Photo courtesy of Michael Connolly, Jr.
Written by: Margaret Jacobi
From Peru to Japan to Las Vegas and dozens of places in between, Sara Benson has now authored 50 travel guides and is currently working on a latest on the 35 of the best California road trips. Twelve years ago, with a mere $100 in pocket, her post-college adventure to San Francisco, and ultimately Japan, became the beginning of whirlwind career.
Her cover letter in applying to Lonely Planet, which criticized the company’s largely male-authored Japan guidebooks over a decade ago, turned into her first travel writing assignment and a challenge from the publisher to do better. Thus began a long relationship with the popular guide company, which she has worked for extensively throughout her career. Along with Lonely Planet, Benson has also worked for National Geographic, Wilderness Press, Sutro Media, Matador Network, Countryman Press, Fodor’s Compass American Guides, along with several other publications, apps, and websites (including her own The Indie Traveler).
Her collection of books comprehensively spans across a broad array of cultures, making her a truly rounded globetrotter. BreakThru Radio phoned her home in California to gain some tips on being a smart traveler and further insight into what it takes to get the most out of an adventure to a new place.
BreakThru Radio: So, just to start off, what inspired you to be a travel writer?
Sara Benson: I always loved writing. In high school, I was an exchange student in Japan and it really opened my eyes to how much else is out there in the world. After college I got some advice from one of my professors, which was “don’t go to grad school, go do something else first before you go to grad school.” I ended up moving to Japan, playing music and teaching and then saving up some money and traveling around Asia for a year. After that I was hooked.
BTR: So what would you say is your favorite thing about traveling?
SB: To me, traveling is kind of like the best of being in school and learning new things but there are no grades, like graduate school at large. No matter what book I’m working on I try to do something I’ve never done before, whether it’s rafting or climbing a peak I haven’t done before, or trekking to ruins. The other part that I love, that’s just related to the job, is how much you really need to understand about culture and history and politics; how much background reading you have to do to really make a good travel guide and get into the mindset of the place that you’re writing about. People don’t usually like that background research and reading, but I love it. I always love learning.
BTR: Would you say that’s part of one of the best things about being a travel writer? What are your favorite things and what are the biggest challenges?
SB: I think, yeah, that’s definitely one of my favorite things. I also do a lot of photography, so the opportunity to photograph places I’ve haven’t been before is another great part of the job. Meeting people, you know, those late night conversations you have at some random bar or restaurant or theater that you wouldn’t have necessarily gotten to, except that you had to for your travel writing assignment. Those sort of serendipitous meetings that are really memorable, I love that part of the job. In terms of the challenges, one of the challenges that people don’t expect at first is that 90 percent of the job is you sitting at home in front of your computer, writing. Sometimes it’s not even writing, it’s fact checking, you know, the nuts and bolts of phone numbers, address, prices, seasonality. Some of that work can be tedious, so that kind of compensates for the wide-open adventure of being on the road and exploring new places, you do have to kind of pay for that when you get home with the nitty gritty of travel writing.
BTR: So what are the most important things to you to keep in mind when you do visit a new place?
SB: One is background information. Two, and I can’t remember which travel writer told me this, I think it was Joe Cummings, who used to do Lonely Planet’s original Thailand and Laos guide, but he told me that you have to keep in mind that when you go to a place you’re only seeing a moment’s snapshot and the minute you turn away the place changes. I think some travel writers make this mistake when they first start writing. They think that what they experience when they go to a place is the truth of the experience. But as a travel writer, you have to keep in mind that all different kinds of people are going. Different ages, men and women, from different countries, at different times of year, and places keep evolving. I think that what it comes down to at the end of the day is travel writer instinct; instinct about what places are going to be good, what places are going to last. Because, when you go to a place, you might not get the most accurate momentary impression, so I think it’s about gathering as many sources of information as you can. But I think at the end of the day, what we get paid for, as travel writers, is our gut instinct.
BTR: And what do you think makes for a smart traveler? If you had to pick five essentials for a traveler to bring with them, what would they be?
SB: Number one would be independence. People end up having bad trips, unsatisfying trips, or dull trips because they’re afraid to go outside the beaten path, they only want to stay at what the number one TripAdvisor place is or they only want to go where their guidebook tells them to. The best way to be a smart traveler is to take a risk on places that are more unknown because that can be where the really interesting, cutting edge travel experiences are happening. Number two: Being careful about money, and I don’t mean that you always have to stay at the cheapest place, not overspending, or under spending either…. Being open-minded and curious, obviously, wherever you’re going to visit don’t make prejudgments, experience as much as you can while you’re there. Go outside of your comfort zone. I would say rugged is a good feature of a good traveler too. Sometimes I’ve traveled with friends and difficulties have come up on the road as they always do and they weren’t really willing to suffer while they’re traveling to see something cool they want everything to be comfortable and they want everything to be a little predictable. I think the best trips I’ve had are when I’ve been willing to go through some hardship. You have to be willing to accept some difficulty, which brings me to the fifth point: adaptability. People who are able to go with the flow, who aren’t control freaks, that’s really important when you’re on the road too if you want to have a good experience. Something is always going to happen.
BTR: So what are the biggest mistakes tourists can make? Not willing to be open-minded?
SB: I would say so, not willing to be open-minded, not willing to take risks and venture out. Of course, the old truism — spending too much time around your own kind, whether you’re staying at a luxury hotel and never really venturing out except where your concierge tells you to. Or at the other end of the budget spectrum, you’re staying in a hostel and you only go where everyone else in the hostel is staying and everything becomes like a rolling party. If you don’t venture away from the crowd, I don’t think you’ll get as memorable of a travel experience.
For more of our interview with Sara, tune in this coming Thursday to BreakThru Radio’s brand new current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly.