On the Road

Interview with Tim Leffel of Perceptive Travel

Author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and editor of Perceptivetravel.com, Tim Leffel chats to Road Junky about the state of writing and travel.

RJ: What makes good travel writing?

Tim: That depends a lot on the media and the audience. For service writing, the object is to teach someone something: how to get a better travel deal, how to eat well in Hanoi, how to pack a carry on. This is the real bread and butter of most magazines and a lot of blogs. It’s also the goal of a guidebook. Destination pieces are meant to bring a place alive and show you why you would want to go there. Narrative travel writing hopefully is transcendent, carrying you away with a great story or gripping prose. All have their place and require different skills. Some people only do one kind, others are good at all of them. In the end though, we all want to learn something, be entertained, or be inspired.

RJ It seems like everyone is a writer these days. With people reading more and more free content online, can a travel writer still hope to make a living?

Tim: You can’t make a living as an average writer because everyone with a decent education is an average writer and there are no obstacles to publishing. Millions of people write for TripAdvisor, Amazon, and Yelp with no compensation whatsoever. Most blogs don’t make much money, so it’s a labor of love. But I have a whole book out – Travel Writing 2.0 – on how I and many other writers make real money at this. It’s about being better than average, especially in terms of expertise in a specific area. It’s also about dedication, patience, and persistence, qualities lacking in most people who dream of being a writer.

RJ: At http://www.perceptivetravel.com you feature only articles by published book authors – why is that? Don’t you miss some gems from writers starting out?

Tim: Most writers starting out are not professional enough for our publication. I myself wouldn’t have been good enough when starting out. This is not unique to writing: for every brilliant child actress or prodigy musician there are 10,000 overconfident wannabees. Like any artistic endeavor, it takes time and continual practice to get good at the craft part, no matter how creative you are and how many new ideas you have.

I can usually tell in two paragraphs if someone is an experienced writer, without even looking at their credentials. Blogging is a different animal of course—-that’s much more conversational and casual. Narrative prose of the type we publish, the kind that gets into “best travel writing” anthologies and wins awards, takes more skill.

RJ: You’re the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations – do you travel on the cheap much yourself?

Tim: Yes, though not as cheaply as I did when I backpacked around the world for three years. Then I had plenty of time and not much money. Now that I run an online publishing company and support a family, I have more money but can’t just take off and wander for a year. So I don’t stay in the cheapest of the cheap guesthouses and take 3rd class buses when there’s a better option.

I’m still always looking for a value though regardless and I still mostly travel in cheap destinations. (Right now I’m actually living in central Mexico for a year.) Going to Western Europe or Japan on my own dime is just something I can’t bear to do unless I win the lottery. I’m too cheap to spend $50 for a meal in Europe that would cost me $10 in Latin America or Southeast Asia.

RJ: Most budget travelers like to pride themselves that they’re not tourists but do you think there’s really much of a difference? Does the average backpacker slumming it in the hostel have a more authentic experience than the elderly couple staying in hotels as they visit Europe for the first time?

Tim: It depends on how much that backpacker is really experiencing. I’ve met idiots who went to Jordan and didn’t visit Petra because they thought the entrance fee was too expensive, or spent weeks in Mexico but didn’t visit a single museum and knew almost nothing about the country’s history. I’ve met tourists, on the other hand, who had far less time to wander but really made the most of it: getting to really know the cities, conversing with local people every chance they got, soaking up the culture and history, asking lots of meaningful questions of their guide.

Attitude and openness matter much more than what your daily budget is. Traveling slowly as opposed to hopping on and off a tour bus certainly makes a big difference, but only if you use that time to do more than smoke pot, talk to other travelers, converse with your friends back home on Facebook, and only visit attractions that are free. There’s a real danger in being “too cheap.” You miss out on a lot.

RJ: Like us, you run an online magazine – how has the internet changed the nature of travel?

Tim: As with any seismic shift there are positives and negatives. I certainly think there are more positives, especially in terms of the availability of good information, the ease of finding that info, and the breakdown of “fortress journalism.” So much of what we read in the past had to come through a narrow funnel of travel magazines and TV shows.

It’s been good for talented writers with something to say too: many who have started their own sites are making far more money than they would have if they had been faced with the prospect of getting the attention of gatekeepers in a New York office. Writers are getting book deals now based on having a strong following online, not by having to convince some editor or agent they have a good idea. That’s a wonderful change in the power structure. Half my books have never been in bookstores but it hasn’t mattered: all the marketing was online and people just clicked on a link and purchased them. No returns and no landfill waste.

On the other hand, there’s the “drinking from a firehose” effect. There’s so much info coming at us constantly that it’s hard to keep up and hard to separate the good from the bad. And while Google is wonderful at finding what you need, there are still very few websites out there that are as comprehensive and well-researched as a guidebook. You have to do a lot of sifting and sorting to find more than a specific answer to a specific question and in the end you often spend more time surfing for reliable travel info on the web than you would have just flipping open a book to the index. For now, the economics of developing a resource website or travel app usually don’t justify spending 4-8 months researching a place day in and day out like a guidebook writer does. I think soon we’re going to arrive at a hybrid solution to this though: guidebooks in e-book form that are updated with lots of relevant links to the right websites. The Kindle is not it and the iPad is not it, but you know in a few years one of these or something else will get us there.

It also pains me a bit to see backpackers planning out their whole trip online, including where they’re going to stay each night. Some of the most interesting places I’ve stayed in my travels had no web presence and weren’t listed on the hostel booking sites. Some of the most interesting experiences came about by pure chance or recommendations from locals. It bothers me that so many travelers have eliminated serendipity from their journeys and think everything can and should be planned out in advance through a laptop.

RJ: In an age where travel guides have documented all the routes and we’ve seen a thousand images of a destination before we get there, what does it mean to explore?

Tim: For every destination, there are a hundred or a thousand good stories that nobody has told yet, places almost no foreigner visits. An explorer will find what everyone else is missing. Half the reason I started Perceptive Travel was to build a home for these stories—-the oddball things that no magazine editor would approve because they were too obscure for attracting advertisers. Magazines, even niche ones, need generalized stories that will appeal to a wide audience. That’s why you see Italy, France, or Hawaii on a travel magazine cover every month on the newsstands. The beauty of the web is that we don’t need to appeal to a million readers with every story. If one story connects with a hundred people every month, and you have a few hundred of those stories, that works fine.

Plus, let’s face it, even in popular tourism destinations, there are plenty of places nobody is visiting. I’ve gone to wonderful historic cities in Mexico where I didn’t see another gringo for days. A zillion people go to Machu Picchu, but few visit northern Peru. Thailand is pretty saturated, but you can have much of Indonesia to yourself if you get off the well-worn backpacker trail. Travelers, including backpackers, tend to cling together like puppies. It’s not hard to get away from the crowds and forge your own path.

Tim Leffel is an author, editor, blogger, and publisher. See more about his projects at http://www.TimLeffel.com