Advice on becoming a travel writer

I’ve spent the last five days accompanying Hanna Butler, winner of the World Nomads/Rough Guides travel writing scholarship, around Bali. We’ve surfed, had magical massages, driven across the island, eaten fabulous food, met practitioners of both black and white magic, climbed half a volcano and woven (part of) a traditional sarong. It has been a blast.

Right now I’m on the patio of our last stop, a small guesthouse overlooking Candi Dasa’s pond in East Bali and I’m wondering what I’d boil down five days of discussion to. We’ve talked about everything from crafting story titles to setting up a blog: in summary, here are a dozen points I’d suggest to anyone considering working towards making a living out of writing.

The quality of your writing matters and the best way to improve yours is to read the writing of others. Read vociferously. In the age of Kindles and iPads carrying a truckload of books with you has never been easier. Also, use your dictionary.

Write every day. There’s no need to write the Communist Manifesto every afternoon, but do set aside a period of time, every single day, to write. It might be a clutch of words or an essay. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you’re developing a hobby into a routine into a discipline.

Big picture travel is easy. Take a closer look. Take photos, lots of them. These will serve both as reminders later in the day when you’re trying to remember if the fishing boat had blue or yellow stripes, but also as gateways to the minor details you didn’t notice when you were there like the dried sticky rice stuck to the sash around the longtail’s prow.

Don’t be shy. Ignore language barriers. A genuine smile breaks the ice in most languages. Every person you interact with can bring colour to your story — or lead you to completely new ones.

Set up a blog. It really doesn’t matter all that much where, but ideally under your own domain name. Start collecting your writings there — it will be the first place potential publishers look when you contact them.

Twitter, Facebook, Google+ et al — try them all, settle on the one you feel most comfortable with. Use it to network with others and to showcase your work. There is no “right” way to do social media — do it whichever way you feel most comfortable with.

It doesn’t matter if travel to you is swimming up the Amazon or walking to the corner store to get milk — you need to do it, you need to read about it, and most importantly you need to write about it.

Who are you? What is your angle? You want to grow into a specialist, not a generalist. Everything you write should keep in mind what you want to be a decade from now.

Keep it simple. Research the publication you are approaching. Read material they have already published. Contact the right person even if it means picking up the telephone to find out who they are.

Second uncle of the father of the guy you used to date back in 1992 is the Travel Editor at the National Lao Daily? Give him a call and ask for an in.

Travel writing is hard — physically and mentally. Having the energy to write at the end of a full day can be draining, but the more you do it the easier it gets. And know that to make a living, the hours are long. To be successful these days, every trip needs to be written about for multiple publications and using multiple angles.

Don’t quit your day job/marry wisely
It can take a long time — often years — to achieve enough success for travel writing to become your primary source of income. Many people who attempt it fail. Having a reliable job or a partner who can financially support you can be crucial in allowing you the time to develop.

Travel writing can be an exciting, rewarding occupation, but the elbow grease required is substantial. Work at it, every single day — and don’t forget to have fun.

Google these travel SERPS blow

This morning I googled “Temple Lodge Agoda”. Temple Lodge is an iconic property here in Bali and I wanted to quickly check if they were listed on Agoda (an online hotel reseller). Here’s what Google gave me.

Roll that up and smoke it.

Roll that up and smoke it.

Despite “Tripadvisor” not even being in my query — and believe you me I am not a frequent TA user, so personal preferences shouldn’t be coming into play — Tripadvisor has:

6 of the top 10 results
15 of the top 20 results
25 of the top 30 results
35 of the top 40 results
43 of the top 50 results

The official site comes in at a paltry rank of 55.

As you may have gathered, Temple Lodge is not listed on — but I’m not sure why Google felt compelled to tell me that while it wasn’t listed on Agoda, here are 43 links to a site (which you could argue is an Agoda competitor) I didn’t even search for.

Something very broken here.

While I’m at it, Temple Lodge is glorious. One of my alltime favourite hideaways on Bali – check it out 🙂

Hot seats, wrong planes and security concerns flying with AirAsia

This morning (I’m actually writing this story on the flight) I flew Indonesia AirAsia QZ 8391 from Bali to Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t preselect a seat so the kiosk check-in assigned me 26C, an aisle seat towards the rear of the Airbus A320. As the flight departed at 06:00 I wasn’t too surprised to see it was barely half-full and so as soon as they closed the door, I moved to a window seat.

AirAsia has a preferential seat booking system where the first few rows and the two emergency rows are called “Hot Seats”. The former are closer to the front so you’re first out of the plane, the latter have considerably more legroom. Both cannot be booked without paying a premium.

On my flight, while a few of the front hot seats were taken, all six seats at the two emergency exits were empty.

As the crew readied for takeoff a flight attendent came and asked me if I was travelling alone — no she wasn’t trying to hit on me — rather, once I confirmed I was alone, she asked would I like to take an emergency exit seat. Sure, I replied and moved up.

I was then given the standard “what to do when everyone is about to die” spiel and settled in. When another passenger, eyeing my new legroom width, went to grab one of the other emergency seats, the same attendent asked him to move back to his assigned seat.

British travel writer David Whitley has previously written about this somewhat unusual emergency seat policy. At the time I disagreed with him, but upon reflection I do think it does raise some serious questions.

Here I am, at 37,000 feet and I’m the only passenger on the entire plane who is (a) sitting beside an emergency exit door and (b) been instructed how to and under what circumstances to open the door.

That doesn’t strike me as being all that safe.

I thoroughly enjoy flying, but it scares me terribly. Indonesia has far from the best air safety record and a couple of people we knew have been killed in air crashes here. I once knew a guy who had survivied three plane crashes. Two of them were light aircraft crashes that didn’t involve fatalities, but the third was a commerical airliner crash where many of his fellow passengers were killed. His advice based on his experience of the commercial crash was to sit near the exit and be prepared to push other people out of the way to get out of the plane (and survive).

There’s little point pushing your way to the emergency exits only to find three of the four doors still closed because those seats were unoccupied due to the pricing policy of the airline.

I don’t begrudge AirAsia charging extra for these seats — they are more comfortable and the extra legroom is welcome. But I think a better, and certainly safer approach, would be for at least four passengers to be moved up so that all four doors have a passenger assigned to them.

Because I tell you, I’m a nice guy and all, but if we crash, I do plan to only open one door before getting the hell out of Dodge!

A second issue with the flight was that as the passengers were still snaking on board, two backpackers were getting off the plane. They had thought it was the Singapore flight (which I think leaves at a similar time) but had ended up on the Kuala Lumpur flight. This happened to me once, in Bangkok years ago, but then, as now, I couldn’t really understand how it happened as your boarding pass is checked (in this case) before you get a bus to the flight.

I assume the guy checking boarding passes before directing people to the buses didn’t notice they had boarding passes to a different country — one assumes passengers are generally intelligent enough to queue up for the right flight.

Anyway, once they were off I mulled over the security issues of something like this happening. With all the attention given to people packing nail clippers and jars of Vegemite, here we have a case where two passengers get on board with who knows what carry-on luggage and then are allowed to leave the plane again — with what bags? Did they stow bags in the overhead locker before sitting down and realising they were on the wrong flight? Did they take those bags with them? (In the US, such a security mishap and the ensuing hold up to check everything is as it should be would rate a news story.)

What checks and balances are involved in a situation like this? One assumes the most thorough response would have been for AirAsia to have completely emptied the cabin and all the luggage, then reallow passengers who actually had tickets for the plane to get back on. Good luck with that one.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it — they were just two backpackers who got on the wrong flight — but these can be paranoid times.

I fly AirAsia regularly and for many years they were a substantial sponsor of, and I do continue to recommend them to travellers who are looking for an affordable point to point low cost airline.

I do think, nevertheless, that there is scope for some basic improvements in the safety and security/training involved in their flights.