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Travel Writing

The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer

Travel writing in the midst of adventure.
Travel writing inspiration. Sometimes, the craft and art are precarious and even uncomfortable. Photo credit Matthew Payne.

You've probably seen the come-on ads in web banners or your Facebook feed, with a glamorous photo of a person with a laptop in a tropical locale. "Launch your dream career as a travel writer today and get paid to travel the world!" All you have to do is sign up for their course to get all the "secrets." Soon, you'll be able to expect "a complimentary week on an exotic Asian island" or a luxury vacation in Europe "with airfare and all expenses paid." Just take this course, and you'll be "on permanent vacation."

Before you fall for it, remember that it sounds exciting to be a rock star, best-selling novelist, or play basketball for the Golden State Warriors. It's not so glamorous, however, to be an aspiring actor (waiter) in Los Angeles, an aspiring songwriter (waiter) in Nashville, or an aspiring novelist (waiter) in New York. It may sound silly to compare the most successful travel writers or hottest travel bloggers to rock stars and pro athletes. Yet, the odds of getting to that level of success are just as daunting. The big difference is that when you get to that upper echelon of travel writers, you still need to make more money than the lowest-paid bench warmer in the NBA.

Just as plugging in a Stratocaster doesn't make you a rock star, writing tales about your travels doesn't make you a paid travel writer. Like any position where supply far exceeds demand, you'll need to follow the right steps and then pay your dues to learn how to become a travel writer for a living. It's not going to happen overnight. It might not even occur over years.

As a service to beginning travel writers who are ready for the real story, here are the seven biggest myths of travel writing and what it will take to defy the odds.

Myth #1: Travel writers make enough money to live on

Some people make a good living as a travel writer. With the growth of blogs that reach hundreds of thousands of readers, a few dozen even top $100,000 consistently. They are a tiny minority of the total pool, though. Most are part-time writers doing this on the side. Or they are retired and working for supplemental income. For more than 12 years now, I have supported my family as a travel writer, thanks to the growth of online advertising, influencer marketing, and expanded book sales. Assume I were trying to be a full-time freelance writer, though. In that case, I'd still be pulling in the part-time cash I did when I started in the mid-90s when I had to rely on occasional steady gigs but mostly spotty one-off assignments. It took three years of assignments and building up a collection of clips before I earned more than $20K in a year from my writing. Freelance travel writing is still a tough slog, so it would take at least two years to get to that point if you started today.

There are more ways to get published now in the digital age and more ways to get paid. You don't have to get permission from an editor to start a blog. Yet, the myth of fast success has remained the same. It's like a law of physics that doesn't speed up just because it's easier to publish. Most who manage a full-time travel writing income in the digital age are either stringing together up to 100 assignments a year or running a travel blog — one that either has a huge following or dominates a specific subject area. Either way, the founders put in years of effort before they got the payoff.

The decline of travel writing in the print world has been steady and steep. There used to be money in guidebook writing. Yet, now you're lucky to cover all your expenses and earn minimum wage from the advance. The most prominent magazines still pay well, but they are getting thinner and thinner each year or going out of business altogether. Very few newspapers still have a travel section. Thankfully, there are a few bright spots for those willing to work: custom publications (ones you won't find on a newsstand) and company blogs.

However, pay scales are not much better than 20 years ago and even lower when adjusted for inflation, so it takes a lot of hustling to earn a good living writing for others. Rates for a 500-word article range from $15 to $1,000, the latter for a seasoned writer doing a story for a Travel + Leisure type publication where beginners would never appear. Most of my freelance pieces earn me between $100 and $500. Prominent features and cover stories pay more, of course. Regardless, those plum assignments only come down the pike once you've forged a long-term relationship with the editor or have become famous. To support yourself at this, you need to get many stories in print regularly.

As a blogger, there are more earning opportunities once you have good traffic. Before that, your earnings will be close to zero. You can only be an influencer once you have real influence. Advertisers only care about your site once you have enough eyeballs on it for them to really reach people. You won't make commissions from affiliate ads until you have a tribe of people willing to buy things you recommend. At a minimum, it'll take six months to a year before a new blog is viable, more likely two or three years.

Myth #2: Editors are hungry for travel stories from new writers

For every magazine article slot, hundreds of writers are trying to fill it. It's like an audition for a movie part or tryouts for a pro sports team. Editors are up to their ears in material, and much of what crosses their desks from new writers isn't worth printing. I once asked a publication I wrote for when they needed to see my finished article we'd discussed for two months. The editor replied that she already had the following four issues done. Regardless, I wanted to get the article in when I could, as she would soon start on the fifth. Meanwhile, her slush pile is so full of unsolicited manuscripts that she can't waste time wading through every last one.

A brief, targeted query letter that shows you've read the publication might get you a fair shot. Start with smaller magazines, online travel sites putting up ads, or custom publications not inundated with queries. If the publication is well known, there's a good chance the editor won't even reply to your emails.

Myth #3: A destination is a story

Many aspiring travel writers feel that telling an editor they are heading off to some specific spot on the other side of the globe will result in an enthusiastic invitation to write about their adventures. But here's some news: editors are not short on people who are willing to head off to this place or that to write about it. Refrain from assuming that just going somewhere is a reason to write an article. Even remote corners of the globe are visited by more writers than we need. (I've seen enough articles on Easter Island and Antarctica to last a lifetime.) Unless you'll be the first person landing on Mars, you'd better find a good story angle.

Of course, you can still write about the Inca Trail, the Grand Canyon, or the Taj Mahal, but you'd better find a unique slant that has never been tried before. Is there some attraction right off the Inca Trail that nobody ever visits — but should? Could you spend a few days with people living inside the Grand Canyon? Is there a stonemason descended from one of the original masons doing repairs on the Taj Mahal? Wherever you are going, you need to think like a journalist and dig for something an editor — or your blog readers — will find refreshing.

Young woman doing some travel writing on a mountaintop.
Travel writing seems ultra-romantic, and it very often can be. But much actual writing is done on a laptop in haste after a return home or during monotonous transit in a generic airport after a press trip full of hype. Photo credit Tyler Nix.

Myth #4: Readers want to hear every detail about your personal experiences

Take an hour or two and read some stories on unpopular blogs and travel websites that don't pay writers for submissions. On most of them, you'll find long, drawn-out narratives by self-centered writers who seem to think everyone wants to know the minute details of their day — including their digestive problems. Why should travel magazines pay for this stuff? We're already overloaded with it, and it's free! Lengthy tomes about dodging beggars and waiting around for the bus to get fixed are not stories; they are journal entries. That's where they belong.

Granted, reputable magazines occasionally run narratives about some epic journey. Yet, the stories are nearly always carefully edited for interest, and the spotlight seldom shines on the narrator. Here's a good test: read a magazine story or book chapter from someone like Bill Bryson or Pico Iyer and then read your story. Then, have your most brutally honest friend do the same. If your many-page travelogue is as gripping or funny and flows just as well, keep going until you publish it. If not, edit, edit, edit.

Myth #5: Travel magazines love long stories

Speaking of extensive features, pick up a travel magazine in your local bookstore and see how many stories run for five pages or more. Then, count all the small features of a page or less scattered across the rest of the magazine. Pick up a few more popular magazines covering almost any subject matter. Notice a pattern? Blame the attention span problem on whatever you want, but the average magazine story length in the US is now less than 400 words. Get good at writing short, informative articles, and you can get assignments. Editors need focused pieces that say something briefly and then get out of the way. This is where the work is, especially for a beginner. Eventually, you may build a good reputation and garner a big feature assignment. However, try to do it in reverse order, and you'll get more rejections than you can count.

Think small in another way also — in the story subject itself. "What to See in Santorini" is a challenging sale except for an airline magazine (where their regular writers get these assignments almost as a gift, so forget about it). A piece on how the island's government is trying to enact standards for better donkey treatment there (a recent story in Afar) is a nice feature that fits on one page. An editor probably has no interest in your hours getting lost in the souks of Marrakesh. Nevertheless, one editor snapped up a piece I wrote in Marrakesh called "Interview with a Tout." Don't forget that the easiest stories to sell are the ones that truly do a service for the reader. Show everyone how to do something cheaper, faster, or with fewer hassles, and you'll have far more success than talking about the 48-hour train ride you took in India with goats and chickens.

Myth #6: You write a story, you get paid, it soon gets published

Travel writing is a challenging way to pay for your travels. The main reason is that the money comes long after the trip. The very biggest and best magazines pay "on acceptance," which means you get paid when you hand in a manuscript they are happy with. In the other 90 percent of the publishing world, where you will probably get most of your assignments, this is about as common as Ferraris in Cuba. Most stories are paid on publication. Others are accepted "on spec," meaning you write the story without knowing if they'll accept it. If they do take it, wait to buy the champagne. You will get paid after the story actually shows up in print. (If they don't go out of business first.) In the best case, this will be within two or three months. More likely, it will be six months or a year. Your yearlong trip could be over when you see a check from the story you wrote in the first month of your round-the-world journey.

On a blog, you could get paid…never. If the story doesn't get traction with readers, it won't get traffic, so it can't be "monetized." Or that story you wrote this week will do well eventually. Regardless, it won't start earning ad money until two or three years later — when it starts getting serious search traffic. Once you have consistent traffic, your options expand. You might even get paid by a brand or destination to promote them in your writing or social media. However, none of that happens until you have spent years grinding it out and creating new content consistently.

Myth #7: All your expenses will be covered

Ads for travel writing courses and workshops love to talk about "all expenses paid," but this is a rare event for most beginning freelance travel writers. Assume you have an assignment letter for your great idea from a reputable travel magazine, a prominent newspaper, or a well-known travel website. In that case, you can swing some freebies. If your blog is a niche leader or has many readers/followers, PR firms will invite you on trips. Otherwise, forget it.

There are now literally thousands of travel writers and bloggers competing for spots on press trips or asking to get hosting from hotels. Such demands have worsened in the "influencer" age, with hotels inundated with requests from entitled young Instagrammers. If a travel provider cannot see an apparent return-on-investment payback from providing you free hospitality, don't expect to get it. I have stayed at 1,000 hotels for free and been on press trips to most continents, but that's because of the publications I wrote for and the kinds of potential customers reading them. If I had been writing for some obscure travel site or a blog with no relevant traffic, hotel managers never would have replied to my letters. Every tourism business wants publicity, but it has to be the right publicity for them to care.

Yes, resorts and tourism bureaus often invite press people to visit, with some or all expenses paid, sometimes even paying the blogger or vlogger if they'll produce extra deliverables like photos, videos, or Instagram takeovers. But the key word is "invite." You're in if you are a regular at a major magazine or well-known travel website. If you're the managing editor of Outside magazine, you'll get more invitations than you can use. If your blog is one of the most popular in the world or the best about a specific type of travel, you've got a good shot. However, assume you write for some obscure magazine you have not heard of or your blog and social media numbers are middling. In that case, you'll pay for your room at that fancy beach resort. Thank you very much.

So, what’s the good news for travel writers?

I'm erring on the side of pessimism because I am writing this for Transitions Abroad, a publication known for providing the unvarnished truth, refreshingly free from hype. But, of course, travel writing can be a lot of fun. I would never have learned as much as I have about the places I've been and the people I have written about if I hadn't had a reason to dive in. Travel writing has taken me to places I probably never would have gone: a sadhu's den in the Himalayas, a mystical mountain sculpture garden in Korea, and deathly quiet places in the middle of the Bolivian desert — to name just a few. The check and the byline may have been the goal, but I always took the trips with the attitude that the money and glory were just the gravy.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from being a travel writer any more than I would dissuade someone with talent from becoming a songwriter or an actor. But if you are committed to being one, do it because you are already a curious and perceptive traveler who happens to be a good (if not great) writer, and do it the right way. Read a few good books or articles on the subject and do what the authors say. The advice is nearly always tried and true. You will need to study the publications you're pitching in detail, send good query letters, write about unique subjects that genuinely interest you, and ensure everything you submit is as good as possible — and on time. If it's your blog, write articles that haven't been written a hundred times. Publish pieces that will get noticed. Make every post as good as possible and aim at a specific type of traveler to build a tribe of followers.

Second, remember who your "customers" are. The buyers of what you are selling as a freelancer are editors. If they don't want to publish your material, your creative ideas will never go beyond your journal or letters home. As a blogger, your customers are your regular readers and the tourism boards or brands who can give you work. Realize this is only for you if you're comfortable selling yourself and your ideas. Being a travel writer or blogger, at least until you're established, is 90 percent marketing and 10 percent writing.

One of the most valuable tools for improving your writing is feedback. Seek it out whenever you can, especially on your 'leads' (the first paragraph, which needs to grab people). Take that feedback seriously and use it to refine your craft. Remember, even the most successful writers are constantly learning and evolving. So, don't be discouraged if you're not sipping cocktails in Tahiti just yet. With dedication and a willingness to learn, you'll be getting paid to do what you love…eventually.

Get feedback whenever you can, especially on your “leads” (the first paragraph, which needs to grab people). Then take that feedback seriously. In the end, you may not be sipping cocktails in Tahiti, all expenses paid, but you’ll be getting paid at least something to do what you love…eventually.

Travel Writing 2.0 2nd Edition book cover.
Cheapest Destinations travel blog.
A Better Life for Half the Price book cover.

Related Topics
Travel Writing Guide
Articles on Travel Writing by Travel Writers
Interviews on Travel Writing with Travel Writers
Transitions Abroad's Review of Travel Writing 2.0

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