17 Thoughts on Travel Lists

  • 1. Lists are a common device in travel writing. I just browsed the travel magazines at Barnes and Noble, and among the many enumerated promises, I found 30 romantic dream trips, 7 delicious trips, 12 fun festivals around the world, 25 Ultimate Beaches, 10 Blissful Little French Islands, 30 Smart Tips and Tricks to Ski America.  And that’s not to mention the travel books that tell you all the things to see before you’re dead, and travel writing online, which is a hive of lists.
  • 2.Travelers use lists a great deal. I make lists of things I want to see in a place, along with their addresses, which I keep it folded up in my pocket. Some people make packing lists. I have a master packing list that I keep in my jewelry box from a time when I traveled less often, but I never look at it anymore. Itineraries are a kind of a list.
  • 3. Lists are not just found in travel writing, they are common in all kinds of “lifestyle” coverage — 50 Best Recipes to Pair with Food, Wine and Cocktails, 10 Easy Tips to Look Better Naked. Lists are less common in places that publish writing with more serious intent.
  • 4. I find “top” destination lists annoying. They are marketing devices if you take them cynically and overly autocratic if you take them seriously — analogous to that person you meet at parties who says, “oh, you haven’t been to XYZ place? And you call yourself a traveler!” Which is further analogous to the people you meet who say, “oh you went to (China, say) recently? Too bad you didn’t go ten years ago, it’s not the real China anymore.” What nonsense. Any place you’re physically traveling to is by definition real and not imaginary. But that’s a digression, which isn’t really allowed on a list.
  • 5. The US is the only advanced nation that does not mandate paid vacation time, one in four workers have no vacation time at all, among those that do, the average number of days off is 12. Therefore, international audiences with more guaranteed vacation time can probably make better use of long lists. No one will go to 50 beaches on their vacation, they want to know one beach to go to on their limited vacation time.  If properly described the magazine cover line would say: 49 beaches you won’t go to, but we’d like you to browse through them all to find the one you will.
  • 6. A very long list (like, say, the 500 best hotels in the world) is too inclusive to be useful,  more like a catalogue than a list; while a shorter list is idiosyncratic and only useful if you understand the proclivities and prejudices of the list maker.
  • 7. I don’t like it when people ask me to name my favorite destination. I don’t know how to answer this question; it’s impossibly broad. (Like the question, “how was your trip”, which wants an answer not longer than what you’d politely answer when asked “how are you?”, in other words summary bordering on dishonesty. )  I can group the places I’ve traveled to by certain characteristics: places I’ve found most relaxing, places I’ve found most stimulating. But every place I visit is tinged with my state of mind when I visited, it’s not a clean sample. It is not relaxing to be on a deserted beach when there are challenges going on at home. It is relaxing to be in the middle of a bustling city without a care in the world.
  • 8. Lists are imperious, judgmental, absolute, aristocratic, anti-democratic and flattening. They allow no subtlety. I do not think that one city, or beach, or hotel is necessarily better than another, it depends on what you’re looking for.
  • 9. The making of a list defines insiders and outsiders. This is why Social Register mattered a great deal for many years. But lists used to matter more, when printing was scarce and there were fewer of them. Now, anyone can make a list. Evidence of the death of the important list may have been the Facebook “25 Things About Me” meme.
  • 10. I’ll allow that a list is a convenient way to organize information. I have written and published many lists and doubtless will continue to do so in the due course of my writing career.
  • 11. Lists imply. They are meant to be a legend to something larger, something more. When you put oranges on a shopping list, you know the firmness of the orange that you prefer. You don’t need to write that on the list.
  • 12. An outline is a kind of a list. A Table of Contents is a list.  A list on its own is a table of contents without further content.  A list is an opener without a closer. When people exhibit this sort of behavior, we call them a tease.
  • 13. Lists are extremely popular online. Anyone with access to site metrics will confirm this. This is because lists are “scannable”, a fancy way of saying “skimmable”.  You are not meant to read a list. Rather, you let your eye  sweep over the page,  as across a shop window,  before you commit to reading a full sentence. Most likely you will not. “Elements that enhance scanning include headings, large type, bold text, highlighted text, bulleted lists, graphics, captions, topic sentences, and tables of contents.”
  • 14. A list is a concession that information matters more than style.
  • 15. Lists are more about graphic design than they are about writing.  Questions of page layout have been relevant since before the printing press. An illuminated letter in a medieval scroll made the page more scannable, you could say. A list with bold faced keywords makes use of only a few tools graphic design. (Emphasis, introduction of negative, or blank space.) There are many more. The popularity of the list online is related to writers functioning without the benefit of a designer creating a custom layout for each page.
  • 16. An article that is solely a list is called a “listicle”.  This sounds more vulgar than “charticle” which is an article that consists of all graphics. I texted this fact to a friend who enjoys vulgar things. He wrote back suggesting that we call them “rocky mountain round-ups”. I thought this was funny and said I’d steal it. He wanted credit. Duly given: Andrew Collins, who once won a contest relating to the eating of a great quantity of Rocky Mountain oysters.
  • 17. A list can mean to lean, in a boat. A list can mean to roll, in an airplane. A list can be a place to joust, if you are a Medieval knight.


  1. Tim L. February 2, 2010
  2. Alison Wellner February 3, 2010
  3. Happy Hotelier February 5, 2010
  4. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales February 5, 2010
  5. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales February 5, 2010
  6. Debbie Ferm February 7, 2010
  7. Andy Jarosz February 8, 2010
  8. Paul Swaney February 9, 2010
  9. Lindsey August 5, 2010

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.