Truth in Travel, Plus Free National Parks

No crap. No lies. No fudging the facts. That's what travel writing should be about.
The first time an editor for a travel section said I should write about a place I'd never visited, I thought he was kidding. I should make a few calls and check websites and come up with something creative, he said.
I was surprised and dismayed. But the truth, I've learned, is that some travel writers never actually go to a destination. Travel costs money, and writers aren't paid as much as, say, software experts (or even ministers, as I learned on one Illinois trip).
It's dishonest to write about a place and a culture unless you have firsthand knowledge. Of course, there is a difference between writing generically about a place--the name, attractions, hours, costs, etc.--without having an opinion, as publications online and in print often do. But why bother writing about a place unless you can impart a tiny bit of feeling?
As a writer, I've been offered free trips to places near and far--Philadelphia, Colorado skiing, Greece, to name a few. But I don't accept them. Paying my own way allows me to be honest about something if it isn't good, to say an overpriced meal isn't especially tasty, that the hotel room blanket had two fleas (that was in 2013 in Thermopolis, Wyoming).
Writers are careful about their words to avoid lawsuits. Freelancers aren't protected by the legal staffers of large news organizations. It's a bigger challenge to find words that describe lousy or inadequate experiences that those that are pleasant. The glossy Travel magazines rarely have bad reviews; they'd lose advertisers and be sued.
Even large news operations have limited budgets. Many rely on freelance writers, who must pay for the costs of their airfare, gas, hotel, meals, and admissions, and still try to make a tiny profit that pays the rent or mortgage. Often, there's none.
I'm cheap. Frugal. Thrifty. My daughter remembers being told to slump down in the minivan's backseat while on a cross-country trip so that she looked younger than 12 (thus avoiding paying the adult fee at a hotel). While other families paid for fast-food fountain-drink sodas and burgers, my family shared 2-liter iced tea in reusable plastic cups (free from the hotel), sandwiches made with grocery-store cheese, and fresh fruit. Sitting inside a burger joint cannot compare with a picnic lunch at a roadside rest stop or small-town city park where you might meet the mayor on a stroll or a friendly dog.
From the Grand Canyon to Beijing, it's possible to enjoy the best of a place while economizing. Almost everywhere in the world, an independent traveler can thrive while being cheap. Sweat the big stuff, not the small.
See as much of the world as you can now. Don't wait for retirement to take one guided trip. Take a bus, a train, a one-hour getaway today to a place you've been meaning to, but just cannot find the time or money.
I'll share cheap tips (see my old 4/27/10 Anti-Packrat Travel post for some ideas). 
Send your favorite along and we'll make a list so you can stretch those dollars.

Here's one priceless experience: In Yellowstone National Park, a buffalo rested near the men's room. (That's my husband on the right.) Nobody bothered the buffalo.

AND NOTHING IS BETTER THAN FREE! The National Park Service was late this year in announcing its fee-free park week. Not until March 27 did it announce that not only would April 19 and 20 be free days, but that the following week (April 19 through 27) would be included. (Since Easter is April 20, is this good or bad?) Yellowstone, anyone?

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