The Siren Lure of Travel Writing
February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments
I get asked that a lot. Last year I spent time in the Netherlands, Italy, Vietnam (twice), China, Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, France and Canada, plus Utah, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan, Louisiana, New York (city and state), Florida and Pennsylvania; and I am a writer.
Why am I not a travel writer?
I’ve thought about it—in 2015-2016, I explored writing travel full-time, or even part-time, thinking it might help finance some of my trips. I paid a successful travel writer to coach me on pitching articles to newspapers and magazines. I made lists of places to pitch and what story and angle for each. I read airplane magazines and scoured travel websites. I attended the annual New York Times Travel Show on a media badge and collected business cards from every tourism board, tour agency, and PR team representing countries I’d like to visit. (The first day I woke up with total laryngitis and carried an index card reading HELLO I AM ALLISON FROM DUBAI PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY/REGION/ORGANIZATION.)
After all that research, I didn’t sell any travel articles. I didn’t even pitch any travel articles. I’d arrive in a new location, realize I was there to work another job, and spend my day off resting, rather than hitting up Six Michigan Wineries You Must Visit or Exploring Tuscany In October. On vacation trips I dutifully photographed dinner plates and took notes at key sites, then got home and realized 1) I didn’t have time to individually pitch 20 publications to hopefully sell two articles, and 2) I needed $1500 in camera equipment, time and photography training.
Travel writing looks easy and glamorous, but competition is vigorous, and the prevalence of influencers sharing pretty pictures in exchange for free trips has further devalued the professional travel writer. It takes talent, skill and hard work to build an Insta-career, but social media further dilutes the market for magazine/newspaper travel readers.
Travel writers mostly fall in three categories:
- Staff writers are on salary at single media outlets and their destinations are often assigned to them. They write big, splashy pieces, often over 2000 words. Staff photographers take the pictures, or the magazine purchases stock photos or is provided with photos from tourism boards, etc. Staff writers build their resumes with freelance clips and often work in entry-level positions before being assigned the travel beat.
- Freelancers write for multiple outlets, and are paid per word. Thirty years ago, this was about $1/word. Now, many outlets pay 1-50 cents/word, or $50-200 per article, or even clicks-per-reader (usually a worse deal than upfront pay). Freelancers pitch story ideas and are commissioned to write specific articles. They often take their own photos.
- Bloggers/influencers are not technically “travel writers.” They market themselves and their lifestyle as it takes place in exotic locations. They are physically attractive or can work their look, and take terrific photos or have an InstaHusband to snap them. Influencers spend as much time understanding algorithms and hashtags, editing photos and learning what their readers click on as they do actually traveling.
All three types go on press trips for new travel locations or experiences, or “fam” trips to familiarize with specific destinations. However, the biggest and most prestigious venues often require that writers pay for everything they get. In fact, the New York Times requires writers to have not received any travel freebies for several years, even if unrelated to the current story. Staff writers get reimbursed. Bloggers take freebies. Freelancers pay travel expenses upfront, then hope to sell enough stories to pay for the trip. At $150 each, that’s a lot of articles to get to Fiji and back. Sure, that travel is a tax deduction…but only if you show profit at the end of the year. The IRS doesn’t allow expenses for “hobbies.”*
Still want to write travel?
- Read this Curiosity Magazine article, a comprehensive look at travel writing as a profession.
- Learn to pitch. Read about it, or pay someone to teach you. Non-travel outlets like Narratively, most Op-Ed sections, and Gay Mag also commission essays from pitches. Pitching teaches you how to talk about everything else you write, too.
- Pick and research one kind of travel. If you’re financially comfortable, go for the luxury spa beat and read a year’s worth of Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re a cheap traveler, read Lonely Planet. If you like quirky-but-sophisticated, read Afar.
- Take better photos. Learn about angles, lighting, and framing. Get a real camera. Learn Lightroom or Photoshop.
- Start with FOB. Front-Of-Book are short blurbs about hot new experiences and destinations, found in the first pages of magazines. FOB is easier to write and for newbies to break into.
Like romance novels, self-publishing, and writing an entire book, travel writing is much harder than it looks. But it’s absolutely possible to build a successful travel-writing career, and those skills will serve the rest of your writing, too. Writing travel means looking for the story every day, asking more questions, interacting with more people and trying new experiences—all of which make a better trip, whether or not your vacation becomes a story to sell.
*Hobby vs business on Schedule C filings is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. Lmk in comments if you really want to know more about deducting writing expenses and I’ll write another blog about that.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Travel with her to Tuscany in October, and finish your book along the way! Or follow her on Instagram for vicarious travel delights and writing adventures.