What is the professional life of a travel writer really like?
June 15, 2004 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Do we have any travel writers in the house? Is it really the life of glamour and ease that thetravelwriterslife.com claims?

Since I suspect it's not as easy as one might suppose after digesting that page, I have more questions: Can you tell me what it's like? How you got started? What kind of money you pull in?

Any advice for a day-dreaming prisoner of "the man" who thinks he can write and wouldnt mind travelling more often than he does? Anything?
posted by Irontom to Work & Money (9 answers total)
I just met a travel writer a few weeks ago. She seems to enjoy her work more than she had (I don't recall now what her previous assignements were, although they were more tedious). The biggest problem she has now is that she is never sure of her next paycheck/assignment as she is not on the permanent staff of the paper who typically buys her columns. (Although it might as well be, she conceded: in a sense, the paper is taking advantage of her permanent non-permanent status.) Her speciality is family travel/traveling with children.

I've written some about my life and travels abroad and had many friends and family suggest I become a travel writer. I won't, of course, recognizing as I do that these are my family and friends. Not that you shouldn't Iron-T -- this is just a sidebar and I'm done now.)
posted by Dick Paris at 3:10 PM on June 15, 2004

An old Diary series by a travel writer on Slate.
posted by smackfu at 3:15 PM on June 15, 2004

This is my not-so-secret dream as well -- and some of the 'travelly' pieces I've written at my site have received some moderate acclaim -- although, as Dick suggests, writing for a newspaper might be a bit brutal.

Sorry I haven't more to add than that, but I'd also love to hear any info anyone cares to share.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:42 PM on June 15, 2004

That site's dodgy. If it's as lucrative as they say, he wouldn't have to flog the course. Anyway:

Yes, travel writing can be fun and well paid (especially for magazine writers). But it's as hard to get into as any other branch of professional writing, and IME, it's not about taking free holidays either. Sometimes it is, but often you'll be shepherded around a resort or destination by a pushy PR keen to get her line across, amongst a pack of bored junket-seeking hacks and not a minute will be unscheduled or your own.

That said, it's still better than getting the 9am bus to a bleak office somewhere. So:

What it's like: Depends. Better than coalmining, worse than just being rich.

Got started: Wandered over to the travel editor on our in-house magazine and asked for some free holidays

Pay: Same rates as other freelance work, except with free travel.
posted by bonaldi at 4:47 PM on June 15, 2004

I met a travel writer when I lived in Romania. He pulled the Romania and Moldova stint for Lonely Planet and is also well known for having done one of their older issues on Iran. We hung out with him for a week or so, ran into him all over the country it seemed and while he sort of loved his job, his job did not love him. He got a reasonable advance but managed to blow through it quite easily [his fault? theirs?] and was forever troubling LP for advances. He had to pay for much of his travelling up front and get reimbursed which meant carrying a flurry of little scraps of paper with him everyplace. There was one bulk payment that he'd theoretically get on delivery of the manuscript but he had three weeks to go and still hadn't even set foot in Moldova when we last saw him.

He had to go to every bar and restaurant in town which wasn't so bad except that once you find one or two you like [which wasn't that simple in my city to begin with] you don't like going other places. Add to this that he was gay, rather "out" and was in one of the more homophobic countries in Europe [at the time, just a few years post-Ceausescu, gay people wound up in jail in some cities] and he was miserable and hated that part of his job. On the other hand, he was a flake with a drinking problem doing that annoying expat thing where you hang out and drink cheap beer incessantly at the American club while we had to go home so that we could get to our jobs the next day. The last thing I remember about him was his leaving his laptop in our flat one day saying he'd come back for it tomorrow and leaving it there for three days during which we left to go to Prague, leaving a note with our landlady to please let the drunk British guy into our apartment and take the computer. He never learned any Romanian, I have no idea if he got his laptop but it was gone when he got back. I did a lot of travel-ish writing when I was in Europe but kept most of it to myself, though it is fun as hell to read over ten years later.
posted by jessamyn at 4:49 PM on June 15, 2004

Yeah doing it for free for yourself is the best way then when you get paid for it you can say "I cant believe they pay me to do what I love".. This is true with anything, do it because you love it, the money is secondary and works out in the end if you are passionate about somthing and good at it people will pay you. If you just want to travel and have somone pay your way then, I dunno, sounds like it probably wont work you wont be happy with the work or the travel.
posted by stbalbach at 5:46 PM on June 15, 2004

Paging gottabefunky who is a bona fide professional travel writer...you might drop him a line.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:38 PM on June 15, 2004

I've been a travel writer for about ten years. Sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. I've written guidebooks to Ecuador, El Salvador, Virginia, and the Four Corners and a bunch of articles (website's on my profile).

To sum up my experience: there are many, many worse ways to make money, but there are also many, many ways to make more money. Glamour, yes. Ease, no.

Unless you luck into a good contract on a popular destination with a good publisher (rare) - or hit the stratosphere of a Sebastian Junger or even a Tim Cahill - it's nothing you're going to retire off of, or even make a full-time living from, unless you work your ass off. Most travel writers have other jobs (often teaching) or employed spouses.

I know, I know, it seems like one of those perfect jobs ("I love to travel and I love to write!"), but it's a cutthroat market, and publishing is hurting all over. Everyone and their brother thinks they can churn out a guidebook in their spare time, and those that try discover that it's really 80% sitting in front of your computer in your underwear typing up your notes (which, of course, beats sitting in a cubicle, but still.)

As with lots of writing, one of the best ways to make money in this business is to write things telling other people how they can make money in this business.

Now that I've deflated your balloon a bit...I have toured the Galapagos for free, bargained in Andean markets, explored slot canyons, grooved to Appalachian mountain music, scuba-dived the Caribbean, and gotten paid for all of it. Tax-wise, you can write off anything related to travel. Just got back from climbing Mt. Rainier - research trip!

Plus you get to tell people you're a travel writer, which has an eye-widening factor up there with movie stuntman and National Geographic photographer. That's always fun.

It's challenging, it's at least somewhat creative, and most of all you're not sitting in someone else's office doing someone else's work. Plus, yes, you get to travel. (Which, after a while, can become as much "work" as anything else - imagine investigating every budget hotel and restaurant in
Hanoi, let alone trying them all out, on a deadline, in the stifling heat. Not fun. Work. But you are traveling.)

I got started by basically starting a publishing company from scratch with a partner right out of college and churning out the first guidebook to El Salvador. Don't ask why. An amazing experience that I'd never repeat. But it did give me something to show other publishers, sidestepping the chicken-and-egg problem all first-time authors face.

So...is it for you? If you're self-motivated, love to travel, a decent writer, good at presenting yourself and your ideas, patient, stingy, and adventurous, sure. Being able to sell yourself is key - it's a business, and writing is only one part of it. Schmoozing editors, keeping an ear out for good stories, negotiating contracts, all of it is just as important as putting pretty words together. People will take advantage of you left and right if you let them.

To give it a try, start small, like with your local paper. Anything that you can actually get printed, and I mean anything, to show potential future employers. My company, Moon, is good to work for, and they're always looking for new authors. That is not always the case.

Check out things like the Writer's Market, Online Markets for Writers , the Society of American Travel Writers, those yearly best-of books for inspiration. Hustle, hustle, hustle. Read, read, read. Write, write, write.

And keep at it - for every broken contract, rejected idea and rainy nighttime Costa Rican bus breakdown, there's an African sunrise over a group of mountain gorillas to take your breath away. Or nearly every one.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:06 AM on June 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

Seems to be 99% freelance work. Have you thought of places that might publish you? (local newspaper, alternaweekly, airline magazine, what-have-you) Call 'em up and ask for their submission guidelines, then send 'em a pitch letter.

(Of course, the above is entirely theoretical.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:24 AM on June 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

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