In Praise of Unglamorous and Honest Travel Journalism

Sign factory hack joke written on road sign, photograph by Alessondra Springmann

Kathryn Flett’s searingly honest piece of travel journalism, By Waterloo Station I Sat Down and Wept, was published in the Observer Life magazine in 1997. I was eight at the time, preoccupied with buying Girl Talk magazine, so this wasn’t exactly on my radar. Thankfully she’s reproduced the whole feature on her blog, which you can read here. Quick, go and read it now, and you’ll see why it’s so legendary.

When Flett got the assignment, it was a straightforward one: review this romantic Belgian hotel package with your husband. However, life got in the way (the small matter of the marriage lying in tatters in the world’s most romantic city). This led to one of the most unflinching features ever to grace the pages of a Sunday magazine supplement. Flett basically wrote a stream of consciousness and, unusually, ‘I didn’t change a single word after I’d written it’. The feature was pure catharsis.

She could have decided to gloss over the crumbling marriage and highlight the overblown contrived nature of pre-arranged romantic gestures. She could have padded the piece with anecdotes about the general romantic mood in Bruges, perhaps pushing the focus onto other couples spotted on the trip. However, Flett chose to be frank about the overwhelming awkwardness of the Romeo and Juliet hotel package and all its frills and flourishes when your husband has told you days earlier he wants out of the marriage.

Of course, this isn’t just a no-holds-barred story of a broken relationship – there’s still a travel piece underneath the initial shock value. When ships stopped docking in Bruges, ‘the city and its eight miles of canals waited for someone to invent the camera’; on a cheesy horse and carriage ride for two, she writes of ‘sitting to attention in the carriage, with horse-blanketed knees’. It’s all beautifully written without being flowery. You feel like you’re there, even though it’d be no picnic to walk into the scenes she’s described.

For every five fluffy pieces of writing that leave you feeling smothered, full of resorts with ‘gin-clear waters’ and ‘sparkling sands’, ‘wonders to behold’ and ‘breath-taking vistas’ in a ‘city of contrasts’, not to mention chefs serving ‘sumptuous fare’ (bleurgh), there’s a gritty little wonder to be found.

Woman having retro spa treatment in historic spa town of Harrogate with lady assistants in pool
Is this someone having the time of their life in the spa, or is it someone feeling tense, awkward and restricted? I know which account I’d rather read…

Travel Journalism at its Bleakest… and Funniest

Flett’s piece wasn’t the only one that caught my attention for its rawness. Try these:

  • For Man Repeller (a leading fashion and pop culture website), Haley Nahman reflects on a solo adventure in Europe without a transformational Eat Pray Love-style epiphany. Enter I Traveled Alone and It Kind of Sucked.
  • An artist residency in Iceland that takes place inside a petrol station – without the staff knowing, or any other fellow creative types turning up.
  • Jessie Lochrie’s wonderfully casual piece about accidentally attending Mass in the Vatican whilst drunk.
  • An extract from Layth Yousif’s book about Vietnam, Hanoi Autobahn – welcome to ‘The Worst Hotel in Hanoi’. My favourite part: ‘I thought to myself, first thing tomorrow I am going to leave this building and never come back’.
  • Journalist Adam Gopnik lost his phone in Paris –  a nightmare scenario that changed his whole trip. He reflected on our addiction to technology and the ‘phantom phone’ phenomenon: ‘I could remember at various moments thinking that I had felt it vibrate, but couldn’t be sure if it had, or if it was just my nerve endings filling an empty pocket.’

Honest travel journalism is becoming harder to find, for several reasons. Firstly, there’s the increasingly blurred relationship between magazines and PRs. Although some publications have begrudgingly added small disclaimers, telling you ‘Lyudmila was a guest of the French Tourist Board and her flights were provided by Air France’, most have kept these little details quiet.

However, having a background in PR and SEO, I know it’s not easy to build these relationships; you have to navigate individual publication guidelines, plus those of your own brand. Websites and blogs are equally tricky to get right, and advertisers are getting harder to please.

Besides this, travel journalists attached to a publication (print or digital) run the risk of upsetting a big-money advertiser if they write a less-than-favourable review of their services. Sometimes the journalist writes fairly and honestly but their work is edited to placate the advertisers. Though bad for integrity, this helps the entire team, who rely on advertising revenue to pay their wages.

Valley of Desolation in Yorkshire beauty spot, as seen on Bolton Abbey tourist sign
The Valley of Desolation should be a right laugh.

Writing the Brutal Truth

A good way to appease all parties is to send a celebrity on assignment instead of a writer. Though it takes work away from us plebs, I’ll admit it often makes for great reading, and the star can usually get away with saying things the average journalist couldn’t – the spa was rubbish, they got the giggles during a tea ceremony, they ditched the organised cruise excursions after three days because the tour guide was so patronising… you get the idea.

With print journalism still afloat, but definitely not as robust as it was a decade ago, plus brands dramatically culling their staff if they move to become online-only, journalism is a tough business to be in. I know, I know, cue the violins.

Online travel content can be fabulous and inventive, but those beautiful think-pieces that work well in print are all too often overlooked on a website. Writers are regularly required to churn out clickbait to meet targets (e.g. ‘25 things that always happen on an Ibiza holiday, in GIFs’), and clickbait is rarely about the unglamorous side of anything.

Essentially, when you do find travel journalism that’s searingly honest, it’s important to shout about it, because such pieces are painfully scarce. Share them on social media; write to the editor and ask for more of the same. Misery might not be fashionable outside of ‘real life’ feature sections, but it makes for great reading.