Misadventures in travel writing

April 6, 2009, 6:45 PM · It's been a lousy day; I feel miserable, so I'm gonna rant. Forgive me. But I will try to make it fun.

I guess since this website has become my primary job, this has made me into a professional travel writer. Unfortunately, much travel writing drives me nuts. Here's the latest example that set me off, a feature in Travel + Leisure magazine this month on Discovering the Baltic Islands:

At the outskirts of Ventspils, gray Soviet-era housing blocks rose from the fields. One of them, an unfinished skeleton, looked almost archaeological, a ruin from the previous empire. We drove past little houses, each with a fastidiously tended garden out front. They made the town seem house-proud and tidy. Ventspils is an ice-free port where Russian oil and minerals are loaded onto ships. It is bisected by the Venta River, over which rises an elevated bridge that swept us up and then gently deposited us in the center of the sleepy old port town. Our room that night, in the Hotel Vilnis, was modest and clean. Only the convention of attack-dog trainers, whose dogs were barking in cages outside the lobby, made the visit the slightest bit unsettling.

Allow me to translate: In the midst of gray, Soviet-era housing blocks in an industrial port city, they're staying in a crappy hotel hosting a killer dog convention.

Good times in Ventspils!

What more does one need here for the writer to come out and say this night of the vacation stinks: Hannibal Lechter delivering the room service?

I hate to pick on T+L here, because you can find this type of writing everywhere, from the Sunday newspaper to dozens of titles on any large bookstore's magazine rack. (Plus, T+L had the good sense to name us the best theme park site on the Web not too long back....)

This style of writing drove me to start this website in the first place: reporters gushing about the ordinary, "writing around" the contemptible and pretending that every moment on even a lousy trip represents the finest experience your money could buy.

Because that's what this style of travel writing is really about - encouraging you to spend your money. Look, I love theme parks. I spend thousands of dollars visiting them every year. (FWIW, some travel writers accept free flights and hotel rooms - I never do.) But I don't want you to spend a dime of your money on a lousy trip.

With two weeks, and often less, to get away on a trip, and a limited supply of cash to pay for it, you deserve better than reliving a scene from "The Usual Suspects."

That's why I beg readers not to forget that they can, and should, rate some attractions on this site as "average" or below. And to penalize attractions for excessive wait times, and restaurants for inattentive service or mediocre food. If you can get the same experience elsewhere, at the same or a better price, then it ain't "perfect."

Not all travel writing need be prescriptive. But even literary travel writing ought to be honest. Some trips stink. Sometimes, it's not the destination's fault. A relationship falters. Someone gets sick. There's an attack dog convention in town.

But some places just aren't meant to be vacation destinations. That doesn't mean those locations do not have compelling stories to be told - just that those stories ought to be told in a different venue than a leisure travel publication, whether that be in print or online.

So if I ever recommend that you sleep with the pit bulls, please, send me to sleep with the fishes instead.

Replies (14)

April 6, 2009 at 7:32 PM · It's good to know that the staff of Travel and Leisure took numerous creative writing classes, and it's great that they all keep their thesauruses on their desks, but none of that means anything if you're not passing on any information worth reading.

When I read travel stuff, I want the details of what's going on, not someone trying to ape Fitzgerald (mimicking Twain, however, is cool with me). The excerpt you provided sounds like someone struggling to make a particular word length. If I'm reading an Anthony Bordain book, this writing style is great. But all that excerpt tells me is that I don't want to go ANYWHERE close to the Baltic region.

I feel your pain, Robert. I imagine it's very similar to how I feel about many of the programs on The Travel Channel, especially the trash they market to the amusement/theme park viewers. Did I really see a program last night telling me how EXTREME a Vekoma flying dutchman is?

April 6, 2009 at 7:46 PM · Sorry you had a bad day, Robert, but at least you got me to laugh because of it!

Now, my turn: In your post, one thing that stood out is your mention of the attraction ratings on this site. I think we are getting better, but come on, Dumbo still has a 6 out of 10 rating. The Tilt-a-Whirl at Cedar Point has a 7. Jolly Roger at SF Great Adventure, an average spinner, has a rating of 10! Puh-lease! Those attractions are mediocre at best, regardless of whether or not they are classics. And I am not just talking about thrill factor... because there is a lot more to a top notch attraction than thrills as the Best Ride tournament eventually proved out today.

It is as if people are afraid to rate something honestly, like they are going to hurt someone's feelings if they give Dumbo a 4. Look if something is mediocre, we should rate it as such. And rides like Dumbo, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and Jolly Roger that are found at nearly every county fair and carnival across the nation, should be rated as such. I mean, everyone talks about the great coasters at Cedar Point, and maybe one or two extreme midway rides, but there are 75 attractions in that park. We usually talk about a couple dozen of them. The rest: midway mediocrity. And I am not picking on Cedar Point (heck, with 15 adult coasters, they offer more worthwhile thrills than most) - many theme and amusement parks are in the same boat. We pay a premium for the headliner attractions, then are expected to spend the bulk of the day riding midway attractions the likes of which we have already ridden 1000 times over at parks across the nation. Ugh!

Go check out the ratings on this site for Worlds of Fun and Holiday World sometime... I like WOF and love Holiday World, but based on my ratings you would think I had a vendetta. I guess I just don't feel it is necessary to prop up midway experiences. Those types of attractions are a cheap, safe way for a park to expand, but they are almost always "skip-able" in my touring plans.

Fair, mediocre, average... these are not bad ratings, just honest representations of common midway attractions. Be tough - but fair, and use the comments to explain your rating if necessary. Send a message to park managers and planners that if they add a mediocre scrambler attraction, this site is gonna let everyone know that park took the easy road. The cheap road. The road most traveled. Conversely, when an attraction that is unlike anything else is added... make sure it gets the props it deserves, so theme park engineers are more willing to take those kind of chances in the future.

I'm done. Going to watch 24, Heroes, and Castle. Monday nights during the NFL off-season are not so bad any more! =)

April 6, 2009 at 8:00 PM · I used to rarely give attractions less than a 6 or 7, but I recall you mentioning to be more constructive a while back. I've changed my ways. Very few attractions now get higher than a 7 in my system.
April 6, 2009 at 8:23 PM · In all fairness for the lesser ridden attractions like the Tilt-a-Whirl probably get a lot less ratings, so a few people rating it around a 6 or 7 and no one else rating it will leave it there. Now, I also must say that even though they may not be the biggest or most amazing rides in the park, I judge them on a completely different basis, and they may be deserving of that number on that basis. I actually enjoy riding things like Monster or Tilt-a-Whirl while I'm at Cedar Point, and if were to rate them, I would probably give them a 6 and 7 respectively (keep in mind I'm judging differently than large flats/coasters).
April 6, 2009 at 8:24 PM · Seriously....this place sounds like paradise. I'm booking a flight right now. Does it come complete with the hookers that sell you to the torture chamber like in Hostel? I wonder what drives a writer to cover that trip, much less report good news.

Some of those "extreme ride" shows on the Travel/Discovery Channel crack me up. It makes me wonder how much some of these parks paid them to rate the ride. Also, they like to use the term "over" a lot, no matter how much over something is. After a cheesy intro line and some other crappy dialogue, every description of a coaster goes like this.

"This coaster is over 157 feet tall with over 4 inversions and over 3143 feet of track. The ride lasts over 2:44 seconds. Last year it had over 1,504,332 riders"

I have several TV shows of that variety in my library from various times. Up until about 2000, most amusement park shows had more of a documentary/informative feel than infomercial feel, even when covering existing parks. It just all depends on who's making the show. Obviously the Disney shows on the Travel Channel are made to promote the park just the same, but at least they do it in an informative manner and without that horrible dialogue.

There was an article in a recent issue of Outside magazine written by a travel writer, who spills some collective beans if you will. For the sake of a subject change and to remove the tournament from the mind of Robert Niles, here is a link for your reading pleasure.


April 6, 2009 at 8:29 PM · Oh, the irony of someone railing against mediocrity ending their post by admitting to watching Heroes...

Sorry James. That one was too easy (the show IS getting better, but good lord is the writing sloppy as ever).

Derek, I hate to pimp my videos out, but have you ever seen any of the Parking series my gf and I did? We were trying to do an anti-that style park video, though we weren't as successful as we set out to be (it was our first attempt. Cut us some slack). Our whole outlook was to spend as much time outside the parks as we spent in the parks, y'know, getting into the culture and idiosyncrasies of the nearby towns. Search Youtube for "ThemeParkSushi" and you'll find them.

April 6, 2009 at 8:29 PM · ^^You're right... and I did almost give up on it, but it has improved. What's the alternative, though? American Idol? Dancing With The Stars? Oh Dear God no! They are the Eli Bridge scramblers of the TV world! Heroes tries to be different - at least.

Sorry, thread hijack over.

April 6, 2009 at 10:17 PM · I figure I should give props to at least one example of prescriptive travel writing that I love and respect: The Wizard Publications series on Hawaii - including Maui Revealed, Oahu Revealed, etc.

Fun tone, exhaustively researched and brutally honest. I found them an indispensable guide on my first trip to Maui earlier this year. And a fun read even when not planning a trip. Reading these books get me fired up to do theme park reviews.

April 6, 2009 at 11:51 PM · For me, nothing compares to the Unofficial Guide series. They are completely indispensable and I have used them to plan my trips to various cities. Well written, sensibly organized, and in-depth.
April 7, 2009 at 7:11 AM · Great points Robert. It seems people's reviews on things are either all bliss or total disaster. Reading about restaraunts, hotels, or theme parks on Trip Advisor can be like watching Psycho, you go from BEST TRIP EVER! to HELL ON EARTH just because one person had great weather and another didn't like their flight attendant.

Something can be average and you still enjoyed it. Just means you had reasonable expectations. A ride that is a 6 or 7 is still fun just may not be as thrilling or as themed as a Spidey or Mummy.

I have mentioned before I think a more sophisticated rating system would help with some of these issues. Ratings along the following lines would help provide a more accurate and complete picture of the expererience.

* Cleanliness: 8
* Thrills: 9
* Theming: 5
* Ride Attendants: 8
* Safety: 9
* Ride's Age/Upkeep: 7

Add or take away a few and you could really get a good picture of what to expect on that ride. You could do something similar for Hotels and Restaraunts rating staff, cleanliness, quality, variety, etc.

April 7, 2009 at 7:48 AM · I've noticed with a lot of people that they either rate "all or nothing" or "never gets a nine or ten". It's somewhat of a reflection on their personality ya know? Kinda like everything's either "EPIC" or "CRAP"... or the other end "nothing satisfies me". It's like a movie review site that never gives out 5 out of 5, vs the site that only gives out 10 out of 10 and 3 or less.

I just wish people would try to understand how ratings should work. If you have a ride that's considered run of the mill (for example, Atlantis @ Sea World San Diego), then use that as a starting point. Kinda like giving a C grade... it's just average... mediocre... passing... C's get Degrees... but sure, it's all subjective and that's why everyone should take some time to rate a ride properly, and not just go "10 because it PWND everyone!" or "10 because it's at CP!".

April 7, 2009 at 4:22 PM · Steve, I enjoyed the stroll down the Geauga Lake midways one more time. It's little clips like this one that can hang around for a while. I have a bunch of home video stuff like that in my collection, the earliest being Coney Island footage from the turn of the century.

So are we to expect another season of Theme Park Sushi this summer?

April 8, 2009 at 12:09 AM · Thanks for sharing this post! I love to read travel articles too. I've been searching over the internet for this kind of articles. I been reading also some travel guide sites to http://explorertravelblog.co.uk. Thanks for posting this, now I have some ideas on how to travel and other travel stuff.
April 9, 2009 at 10:21 AM · "FWIW, some travel writers accept free flights and hotel rooms - I never do."
The guidelines for writers on TPI stated practically the same thing- you can't accept free flights/hotel rooms/whatever.
But why?
I mean, if you worked for GE and have to go to Florida for a business trip, GE pays for your plane ticket. If you're a travel writer and have to go to Florida to write a Disney trip report, why wouldn't you also let them pay for your flight? You're reviewing their park, shouldn't they pay? Same with hotel rooms.
Of course, I'm against positive reviews just because of all the freebies that places gave to the reporter, but you can still write an honest review after allowing them to provide some of your necessities.

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