Writing about writing—how cliché, right? And yet, if I learned anything over this past decade of living, it’s that people love a good industry post. And I’m all about giving the people what they want, which today just happens to be a compilation of commonly asked questions not to ask a travel writer.
It never fails when I’m meeting someone for the first time and they find out what I do for a living a firing squad of inquiries is forthcoming. I can almost predict how the interrogation is going to go down: “what’s your favorite country?” “I’m going to Jamaica soon, what should I do there?” and “Can I have your job?”
Just for fun, I put the question out there in one of my think tanks of fellow veteran travel writers to see what nettled other writers; the feedback was off-the-chain, some of it hilarious, others OMG-inducing. Below, with the permission of each writer mentioned, I’ve included a few of my favorites.
(Note that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. We all love what we do and fully realize it’s a bit of an enigma to many. So take this post with a grain of salt. And if you have asked me any of the below questions before, no, you will not be struck from my Christmas card mailing list.)
“What’s your favorite country?”
Assumedly, most of us have been to dozens of countries—for me, it’s somewhere over 120, last I counted. Could you pick one child you prefer over the other, one city you can’t live without, one food you’d eat every day for the rest of your life? That’s the equivalent to asking what my favorite country is. Similarly, many writers noted cringing when being asked how many countries they’d visited; personally, I’m not a passport stamp-counter, but I have been interviewed for publications before where I was made to tally up everywhere I’ve been, so I have a general sense of the range I’ve visited.
Instead, ask this: Be specific. Say, “I’m a fan of adventure and I like warmer destinations. I don’t want to fly more than four hours from my home base. Do you have a country recommendation for me based on those parameters?” To which, I would say, “YES, ABSOLUTELY,” then ramble on about Portugal/South Africa/Grenada, depending on where you live. I’m not a mind-reader, and I can’t suss out your budget, your travel style, your hobbies if you don’t tell me.
“I’m going to X destination. Do you have any tips?”
Well, first of all, that’s pretty vague. Secondly, if it’s somewhere I’ve been, it’s highly likely I’ve blogged about, which is why I’ve spent hours of my life organizing my content and building out a destinations page that makes it easy for you to find said posts by the country or the state. Start there! It’s also likely that if I have any tips at all, I’ve shared them via this free resource—I promise, I don’t squirrel away my best bits in the back of my mind; on most subjects, I’m an open book. If your question isn’t answered, be a tad bit more specific. I’m more than happy to answer requests for travel tips, so long as it doesn’t take me hours of research to do it.
Instead, ask this: “I’m going to Scotland, and I know you’ve blogged about it ad nauseam. I read all your posts on planning a road trip to the Highlands and was wondering if you think three days is enough to see the major sights?” I love a good to-the-point question that I can respond to instantly, and bonus points for you for having already done the research and read the posts I have contributed on the topic.
“You haven’t been to Thailand?!? How have you not been to Thailand?”
Well, I don’t know. It’s never been that high on my list, every travel blogger from here to Timbuktu has covered it extensively, not to mention, it’s hella far from where I live. I looked at visiting a friend there this winter, and while flights weren’t bad (around $1000 round-trip), it was going to be a logistical nightmare—a minimum of 30 hours in transit each way. That means, I’m going to need to stay two to three weeks to feel like it’s worth the trip. At this point in my career, I don’t have two to three weeks to spare as we’re booked on back-to-back projects constantly (it’s a good problem to have). The good news is that when (if?) I retire someday, I’ll have plenty of unexplored territory to conquer!
Instead, ask this: “Is there anywhere you’re dying to go that you haven’t been already?” To which, I’d say: “Absolutely! So many places. Just a few off the top of my head: Thailand, Indonesia, Palau, Greenland, the list goes on.” And there are plenty of places I’m dying to go back to for a second, third, fourth visit, as well (see: India, Vietnam, Cambodia, most of the world). It is a bit insulting, though, when someone feigns offense that I haven’t been somewhere—people, it’s a huge world, and I’m not in any big rush to see it! In an ideal world, I’d adopt the slow travel mentality and take a few months in each place I visited (but again, see: have a career, a house, a dog).
“So … how much do you make as a travel writer?”
I was surprised how many in my secret travel writing group said this is a common question they receive (the nerve of some people!). One fellow travel writer told me: “The boldness of questions like ‘so how much do you make as a travel writer?’ is very irritating. I walked out of a business one time because the CEO started his presentation with ‘since you don’t make much money, I’m sorry to disappoint that we won’t be providing swag.'” Look, unless you are my spouse or my accountant, stay out of my finances, please. I’ve gotten variations from PR folks I know who just assume that freelance writer = makes peanuts (or maybe they’re projecting their own paltry salary onto us? … I’m not quite sure). That’s not necessarily true. Those of us who were smart and have been in the game for quite some time have likely diversified into other ventures—corporate copywriting, project management, consulting—that can be rather lucrative. Check out how my writing/photography idol Lola Akinmade Åkerström does it here.
Instead, ask this: Nothing. There’s nothing you should ask instead of this, as you don’t broach the subject of money with any professional. One question I don’t mind getting, however, is something a bit pointed like: “There’s no denying that working in media has taken a hit over the past decades as publications have shuttered and rates have dropped significantly. You’ve clearly weathered the storm. What’s been your key to survival?”
“What do you do when you aren’t traveling?”
“WRITE. What else?” exclaimed one of my freelance pals, exasperated by having to answer this all the time. Sure, the travel is the glamorous part (but it’s not all glamor … if only I could take you along for a true peek behind the curtain!), but the majority of time when I’m not on the road, I’m pounding on my keyboard in long 16-hour-a-day stretches trying to meet existing deadlines, and do all the normal admin stuff that accompanies running your own business. And yes, there are plenty of days I never get out of my pajamas (unless to go to the gym), and my personal hygiene definitely takes a hit. #RoadWarriorProblemsYall
Instead, ask this: “Wow, that must be exhausting being on the road all the time. Do you ever get down time? What do you most look forward to when you’re not on the road?” For me, I’d answer: “having a routine. Traveling so often can make it hard to keep a steady sleep cycle, and my fitness activity suffers. When I’m home, I try to develop good habits and a daily routine that starts with a workout before I’m seated at my desk for a long 12- to 14-hour day of writing.”
“That’s a real job?”
Yep. Just like being a surgeon or a weather analyst or a circus performer is a real job, so is travel writing. In this day and age when newspapers are virtually non-existent and magazines are filling their pages with thinly-veiled advertisements, many of us have ventured into more tourism marketing kinds of content projects. I’d say a solid half of my friends and acquaintances still have zero clue what I do (nor do they ask, tbh) and assume that the blog is my job (and sure it’s a part of it, but more like 30 percent of the overall work we do).
Instead, say this: “That sounds like a very cool gig! It’s no doubt a lot of work, too. How did you get into such a profession?” I’m always more than happy to share my trajectory from newspaper journalist and sports marketer to entertainment reporter to, much later, travel writer.
“Wow … you mean you, like, get to travel for FREE?!?”
I mean, free is relative—and let’s revert back to the previous question and remind you that this is a job. If your firm were to send you to Vegas for a week for a conference to collect CE hours, would they expect you to foot the bill? Unlikely. But just like you incur out-of-pocket expenses, so do we. And because the majority of us are freelance, we have no one to reimburse us (and if you’re on a magazine assignment, your per diem is paltry at best). So, plenty of costs like airport parking, meals, all tips and bar bills do, in fact, come out of our overall paycheck, which isn’t awesome.
Instead, ask this: I’ve got nothing.
“Oh, you’re always on vacation!”
Ha! This is one of those questions us writers just smile, nod and internally sigh about. Do we have jobs that look enviable from the outside and are, no doubt, far more fulfilling than sitting in a neon-lit cubicle? Absolutely. Do we have to hustle our asses off, put in long 16-hour days no matter if we’re in our home offices or on the road? Also, true. And that beach shot you saw on our Instagram? Was probably something we walked out onto a balcony to snap in between site visits and interviews to do our job of content marketing and researching the destination, not necessarily what we were doing all day. There have been plenty of assignments I’ve gone on to tropical destinations where I didn’t put on a bathing suit or step out onto the sand once. (I know, I know, it still beats being in an office, and I agree.)
Plus, just because we’re on assignment in one destination doesn’t mean that deadlines for other publications or client work just waits for us to return home; while traveling, I’m constantly looking for a coffee shop with reliable WiFi to pop into midday or between meetings to put out a client fire or two. If you’re going to run your own business, you have to be accessible at all times, so unless I’m in a small town where there’s no cell service (Lord help us all because then the panic attacks really ensue!), I’m likely checking my email on my phone every 15 minutes or so. Not to mention, destinations really want to get the most out of their money and, thus, often don’t leave us much free time at all when we’re on the road, so often I’ll finally get to my hotel room at 10pm for the first time all day, only to pound away on my keyboard filing copy until 2am, then wake up at 6 and start that cycle all over again. TL;DR this career is not for those who need eight hours of sleep a night.
Instead, ask this: “If you were traveling for vacation and not for work, where would you go?” People always seem surprised that despite my far-flung travels to Borneo, Rwanda, Brazil and beyond, I prefer Florida’s own Gulf Coast for all my leisure travels. When I’m not on assignment, I want the most relaxing place I can reach in the least amount of time. No need to kill my coveted time off on a long-haul flight. Or best of all, I stay home in that gorgeous Victorian I rarely get to see!
“Do you need an assistant to carry your baggage?”
“If I could afford someone to be my sherpa and otherwise share the experience, I probably would,” travel writer Terry Ward and mom to two babies under 2 tells me. “But I’d also probably ask my husband, dad or sister first. It’s like a script. I get this question all the time.” We get it; you’re (kinda)(maybe)(probably) joking about wanting to tag along, but it’s a question we collectively get so often, the humor has worn off. It’s definitely in good fun, but I also sometimes wonder if those who ask such things genuinely think that a writer a) can dictate the terms of an assignment and b) is presented with a bottomless expense fund covered by the publication. Rather the opposite; you’d be surprised how many bills that we have to cover on our own! And even if we’re paying for a meal to do a restaurant review that we’re not being reimbursed for and it is technically considered a write-off, we can still only write off half. As for traveling with a plus-one, I’m grateful to have created a business with my partner that enables us to travel together more often than not, but this has been a shift that just took place in the past 18 months as we ventured into bigger destination marketing projects and I stopped taking on so many low-paying print gigs.
Instead, ask this: “Do you always travel solo? Wow, that must be a hard life. Do your partner or children ever get to go with you? It must be so hard to be away from them so much!”
“Your husband lets you travel alone?”
I’ve gotten this one plenty of times in the past, and Florida-based travel writer Susan B. Barnes says little irks her more. “First off, anyone who has met me for one slight moment knows that no one—NO ONE —’lets’ me do anything. I don’t ask permission to do my job, nor would my husband ever expect me to. He knows me.” Ditto. I don’t think you go into an independent career like travel writing and marry someone who doesn’t support your dream.
Instead, say this: “It must be hard to sustain relationships when you’re on the road so much—it’s almost like you’re in a long-distance relationship part of the time. What’s the key to balancing your job with your marriage?” Basically anything other than implying a husband has ownership over his wife works in this case.
“Who looks after your children when you’re away?”
“Um, their perfectly capable father,” retorts Canadian writer Lola Augustine Brown. “This [question] pisses me off so much. I’m often tempted to say, ‘oh I just leave the TV on and give them a big bag of Cheetos.’” I’ve noticed several of my friends who travel a lot for work get the mom guilt. Being childless, it’s obviously not a question I get, but it is interesting how even in the 21st century when most moms and dads I know work full time, the mother is still expected to be the primary caretaker. And no doubt, it would be very tough to be a single parent and a travel writer (or like us, a dog mom without family nearby to care for Ella when we’re on the road). But for those married (or with a partner) and children, it seems obvious that the non-traveling parent would be the one to stay home with the little ones.
Instead, say this: “You’re a mom, right? Your kids must have so many cool adventures under their belts! How often do they get to go with you? And how admirable that you sometimes are able to travel far and wide with your whole family.” Or ask specific tips a traveling mom (or dad) might be able to share on how you could travel more with your own children.
“So, can you write a story about me/my business?”
Nope, sorry. It doesn’t work that way. Those of us still in the print game report to editors who report to other editors, and so on and so forth. Print space is a commodity, and much of the game now (at least in magazines) is pay-to-play. So, no, no, no, I can’t help you by landing a story in a national magazine about your business, though I wish I could! Getting press for small businesses is like the equivalent of a runner’s high for writers, but sadly, the media just doesn’t make it that easy anymore (which is why many of us started blogs a long time ago: so we could control the conversation about topics that matter to us most).
Instead, say this: “Do you have any advice on how my [name the kind of business] company can get more exposure? What are some marketing tips you could share for getting the word out?” Granted, I might tell you to hire someone with experience on this side of your business, but I a) would possibly have a referral for you and b) might also have some social media tips you could incorporate on your own.
“I want to be a travel writer, will you help me?”
This is a loaded question. First things first: I LOVE helping people (see: previous question). I’m a natural connector, and if “connecting others” were a love language, it would no doubt be mine. I host not-for-profit networking meet-ups every month in Nashville, as I’ve been doing for more than four years. I mentor many young writers, speak at high schools and colleges whenever I’m asked, and occasionally run writing workshops. And when someone writes me and says, “I’ve been to journalism school, I’m interning at X publication, and I really want to get into travel writing,” then follows that with specific questions, I almost always respond.
But (and here it comes), the people asking for help becoming a travel writer are usually ones who have not put in any work, have zero experience writing or working in any form of media, and are often in other established careers and travel writing just sounds like “a fun thing to do” to kill the time. The quickest way to insult a travel writer is by saying, “I love traveling, and I’m not bad at writing—how hard can it be? Maybe I could be a travel writer, too.” This is what gets under the skin of other travel writers, those like me who held three (unpaid) internships at a time and worked retail to make ends meet. Those who took puny assignments for years (or decades) before landing a coveted byline in a Conde Nast Traveler or Travel + Leisure. Those who are still scraping to get by in times when publications are assigning more web content than ever and paying less than they ever have. What makes one writer more successful than the next may not necessarily be the writing skills, but rather work ethic and business sense.
You want to be a travel writer? Great. Put in the work. Get an editor coffee. Intern your little butt off. Start pitching smaller publications, then when you’ve had success there, move up to regional pubs and, later on, your dream titles. Then, when you’ve had skin in the game or at least proven you’re serious, only then do you write your idol (or the closest travel writer you know). But be polite, keep it short, have specific questions ready and by all means, DO NOT start by asking: “can I pick your brain?”
Instead, say this: “I’ve always been interested in pursuing travel writing and actually have a background in [insert related field]. Do you offer consulting services or could you point me toward a class I might take or any other resources you find useful?” This is the way to get an answer from a busy writer juggling deadlines, editors and the daily hustle.
I feel like I have to reiterate this once more, because the Internet is full of trolls and someone out there will no doubt take offense to the previous 3,000 words: I do really love what I do; all of us who weighed in on this topic do. And as I was riffing with the other travel writers I interviewed, we all agreed upon one thing: We have enviable jobs and are sure others in equally enviable positions get comparable questions, too. So if you do ask one of the above, we’ll likely let it slide, answer the questions as succinctly as possible, then move onto more important things (like asking you about yourself! after all, we are journalists … we care a lot more about interrogating our subject than we do droning on about our own boring lives).
Fellow travel writers, what have I left off? And those of you in other careers, what questions do you despise hearing about your own job? Educate the rest of us so we don’t make comparable faux pas!