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!).
“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.