Talking travel with the notorious Thomas Kohnstamm

Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of this year’s most talked about (i.e. controversial) travel memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?,The book centers around his recent days as a Lonely Planet writer on assignment in Brazil–shortly after its release earlier this year, press reports surfaced all around the world that he supposedly admitted to plagiarizing large chunks of his Lonely Planet write-ups and accepted freebies.

Here to set the record straight is the guy himself (oh, and he also happens to be an accomplished writer and traveler).

When’d you get your first passport stamp? Looking back, how do you feel about those earlier, carefree days of traveling? (Before you went pro)

United Kingdom (Gatwick Airport), summer 1989. As a kid, I traveled a lot with my family. We would take long overland trips through Europe and North Africa, staying in hostels, renting short-term apartments and camping. I did my first solo trip at age 17, worked as a volunteer interpreter at the Folklife Festival of the Pyrenees and then ended up traveling around Spain with a bunch of Germans in an old Mercedes ambulance. I loved travel then and I still love travel now, but, back then, things were on a slower pace so I could enjoy the details a bit more.
How’d you land your first LP gig? In your book, it seemed like you suddenly got an envelope while working on Wall Street inviting you to be a travel writer. But you must’ve paid your dues somehow?

In the book I discuss how I had written a phrasebook for Lonely Planet in the late 90s, right after I finished college. I studied Spanish and Portuguese since I was young and had been working as a guide in Costa Rica. I noticed that LP only had a single phrasebook for Latin American Spanish. There is a staggering difference between, say, Argentine Spanish, Cuban Spanish and different types of Central American Spanish, so I came up with the idea to write a specific Costa Rican Spanish Phrasebook. After selling the book to LP, my career took a few different turns, but I still had some contacts at LP when I later looked into travel writing gigs.

How much do you rely on other travel guides when you’re on assignment?

I didn’t rely on them at all during guidebook assignments. You have so much to do and so little time that you are mainly following the last edition of the Lonely Planet. I sometimes looked at other books to see if they had coverage of a town or some other destinations that seemed worth including, but usually LP was more comprehensive than the others in the first place. I don’t write guidebooks any more, but I would assume that blogs and wiki-travel sites are outpacing other guidebooks in terms of providing new information.

Why Lonely Planet? What do you see as the downsides of Fodor’s, Frommers, and Rough Guides?

I have said a number of times that I think that Lonely Planet makes some of the best guidebooks out there and that I still use LP. I was not out to get Lonely Planet. I was simply writing about my experience as a guidebook writer. That said, I see inherent flaws in all guidebooks. My point in my book is that guidebooks should not be followed slavishly or treated as “The Bible” as they are essentially subjective and much of their information is included on a somewhat arbitrary basis.

Lonely Planet still makes a big deal of their “we don’t accept freebies” policy. However, in your book, you seemed to play a bit fast-and-loose with that rule. What’s your take on the policy (NYT Travel section has a strict
“if-you’ve-ever-accepted-freebies-you-can-never-even-write-for-us rule”)? And can you clarify what happened with your LP assignments on that respect?

Lonely Planet states that their writers “don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.” That is different from “don’t accept freebies” period. That reads to me as no quid pro quo, which is the guidebook industry standard. People can be as sanctimonious as they like, but I know what really happens when guidebook writers are trying to cover so much ground with so little time and so little money. I am just the first to be honest about it. And, as Rick Steves said, if you stay in a hotel you may come away with a worse impression than you would have if you were just there for a ten-minute run through. Maybe you’d notice that there are cockroaches in the bathroom at night or that the train passes right behind the building every couple of hours.

I never set out to accept freebies or discounts. As a matter of fact, you will see in my book that I avoided them until I realized that I needed them in order to be able to complete the massive amount of research. Again, I have never made any sort of direct exchange of a freebie or discount for positive coverage and I say that explicitly in my book.

As for the NYT, I think that their policy is fair. Guidebooks and travel journalism are really different animals and the research processes can barely even be compared.

And just to get this out of the way, can you explain, for the last time to put this to rest, the allegations that you “plagiarized” chunks of your travel writing text. Did you rather mean that you based your research off other guides rather than literally cut-and-paste?

I never plagiarized anything in my life and I never claimed to plagiarize anything. I never based my research off of any other guides. All of the media controversy was based on a sensationalist article from an Australian tabloid that invented the idea that I had claimed to have “plagiarized and made up large sections of [my] books.”
The words “plagiarize” and “make up” were stripped out of a tongue-in-cheek sentence towards the end of my book. The full line reads:

I should be able to write some decent introductions and establish a sense of the place that conveys why a traveler might actually want to visit a destination. That’ll have to be enough-even if I don’t get all of the mundane opening hours and hotel prices right. When it comes to those details, what I can’t plagiarize, I can always make up.

Unfortunately, the journalist used the words like a print version of a sound bite and they were then repeated out of context across news wires and then the blogosphere. Talk about fabrication.

In writing this book, I was impressed by your descriptions of place and characters. How’d you capture that? Did you take extensive notes or did you rely on memory when you were typing out the manuscript?

I do have pretty solid notes, but I rely mainly on my memory. People can say what they will about me, but I do have a good memory.

How do you find that to-be-discovered “it” destination, the place that hasn’t been gushed over in a travel guide. Is your most important source local knowledge? Or is it Internet forums, blogs, etc?

I am a traditionalist on that front, so I use a combination of local knowledge and talking to other travelers on the road. I think that a big part of being a travel writer is being a bit of an extrovert and just talking to as many people as possible and keeping track of when you hear about the same place a few times from different people who aren’t connected to each other.

What are your must-carry travel accessories?

Chapstick, sunglasses, and, these days, (unfortunately) a laptop. I also like to stash some extra $20 bills here and there in case of emergencies.

Any tips to booking cheap flights? How do you go about it?

I usually use Am not much of an expert on cheap flights. I do my best to use miles when possible.

Can you give us a preview of your next book?

It is about a period of time when I thought that I had a Patagonian love child with the drummer of an all-female Chilean punk band. I tried to give up travel writing and step up to the responsibilities of international illegitimate fatherhood — with decidedly mixed results.