10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Smile During Travel Delays)

This is exactly what it sounds like — ten travel writing prompts, which I’d recommend saving for when you’re sitting on an airport (or bus station, or train station, or wherever sort of station) floor, waiting for some delayed transportation. Your trip isn’t going how you thought, but I hope these prompts bring you to a place of joy (or at least appreciation for the journey), and make you smile during your delay.

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

  1. Describe today from the perspective of someone working on the transportation you’re waiting for, whether the driver/pilot, baggage handler, gate agent, or person selling snacks through the window of the bus.
  2. Pick one person you see, and write about them for one minute. At exactly one minute, start a new paragraph and begin writing about another person you see. Repeat until your transportation leaves.
  3. Describe yourself, as you wait. Write about where you’re sitting, what you’re wearing, how bad you smell, how long it’s been since you last ate anything. Write about how hard the floor is. You’re probably fine, but write something overdramatic about the suffering you’ve endured (no matter how minimal), the tenuous nature of your current predicament. Become philosophical about how horrendously difficult this delay has been for you. Write like this until you laugh, until you are overcome by the giggles.
  4. Write a gourmet food review of whatever mediocre food is available in the bus station, ferry terminal, airport, or wherever you are. Whether it’s some random street food, junky fast food, or a tiny packet of airplane pretzels, write a sensational review, highlighting the unique flavour combinations of whatever you just pulled out of your pocket.
  5. Describe your journey to reach your boarding gate/area as an epic adventure, full of trials and tribulations and grandiose chase scenes. Narrate the overtures of finding your taxi, reading the subway map, dragging your bags across deserts and rainforests. Emphasis the disappointing irony of having rushed there, only to wait. Be dramatic as possible in the contrast.
  6. Look around and find the calmest person you can see — the one who seems entirely unaffected by the six hour delay. Channel their energy. Write about what you think they’re thinking, where they’re going, how content they are just to wait. Interview them in your head, and write their profile for the in-flight magazine. Feature them as a superstar passenger, a model for us all.
  7. Write about how people are connecting to the ground, whether that be through shoes, suitcase wheels, or butts straight on the ground. Describe what is happening, what people are doing, how they are feeling, how fast time is passing, focusing on the horizon between land and air.
  8. Describe where you’re waiting in magnificent terms — soaring architecture, gleaming engineering, jaw-dropping natural features, and the best people you’ve ever met. Write the luxury feature article for the glossiest of travel magazines. Convince your reader that they’d do anything to be in your place. Write the lie of an experience that you’d want to post on your Instagram feed. Then, slowly add details until the facade crumbles. Write a gorgeous piece of literature, and then poke holes in your beautiful balloon until it shrivels before your reader’s eyes.
  9. Write about the philosophy of time, and how it connects to the place you’re in. Reflect on your own conceptions (and misconceptions) about the importance of punctuality. Discuss whether it really matters that you’re late at all, or whether the transport is even really late. What does late mean? How do we measure it? Other than the numbers on your phone screen, why do you even think there’s a problem? Perhaps you’re just early. 
  10. Write a thank you note for the pilot/driver/company for the delay. Tell them how much you appreciate the extra time, wherever you are. Describe everything that you’ve experienced during the delay, the unique sensory stimulation you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy. Share your gratitude for the delay with them.

Happy writing, and don’t forget to comment/get in touch if you write something based on one of these prompts! I would love to read and share it.

grey sky, view from airport window during travel delay
Stuck in an airport on a dreary, rainy day? All the seats taken? No outlets left? Indefinite delays? Try these writing prompts to put things in perspective and put the smile back on your face.

Red Lines (Washington-Dulles Airport, USA)

“Next,” he calls from behind the glass, and I cross the yellow line.
“Hello,” I greet him. I slide my passport and customs form across the counter.
“Where are you coming from?” he asks, glancing at my passport and tapping at his keyboard.
“Somalia.” The US doesn’t recognize Somaliland as an independent nation, and I figure this isn’t the moment for the distinction.
“Somalia,” he repeats, and abandons tapping the keyboard.
“Yes.”
“How many days were you there?”
“Three and a half months.”

He looks me over for a moment, his gaze apologetic, and yet not quite. He takes my passport and places it into a red plastic box, like a narrow shoebox, and points to a red line on the floor — one I’d never noticed before. I’ve come through this customs line dozens of times, and I’ve never before noticed this line.

“Take the box, and follow the line to the end. Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Yes.”
“How much time do you have?”
“About an hour.”
“Tell the next officer you’ve got a connection.”
“Okay.”
Pause.
“Welcome home. Good luck.”

The red line snakes around the baggage claims, past two desks with customs officers, around corners, behind large glass windows, through which you can see the rest of the airport passengers. They claim their luggage, and walk through the “green lane.” I can see the families waiting with their reunion signs, the businessmen rushing to make their connections. Nobody else is holding their passport in a red plastic shoebox.

I follow the red line into a large room, where a uniformed man sits behind a desk and points to a cluster of papers taped to the glass, each showing some version of “no phones,” written in different languages.

“Read,” he says loudly, not looking at me.
“Got it, no phones,” I reply. “The other officer told me to tell you I’ve got a connection.”
He still doesn’t look at me, and doesn’t respond.
“Passport,” he demands, and I hand the box to him. “Sit and wait for your name to be called.”

I am not surprised by who is sitting here, from what I know about uniforms in America. I wish I were surprised. Other than myself, every seat is filled by someone with brown or black skin. White men in dark uniforms are taking apart suitcases on large tables. More dark uniforms wander around, tapping at computers, walking back and forth across the room. Nobody is in a rush.

I can’t find a clock. Someone pulls out their phone, and it is immediately noticed. They are reminded to READ the papers taped to the glass. Another plain piece of paper taped to the wall instructs us to request an escort if we need to use the bathroom. Otherwise, the uniforms don’t acknowledge us. 

I wonder how much time has passed. I wonder if I’ll miss my flight, if they’ll pay for a new flight if I do. I wonder what they really want from me, what they’re doing when I wait. I wonder if they’re doing anything at all. It occurs to me that this is the power of authority, how quickly autonomy and agency can slip away. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t think I can just leave. I don’t know how long they’ll keep me here, or who decides when I can go. I am not the person who decides when I can go, and as much as I try to calm myself, that fact makes me nervous and frustrated.

Do the others know? Do the families with their luggage, the rushing businessmen, the anticipatory sign-holders, do they know that this room is here? I am acutely aware of my privilege, not having known of its existence until now, not having noticed that red line, never pointed this way before. I wonder about another traveller, having never passed straight through, always pointed towards the red line. I hope they don’t exist, but I’m sure they do.

A female officer calls my name, and I stand and walk to her. She smiles grimly, and asks me a lot of questions. I don’t know why, or if she’s allowed to ask so many questions. I just know that I have a connection, and I’m not the one who decides whether I get to leave.

Where were you?
Why?
Can you spell that?
Who is that connected to?
Why did you decide to go there?
How did you find out about it?
Where did you live there?
Who did you live with?
Did you have many friends there?
Why are you coming to the US?
How long are you staying?
Are you going back there?
What is your job now?
Where in the US are you going?
Are you from there?
Where are you from?
Why are you going there, then?
What is his name?
Can you spell his last name?
Where does he work?
Where does he live?
Do you know the address?
How long will you be there?
Where will you go after that?
Do you know anyone else there?

She writes down every answer, and then gives the paper a long stare. Then, she gives me a long stare, and gives the paper another long stare.

“Okay,” she says.
“Okay?”
“Okay, you can go,” she nods once, handing me back my passport — free from its red plastic container. And just like that, it has been decided that I can go. 

Welcome to the United States.

Stained Glass Ceilings (Hargeisa Airport, Somaliland)

I arrived so early to the airport, I was the first one there. I was so early, the security guard’s name is Ayaan, and we got into such giggles during the security screening that the male guard asked if we knew each other.

At immigration, the officer asks me which guesthouse I stayed in. I tell him I was working here, that I had a house here. It’s always strange, the first time you articulate a change. The first time you use the past tense.

Past security and immigration, the terminal is quiet. The roof is stained glass, with a second floor balcony, framed by wrought iron railings. The gate between the terminal and the tarmac is wrought iron to match, with golden flowers along the top, and great flowering bushes of deep pink on either side. A clock shows the time in Dubai. A small coffee shop makes espressos for a group of men, and for a moment, the sputtering of the coffee machine is the only sound. Nobody is wearing masks.

The stained-glass ceiling of the Hargeisa Airport.

For a moment, I cannot help but feel that this is not an airport, that I am waiting for a tiny cup of coffee instead of an airplane to take me out of the country. For a moment, it feels as though I am staying, as though I will relax by the flowers and the stained glass and then return to my house.

There are still four clothespins on my clothesline.

But I will not return to that house. I have already been stamped out of the country. Airports are a one-way stream of people, pushing us towards the beyond, towards the tarmac past the gate, to the collapsible staircases leading us to the great flying machines. For the moment, I know my fate. I chose it. The bird will swallow me, and spit me out across an ocean.

Getting on the plane in Hargeisa, headed for Addis Ababa.