on travel writing

The Truth Behind Travel Writing

[shareaholic app=”share_buttons” id=”20872686″]

I recently wrote a piece for Refinery 29 that I thought was worth re-posting here, mainly because I continue to receive the same ol’ emails about “how do I get a cool job like yours?” on a daily basis. I love what I do, but it’s not as simple as telling someone to “go back to school and get a degree in X” so you can have a similar path. Rather, it’s an unconventional career I carved out for myself when what I really wanted to do didn’t exist. Also, I think that some people assume every trip I take is on a magazine’s dime; that couldn’t be further from the truth: So many of my trips are self-funded, for fun, for weddings or for some other obscure reason besides work—and then I capitalize on being somewhere new and write about it when I can to at least cover the cost of my trip (it’s called being resourceful and entrepreneurial!).

on travel writingBut, well…just read on, and if you have questions, ask them in the comments section.

*****

“You have a dream job.”

I’ve heard it so many times before. People think I vacation for a living and that when I’m not traveling, I’m likely booking my next ticket to Mozambique/Tahiti/Paris on someone else’s dime. (If you find such a job, please send me information on how to apply.)

But the reality behind such a career is far less glamorous.

I’ve been penning travel pieces for magazines for the better part of the decade. I’ve co-authored more than a dozen guidebooks. I’ve visited upward of 100 countries (some paid for by an employer; more often than not, I foot the bill). Don’t get me wrong: I love what I do. But it’s hardly the “dream job” everyone thinks it is. Here’s the behind the scenes—the good, the bad and the honest—on being a travel writer, some of which you might not know:

Many times, writers fund their own travels. It’s not uncommon for publications to ask for travel pitches after a writer returns from a destination. I know what you’re thinking: You’re required to get yourself there and then come up with story ideas? Yep, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Writers are resourceful and know how to get creative. For example, I’ve figured out ways to land other contract gigs—such as working on a cruise ship—that enable me to travel for free, pitch stories and actually make money in this sometimes backwards profession.

… but at least every trip taken is a write-off. So is every restaurant sampled, hotel visited, attraction experienced—it’s all considered “editorial research.” Hire yourself a good accountant, and hold onto every one of those receipts, whether a ticket to see Catching Fire (an entertainment expense) or that new iPhone you purchased on a whim (office equipment).

If the writer doesn’t pay her way, he/she often resorts to a “press trip.” A press trip (sometimes called a FAM or “familiarization” trip) is organized and funded by a destination’s tourism board or another hospitality entity. An all-expense paid trip to some exotic locale—what’s the catch? Well, it can go one of two ways: You fall in love with the destination, adore your travel companions, and land an excellent trip leader who gives you the true “local’s experience” while providing you with time to explore on your own. Or you can strike out, arrive in a place you thought you’d love but wind up hating, be stuck there for a period of time with a tiresome group of complainers (see next bullet point), and wind up with a guide who only wants to shill his friends’ bars and restaurants. There’s also the issue of objectivity: No matter what anyone says, it’s hard to be completely unbiased when someone else is footing the bill (and should you write anything negative, well, be ready for your host to take offense and black list you from future trips).

The people you meet on press trips can be unpleasant at times. I’ve encountered journalists who complain about everything from not being upgrade to first class to not getting ice in their Diet Cokes. They lobby threats about not writing a good review about a place unless their ludicrous demands are met and bat around the “do you know who I am?” adage, and it’s frankly embarrassing to travel in their ranks. Back in my fledgling days as a travel writer, I attended a press trip or two; on one occasion, I met “Miss Thang” (the nickname we bestowed upon her) who not-so-politely asked the flight attendant to pick out all the cashews from her nut bowl then requested an ice cream sundae at 30,000 feet, refused to surrender her “$5,000 Chanel watch” at the security checkpoint in the airport, and dissed our host by departing from the group when we went to see the local sites because “I only write about spa treatments.” (Sounds fishy to me.) No thanks; I would rather just pay my own way than spend a week trapped in a minivan in the mountains with Miss Thang and no escape route in sight.

You often write about places you don’t go. Round-ups—or a bulleted list of 10 or so destinations that fall under one theme—translate to pageviews. When assigned a quick list with a short turnaround, writers rely on the help of publicists, jetsetting peers and online research to churn out such an article. I wish someone would pay me to research the seven sexiest beaches in Southeast Asia in person, but that’s simply not how it works. (Now, for a specific destination article, the writer generally visits the country featured.) Not to mention, those of us doing this full-time are churning out articles at such a rapid pace to pay the bills that we wouldn’t have time to visit all the places we write about even if we wanted to. While I tend to dip into my deep archives of destinations visited—for vacation or on another assignment—I’ve also written about plenty of locales I might never see beyond a computer screen.

The travel is only a very small part of it. During stints updating guidebooks, I spend 16 hours a day, seven days a week chained to my computer in my pajamas line-editing and calling establishments to make sure their listings are still correct. Because I’m diligent when it comes to accuracy, I also crosscheck all listings with user-generated review sites to ensure the quality has remained the same. But do I go to each and every restaurant and hotel named in an 800-page book? Hell no. I usually have five weeks, if that, to complete a monster of an update and that barely leaves time to run out of my apartment for coffee, let alone to traipse about the state (or country) making sure the thousands of hotels, bars, restaurants and attractions we’ve included are still as great as they once were (this is where the Internet and technology really come in handy).

Even seasoned travel writers must hustle for assignments. Despite being in the business for more than 10 years, my “rejected pitches” folder in my email is 10 times the size as my “accepted pitches.” Outsiders seem to think that once you hit a certain point in your career, you can stop all the hustling and sit back and wait for stories to fall in your lap. Sure, I do get assigned pieces unsolicited at times but I spend just as many hours brainstorming, pitching and doing preliminary interviews now as I ever did. Given lead times and delayed pay cycles, I don’t know any travel writer who hasn’t experienced that panicked sensation of “OMG, where’s my next paycheck coming from?” It’s all a gamble in this biz.

I could go on about the trials and tribulations of making it as a travel writer, but at the end of the day, I chose this career and wouldn’t have it any other way. I thrive on the research, the storytelling, the personalities I meet, and when I do land that rare assignment where I’m sent overseas solo with a map and an expense account, it’s all worth it. Travel writing is one of those industries you go into for passion not profit, and I’d rather make a little doing something I love than a lot doing something I loathe.

COMMENTS
  • February 10, 2014

    I know it seems to be a pet peeve of yours when people call this a dream job, but it’s been mine since childhood. Despite the clear disadvantages, this is still exactly what I want to do after graduation, and I just wanted to thank you for writing such an honest article about the industry. If you have any suggestions for a budding travel writer, I would be ridiculously excited to hear them.

    • February 10, 2014

      It’s not that it’s a pet peeve of mine at all, it’s just that travel writing is not like going into a more cut-and-dry field like being a lawyer or a doctor where there’s a defined path to success (or simply steps you take to get a job). And it’s becoming increasingly more difficult with very few staff jobs to be had; I logged my time in a magazine office and then went freelance, which is what any budding travel writer pretty much has to do before being able to make a full-time living writing.

  • February 10, 2014

    Ah I could never do guidebooks – sounds too tedious!

    • February 10, 2014

      That it is! Not glamorous at all, ha.

  • February 10, 2014

    I really appreciate this post. I have recently jumped into the travel writing/blogging craziness! Right now, I consider it a hobby while still working full time. It is frustrating to contact an editor and never hear anything back. It’s discouraging but it is a reality of the business. All we can do is keep trying, right? Thanks for your honesty!

    • February 10, 2014

      To be honest, even magazines I’ve written for a number of times over the years don’t get back to me when an editor I’ve known for ages (i.e. the “in” I had) leaves for another title. Which is why I jump around so much among publications; in reality, you’ve got to write for the publications who will get back to you, ha. But don’t think we ALL don’t experience that feeling of being ignored regularly; I get told “no”—or, more often than not, receive no response—far more often than I get a “yes!”

  • February 10, 2014

    ABSOLUTELY. And have you noticed that one annoying “Miss Thang” annoys everyone on the trip? I’m always glad I’m not that person!

    • February 10, 2014

      I love the saying “if there’s not a ‘Miss Thang’ on your trip, then it’s probably you,” ha! Not that that’s necessarily true: I went on plenty of trips where everyone bonded and got along great (unless “Miss Thang” truly was me, heh).

  • February 10, 2014

    I admire you for being able to carve out your own path and have an amazing career as a reward! That must have taken (and still take) an immense courage and perseverance! Go Kristin!!

  • February 10, 2014

    It’s never as easy as it looks to others on the outside. I’ve been in Spain for almost a month now, most of that time spent behind my computer.

    That said, I still love what I do.

  • February 10, 2014

    Great post Kristin. I think “dream job” is all a matter of perspective. Everyone thinks there is something better out there than what they currently have. Compared to sitting at a desk 9-10 hours a day with no windows under flourescent lights while my back stiffens more each day, and then spending 2.5 hours in the car each day, your description of a travel writer sounds pretty good. Although ask me this a few month ago when I was not working and I would say I would be happy working doing just about anything. I think your point is a good one though that nothing is just handed out and hard work pays off to pave your own way to get what you want.

    • February 10, 2014

      Haha, well I’ve sat at my computer in my workout clothes in a dimly-lit dining room for 14 hours four out of the past five days, interacting with no one but the occasional phone interview (this is the norm and not out of the ordinary, FYI). No tropical travels on my immediate agenda. So yes, I feel you!

  • February 10, 2014

    “Travel writing is one of those industries you go into for passion not profit, and I’d rather make a little doing something I love than a lot doing something I loathe.” AGREED! And that’s why even after reading this article I’m going to continue pursuing this career.

    • February 12, 2014

      I feel like the same can be said for any creative profession, not solely travel writing.

  • February 10, 2014

    Great assessment of the good, bad, and ugly of your biz. Keep up the great work of bringing a little bit of the world to the rest of us! W.C.C.

    • February 12, 2014

      Thank you! You are too sweet!

    • February 26, 2014

      Yes me also agree with W.C.Keep doing best think you can do…keep it up!

  • February 11, 2014

    I love when travel writers I enjoy write posts like this- I need all the direction & help I can get!

  • February 11, 2014

    Thanks for sharing the ‘dark’ side of travel writing with us. I have to agree though that I’d rather do something I love for little money, than something I have for lots of money!

    • February 12, 2014

      Ha, I wouldn’t call it dark, but definitely a reality check for those who think it’s all tropical vacations with a bottomless expense account 😉

  • February 11, 2014

    Love this. So many true points. And in my experience, if you have to ask who the “Miss/Mr. Thang” is on a trip, it’s probably you.

    • February 12, 2014

      So true…luckily, I’ve yet to have to ask that, heh 😉

  • February 11, 2014

    I enjoyed this informative and honest portrayal of your life work. As an owner of a travel agency, to this point my travel blog, TravelByTerry.com is something of a sideline. That could change at some point so your insights are much appreciated. You might give my site a look. It is admittedly quirky and, like anchovies, perhaps an acquired taste!

  • February 11, 2014

    Sometimes when someone is going on about what a “dream job” I have, I tell them what I got paid for my last assignment. Then their faces fall and they start to pity me. Not sure which is worse.

    • February 12, 2014

      I think I know exactly which assignments you’re talking about as I’ve seen them on an email list circulating and OUCH, the pay is not pretty. You’ll get there, though 😉

  • February 13, 2014

    Ah, Kristin. What perfect timing. It’s nice to see an honest portrayal blogging life. It should be required reading for anyone considering the transition to travel blogging full time. Despite the hard knocks and occasional drudge work, you can’t beat the view from the office :).

  • February 13, 2014

    I envy you for your hard work! Sounds like you totally deserve where you’ve gotten to. I, myself, sadly don’t have the determination required to make travel writing a career. I’m just enjoying posting every two or three weeks too much at the moment haha 🙂 x

  • February 13, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. So many people think that certain jobs really are dream jobs and that you are simply making money by going on vacation. I know this is not the case at all. It sounds like you go through a lot of struggles that most freelance writers have as well. Finding clients, doing research, working when there are other things going on, and all the things that you discussed in this post are more the reality of what it is like. Nothing good comes for free! I’m sure some days it is great, but generally, if you want to make money you have to work for it. Thank you very much!

  • February 14, 2014
    Bruce Murray

    One or more of the following is true for most travel writers today:

    – A working spouse or significant other that pays the bills.
    – They don’t rent or own a home in a developed country.
    – Not paying US taxes.
    – Not planning for retirement.
    – Are on public assistance.
    – They are not raising a family.
    – Have other sources of income not directly related to travel writing.
    – Are the personal friend of an editor/publisher of a major publication.

    Want to try and make a living as a travel writer? First specialize and become an expert. You will wear many hats: content creator, marketing/promotion, publisher, editor. Read Jack Adler’s classic book “Make Steady Money as a Travel Writer: Secrets of Selling Travel Writing Stories Without Traveling”. Don’t just write. Produce photos, videos and audio content. Create content everyday. If you don’t sell something self-publish and monetize it. Create income streams around your travel interest. Operate tours, shoot stock photography/video, speaker.

    Most important! Work when others are not.

  • February 14, 2014

    And this is exactly why I do not want to make travel writing my full-time career.

  • February 15, 2014

    Really interesting! I had no idea that all of the reviews I write as a traveler on user-generated sites are used by “real” travel writers as research!

  • February 16, 2014
    Haidang

    i love that you just carved out your dream job. it’s called being pro active, it’s called following your passion, it’s called making your dreams into reality through hard work, dedication, discipline, and faith. that is why you are one special person! some1 give me an Amen

  • February 18, 2014

    I’d just love it if someone paid for all of our travels!! Sadly, so not the case!!

  • February 18, 2014

    Thanks for setting the record straight. This is definitely a difficult career that requires a lot of work!

  • February 18, 2014

    And it’s not well paid either!! Which sucks even more!

  • February 19, 2014

    It is amazing to travel the world as a living but people don’t realize how much work really goes into it. When you run your own site you have to create content, edit photos, edit videos, pitch ideas and at the same time enjoy your travels. We would never complain about what we do but definitely a lot of work 🙂

  • February 21, 2014

    I loved your last line – “I’d rather make a little doing something I love than a lot doing something I loathe.” That’s exactly what I follow. Thanks for this article.

  • February 22, 2014

    Amen! That’s all I have to say… 🙂

  • February 25, 2014

    We’re almost alike in many ways. I also love traveling around the world and write on different travel destinations as well as hotel accommodation and perfect places to explore. I love your statement “Travel writing is one of those industries you go into for passion not profit, and I’d rather make a little doing something I love than a lot doing something I loathe.”

  • February 28, 2014

    I had a press trip to Israel back in 2011. There were some good stuff, and some… not so good. So yeah, people think it’s all butterflies when it’s not!

    What I realized is that we travel bloggers have different motivations for what we do. As long as you’re happy with what you’re doing, then yeah… I guess you can call it a dream job 🙂 And unlike a regular job, we get to travel as a reward for all our hard work.

    Cheers!

  • March 9, 2014
    Ian

    Miss Thang must be a hit at parties … so insufferable!

  • March 17, 2014
    Sky

    Every time I read one of those posts that makes it so clear that travel writing is not necessarily a dream job, it makes me want it even more. I can’t even explain it but even though I know it’s not glamorous, that I’m going to end up working my ass off and probably working harder than in a 9-5, and spending a good deal of my time in a room writing or pitching articles, it’s still pretty much all I want…and I wonder why my friends think I’m crazy 😉

  • March 23, 2014

    What an informative post and one that you have hit neatly on the head. So many people think travelling is either for the very sophisticated or for the very rich and as we all know, it’s neither here or there. As long as you’re passionate about what you do, it doesn’t matter how much you’re paid. And don’t I just know it!

  • March 23, 2014

    …which is why I got a “normal” job and am looking forward to traveling on my own terms again – what a thought! 😛

  • March 23, 2014

    Thank you for this blog!

    We have been travel blogging/filming for 2 years now and we love it! And it is hard work! And we love it still haha!

    I haven’t even thought about writing (paid) travel articles for other people yet, although it should probably be my next step. Do you have any tips for getting started? I write books and blogs but am a little afraid of writing magazines for some reason!!

  • August 20, 2015

    I am a Travel Blog Writer and its not so easy to write but I enjoy alot.

  • December 9, 2015

    i love that you just carved out your dream job. it’s called being pro active, it’s called following your passion, it’s called making your dreams into reality through hard work, dedication, discipline, and faith

Leave a Comment

GET MY POSTS DELIVERED DIRECTLY TO YOUR INBOX
+ Sign up and receive your free copy of my eBook