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Travel Writing

The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer

Travel writing the midst of adventure
Travel writing inspiration. Sometimes the craft and art is 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 end up “on permanent vacation.”

Before you fall for it, remember that it also sounds exciting to be a rock star, a best-selling novelist, or to 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, but the odds of getting to that level of success are just as daunting. The big difference is that when you do get to that upper echelon of travel writers, you’re still not making nearly as much money as 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 is not going to 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 if you want to learn how to become a travel writer for a living. It’s not going to happen overnight. It might not even happen over years.

As a service to any beginning travel writers out there 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 very small minority of the total pool though. Most are part-time writers doing this on the side. Or they are retired and are 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. If I were trying to be a full-time freelance writer though, I’d probably still be pulling in the kind of 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. Back then, 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 probably 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 though and more ways to get paid. You don't have to get permission from an editor to start a blog. The myth of fast success hasn’t changed though. 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 they are running a travel blog—one that either has a huge following or it 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, but now you’re lucky to cover all your expenses and earn minimum wage from the advance. The biggest 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 put in the work: custom publications (ones you won’t find on a newsstand) and company blogs.

Pay scales are not much better than they were 20 years ago though, 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 being for a seasoned writer doing a story for a Travel + Leisure type publication where beginners would never appear. The bulk of my freelance pieces earn me between $100 and $500. Big features and cover stories pay more, of course, but those plum assignments don’t come down the pike until you’ve forged a long-term relationship with the editor or have become famous. To support yourself at this, you would need to get a whole lot of stories in print on a regular basis.

As a blogger, there are more earning opportunities once you have good traffic. Before that, your earnings will be close to zero. You can’t be an influencer until you have real influence. Advertisers don’t care about your site until 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 that 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 article slot in a magazine, there are hundreds of writers 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 desk 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 next four issues done, but to get the article in when I could, as she would soon be starting 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 that are putting up ads, or custom publications not inundated with queries. Because if the publication is well known, there’s a good chance the editor won’t even reply to your e-mails.

Myth #3: A destination is a story

Many aspiring travel writers feel that telling an editor they are heading off to some certain spot on the other side of the globe will result in an enthusiastic invitation to write about your 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. Don’t assume 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’re going to be the first person landing on Mars, you’d better find a good story angle.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t write about the Inca Trail, the Grand Canyon, or the Taj Mahal, but you’d better be able to find a truly 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 couple of days with people who actually live inside the Grand Canyon? Is there a stonemason doing repairs on the Taj Mahal who is descended from one of the original masons? Wherever you are going, you need to think like a journalist and dig for something an editor—or your blog readers—will find refreshing.

Travel writing on the 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 the many 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! Long 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 do occasionally run narratives about some epic journey, but the stories are nearly always carefully edited for interest and the spotlight is seldom shining 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 every bit as gripping or funny and flows just as well, then, by all means, don’t give up until you get it published. If not, edit, edit, edit.

Myth #5: Travel magazines love long stories

Speaking of big long 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 doing short, informative articles and you can get assignments. Editors mostly need focused pieces that say something succinctly and then get out of the way. This is where the work is, especially for a beginner. Eventually, you may build up a good reputation and garner a big feature assignment. Try to do it in reverse order, however, and you’ll be getting more rejections than you can count.

Think small in another way also—in the story subject itself. “What to See in Santorini” is a tough 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, but 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 tough way to pay for your travels. The main reason is that the money comes long after the travels. The very biggest and best magazines pay “on acceptance,” which means when you hand in a manuscript they are happy with, you get paid. 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 accept it, don’t buy the champagne yet. 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. By the time you see a check from the story you wrote in the first month of your round-the-world journey, your yearlong trip could be over.

On a blog, you could get paid…never. If the story doesn’t get traction with readers, it won’t get traffic, which means it can’t be “monetized.” Or that story you wrote this week will do well eventually, but it won’t start earning ad money until two or three years down the line—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. None of that happens, however, until you have spent years grinding it out, creating new content on a consistent basis.

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. If you have an assignment letter in hand for your great idea from a reputable travel magazine, a big newspaper, or a well-known travel website, you can likely swing some freebies. If your blog is a leader in its niche or you have a huge number of 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 gotten worse in the “influencer” age, with hotels inundated with requests from entitled young Instagrammers. If a travel provider cannot see an obvious return-on-investment payback from providing you free hospitality of some sort though, don’t expect to get it. I have probably stayed at 1,000 hotels for free at this point and been on press trips to most continents, but that’s because of the publications I was writing 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 come 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.” If you are a regular at a major magazine or well-known travel website, then you’re in. If you’re managing editor of Outside magazine, you’ll get more invitations than you can possibly use. If your blog is one of the most popular in the world or the best about a certain type of travel, you’ve got a good shot. If you write for some obscure magazine nobody has heard of, however, or your blog and social media numbers are middling, then you'll be paying for your own 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 that is 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 really 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 discourage 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 really do what the authors say to do. 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 truly interest you, and make sure everything you submit is as good as it can possibly be—and on time. If it’s your own blog, write articles that haven’t been written a hundred times already. Publish pieces that will get noticed. Make every post as good as it can be and aimed 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 your letters home. As a blogger, your customers are your regular readers, but also the tourism boards or brands who can give you work. Realize that if you’re not comfortable selling yourself and your ideas, this is not for you. Being a travel writer or blogger, at least until you’re established, is 90 percent marketing, 10 percent writing.

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.

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