Ever since I've been a professional writer travel has always been one of the beats that I've covered as part of my job scope. I'm a bit obsessed with travel, so this has been a happy marriage. So happy that eventually I decided to take this one part of my professional life and hone it into my specialty by launching my own online family travel magazine suitcases&strollers. Now that travel is my sole focus, I'm approached almost daily by awe-struck people wanting to know all about the perks of my job.
Yes, sometimes my flights, accommodation and meals are sponsored. Yes, sometimes they do throw in a free spa treatment. Yes, I've been to some far flung parts of the world most other people only get to dream about. But it's not all complimentary bottles of Champagne in exchange for a few characters in a Word document. Travel writing is much more complicated than that. Here are some of the truths of what's really involved in travel writing.
Be prepared to take a pay cut. Travel writers don't write because it makes us wealthy; quite the opposite. Especially when you are starting out, getting your name in print is more important than getting paid. And once you start being paid, the rates can be measly. If you're dreaming of leaving a safe corporate workplace for the freedom and creativity of travel writing, perhaps start your writing as a hobby first and wait until you have a steady income from your words before you contemplate resigning.
Publishers generally don't pay for trips unless you are a fulltime staffer and even then only a handful of publications have a travel editorial budget. If you were imagining multiple free holidays, think again. The much more likely scenario is that you will pay for the trip with your own money, then try to sell a story (at a fraction of the cost) about your experience later. There are no guarantees you will ever make that money back, but at least you had a nice vacation.
There are no freebies. When tourism boards, international chain hotels or airlines invite you to on a media trip, there may not be any financial costs but you will still be paying. The real cost? The ability to sell stories that result from these media trips, as most publications aren't interested in printing words from a writer who has a vested interest in only saying positive things about that destination/airline/hotel.
Travel writing is not the same as holidaying. Travel writing is not lying on a beach in Vanuatu casually bringing out the laptop when it suits you between sips from a coconut. If you are on one of those sponsored media trips the likelihood is the organiser will have you working from dawn til dusk meeting people, visiting sites and showing your interest and enthusiasm for Every. Single. Tiny. Thing. Imagine spending every meal with a very enthusiastic audience of people sitting opposite watching your every reaction to every bite. That's about it, but 24/7.
Even if you're not on a media trip, there is significant legwork that goes into putting together a travel story. You will need to go and experience all the places you think you might possibly want to write about for yourself, collecting addresses, opening hours, prices and all the requisite information to complete an informed story.
Travel writers are not an elite profession only for those with special skills. Especially in this age of the blog, everyone is a travel writer so the competition for that coveted byline in the most esteemed publications is fierce. While this means that travel writing is probably the most egalitarian it has ever been and anyone has a chance to be a travel writer, it also means anyone has a chance to be a travel writer. Your dream is not unique and you are competing with, well, everyone.
You need to stand out from the crowd. It's not enough to say, "I went on a cool holiday to Norway, will you publish my story?" You need to be the first person to have ever set foot inside the latest and most cutting edge design hotel in the most remote part of Norway to even have a chance. Or, if you can't offer that exclusive, you need an angle. Flashpacking, boutique hotels, glamping are all so old hat. You need a niche that you can develop into a specialty that separates you from the other travel writer wannabes.
You need to act like a professional. When you do get that coveted email from the travel publication of your dreams expressing interest in your story idea, it's time to put your corporate suit back on. Travel writing might be a dream hobby for you, but it's a profession for the magazines. Editors want deadlines met, copy proof-read and images in the appropriate format. They don't care that you're in Papua New Guinea without wi-fi access. Even when a monkey steals your camera in Thailand, you still have to find a way to deliver those high resolution photos or you probably won't get another email in the future.
Despite all the downsides, it's one of the best professions in the world. If you have the travel bug, getting to traipse around the world meeting new people and immersing yourself other cultures is a major motivation to go to work every day. When the traipsing is your work, it's a very privileged feeling to be able to share your experiences with other people who all wish they were doing the same. After all, penning pieces that others are reading as inspiration to help them get through their day is pretty brilliant stuff.