How-to tips for travel writing – you want to be a travel writer?

The kiwi travel writer enjoys Fiji cruising
The Kiwi Travel Writer enjoys cruising in Fiji

So you want to be a travel writer, you want some tips. Okay first, after teaching travel writing over many years I can tell you most people never get published – sad but true. In fact, that’s why I stopped teaching – it didn’t feel right to be encouraging an almost impossible dream. Unfortunately, as a freelancer, like me, with shrinking travel pages in magazines and newspapers, you will find fewer places for you to send your work to and, the competition is high.

You will also discover that you will not be swanning around the world with free airline tickets, accommodation in five-star hotels, and meals at fancy restaurants – again, sad but true.

I’m sure your friends and family tell you that you write really well, that ‘you should be a travel writer’, that in fact ‘you should write a book’. That may well be true but, and this is a big but, editors do not want articles sent to them that are really like an email or letter you sent your grandmother about your time in Rome; or the one to your girlfriend about the romantic date you had with that talk dark and handsome, very dishy, Greek. These absolutely could be the basis for a great story – just written differently.

Something else that stops people fulfilling their dream to become a travel writer is the discipline and hard work it takes! It’s not just the writing, you will also need to be your own travel consultant, time manager, tax advisor, receipt keeper, bookkeeper, bookings maker, PR person, media and editor chaser, and of course, photographer. Oh, one more thing, you also don’t get paid until the editor actually prints your work – so make sure you have some cash hidden away. I live on a budget so I can travel to where I want to go … not just to the flavour of the month destination, or where I’m invited – in fact I turn down invitations if they don’t excite me!

However, if you love to travel, if you love to write, if you love to take photos, this is a great job: in fact, I think I have the best job in the world. I’m on the bottom of the food chain, but I have a great lifestyle. Sometimes I do get airline tickets and five-star accommodation too but that’s because people know my work and believe they get value for money from me. What’s even more confirming is that I’ve been invited more than once to the same country, or event, by the same tourism agencies.

I started travel writing after a year-long trip, alone with no bookings, around the world, from Alaska to Zimbabwe. On my return to New Zealand I took a short writing class and was encouraged to send some of my travel stories to local newspapers and magazines. To my amazement they were all accepted and cheques sent – I immediately decided I would be a travel writer; it seemed it was that easy. But no, over the following years I received many ‘no thank you’ letters, or, as you will find – if you continue your dream of travel writing – silence from editors. Yes, that’s right, most don’t even answer.

Nevertheless, if you decide to become a travel writer here are just a few tips – I don’t do these all the time, but mix-and-match to suit the occasion, and more importantly, the style of the magazine or newspaper I’m pitching to. As I am not a journalist, I very rarely approach editors before my travels – this is because mostly I’m a traveller who writes, not a writer who travels. Sometimes I have an idea of stories before I go, but usually I just go exploring and stories find me. However this too can be a cultural thing – each country expects different things from writers. For instance, when I have sent stories to the USA I need to use American spelling – seems editors there don’t think their readers can translate from Kiwi, or British, spelling.

Back to that list of tips, and of course other travel writers would add or subtract from this – so, please add your tips in the comments below:

  • Of course, first you have to be a writer – travel writing is just one genre. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The basics: Learn about the place by talking to locals. Don’t interview your computer or guidebook, your readers can do that for themselves; but they are a good source for the correct spellings of places
  • Don’t write about places you haven’t been to – unless of course, you are doing a story about your bucket list. That’s PR/editorial work, not travel-writing, and you want your readers to know you are reliable for telling the truth.
  • Get lost – the best stories are not always in the main tourist destinations but in the back roads and streets of places
  • Take notes, ask questions, get quotes, and note the colours, smells, and tastes. [I don’t journal when travelling but take copious photos and lists of ideas, and notes on speech, dress for example]
  • Avoid clichés, almost like the plague – although,  see I’ve just used one, because occasionally they’re useful
  • Lose the ‘best kept secrets’, ‘city of contrasts’ and ‘unspoilt gems’.  Why do lodges always ‘nestle’ at the foothills or ‘perch’ vulture-like atop a mountain with ‘breath-taking views’ over a ‘rustic’ village?
  • Find a fresh angle to the story. Rarely will you find a place that has not been written about so find something original to grab a reader’s attention
  • Be realistic and tell the truth – in other words, talk about the filth, the cruelty to horses, the stray dogs or what seems to be, starving camels eating cardboard from rubbish dumps. [Apart from the occasional cropping I don’t edit my pics either – you see what I saw i.e. I also tell the truth in my photos]
  • Read travel blogs, travel writers books and, of course, magazines and newspapers travel pages
  • This should have been my first tip: Read, read, read: Rinse and repeat, often. Good reading will make you a better writer. You will never develop your own voice and style without reading.
think about things
think about things
  • Along with reading you need to write, write, write, even when you don’t want to. Paint a picture with words for your reader
  • Add some historical or political context to add to the point.
  • Thomas Swick wrote in Roads Not TakenIt is the job of travel writers to have experiences that are beyond the realm of the average tourist, to go beneath the surface, and then to write interestingly of what they find … Good travel writers understand that times have changed, and in an age when everybody has been everywhere (and when there is a Travel Channel for those who haven’t), it is not enough simply to describe a landscape, you must now interpret it.’
  • Write about your local area, become a travel expert on your own city. After all, your city is somewhere travellers visit. [When my city, Christchurch, New Zealand had quakes in 2010/11 I was inundated with requests for up-to-date information and I ended up writing many travel webpages for prestigious travel companies and airlines]
  • Don’t forget the adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’ and as Stephen King will tell you, when you read ‘On Writing‘, lose the lazy ‘ly’ words, so ditch the adverbs and flowery descriptions and find the perfect verb instead.
  • Sometimes, others would say always, end with a punch or at least capture the point of the story. Don’t dare say you ‘can’t wait to return’ – it’s been done to death.
  • When your piece is complete, read it out loud. Edit. Read again. Run the spell-checker, and your eye, over the piece, (I print to read from) put your work aside for some hours or days, or even weeks, then read it out loud again then, and only then send it to an editor. But, make sure you have read their publication again and again so you know their style, and if they ask for 800 words that means 800 words. Not 802 not 850 but 800. However, 790 or 736 is usually fine
  • If they need photos, send your best half a dozen, and caption them. If they ask for one . . .  guess what, send one.
  • And, some last points, don’t tell people what you going to write or you can lose the essence of the story. Be like the Nike ad’ and just do it
  • Don’t write for free. Let me repeat that – don’t write for free. If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth paying for. You don’t need a portfolio to start, the editor is only interested in the piece in front of them: I know that from my travel editor days – for one year, for a now redundant Christchurch newspaper
  • A supportive group of hardcore travel writers I know are discussing, on-line right now, how they hate people asking for advice and tips then don’t say THANK YOU within 24 hours – just saying! I say thanks to places who host me: I also send links to all the work I publish that mentions them, and a PDF of a piece I’ve written about ‘how to make the most of having hosted’ me. Once again, win-win.
  • Start a blog, practice writing there, give it away there for free. I have had many invitations to events and countries (and that’s not easy when you live at the bottom of the world so fares are not cheap and time can be an issue) by people who have found me through my blog. And of course you need to be on all social media to urge those eyeballs to come over to read your blog. (See my links here)

See my three books here (two are travel, one about suicide grief)

Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg
Heather, the KiwiTravelWriter at work in Wurzburg


The Rock: take an overnight cruise in New Zealand

The Rock – an interesting name, especially in the Bay of Islands where the ‘Hole in the Rock’ is a destination for boat trips from Paihia.

This ‘rock’ is a boat: originally a car ferry that carried 7 or 9 vehicles and it’s now been converted to a Hosteling International (YHA) hostel and I’ve joined a group for an overnight cruise in the beautiful Bay of Islands (Northland, New Zealand).

We’re picked up at 4pm at the Paihia wharf and with life-jackets on; we’re taken out to the flat-bottomed boat. It’s not long before we have had our rooms assigned, safety briefing given and we have target practice – note, don’t rely on me to feed or protect you with a weapon!

However, I can catch a fish (snapper) but it’s too small and has to be released, although the next day I manage to get some edible kina (sea eggs) which I love and the international tourists eat with trepidation.

So, this boat is not merely for transport around the Bay of Islands, but is our accommodation too. All the rooms are on the top level and my room overlooks the bow (front) of the old barge and as the boat is flat-bottomed there is very little movement unless a boat goes past.

Adam, the Skipper has a job like mine “A millionaire’s lifestyle on a poor man’s wage”. He’s an accomplished pianist and after dinner, as we head for bed he’s tinkling away at the ivories.  A piano on board was not anything I expected!

The next day we are kayaking, snorkelling, hiking, and exploring the area. Our meals are at a long table and are delicious. Perhaps this is the only floating YHA hostel in the world:  let me know if you are aware of others.

I found this overnight cruise (online) many months before my Northland trip (I spent 2 weeks exploring the area in a low-cost rental car from NZ Rentals) and this was the first activity, and accommodation, on my agenda – a good choice. Watch this  four-minute video created by my mates at ONZAMAP. (Check out their other travel info videos too)

Just some of the comments in the visitor’s book say:

  • Our second time on The Rock and you still rock! (UK couple)
  • You guys are amazing (German)
  • F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C.

Enjoy a few of my photos from my time on board – the time flew and yet seemed ages all at the same time. Fabulous, I can recommend The Rock – in fact I must do a  review on Trip Advisor about it.

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Five top tips for while in Wellington: New Zealand’s capital of cool.

Here are my five top tips for outdoor activity in Wellington – New Zealand’s capital of cool.

Christchurch quake: surviving – tips and help


Christchurch Art gallery -- now Civil Defence headquarters

Need tips and help to survive a quake? Having lived through the Sept 4th, 2010 Christchurch quake, but now living in the New Zealand capital, Wellington, I have some degree of so-called ‘survivor guilt’ now there has been another major quake there – in the middle of the day. (22nd February 2011)

So, with the goal of helping people, even though I’m not in my home city, here are two links – from our Ministry of Health – to help you survive no matter what disaster area you may be in:

Coping with Stress

Coping with Stress 2

Some other helpful advice I remember from my time last year:

  • like on a plane with the oxygen mask – help yourself then help others . think city, act in your street
  • don’t use the toilets or have showers/baths … this puts too much stress on damaged drains and water pipes
  • boil any water you hadn’t stored for such an emergency
  • If you leave your house, turn of the mains electricity
  • And, if you leave the city, make sure friends know .. and leave your fresh food for neighbours
  • Don’t use mobile phones except for text messages – power and phone towers are down so keep the airwaves free for emergency use by those trapped. Absolutely don’t send photos by phones .. the mobile system is many people’s lifeline .. don’t deny them the chance to be saved!
  • Keep in touch by Twitter, Facebook and other social networks – post you are ok so others know and will not keep trying to ring you

First New Zealand cycleway starts July 2010

First New Zealand cycleway on track for July

New Zealand’s national cycleway project is off to an exciting start – with the first of seven ‘quick start’ projects launching in July.

The RuapehuWhanganui – Nga Ara Tuhono’ trail, which runs from Ruapehu in the central North Island to Whanganui on the western coast, will form part of the ongoing ‘Great Rides’ national cycle network.

The first cycle trail, which travels through land protected by the Department of Conservation (DOC), will be launched on 2 July by New Zealand Prime Minister Mr John Key.

Riders will be able to cycle on two sections of the trail immediately after the launch, with the rest of the route to be completed before the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Mountain to the sea
The ‘Ruapehu – Whanganui – Nga Ara Tuhono’ cycle trail is the first of the national cycleway ‘quick start’ projects to be launched.

The complete trail will traverse two iconic national parks – and is due to be finished next year (2011). It will be a four to six-day ride, with varying levels of trail difficulty.

Two large sections of the trail are ready for use from 2 July 2010 – the Old Coach Road day ride, an easy ride from Ohakune to Horopito, and a two-day ride from Raetihi to Mangapurua Landing, suitable for more adventurous cyclists.

Campsites and toilets are dotted along both sections and DOC is hoping to install more ‘track furniture’ such as bridges, seats and board-walks over the next few months.

Several tour operators are also putting together guided cycling and accommodation packages.

Historical highlights
The launch of the Ruapehu – Whanganui trail will take place at Ohakune Railway Station with a karakia or Māori blessing and an official ribbon-cutting ceremony by Mr John Key. The prime minister will be one of the first to ride a mountain bike on the new cycle trail.

The Raetihi – Mangapurua Track is a historical highlight of the cycle trail, as it crosses the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and passes through Mangapurua Valley soldiers settlement within Whanganui National Park. The bridge was built in the 1930s for the first settlers – soldiers who were given land by the New Zealand government for their service during WWI.

Visitors with limited time will be able to do the Old Coach Road day ride, with an uphill or downhill option depending on the starting point choice of either Horopito or Ohakune.

Cycling  and pedal power must be the ultimate in eco-travel!

Thanks to NZ Tourism for this information

tips for how to deal with grief – especially at Christmas

As Christmas approaches many of us find it difficult to deal with our grief. (I am writing this a mother who had a 20-year old son die, a husband die at 35, and about four years experience as a bereavement counsellor many years ago)

Grief is a necessity and privilege, it stems from giving and receiving love. Just as love doesn’t end with death, neither does grief end with the funeral: sometimes our grief is more painful.

There are no rules or simple ways to take away the pain. Sights, sounds and smells bring back pleasure as well as pain and it’s important to find people who will support you, and most importantly, allow you to be yourself.

So, how will you cope with Christmas? Will you make a plan or take it as it comes? Most people find advance planning helpful; just remember that plans are not carved in stone and they can be changed.

By the time the first Christmas arrives most of us have realised that ignoring grief does not make it go away. Conversely, talking about our pain does not make grief worse, although it may feel that way.

Often friends stop talking about the deceased person, (or you may with people who don’t know the person you are grieving). They assume that when you cry they have made you feel bad – as if their talk could increase our pain – and it’s difficult to explain to them that crying is beneficial. I believe it is because they feel uncomfortable with tears rather than their concern for us that stops them talking about our loved one. And we often oblige by not upsetting people … funny how the griever often supports the friend – weird but true.

Friends and family may encourage you to keep active, or to “get on with life”, “you have to let her go’ and other non-helpful advice such as “he wouldn’t want to you keep crying”. I am sure you have heard these and other such homilies.

Keeping busy will not heal grief, in fact, experience shows it often increases our stress and merely postpones or denies the need to talk, feel, and cry. Time heals grief ‘they’ say: not true. It’s what we do with the time that does the healing – ask anyone who has used medication to dull the pain: when the pills, or alcohol, are stopped our pain is still there, just waiting for us to deal with it.

  • Remember you are not alone. Find someone to talk to.
  • Use your loved ones name. Talk about them, good times, bad times, and other holiday seasons.
  • Eliminate as much stress as possible. Plan ahead, keep it simple. Ignore others expectations.
  • Involve your children in your discussions and planning – it will help their grief too.
  • Do what’s right for you & your family, don’t be pressured into doing things that aren’t OK
  • Use whatever form of spirituality is meaningful to you.
  • Pace yourself physically and emotionally, be tolerant of your limitations…grief is tiring!
  • Christmas will come no matter how much you may not want it. You will survive.
  • Remember the worst has already happened!
  • Take one day at a time, one hour at a time.
  • Anticipation of the event is always worse than the actual day.


  • Buy a special gift and donate it to a charity in your loved ones name
  • Burn a candle over Christmas to symbolise their presence in your thoughts.
  • Write a letter to them in your journal. Describe how Christmas is without them.
  • Change holiday habits: Christmas breakfast instead of dinner; restaurant instead of home.
  • Keep all your holiday habits. For some, the familiar is reassuring.
  • Expressing your feelings honestly always helps.
  • Volunteer to work at the local mission, old folks home.
  • Have a special toast to absent loved ones before the main meal.
  • Tie a yellow remembrance ribbon on the Christmas tree – your own tree, or the town one.
  • Set aside an evening to look at photos and talk about him or her.
  • Make a memory book. Children find this really helpful too.
  • Make a list of things you found helpful, share it with others. Keep for next year!