I love to travel. I don't get to do it near as often as I'd like but part of that is because I like big long trips that take me somewhere as different from home as possible. I want to meet people who see the world from varied perspectives. I want to understand what it's like to live in situations where life isn't so easy and not everything is a mouse-click away.
How does this improve my writing? First, it gives me things to write about. A few years ago my boyfriend and I went to China for six weeks. We had a Lonely Planet guidebook in one hand and a crappy phrase book in the other. We had a great time and brought back tons of stories. You can bet that little snippets of those adventures work their way into my stories when I need to add a little spice. The more experiences you have, the more you have to authoritatively write about; though for fiction you might have to twist the truth a little to suit your tale. I'll tell you a little secret about getting great travel stories. Most of the coolest stuff happens in between seeing the big sights. Stay off of tours, take local transport, eat like the locals and don't worry about whether you speak the language or not; you don't need it.
Another thing travel does, if you go in with an open heart and an open mind, is it lets you see how other people live. This is one of the reasons I don't take tours – I would miss too much. People will share their lives with you if you let them. They will show you what's important to them and what they're most proud of. Sometimes it their town, sometimes their business or maybe it's the braided bracelet their daughter made for them. Regardless, you will gain insight. This not only broadens your perspective, but it will help you create rounded characters with more realistic motivations.
If you travel to places where you don't speak the language (or very little of it) you will become a better communicator. In China, my boyfriend and I had a number of conversations where no comprehensible language was exchanged but meanings were entirely clear. There were the old guys playing Chinese chess in the hutong area of Beijing that invited us over to watch. With no words, one guy made it clear that he thought my bf's gut was my fault because I was such a good cook. Another time, at a monastery on top of a mountain, a group of young monks asked my boyfriend if his hiking stick was a walking aid or if it was for seeing. Again, no words. And in a pizza place in Yangshuo we found out a kitten's name translated as 'Fathead' because, well, for obvious reasons. All of these conversations happened using sign language, gesture and intonation. For as much as we writers like to use words, sometimes there are better ways. Once you realize this, you might find your characters interacting through more than just dialog.
Travel gives you a lot more fodder for creating great settings. Visiting a local African market is far more visceral than seeing one on a travel show. Being in a town that only has dirt roads after a rain and experiencing what it smells and sounds like. Heck, the first time you go somewhere and the street is filled with the smells of exhaust, grilling food, camel dung and the local spice market all at the same time I promise it'll be an experience you'll never forget. Likewise, the first time you swim in water that's so clear you can see twenty or more feet to the bottom can be amazing. In writing you want to appeal to all of the senses. Having been there for real allows you to draw upon that and lay it out on the page. And the best thing is you can take bits and pieces of all your different experiences and mix them together to create your fictional world. The more you travel, the more pieces you have.
I'm going to end with my top five travel tips for maximizing your fun.
1) Don't let fear stop you. Most places are far safer than their warnings. I live in LA and if I listened to the travel warnings about this place, I should be terrified. Sure, you might want to avoid places that have open hostilities, but other than that, most of the globe is safe enough. And I say this as a woman who often travels solo.
2) You'll always be a visitor, but try to do things on the local level. Eat street food or at small, non-touristy restaurants, take buses and motos and tro-tros. Talk to people - the ones that show you around, that drive you somewhere, or serve you food. Talk to shopkeepers and butchers and wood carvers. Share with them as much as they share with you. You will be richer for it.
3) Don't be an Ugly American (whether you're from the States, or not). Do not get upset when things are different from home or not as fancy or perfect or they take a little longer. You've come to their country to experience it, so do that. Don't expect anywhere else to be like home. Don't put unreasonable expectations on a place that has different resources.
4) Keep your sense of humor. When you travel things will go wrong. If you accept that from the beginning you'll be a lot better off. When you face adversity with laughter, or a smile, it shows good character and that resonates through all cultures. People will be more open to helping if you're good natured about the difficulty.
5) Try as many new things as you can. Don't turn down experiences because you're scared, or tired. When will you be here again? Go for it. Just do it. Put in whatever motivating phrase you need here. Sometimes you'll need to listen to that little voice that keeps you safe but push yourself out of your comfort zone. Of course you'll have some regrets about things you miss for decent reasons, but try to keep those to a minimum.
One more thing – write everything down. Whether you keep a travel journal, send e-mails to friends and family or blog on your trip, keep a record so you don't forget all those great little stories you're going to accumulate.