I always find it a bit odd to see American fast food chain restaurants when I travel to other countries.
But I find it even more odd when I see them packed with Americans.
I totally get that they remind traveling Americans of home, and offer familiar food to those who don’t like gastronomic adventures.
It just seems odd to travel thousands of miles, just to eat in the same place that may be a few blocks from your home.
The last time I noticed it, it made me think about the dining habits of travel writers. So on my last media trip I conducted an informal poll to see what everyone usually likes to do when it comes to meals.
On a typical media trip, meals are prearranged and the group generally dines together, but my questions were about what & where they eat when they’re traveling solo, whether they’re on assignment or vacationing.
Surprisingly the group was fairly evenly split – about half said that they frequent large chain restaurants when traveling in the US, and occasionally even when abroad. A third regularly take advantage of room service. And three-quarters of them stick with familiar foods even when eating at an unfamiliar, or local (not chain) restaurant (chicken is still chicken regardless of how it’s cooked or where you are when you eat it).
I have to admit, it’s tempting to just relax and order up something from room service, and channel surf (even more so when you’re an introvert, like I am), especially when you’re tired.
And sure, if your assignment is to review the hotel, you should try the room service and pay close attention to the service as well as the meal.
But as travel writers, we must always be on the lookout for the next story idea. And your story probably isn’t waiting for you in your room. Or in that chain restaurant that’s identical to the one in every city in the US.
Remember that one trip should yield many stories – not just about the places you go, but also about the people you meet. The new and exotic (or just different) foods that you try. About all the experiences you can cram into one trip.
The key to getting great stories is to act like a journalist, not a tourist. Look for opportunities to meet new people and try new things. Ask questions about local customs and cuisine. Interview people. Interview the chef. Ask if you can try your hand at cooking something with him or her.
When you start accepting opportunities, others follow. Say no to nothing (within reason).
Are there other people traveling solo at your destination? Invite them to take a meal with you, and pepper them with questions! Generally speaking, most people do enjoy talking about themselves, and won’t find you annoying. There are as many different reasons why people travel – and why they wound up at the same place you did – as there are people. Take the opportunity to learn about other travelers.
So the next time you’re in a new city, near the end of your day, when you’re tempted to lie back on the bed, find a good movie on the TV, and pick up the phone to order up dinner – STOP and force yourself to get out and go find a decent local restaurant. Take a chance! It may just be a great experience and a great story.
And you can always eat at that chain restaurant when you’re back home.
What are your habits when you travel? Share your experience!
Well Trisha, you’ve hit one of the topics I love to research and experience–food and the customs that surround it, around the world.
I’ve always been amazed at how many travelers opt for fast food and the familiar. There are times that I’m “peopled out” and need to recharge with some alone or quiet time. When that happens, I generally seek out a small cafe. It is amazing who you’ll observe, meet or discover.
Since much of my writing is about interviewing chefs worldwide, there is a common denominator with them–passion. People frequently ask how to get interviews with chefs–I ask.
If we are on a press trip, then I’ll try to prearrange interviews through the PR person ahead of time. But, frequently we are traveling on our own and paying our own bill. In those cases, if the menu is interesting and creative, I’ll send a note on my business card to the chef commenting on his innovative approach. If the food is out of this world, my comment will be sending a note about the dish and the flavor and ask if he has time to meet. If the food is so-so, I don’t bother as I need to feel the passion when I write.
Chefs love well-deserved compliments and it is relatively easy to get interviews. Brenda and I started interviewing chefs before we knew we were going to write a book about them, “Our Love Affairs with Food & Travel.” As a result, when we decided to write what we knew, chefs were it.
The other aspect about food is the culture. If you love to travel, and that is why so many of us are travel writers, food is part of the culture. It is also interesting to learn the stories behind certain dishes and traditions. I consider food a geography lesson.
I’ll stop, because 10 more ideas on the topic just came in my head and I don’t want to go off point on your great column.
Maralyn D. Hill, President
International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association http://www.ifwtwa.org
.-= Maralyn D Hill´s last blog post: Spa- Rancho La Puerto – 2010 opportunities =-.
Thanks Maralyn – glad you enjoyed this!
I must confess, it was the experienced writers (from a traditional print background) that said they always seek out small cafes, locals, and new experiences when dining. The (relatively) new travel bloggers in the group (who only post to their own travel blogs) were the ones that said they regularly visit American restaurants or stay in. I found it interesting enough that I thought it was worth a reminder to those aspiring writers.
New writers would be wise to follow your example!
I could not agree more. Part of the thrill of traveling for me is to experience foods that I would not have back home. Sure I may eat a burger or fries but I want to taste it the way the locals do it. Otherwise I could as well stay home and look at pictures of the place!
Thanks for stopping by Desiree – I love your website (and I follow you on Twitter!)
You bring up an excellent point – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good burger and fries when you travel, in fact, it could make for an interesting series of articles comparing how they’re prepared and taste in various places around the world. Imagine taking a round the world trip to seek out THE best burger and fries served anywhere. :)
I’ve definitely thought of that, and generally never go in “American” restaurants in other places. However, I do think it’s interesting to visit some “fast” restaurants and see if they are different and if the prices relate. In fact, I decided to go into Starbucks in Bangkok and found a reusable cold cup that I couldn’t find in anywhere near me in the U.S., so it was a good move :)
You’re absolutely right Abbie – and I occasionally do the same thing because I also like to see how they compare. I find it interesting that you can find different things on the menu in American fast food restaurants located in other countries than you can here in the US (for example you can get wine at a McDonalds in France).
I don’t think writers should never go in American restaurants or even in other countries’ versions of fast food restaurants (I hate saying never). But I do think writers and travel bloggers should get into the mindset of looking at each meal as an opportunity to find a story. And I do think that *in general* you’ll find more interesting stories in the local non-American places.
Luckily for us we are always traveling off the beaten path. We don’t have tv’s in our room very often and there aren’t chain restaurants nearby. So we are forced to get out of the room. But I will admit, after traveling for a long time, when I happen to stumble upon a McDonalds or Starbucks, we almost always go in. I craved a big mac from Ethiopia to South Africa. My craving was finally satisfied 2 months later but after eating the burger, I wondered why I felt like having it for so long. It really wasn’t that good:)
I can totally understand wanting to relax and stay in. While we were in Mumbai, we got a nice hotel and stayed inside to an entire day. But after that we felt very guilty about not getting out to see the sites. We crammed a lot of sight seeing into 2 days!
LOL You two should never feel bad or guilty about a day spent relaxing and nesting….you guys have loooong adventures and probably need that every once in a while….I suppose I was thinking about the typical vacation which, even for travel writers, is usually only a week long….