Being A Travel Writer Isn't All Palm Trees & Pleasure Cruises

Photo: Courtesy of Joanne Pio/Career Contessa.
By Kathryn Drury Wagner

You’re jetting off to exotic destinations every week, you make $150,000 a year, and you spend most of your time writing about piña coladas. It’s divine to be a travel writer!

Well, that is the fantasy, anyway.

To find out what it’s really like to be in the field of travel writing — a subset of the broader career of journalism — we got some of the most successful travel writers to spill the beans on how they got into their careers.

“It’s true; there are worse things you could be doing with your time than going to Tahiti for 10 days,” says Jennifer Glatt. Glatt is a Wilmington, NC-based freelance writer and editor for destination, hotel, and lifestyle markets. In pursuit of stories, she’s traveled to French Polynesia, France, Greece, Amsterdam, Egypt, numerous Caribbean islands, Mexico, and more. “But, what people don’t take into consideration is that you are always ‘on,’ and you are always mindful that you are working,” she says. Many times you’ll be on a press trip with a set schedule — a schedule that is super packed and leaves you with few hours for rest, personal time, or actual writing.

What Kind Of Person Makes A Good Travel Writer?
Sheila Sarhangi, a freelance writer based in Honolulu, says that travel writing requires an interesting perspective: “When you’re writing about a place, you have to be very present, living an experience, and, at the same time, you have to put on your writing hat and be able to convey that true feeling to the reader.” Sarhangi has penned 400-plus cover stories, features, columns, and blogs in multiple publications, including Outside, National GeographicSaveur, and Phoenix magazines. She says, “You can’t just go to a place. You have to make something happen. You can’t be shy. You have to be active. You need to sit next to someone on the train.” 

Okay, so wallflowers will clearly not make the cut.

“I’ve been on press trips with people who are afraid to go on a boat or afraid to zip line, they are vegetarians and they have somehow chosen to travel to Argentina,” says Jenny Peters, aka Jet Set Jen, who has 20 years of travel writing under her belt. Peters is a journalist and editor based in Los Angeles and has written for New York MagazineUSA TodayGerman World Magazine, andVariety, among many others. “The best travel writers are gregarious, adventurous, willing to try anything once,” she says. “Maybe not fearless, but intelligently fearless. Of course, it needs to be someone who is not prejudiced against other cultures or races. I’ve tried ox balls and I don’t want to ever eat them again, but when I’m in Kenya, it’sW'ho knows? You might like how ox balls taste…' You need to not be disdainful of other cultures.”

Related: I Left My Job At Google To Be A Mom

A good travel writer is “flexible enough to go with the flow, but still do the group thing, and, honor your assignment,” says Glatt. “The great thing is you can meet people from all over the world. You are thrown together with like-minded people. I’ve made some long-lasting friendships with women I have met on press trips.”

Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Joanne Pio/Career Contessa.
How Can I Make A Living As A Travel Writer?
If you’re interested in niceties like retirement funds and dental insurance, consider a career in petroleum engineering.

It’s hard to make a real living as a writer, no matter your specialty, and travel writing is no exception. But, if we haven’t talked you out of it, you can get your feet wet with online venues. “There are a lot of websites where you can write about travel, for free, or a 1,000-word piece for $50,” says Peters. Once you’re more established, you can write for multiple publications and you’ll make more, but you still may need to supplement your travel writing with other types of work.

“I know someone at a very prestigious [media] outlet who is flitting around all the time. She’s perceived as a very successful travel writer by the world, but what I know is that she also does proof reading for a large corporate client,” says Peters.

Beth Blair, a Minnesota-based travel writer, co-owns the blog TheVacationGals.com and authored the book Break into Travel WritingShe advises, “Assignments can ebb and flow, while fees today vary. The key is to keep in good graces with editors and always be looking for something fresh and exciting to offer. Being a good writer is imperative since competition is fierce.”

Once you’ve landed an assignment, it still pays to hustle. If you’re on a trip, for example, try to milk as many stories as you can out of it. “You won’t have room to write about probably three-fourths of what you’ve experienced when you turn in your copy,” says Glatt, so think about additional pitches you can make to piggyback onto your original assignment. 

Related: You Shouldn't Be Networking

If you can slice and dice the story in different ways for different publications, it raises the amount you can make per experience. If you’re thinking about starting a travel-themed blog, remember that most successful online publications have more than pretty pictures and vivid descriptions. They have moneymaking partnerships with corporate clients, like Delta or Hilton. Very few travel blogs are sustainable without that level of business partnerships.

Photo: Courtesy of Joanne Pio/Career Contessa.
How Can I Get Started In Travel Writing?
It always helps to have clips, but the Catch-22 is you can’t get hired without clips and you can’t get clips without being hired. Try starting with hyper-local content, so you can show off your writing style and voice.

“Write about a place you know first and pitch yourself to travel publications to write about your own town,” suggests Sarhangi. “I’m a little different in that I live in the destination — Hawaii — already, although I do travel to the Neighbor Islands to cover stories. But, I have a really good understanding of this place and know the local side of things. I can give good recommendations, the kind that I would give to my relatives. I can talk about what’s hip and what’s an old favorite and what’s a don’t-miss. Editors value this type of insight and insider knowledge."

Related: The Ups & Downs Of Unemployment

"Someone is always interested in where you are living,” says Glatt. “If you are open to the experience and to meeting people, those sorts of opportunities pop up. It’s helpful if you are willing to step out your front door and look at it as a prospective visitor. People don’t just want chain restaurants and the Eiffel Tower. People want to see the 10-seat restaurants.” She recommends having a hook, or a specialty, which will further differentiate you. For example, you might be a scuba diver and you can write about diving destinations with an authoritative voice. Perhaps you love wine and can cover the South of France. Maybe you aspire to be an expert in family-friendly destinations, honeymoons, or spas.

“My advice to aspiring writers is to read as often as you write, never give up, keep improving your craft, and most of all, learn from your mistakes,” says Blair. There are online workshops for budding travel writers. Some good places to start are travelwritingclass.com and matadoru.com.

You may also want to study photography. Some resorts have extensive media libraries with images, but many writers find they are called upon to do their own photography. “Travel writing is both writing and photography,” says Peters. “That’s the expectation. And you don’t get paid for the photos. You get $500 for an 800-word story and you give them a ton of photos that go with it.”

Travel writing may not be the easiest field to get into, but for those who love adventure and are willing to think outside the box, it’s certainly worth trying. Remember: Once you start landing assignments, you’ll be having experiences that many people will never get to have. You want to savor those experiences while representing them in your writing.

We can’t wait to see where you go!

Next: How To Conquer Ambiguous Situations At Work
Advertisement