Travel writer secrets: The nine things travel writers don't want to tell you

Travel writing must be the ultimate glamour job, right? Well, you might be surprised. There are a few things that travel writers would prefer you didn't know about what goes on behind the scenes. Such as …

The nicer the hotel, the less time we spend in it

Travel writers do get to stay in some awfully nice hotels, often on someone else's dollar – oddly, expensive hotels are more likely to give away free rooms than cheap ones. But there's a crushing inevitably about the most impressive rooms coming on a day where you're up at 6am for a tour, then back at about 11.30pm from bar and restaurant research. And that amazing pool? We'll probably get to look at it admiringly while doing an inspection run round the hotel. But there's precisely zero chance of carving out enough time to swim in it or relax by it.

If you pick a local at random, you'll likely get terrible travel advice.

We'll often know nothing about the obvious attractions

We're often in a place for as long as we need to be in order to get the story done. And the story is often very specific. So I can tell you all about the Paris sewers, but I've not been up the Eiffel Tower. I know a brilliant Rastafarian nightclub in the Cape Town townships, but I've not been to Robben Island or the top of Table Mountain. And I didn't have time to visit the Colosseum in Rome because I was too busy learning about aqueducts.

We make clangingly stupid mistakes too

Writing about travel for a living does not, alas, confer immunity to basic travel errors. In fact, we probably make more of them. I've missed a flight by oversleeping, turned up to the wrong hotel with a similar name to the one I'd actually booked, booked train tickets for the wrong day, got ripped off by taxi drivers, left all manner of things in hotel rooms and even managed to get on the wrong flight to the wrong destination.

If this sort of thing happens to you, it may well be because you're a blundering dunce. But feel safe in the knowledge that the so-called experts are blundering dunces too.

Switching hotels is no fun at all

If normal travellers are going to a city for a week, they'll pick one place to stay for the whole week. Travel writers will probably stay at four hotels in this time, switching every day or two as hotels will rarely host for more than two nights at a time. The plus side of this is that we can make reasonable comparisons between them. The downsides? Packing up every two days quickly becomes wearing, transferring hotels seems to waste an incredible amount of time and it's always bizarrely difficult to get to sleep on the first night in a new bed. This approach is recommended for masochists only.

It's often better to go after it is cool to do so

Those "where's hot this year" lists often involve common themes. Either there's a big event coming up, such as the Olympics or World Cup, or a major anniversary, or a place is just starting to open up to tourism. In most instances, it's probably better to wait until the clamour has died down. In the lead up to the big event, there will be chaos as everything is dug up to get it looking pretty in time, while accommodation prices will soar. Afterwards, however, things go back to normal and the benefits of the makeover are there to see without the crowds.

Anniversaries, meanwhile, make little difference to the actual experience, while 'new' destinations often have terrible infrastructure that will be improved in a few years' time. Yes, that does mean you, Myanmar.

We weren't there as long as you might think

If you pay $20 to get into a museum, you may as well get your money's worth and explore it properly over the course of half a day, right? Chances are a travel writer went in for just long enough to get an idea of what it's about, ran around getting a few examples, then left again within about 45 minutes in order to get to the next museum.


Lazy days are massively underrated

It's only when you're constantly running around on a packed itinerary that you realise the value of an unplanned day doing nothing much. A day spent waking up late, going to a café for lunch, doing a bit of laundry, going to a park for a bit and maybe having a swim is not a day wasted. On the contrary, it's an excellent investment that recoups much-needed energy and interest levels for the more frenetic days to come.

There is no cure for jetlag

Sure, try sleeping pills, not drinking on the plane and getting plenty of daylight when you arrive. But the bleak truth is that sometimes you'll get away with it, and other times it'll smash you like a juggernaut. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the lottery of which course of events will transpire on any given trip.

Locals don't always know best

When we're telling you about how to explore a place 'like a local', we have a very specific type of local in mind. The ones, basically, who are obsessive about the local food scene, check out new exhibitions when they hit town and know which barman is best at which specific cocktail.

The bleak truth, however, is that this represents a tiny minority of locals – and if you pick a local at random, you'll likely get terrible travel advice. The bars they frequent aren't necessarily the most interesting – they're just the ones where their mates will be.

Locals also like eating in KFC, buying coffee from Starbucks and going to Ikea on a Sunday afternoon. That's probably not how you want to spend your holiday – and the much-maligned guide book will probably have far better tips.

David Whitley is a UK-based travel writer, who has been travelling and writing about it for 10 years. His dad still wonders when he's going to get a proper job.

See also: The 15 truths every traveller will face
See also: Is being a travel writer really one of the world's most overrated jobs?