What no one ever tells you about being a travel writer
What do you think of when someone says they are a travel writer? Jet-setting business class around the world to stay in luxurious hotels and eating feasts prepared by Michelin-stared chefs? I won’t lie; this is not unheard of, but more often than not, the life of a travel writer is much more complex than it appears. I know lots of you are travel writers or aspiring travel journalists, so I wanted to take you behind the scenes and give an insight into what it’s really like to be a travel writer and what you need to know to be successful.
Freelance travel journalism - what you don’t get told
I’ve done a fair bit of travel writing in the last 18 months and I’ve come back from trips to questions and comments from friends and family such as: “How was your holiday?” or “You have the best job in the world” or “Travel writing is such a sweet gig.”
And yes, at times it does feel like a sweet gig and the best job in the world, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
So what is the life of a travel writer really like?
I’ve asked travel journalists from all over the globe to tell me what goes on behind the scenes of being a travel writer and to share some of their insights into a side of travel writing that isn’t always spoken about.
There is a black list (this is how to stay off it)
For Bonnie van Dorp, it’s important to recognise that travel writers get afforded privileges others do not.
“My biggest advice to those lucky to be invited on famils and international press trips is to stay humble, be grateful and never assume that you have the right to be there,” she says. “Although PRs will never admit it willingly, black lists do exist, so treat others the way you want to be treated and count your blessings everyday."
Travel writer Jac Taylor says she has seen plenty of “jaded, too-cool-to-be-impressed travel writers”.
But in Jac’s experience, enthusiastic, appreciative and engaged travel writers generally fill the places of the best journo trips because they’re the writers that return invitations. “I was recently invited back to a destination not because my coverage is the best, but because they could see how excited I was to be in their country, videoing and photographing like a crazy person last time I was there,” she says.
Writing on the road doesn’t always work
Freelance travel writer Briar Jensen says it can be easy to underestimate the time you actually need to sit at your computer and write.
“It may be different for nomadic travellers who are on the road all the time, but for me I don’t write stories on the road, as I want to maximise my time absorbing the destination, so I need to allow time at home to craft the stories, which can be difficult if you have multiple trips coming up,” she says.
“You often don’t get to write the stories from one trip before you are off again, so it can be months after a trip that you actually write about it, and in the meantime you may have been to several other destinations, so, making detailed notes when I travel is important, so that I can invoke the feeling of a destination again by reading my notes and looking at my photographs.”
The money isn’t the most important thing (and thank goodness, because often there’s not much of it)
I’ve noticed that since I started focusing more on travel writing, my income has taken a serious dip.
Many publications pay once your article is published, not when you submit it or the editor accepts it. “It can be a very long time between going on a trip and when the story is published, and consequently, when you are paid,” says Briar. “Many travel writers will have examples of up to two years (or more!).”
Travel writing can “seem like a time-sucking burden”
Press trips (often called fam trips or famils) are one way travel writers get to visit destinations, but freelance travel and health journalist Yasmin Noone says it’s important to know that you don’t just have to do organised famils. “You can organise your own to fit in with your life and responsibilities- but it takes work and determination to do it that way,” she says.
But pulling together your own trip can be incredibly time consuming. “Researching the destination, working out what angles you want and who best to meet and talk to achieve that, then negotiating with the destination PRs and perhaps airlines takes time,” says Briar. “It can be fun if you have plenty of time, but when you need to be writing stories it can seem like a time-sucking burden.”
Think you just need to be able to travel and write? Think again.
“You need to be able to balance lots of balls,” says Briar. “This includes researching destinations and markets, travelling, writing, photography, social media for both the destination and your work, blogging, self-promotion, keeping abreast of travel trends and what’s been published, networking and upskilling and be ready to travel if a last minute trip comes up.”
You’ll be hearing from me (or not)
“As with any freelancing, lack of response or timely response form editors when you are trying to pitch a trip idea can be extremely frustrating, as these days PRs need a confirmed commission before they will send you,” says Briar.
According to Briar, this has changed, as years ago PRs would send writers on a trip and trust that they would pitch when they got back. “In fact they probably got more stories from a trip then, as we had multiple angles to pitch once we’d done the trip, as you often come up with different angles while you are in the destination,” she says.
Jac Taylor adds that the stakes are high with travel writing. “To be a travel writer, you need to be tough enough to only be as good as your last article every single time,” she says, “even with editors you’ve worked with for years.”
Get rich. In experiences.
“Travel writers don’t get anywhere near as well paid as people might expect,” says Briar. “But the opportunities we get are extraordinary, and we are so privileged to travel so widely.”
Anne Lowrey from Part-Time Traveler says she gets a lot of questions about how she makes travel writing work financially, especially as she lives in San Francisco (one of the most expensive cities in the United States.)
“I tell my family that I’m “rich in experiences,” which is true — but at the end of the day, most of the perks of travel writing are just that — trips and experiences,” she says. “It is much more difficult to get paid actual money (you know, the kind you need for bills) particularly with so many other writers willing to accept free or low paid assignments in exchange for these perks.”
The unglamorous side of travel writing helps make ends meet
“To help with cash flow, be prepared to take on less-glamorous assignments, like updating guidebooks or similar,” says Briar.
Anne agrees saying, “The reality is that I end up doing a lot of unglamorous travel writing, whether that’s content marketing or copywriting for travel companies, to make ends meet — and I’m okay with that. I’m home behind my computer writing for clients a lot, as opposed to the perception that I’m gallivanting the globe and purely sharing the personal stories I yearn to write."
The bulk of Elen Turner’s work at the moment is copywriting and content marketing. “This isn't necessarily what a lot of beginner travel writers think of when they think of travel writing,” she says, “they more think of the glamorous world of flying around and always being on the go.”
But Elen specialises in content about Nepal and produces lots of articles and blog posts about the country in general. “This is ideal because it requires a very broad and detailed knowledge of the country, but doesn't necessarily require my intimate knowledge of the newly opened restaurants,” she says.
In terms of her copywriting work, Elen has clients who require general knowledge about travel destinations, and “a lot of travel common sense” where she draws on her past travels.
Elen’s advice for new travel writers is that “you actually don’t need to be constantly travelling to make a successful career out of travel writing. But you do need to have done plenty in the past, or live somewhere worth writing about (which is most places, I'm sure).”
[Diversification is so important as a freelance writer - read about how 5 freelancers make money by diversifying their business]
Travel writing is not a 9 – 5pm job
“If I had a French Pacific Franc for every time I’ve heard ‘you’re a travel writer – that’s gotta be the best job in the world!” I’d be hunkered down on a luxury yacht in Tahiti with a chilled mojito and a hot man winding my winches,” says Fiona Harper.
“Instead, I’m at my desk seven days a week tapping out stories, editing photos, chasing invoices, marketing my ‘brand’ and pitching, pitching, pitching to ensure there’s another assignment/commission/paid gig on the horizon. That’s when I’m not on the road which usually involves multiple flights, often over multiple days, pre-dawn wake up calls (to capture the best photos) followed by a full day of touring, meeting, interviewing and taking notes that usually ends sometime around 8pm on a good day.”
Fiona acknowledges that yes, cocktails and wonderful food are usually involved, but that’s not the reason why she loves what she does.
“I love being a travel writer because I enjoy the challenge, the freedom, the independence, the creativity and the truly amazing opportunities that land at my feet simply because I have the ability to line up some words that will hopefully inspire others to follow in my footsteps,” she says.
The things non-travel writers don’t see
Jennifer Johnston has channelled her energy into becoming a travel writer later in her working life. “My friends think I’m setting myself up for my twilight years in a role that is all about luxury and decadence,” she says. “They see the stories and the Instagram images.”
But Jennifer says that her friends don’t see:
the nervous pitches sent out to editors, will they like it, will I hear from them, will they commission me?
The self-doubt and constant questioning around your ability to deliver to the editor’s standards
The long hours in her home office
Becoming a night owl as emails and interviews are done with people on a different time zone, half way around the world. Because they’re waking up just as you should be going to bed!
“Much like a politician and the never-ending meet and greet of constituents, a travel writer has to talk, interview, converse and engage with as many people as possible on a trip to gather the quotes and information that colour a story,” she says. “Even when you’d prefer to blend silently in the background, you can’t, you need to be present, alert, taking everything in, and making notes.”
Showing up – all the time
Many of the writers included in this post commented that while press trips are wonderful, but they are often exhausting.
Jennifer says: “When you want to switch off and relax at night time because you have been on the go since 5am, you still must attend that dinner on a press trip. There is a moment where you can run into your decadent hotel room for a quick shower and change. But before dinner, you know to keep your hosts (and PRs) happy you should post that Insta story, which means gathering facts and editing photos to present the highlights of your destination.”
Veteran travel writer Kerry Heaney says that most people would not realise travel writers fit three times the activities they would do into every day.
“It means we get great stories and see a tremendous amount but it’s sometimes exhausting,” she says. “We can do this because there’s usually someone in the background doing a great job organising everything to showcase their region. It also means we rarely have time to just soak it in and often the experiences are shortened. For example, who would go on a half-day boat trip when they are catching a plane that afternoon? Most people would just relax by the pool and pack at leisure.”
Kerri treats every trip as though it’s her first, and works incredibly hard to ensure a high return on investment from brands, destinations and experiences that host her.
When you read what Kerri does on a trip, it’s hard not to feel exhausted.
“I am currently on a famil with a solid itinerary, where we are covering many brands at once,” she says. “Our days are very full and most evenings have finished around 11pm. This isn’t because we’ve been kicking back having a few drinks either. Many dinners have been hosted by senior management of the respective brands. They are pure business. All day we are listening, taking notes and thinking about the angle for our stories and what questions we need to have answered in order to do so. Then there’s the photos and videos.”
“As someone who writes for my own website, there’s so much more to do than just my articles,” says Kerri. “I spend all day taking hundreds of photos and capturing so many moments on video. I have to take all of this in many different formats depending on what I might need them for (website, Instagram, Facebook etc). A video for Instagram stories must be shot vertically and only for 15 seconds whilst clips for a YouTube,FB and website video must be shot horizontally.”
“This normally means I take two videos for every scene. It’s a constant switching process and I only have one set of hands. I use normal DSLRs, iPhones, a drone, GoPro and have gimbals and selfie sticks to assist with it all. At night when the official duties are finished I then need to download and categorise the images and video to ensure that if I have an equipment failure I don’t lose my content. Then there’s the curating and post-processing. A two minute video can take me two days to edit and produce. If we get a moment during the day (e.g. travelling between venues) then you’ll find me on the phone posting Instagram stories or Facebook posts or just generally trying to get some traction with social media. This doesn’t entail putting just any photo up. I need to think carefully about what image might draw the most engagement, caption it, tag it and so on.”
It can get lonely
Freelance writer Danielle Norton says travel writing can mean experiencing amazing things by yourself.
“Recently I spent the weekend at a five star boutique hotel,” she says. “The room was so incredibly luxurious and the restaurant had a brilliant new chef who showered me with extra dishes of exquisite quality. Each course of the meal was matched with award winning wine. I sat alone in a restaurant filled with romantic couples and families celebrating special events and wished that I had one of my special people to share the experience with.”
Danielle has seen the sun set over the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, hiked the track around Uluru, snorkeled the crystal clear reefs in the Solomon Islands, visited war museums in Cambodia, discovered Gaudi’s artworks in Barcelona, seen shows on Broadway and trekked in the jungles of Thailand. “All alone,” she says. “Mostly, I feel grateful to have the opportunity to travel the world and share my stories. It is liberating and exciting. But, every so often, I wish I could bring a friend or partner along to share the special moments.”
Travel writing can cost you money
Before I became a travel writer, one thing I hadn’t given much thought to was having to pay for incidentals. I knew that while I was away on a trip I wouldn’t be able to get that much work done, but I didn’t necessarily anticipate that travel writing might cost me money.
I recently travelled to India for work (I was hosted by the tour company) and had to pay for tips for drivers, tour guides, serving staff and so on (which totalled around $80), a visa (again, around $80), car parking at the airport, immunisations, travel insurance, malaria medication and so on. I don’t mind paying it, but I do think that these are some of the hidden costs of travel writing, and something that isn’t widely spoken about.
Making connections is important
Nancy from Luxe Travel Family says that she has discovered that there’s much more to travel writing than just travel and writing.
“One of these is attending travel industry conferences like World Travel Market where I meet with destination marketing organisations, network with travel media, and participate in professional development sessions,” she says. “While conference travel can be expensive, I've found it to be an excellent investment. The personal connections I've made over the years have been invaluable to my travel writing career.”
There are unique ways to get personalised press trips
“You can also work with tour companies on an ongoing basis and get personalised fams that way,” says Elen. “I edit one travel magazine and website, and as well as getting paid, the company have sent me to stay at their hotel partners in exchange for copy and blog posts, as well as treks and other tours. It has been Awesome with a capital A. This arrangement isn't strictly the same as what most people consider a fam/press trip arrangement to be because I don't really pitch the outcome of those trips to other publications (I've used bits and pieces in roundups and what not), but I use the experience to write articles and web copy for the company itself.”
Travel writing is not egalitarian
Elen also makes the point that travel writing as a profession is not necessarily open to everyone in the same way.
“I've heard Filipino travel bloggers talk on a panel about how they have to focus on their own country because their visa requests for other places are frequently denied,” she says. “Having a Nepali husband, I know how prohibitively hard it is to travel on anything but a strong Western passport. Even for me, now living in New Zealand, I find that the industry is not only US dominated, which is pretty inevitable, but that my access to the world about which I could write as a travel writer is very limited by cost and distance. So, whether we like it or not, travel writing as a profession is elitist.”
The best way to break into travel writing
I can't speak highly enough of this online course in travel writing (affiliate link) run by the Australian Writers Center (and no, you don't have to be Australian to do the course).
I did it a few years ago and within a month I had recouped the cost of the course with my first travel writing commission.
I now regularly receive offers of press trips and famils and I've have been published in some big name travel publications (like Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and The Telegraph), and it's all because I took that course.
This month alone I’ve travelled to India and next week I’m off to Canada.
Travel writing has been incredible for me, but it has been a steep learning curve. I’m so grateful to all the writers who contributed to this post - thank you!
Are you a travel writer or an aspiring travel journalist? What would you add to this list?