Travel

A writer’s guide to travelling

Travel writer Meghan J. Ward gives her best tools to help you gain context and a deeper understanding of the places you visit

  • Sep 13, 2022
  • 1,402 words
  • 6 minutes
Ward, pictured here on Mosquito Mountain in Banff National Park, is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society as well as a writer, editor, digital content specialist and all-around storyteller based in Banff, Canada. (Photo: Paul Zizka)
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I live in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations: Banff National Park. Each year, over four million tourists visit the area, and another 8,000 people call the town of Banff “home.” Needless to say, I’ve met a lot of visitors from all parts of the globe.

When I worked in the frontlines of hospitality, in restaurants and retail, I saw the full range of people’s experiences in Banff: visitors asking a server for recommendations on the best hikes in the area (only to find she doesn’t know the trails), tourists leaving a crowded viewpoint feeling disappointed in their experience, a traveller stoked that he’d found peace and quiet with no one around while he was photographing the sunrise. The list goes on…

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The difference between these experiences, I noticed, was often in the intel – where we get our information matters. Of course, everyone travels for different reasons. But after many years of living in a tourism hotspot, my sense is the more you put into your research, in the right places, the more you’ll get out of your visit.

As a travel writer, I have taken my Banff experiences to heart when I visit other locations. I feel it’s my job as a writer to represent a destination as accurately and holistically as possible while also seeking out ways to travel more sustainably. This requires me to both lean into my outsider’s view (there is value in our objective sense of a place) and circumvent my biases to gain a glimpse of the local context and more nuanced perspectives. Ultimately, the research benefits both me and my readers.

So, how do you tap that local scene? How can you develop a greater understanding of a place? Though every destination requires different tools to get beneath the surface, here are some from my toolkit to help you make the most of your next adventure.

Reverse pyramid research

Once I’ve chosen my destination, I first use guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet or Fodor’s, to gain a general understanding of a place. Guidebook writers have already done a lot of groundwork, so you can lean into their expertise while also taking it with a grain of salt. Other broad sources include exhaustive internet searches, Google Maps, tourism bureaus, and Wikipedia. These might give you a sense of general trends, history, hot spots, and cultural distinctions. From there, start focusing your research by using a narrower lens. Writers need to use an angle to make a story compelling, even if it evolves as they go. Consider what interests you and what new things you might uncover about a place. This will help you to determine what you see and do.

Exploring and hiking in Connemara National Park, Ireland. (Photo: Meghan J. Ward)
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Plan to stay long enough

Before you even get your boots on the ground, know that unless you can bend time, you won’t get a decent sense of a place with too short a stay. Some destinations can be well-researched within a few days; others may take weeks. Consider that when booking your trip, and also think about the type of accommodations that might open up opportunities for you. Do you want to stay with local hosts at a guesthouse or have a private room in a large hotel downtown? Each option can be leveraged to expose you to the local scene; it’ll just give you a different flavour.

Look for the locals

Thanks to the world wide web, we now have access to thousands of sources — literally at our fingertips. Both travel blogs and blogs written by people living in a destination can give you a perspective you won’t gain from an official tourism website or any platform hosted by a tourism operator. Be mindful of any sponsored content, which may appear like an original article, but is actually a paid placement (look for a logo and words such as “brought to you by,” “paid post,” or “ad” that may be inserted discreetly). These articles can be valuable but may not offer that local, unbiased perspective.

On many occasions, Ward has planted herself in one spot to take notes and observe what is around her like in this image taken in Budva, Montenegro. (Photo: Meghan J. Ward)
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An additional source for local intel is social media. For instance, you can search Instagram by location and see what comes up. You might stumble upon a user who lives in the destination you’re visiting. Spending time going down the right rabbit holes can unearth some real gems for you.

Peruse the publications

Once I’m on location, I seek out publications, such as newspapers and magazines, which will provide the local perspective. I avoid magazines or pamphlets catered directly to tourists, as they are prone to promote more heavily commercialized or popular sights. Community newspapers or flyers may also give you ideas for local events you can attend, such as a music night at a local pub or an author’s reading at the library. My best tip on this: look in the entryways of coffee shops for either a newsstand for local publications or a cork board with flyers. These are gold mines.

By a fly on the wall

Speaking of the local coffee shops, spend time getting to know where the locals are buying their coffees (I look for reviews on Trip Advisor), and plant yourself there! You can do some great people-watching and observing while casually sitting with a coffee. You might even find an opportunity to speak with people! Download a translation app to help you converse in the local language. Many have offline versions available; just be sure to download them while on Wi-Fi.

There are other places in a destination that are more “local” than others in that they cater to residents and their needs. These include the library or an independent book store. Ask about local authors or books that take place in the destination and add them to your list of sources!

Visiting the Moai of Rano Ranaku Easter Island (Rapa Nui). (Photo: Meghan J. Ward)
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Get off the beaten path  

It’s worth hitting the popular spots to see what the fuss is about (there’s usually a good reason!). But then, be intentional about going where other tourists aren’t. Some of my best discoveries have been made when (respectfully and safely) walking through neighbourhoods, taking an alley between two prominent streets, hiking without a ton of trail beta, or visiting a location at a less-popular time of day. You’re guaranteed to have a different experience during off-hours than you would going to popular spots at peak times.

Keep a record

Every writer has their own way of making notes before and during a trip. My approach is that you can’t have enough notes. There is simply no way to re-create an experience later, so do your best to capture it through note-taking as soon as possible so the information is fresh. I always have a notebook and pen handy, but my favourite tips involve my iPhone. Being able to upload them to a single place, or send them to my computer via AirDrop, is magic.

Voice Memos – This app lets you record your voice, so when you’re strapped for time, just talk into your phone and transcribe it later (I love Otter.ai for transcriptions!)

Notes – Quickly jot down point form notes and use the folders to keep them organized.

Camera – Snap pictures of scenes and details, no matter how insignificant they might seem at the time. Videos help you retain both the visuals and the sounds of a place. I also use my camera to take images of text, such as interpretive panels or plaques, especially now that the device is smart enough to scan the text and digitize it.

Finally, my best advice is to keep your eyes and ears open while you travel. Make a point of getting beyond the surface, and don’t be afraid to talk to people along the way. You may be surprised how much people love to talk about the place they live in, so just be ready to say: May I ask you something?

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and the author of Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure and Parenting. A Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Meghan has written several books and produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. Her travels have taken her across Canada and the world, often with two young children in tow. Learn more at meghanjoyward.com and @meghanjward.

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