a ’72 Moskvitch in the former Soviet bloc, and used a Monopoly board as a guide to Atlantic City.

I went even further with Billy Joel. As a recovering “Joelnik” (a big Joel fan, usually of the pre-“Uptown Girl” variety), I created a road-trip itinerary around Hicksville, New York, based on lyrics he wrote about his hometown in Long Island. I got to drive the actual “Miracle Mile,” get coffee at Cold Spring Harbor, and walk into the music room of his old high school.

And the “village green” where Brenda and Eddie met up in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”? Turns out it’s a couple blocks from Joel’s home. When I finally pinpointed it, I met a guy with a broken nose who used to live across the street from Billy and remembered hearing him practice the piano.

I’ll never hear those songs the same way again.

Why do this? It’s empowering. It’s memorable. It builds on things that are already dear to you and introduces you to things you never knew you were looking for. It’s also fun.

You might not want to “travel like a travel writer” on every trip you take, but you should try it at least once—as if the technique itself were a “once in a lifetime” destination. I can promise you I learned more about Atlantic City trying to find Marven Gardens (turns out the Monopoly folks misspelled it) than I would have in any boardwalk casino.

This summer, I’m going to take you with me on some unexpected journeys using offbeat itineraries to inspire you to do the same.

Meanwhile, if you’re brave enough, share a few things you’re fond of (The Brady Bunch Grand Canyon episode, junior high obsessions, whatever) in the comments section, and we’ll see where it takes us.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.


  1. Vanessa
    August 22, 2014, 6:44 pm

    Despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to convince any travel bloggers that they should experience my complete “Ottawa in February Live Like the Locals” cultural and environmental immersion experience of shoveling snow for several hours each day, the monotony of which is only broken by opportunities to pay holiday bills and walk the dog – in yet more snow. Our local life sucks!! I love it instead when people ask me things like what restaurant I’ve been meaning to try but haven’t got around to it, or what bakery am I long overdue to revisit. Suddenly I’m out of my minus 40 (Celsius kids, Celsius!) misery and anxious to show them the kind of local I WANT to be!

    In the meantime, I still have spots available for the 2015 snow-a-thon.

  2. Adrienne @ AdrienneAway
    United States
    August 19, 2014, 4:46 pm

    This part is so true! – “Travel writers – at least good ones – don’t just drop into Bogotá or Brussels to see what happens, they do as much research as they can.”

  3. Zoë Dawes
    United Kingdom
    August 19, 2014, 7:35 am

    Well said! Love that this highlights different ways of travelling and keeping eyes, mind and heart open to the wonderful experiences available to us when we travel. And it equally applies to seeing our local environment anew as it does to travel to far flung places.

  4. Bex
    Athens, Greece
    August 18, 2014, 2:42 pm

    I love discovering new places, both in my home country of the UK and my adopted country Greece. I supplement my travels with advise from the locals (in Greece) as they know the best un-touristic coffee shop, taverna, etc whereas in my home country, that’s a bit harder as I get a little ‘lazy’ as to what’s around me, hence locals come in handy too.

    Thanks for this piece.

  5. amynsomd
    Waldorf, MD
    January 17, 2014, 10:08 am

    I think every trip is personal, from expectations to the actual experience, to the memory. Would love to revisit places I traveled in the past and compare them to present day surroundings and culture. I am much less adventurous now, realizing some of the things I did in my twenties were actually reckless (or is it tainted by generational bias?) I had great fun then, which gives me great memories, now.

  6. Jane Wilson
    New Hope, PA
    January 9, 2014, 1:29 pm

    I suspected that I wasn’t the only one refusing to order a “grande” at Starbucks….
    Traveling like a writer to me is being open and humble enough so locals aren’t put off or afraid of you. If they know you are ‘different’ but share a common bond, they often will talk with you in ways they might not even talk to their neighbors. I agree that being inspired by novels, etc. is an awesome way to travel – it is not just ‘checking off’ a place, but is exploration to discover.

  7. Jennifer Heseltine
    Central Queensland, Australia
    January 3, 2014, 8:18 pm

    My favourite memories from a recent trip to the US are the ones I created myself. Our first night in New York, we had dinner at this little café in Times Square, and it started pouring down rain. Within 5 minutes a man was selling umbrellas on the sidewalk. A horse and buggy went trotting past amongst the other traffic on the street. With the lights from the square and the rain, it was beautiful. We were determined to walk home through Central Park. The antique lanterns glowing through the rain. The trees around the park were dark silhouettes against the glowing skyline, and the buildings with their many lit windows looming above.
    I kept a journal on my holiday, so that I could write memories like this down.

  8. merrie rheingans
    Arizona, USA
    December 31, 2013, 8:07 am

    What a fresh perspective. We spend months r e searching before traveling to a new location. One of our favorite ways to see a city, though, is geocaching. It will take you places you never would think to see. Happy travels.

  9. Angela
    Gold River, CA
    July 14, 2013, 12:34 pm

    Get this, my partner and I were sitting eating our yogurt and granola and said, “Lets explore ideas for our trip to Belize.” We sat and looked up how to spell Belize laughing and then saw our trusted National Geographic name and found your article. We couldn’t agree with you more. Travel is about connection to yourself, all past and present parts of yourself, and about the connections you make with the people you meet. Travel is permission to enter a new space and with old and new eyes. Thanks for starting us on our next journey.

  10. Karen Attman
    July 9, 2013, 11:12 am

    I totally agree. Frankly, locals sometimes know little about where they live. I grew up in Philadelphia but know shockingly little about the city. I’ve been in Bogota for just a year now, but as a writer I’ve discovered the city like few locals have, and am constantly giving Bogotanos advice on where to eat, what cultural events are going on, and the best hotels for day trips outside the city.

    An outsider, especially a writer, who has done their research often gets a better idea of what a city is all about.

  11. Astari Mayang
    July 4, 2013, 12:26 pm

    Wow, thank you so much!
    I was in the middle of uncertainty about my next long trip. I read the guide books, the travel blogs, etc, etc.
    But what made me want to go to UK and Europe at first, were Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I dug all my old novels and make a list of cities mentioned with the story title. I haven’t finished it yet, since suddenly I realize that I’ll look childish when I got there. Then I turn to Lonely Planets, hence the confusion.
    After reading yours, I will finish my list and try to ensemble MY OWN itinerary.
    Thanks again

  12. Patrick Simon
    July 4, 2013, 8:24 am

    This piece made so much sense me, especially about researching beforehand on the place you will be going to and creating a “path” based on that, and being surprised along the way… Best way to travel indeed.

  13. Lauren Harris
    June 24, 2013, 9:22 am

    It’s hard sometimes to travel as a local, so i started travel WITH a local. When I was in St Petersburg but also Paris, London and Barcelona … I joined a walking tour with a company of native guides in each city, they knew so many secret stories and hidden places , I spent an amazing time
    i warmly recommend it to you, other advantages no reservation needed and only tip supported :

  14. Robert Reid
    June 21, 2013, 2:42 pm

    Hi Mihaela. I saw a couple faintly excavated Thracian ruins near Perperikon in the east Rodopis in Bulgaria (great stuff), but the ruins I was thinking of was a site, through a tough walk in the thorns, near the Danube northwest of Vidin. Read something about it on Sofia Echo, I believe. It was a hilarious, memorable experience.

  15. Mihaela
    United States
    June 21, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Great article!
    Where is that place in Bulgaria? I am from Bulgaria and I never heard of it, but I want to visit… Once can say, you travel better than the locals :)

  16. Kerry Biddle-Chadwick
    Half the year in France and half the year in St Martin, French West Indies
    June 21, 2013, 4:39 am

    I loved this article and seeing as most of my traveling is done in a manner of ‘let’s just go and see where we land up’ kind of style, I am up for trying this out.

  17. Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids
    United States
    June 21, 2013, 12:15 am

    Very interesting! As someone who wrote a local guidebook, I agree. My co-author and I are both transplants to the Cincinnati area and started intentional exploring the region ten years ago. Meanwhile, we continue to meet lifelong Cincinnati residents who haven’t heard of many of the gems we’ve discovered, and continue to find new places to explore. I love some of the angles you’ve used to explore. In my newest endeavor, I’m exploring the 50 states with my kids and we constantly look for what is unique to each state and find experiences you can’t do elsewhere. It’s incredibly interesting. Yes, everyone should travel like a travel writer!

  18. Nicola @NicolaThinks
    June 20, 2013, 7:13 pm

    Robert, I’m glad to finally be reading this. The writer’s approach to travel, for me, is the most rewarding approach. Seeking an angle for a story helps to reveal the quality of an experience and frame that experience in relation to the bigger picture.

    I would encourage everyone to approach travel this way. Great piece.

  19. Brianna Simmons
    June 20, 2013, 5:05 pm

    You hit the nail on the head Robert. I enjoy researching travel almost as much as the trip itself

  20. T
    June 20, 2013, 4:47 pm

    Amazing article! Thanks for sharing this with us.

  21. Witold
    United States
    June 20, 2013, 4:45 pm

    This whole idea of ‘local travel’ stems from the fact that travel is often a very empty experience. You see a few pretty buildings, buy some overpriced trinkets, and sit on the beach rest of the day. The ‘locals’ you meet are mostly the sort of people who rely on the tourist trade.

    It is nothing like the brochures and the billion dollar travel industry tell us it will be like. Hardly anyone gains deep insight or discovers themselves. The biggest thing most people discover is that they like the idea of travel and reading about travel more than they like traveling themselves.

    Traveling like a local/writer/whatever does help, but getting off the beaten path is increasingly harder and harder to do. It is also more logistically complicated, takes more time, and takes more money. I agree with the article that it is worth trying at least once.

  22. Robert Reid
    June 20, 2013, 12:53 am

    Funny Paige CT. Duran Duran’s Sri Lanka videos are all-timer travel videos, along with INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” in Prague way before everyone wondered what the “next Prague” was. (Did they ever find it?)

  23. Noel
    Centereach, New York
    June 19, 2013, 4:04 pm

    It’s time to play with what makes up “travel.” The goal isn’t being “different” in what you do, it’s being personal.

    I absolutely agree with this statement. My travel blog, perhaps, is almost like others talking about destinations, places and food. But what gets me excited always is the moment when I write about my personal experiences, views and observations in all the places I’ve been to.

  24. Paige Conner Totaro
    Buenos Aires, Argentina
    June 19, 2013, 11:19 am

    Great points! For years I’ve wanted to go to Sri Lanka to see where Duran Duran shot their video for Hungry Like the Wolf and Save a Prayer….

  25. Kathleen (@KathleenFordyce)
    June 18, 2013, 10:09 am

    I couldn’t agree more. All travel experiences are personal and so I get really turned off when people try to turn travel writing into a one-size-fits-all piece. I would much rather read something personal. Look forward to reading more.

  26. Katrina Woznicki
    NYC area
    June 17, 2013, 7:00 pm

    Never viewed myself as a local anywhere, and was certainly reminded of that when bathing suit shopping in the Galapagos after our luggage was lost. I prefer traveling like a journalist than a local; go in assuming nothing and see where that takes me.

  27. Zora ONeill
    United States
    June 17, 2013, 12:14 pm

    Yeah, locals–thanks for puncturing this empty phrase, Robert.

    I was writing a guidebook to Amsterdam and showed some of it to a city employee and he said, “Oh, it’s funny how you focus on the bicycles! I don’t even notice them.”

    And then I started writing a guide to New Mexico (hi, Santa Fe Travelers!), where I grew up, and *wow* did I realize how clueless I was. My world was so small when I was a “local”!

  28. travelopod
    June 17, 2013, 7:31 am

    Nice blog…… can easily share your experience or feelings by writing each and every experience while travelling.

  29. Mariellen Ward
    June 16, 2013, 12:03 pm

    Hi Robert,
    You have articulated the way I travel — and I thought I was a bit of a weirdo! (Well, I am but that’s another story). I write about what I call “meaningful adventure travel” because I like to travel places that have meaning to me; that have somehow captured my imagination. India is my top destination because it is the place that has most captured my imagination, and I often find myself retracing books, historical moments, movies while I am there. My travel blog, Breathedreamgo, is built on this premise. So, thanks for giving voice to this impulse. Cheers, Mariellen

  30. Jim
    June 15, 2013, 10:19 pm

    Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, would be an easy thing for travellers to do in the US Southwest. I didn’t see any flatbed Fords, but it was still pretty cool.

  31. Bret @ Green Global Travel
    June 15, 2013, 9:52 pm

    Totally agree. I find that locals typically don’t spend much time traveling around the cities/countries in which they live. I love researching a destination before I travel there, digging deep to find things even the tourism board folks don’t know about. And of course there’s something to be said for the art of exploration, wandering around until you find something interesting.

  32. Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer)
    June 15, 2013, 4:56 pm

    The pre-reading and imagining definitely adds depth to a travel writer’s visit. But, then it’s useful (and fun) to know people on the ground (locals, I guess you’d call them) who can jump start one’s quest—or even tag along for the discoveries if they didn’t know there was a there, there.

  33. santafetraveler
    June 15, 2013, 3:39 pm

    I think that’s true to a point, it depends on where you are and who you ask. We’ve gotten great tips from locals while traveling.

    We actively explore and write about Santa Fe, NM where we live. The people born and raised here will never consider us locals- we’re kind of expats from NY. We play tourist all the time, ferreting out nooks and crannies to tell travelers about. We learn a lot from locals- you have to know who to ask and developing relationships is a long-term process. I recently got a gem from a local because I’ve learned how to ask- and it still doesn’t always work. It ‘s trial and error.

  34. Robert Reid
    June 15, 2013, 1:01 pm

    Actually some go with “Joelnik” others with “Joelbird.” then there’s the few who say to-mah-to.

  35. Fly Girl
    June 15, 2013, 11:45 am

    So a Joelnik is what you call it? I’m a part of a club that I didn’t even know existed! I did a similar itinerary for Jamaica Kincaid’s Antigua. She always wrote about the tiny library and the bigger one that was promised. I wove through the streets of the capitol looking for that library and learned so much from the locals in the process. The library was just as she described it, with the promise of a bigger one still intact, decades later. I saw the small island through Kincaid’s lens and through my outsider’s view and I’ll never forget the experience. Thanks for the insight.

  36. Robert Reid
    June 15, 2013, 11:21 am

    Thanks for the comments. I always find that locals make up the highlight of places I go, but it’s not always their advice that gets me to the places I meet them!

  37. Genny Montes
    Chicago suburbs
    June 15, 2013, 9:08 am

    I love that I live in a town far enough from the city that I can walk through forest preserves, participate in local festivals and entertainment events, and still enjoy the ambiance of Chicago in the summer. There is so much richness in local tradition.

  38. mandappa
    June 15, 2013, 8:33 am

    Totally agree. I was looking for local stories of the clouded leopard in north east india, but in my quest I got to see shillong, in a way very few people would have. Both the army, th3 locals, meeting the tribes etc.

  39. Angela (@angelatravels11)
    Seattle, WA
    June 14, 2013, 4:01 pm

    Great article! I completely agree that sometimes you have to take a look from outside the locals. Humans tend to be creatures of habit. Even though I enjoy trying new local restaurants where I live, doesn’t mean most of the people I know go to new places where they live. Research is key when traveling and learning what is the best is based on the purpose of your trip and travel preferences!