Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Travel Writing: Fair, Balanced or Puffery?

Traditionally, travel writing has gotten a bad rap. 

It's certainly understandable that it is often seen as being pure puffery. All too often, a most pedestrian place is praised as the greatest location on earth, a hidden gem with something for everyone.  Look, as an experienced travel pro, I do believe there's something to recommend about nearly every place. But let's not pretend every place is perfect (even when pictures make it look so).
Sun Valley, Idaho is one of my favorite places,
but even it is not perfect.

Why does this happen? Perhaps because a writer got a free trip and thinks that the quid pro quo is to only write positive thoughts. Perhaps he thinks he will be blacklisted from press trips if he regularly reports on the negative (and in truth, this can happen). Whatever the reason, the negatives are usually left unreported, leaving the reader with a biased take.

This notion is currently exacerbated by bloggers who are waxing enthusiastic about places and products in order to get or maintain sponsorships or strategic partners.  Not all travel blogs are pay-to-play. However, the fact is, the current model for making money in blogging is by gaining strategic partnerships.

Here's the rhetorical question, though: If a blogger is in bed with Marriott, will he or she write anything negative about the lodging behemoth?

Furthermore, will the blogger opt to ignore good news coming from competitors like Hilton or Westin?  Similarly, if one is being paid by the U.S. Virgin Islands, I doubt there will be much coverage about St. Lucia or Puerto Rico.

But for those dear, dear readers who still take an interest in journalism, the good news is, there is still room for fair and balanced travel reporting....and God forbid...I don't mean on Fox News. In recent years, I traveled far and wide, sometimes on press trips, sometimes on discounted journeys, and sometimes at full freight. Regardless of who is paying the bill, I make sure my reporting is just that...reporting, and not puffery.  Here are two examples. The Albania story appeared in National Geographic Traveler (October, 2008). The Trans-Siberian piece ran in Travel Weekly (October, 2013), the industry's leading trade magazine.

For more examples, I recommend the work of Chris Elliott, the country's premier travel advice ombudsman.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Holiday Travel Tips

Need holiday travel tips? Here's a link to my November 14 appearance on Let's Talk Live. Below is a recap of the discussion.

1. Book your flights early in the day. Morning flights are less prone to delays. Furthermore, if you do get stranded, you have a day filled with alternative options ahead.

2. Fly in and out of secondary airports. BWI is likely going to be less crowded than Dulles; Midway an easier go than O'Hare. Fewer crowds during the holidays often equal fewer hassles.

3. Book non-stop flights, even if they cost a little more. With the potential for delays, cancellations and lost bags at a premium during the holidays, it's best to go for the most hassle-free options.

4. Avoid luggage fees by booking flights with an airline-branded credit card that offers one free checked bag for everyone on the reservation.

5. Speaking of checked bags, don't follow a one-person-packs-one-bag rule. Distribute everyone's stuff among the checked bags. That way, if one suitcase gets lost, everyone still has clothing.

6. Obvious Wisdom: Check all essentials in your carry-on. That includes chargers, cell phone, medicine, basic toiletries, and a change of clothing.

7. Obvious Wisdom 2: Don't travel on peak holiday travel days. Since Christmas and New Year's Day are on weekdays this year, it may be a bit easier to find decent "off-peak" flights. For example, if you choose not to fly out Christmas Day (which is perhaps the best day to travel), heading out on the Friday or Saturday after the holiday is likely to be better than on the Sunday.

8. To get alerts on low fares, check out

9.  Keep a handle on the weather where you are, where you are going, and everywhere in between by checking Travel insurance may help if you encounter weather delays along the way. In addition to covering additional costs like hotel overnights or meals, many travel insurance companies will also assist in re-booking you should a flight be cancelled. Before signing up, though, always read the fine print to know exactly what you are purchasing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Winter Weather Advisory: Travel Cliches

It's that time of year again. Skies are darkening early, leaves are falling, and temperatures are plummeting. That can only mean one thing--hoary weather cliches will soon be blanketing us like a mid-winter snowfall.

Travel writers and meteorologists alike are prone to taking to the slippery slope of winter cliches. But as I rarely deal with meteorologists (although I just did interview one for a story I am doing for The Washington Post on winter preparedness), I will offer my weather cliche advisories solely for the travel set.

1. Although Sun Valley, Idaho (pictured) can fairly be described as a winter wonderland, please don't call it that. Don't call anything that. Winter wonderland is perhaps the tritest and most overused description for cold weather travel destinations. Alpine villages, small towns dressed for the holidays, ski resorts---please resist as Jack Frost nips at your nose rapping "Winter Wonderland, Winter Wonderland." Think of something else.

2. Similarly, I defy you to read a story on an Alpine ski town without noticing the use of charming. Charming villages, charming landscapes, blah, blah, blah. Visit Mr. Roget's neighborhood and opt for a synonym. 

3. Is that view from the mountaintop truly breathtaking? It is often described as such, yet how many times does a view literally leave you gasping for air? That said, I will concede that if you are at the top of a mile-high mountain in sub-freezing temperatures, between the altitude and the chill, your breath might actually be taken away. In that case, you may use breathtaking. Otherwise, save your breath and choose another term. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Choosing A Private School for Your Child

When is a travel journalist not a travel journalist? When she is commissioned to write a piece about private schools for The Washington Post Magazine. I wrote the lead story in the section below. Parents, I would love to get your feedback. Enjoy.

PrivateSchools 11.02.14

Monday, October 20, 2014

Talking Iceland

On the day I was heading off to Georgia, I reported on my fortnight in Iceland. Here's the segment that aired on Around the World Radio in California on October 9. To accompany my dulcet tones, here are a few images. Please note: The segment cuts out about seven minutes in, but we reconnect after the hosts ramble for two minutes.

Skaftafell Glacier

 The Black Sand Beaches of Vik

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Reykjavik: The Sun Voyager 

Landscape near Krafla Volcano

Hverfjall Crater near Lake Myvatn

Pseudocraters near Lake Myvatn

The Northern Lights

Reykjavik: Church of Hallgrimur and Leif Eriksson

Hofn in the Eastern Fjord Region

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Curious Georgia: Nine Things to Know

To clarify before we count down, we are talking Georgia of Eastern Europe/west of Russia--not south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

1. Why is Georgia called Georgia? There are three theories.

--St. George is the patron saint in these parts.
--Some accounts I see online says it comes from the Perisan word gurj ...meaning wolf.
--I tend to believe my lovely guide, Tamara Natenadze, who says it comes from the Greek georgios, meaning land of agricultural or cultivation. She says Greeks came to the area in the first century before Christ and were surprised to find such an advanced culture....

2. ....which included wine production. Georgia has an uninterrupted 8,000-year history of grape cultivation, making it the oldest wine-producing region in the world. About 535 varieties of grapes are grown here.

3. Georgians, by the by, called themselves 'Kartvelebi'...derived from the pagan god Kartlos, said to be the father of all Georgians.

4. King of Queens: King Tamar was a woman who ruled Georgia during its medieval Golden Age.

5. More Girl Power, Georgia-Style: St. Nino brought Christianity to the region in 330 AD after wandering here from Cappadoccia.

6. The town where Joseph Stalin was born, and where a self-aggrandizing museum to the tyrannical dictator is located (opening date--1957), is called...appropriately... Gori.

7. Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the highest village in Europe, located 7,218 feet above sea level.

8. Georgian Cultures: They eat lots of yogurt here, called matsoni. In places, it is made with the milk of water buffalo.

9. Dannon's 1977 ad featuring Georgian centenarians was the first US commercial shot in the former Soviet Union. It put both Georgia and yogurt on the map....although I highly doubt locals opt for the commercial brand.