Bucket List & Beyond: 6 Gag-Worthy Travel Writing Clichés

As much as I like travel, I dislike most travel writing. Publishing is easy these days, and that allows a lot of hacks to get their voices heard. You get lots of overwritten descriptions and ludicrous praise, all leaning on the same old clichés.

Many decent writers have compiled lists of travel writing clichés. They’re poked fun at them, skewered them, begged other writers to just please stop. But new ones abound! These are some of the latest I’ve spotted floating in the travel writing toilet.

Staycation – The first time I saw this, it was a clever commentary on an American economy that made it hard for many people to travel. Now it’s just a tool for hospitality-industry marketing stooges to entice people in a given city to take advantage of some sort of deal at their properties. Take Phoenix: It has no leisure travel during the summer, so hotels chirp about discounted "staycations" to put swimsuit-clad butts into their pools. And now the travel writing industry is continues to ride it hard.

Bucket list – A movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson inflicted this morbid phrase on us. Now it’s ubiquitous as "My Big Fat Greek (Whatever)”. Not only is it a sign of a creatively bankrupt writer, but it’s also a great excuse to procrastinate. Instead of a bucket list, make yourself a "next trip" list. It’s far more motivating. And you won’t sound like another woolly voice bleating about your bucket list.

Explore – I shudder everytime a travel article exhorts me to “explore” a destination. Look, I don’t care how remote or off the beaten path you travel: If it has signs posted or a travel article about it, someone else discovered, explored, mapped and catalogued it. Not you. “Explore” is a slab of self-aggrandizement marinated in ego. You’re not Admiral Byrd or Sir Edmund Hillary. Get over it.

Top/Best/Most Lists – I’m guilty of making lists. And I’ll own up to using Top/Best/Most/Whatever. But then I realized something: There is no legit way to quantify the best of anything. You might be able to get away with most popular, best attended … or something like that if you have the data. Otherwise, just tell me about 10 great glacier hikes or your 5 favorite themed hotel or 7 overnight hikes I shouldn’t miss.

Savvy traveler – Google this term. You’ll get 217,000 results. “Savvy” means you’re in your comfort zone. Put me anywhere in Asia, and I am not savvy. I’ll get by. But I’ll stumble and bumble and gain some humility. You can’t earn that perspective when you’re in a place that allows you to be “savvy.” And another thing: No travel article can make you savvy – only going somewhere, getting lost, digging your way out and connecting with the place will make you have a clue.

Guilty pleasures – I hate the idea that anyone should conceal what makes them happy for fear of being judged. That defines a guilty pleasure: “If my hipster fans find out I’d rather listen to old Warrant ballads than The Antlers, they won’t think I’m smart and cool.” Bollocks to them, then. If you love going to Las Vegas or going on cruises … well, you and I probably won’t be travel buddies. But that’s OK – there are all sorts of destinations and activities for all kinds of people. Go have fun and don’t worry about what I or anyone else thinks about it. Well, unless you’re making your bucket list and checking it twice …


End of the “Ask the Pilot” Bad for Travel Industry and Readers

From exotic destinations to behind-the-scenes info, Patrick Smith and "Ask the Pilot" entertain and inform.

[Editor’s Note 06/11/12: It appears that a hacker busted into Patrick Smith’s “” site. I will keep an eye on the situation. For now, it might be best to avoid it just in case any nasty malware lives in the hacked site.

UPDATE 6/12/12: It looks like Patrick has booted the hacker from his site and is working to restore normal service.

UPDATE 7/25/12 – Looks like Ask The Pilot is off the ground. Congrats, Patrick, and good luck!]

If there’s one thing the travel industry doesn’t need, it’s one less reasonable, intelligent voice.

But that’s what we’ll all have if really does kill the long-running Ask the Pilot column. Patrick Smith, a 757/767 first officer, entertains and informs like few other aviators every time he publishes a new post.

Smith debunks myths. He thinks aloud about dismal destinations. He explains what really happens behind the scenes. He proves his enthusiasm for his lift aloft. He rakes the Transportation Security Theater Administration over the coals early and often.

Not good enough for, apparently. Several readers have said that Smith has informed them of the column’s imminent demise. Since he hasn’t announced it himself, it makes me wonder if a strong enough Internet response can right the ship.

If not, maybe a better publication will lure Smith to continue. I never read before discovering Ask the Pilot. I probably won’t should he depart; I rarely see anything on Salon that I can’t get elsewhere.

Every travel agent, airline and just about anyone in the travel industry should rise in Smith’s favor. His reasonable discourses takes fear out of flying, for those that need it. It encourages curiosity and reminds us how cool it is that we can afford to fly all over the world. He’s no travel industry apologist – he takes the industry to task, when warranted.

Ask the Pilot is exactly what the travel industry needs – to inform travelers and to improve itself. If the column does come to an end, we won’t be better for it.

The semi-good news: You can still visit Patrick Smith at his Ask the Pilot website. Let’s hope his words land in a place where they’ll be well-read.

And if you’re eager for more writing from a pilot, check out Rand Peck: A Life Aloft.