Travel writing is probably one of the most fun careers that exists for freelance writers.
Of course, you don’t get to be Anthony Bourdain or Rick Steves when you grow up. Only Tony and Rick get to do that.
But it is possible to make a decent living as a travel writer.
All you need is a sense of adventure and the chops to paint a word picture about where you’ve been and what you did while you were there.
The Good and the Bad of Travel Writing
I’m not going to fib. Travel writing can be hard to break into…and harder to profit from. But it also has some great aspects that make it better than most other forms of writing.
Some of my favorites include:
Travel writing and television are big right now. A lot of print and online magazines are paying 20 cents to $1 a word for travel pieces…and this is in comparison to other nonfiction genres, where you might get a whopping 5–10 cents per word.
A committed travel writer can find a home for her work, and get paid more than the average freelance writer.
It’s unethical to accept free stuff for a good review, but travel writers can get press discounts and upgrades just for being travel writers. Better still, some publishers will cover an expense or two so your travel is subsidized.
You get to write off your vacations, as long as you’re legitimately doing research for an article or three. Between this and the free stuff above, travel writing can profoundly stretch your travel budget and help you visit places and have experiences you could not have previously afforded.
Travel puts in you places where lots of cool stories happen. If you keep one eye open, you can find stories for non-travel articles almost everywhere you go. This makes each trip exponentially more profitable.
Once you get a reputation as a travel writer, local travel bureaus, resorts, magazines, and other organizations will want to show you their stuff for free. This means hotel stays, spa days, food, booze, tours, and activities given to you for you to write about later.
Best of all, you’re getting paid to travel and explore the world. Not a lot of jobs get better than that.
On the other hand, travel writing offers two serious hardships as compared to other kinds of writing. For me, they aren’t deal-breakers. But you should know and think about them before deciding this is the career for you.
First, it’s hard to go full-time.
Travel writing has a lot of retirees and stay-at-home-parent part-timers competing for assignments. This drives prices down because neither of these types of folks relies on the work for a living. It’s very difficult to pull a good full-time living out of this kind of work.
If you want to earn a full-time income as a freelance travel writer, you’ll probably have to build your own online platform by starting a blog and creating a fan base so you can diversify your income.
Second, it’s harder to break even.
Travel costs money…almost always more money than a couple of assignments will cover. Even with the discounts I mentioned above, you’ll be hard-put to make a profit off any given trip.
Again, these aren’t necessarily reasons to not get into travel writing. They’re just obstacles in the path of what for many is an exciting and fun opportunity to indulge in two of their great passions.
If you’re passionate about both writing and exploring the world, travel writing might be for you.
What Successful Travel Writers Know That You Don’t
If you already write professionally, you know how much people think is true about the job that just isn’t true at all. The same goes for travel writing.
Here are a few of the most persistent myths about travel writing I’ve encountered, and the truths hiding behind them.
Destinations are Stories
Like all other publications, travel sites and magazines want focused content. “I’m going to Kuala Lumpur and I want to write about it” is not a story pitch. It’s just a tweet that not even your parents will star.
But “The Eight Oldest Food Carts in Kuala Lumpur” or “Malaysia’s Most Fascinating Hidden Religious Sites” are stories, and there’s definitely demand for them.
That’s bad news because you must think more deeply about each story you write. It’s good news because it means you can get multiple stories and assignments from each stop on your itinerary if you know what you’re doing.
You Have to Travel Everywhere
Most travel writers can’t afford to pay admission to and buy drinks in every spot they might be assigned to write about. So you may have to get creative.
It’s unethical to write in-depth pieces about anything you haven’t personally done, but for summary articles, you can use secondary research to get the information you need. That’s why hanging out with the locals is so valuable when you’re doing travel writing.
You can get much better information than you could find on your own, and you’ll get it in less time than you would have by going everywhere yourself.
Sometimes, the best way to write a great travel piece is to do your research and interview some locals.
Editors Want Personal Stories
Yes, there is a market for travel memoirs. No, that market isn’t for people who are just breaking into the field.
The editors who are going to buy your travel work are looking for articles to inform and inspire their readers. This means your work should include lots of descriptions about local color, and plenty of actionable information.
It should not include sentimental or self-indulgent descriptions about how the trip made you feel. Write what you would want to know when dreaming about or planning a trip to that place.
Guide Books Are the Big Time
Yes, having your name on a Lonely Planet guide would be pretty awesome. No, it’s not the mark of a travel writer who has “made it.”
Guide book work is notoriously low-paying and time-consuming as compared to other travel writing markets. I’m not saying you shouldn’t accept those assignments if you get an offer. I’m just saying you shouldn’t pass up other work while chasing your dream of writing the next bestselling travel guide.
That last myth brings me to the next big question I hear when talking to people who want to break into travel writing.
What Are the Hottest Travel Writing Markets?
You can’t make money in travel writing if you don’t know who’s buying travel pieces. A full list of every magazine, book publisher, website, and self-published option could (and has) filled entire books.
For now, here are the biggest types of travel writing client you can approach to make that first sale.
You don’t have to leave home to get your first travel writing assignment. Your local newspaper and area weeklies typically contain profile sections of destinations, restaurants, and attractions in your hometown.
The pay is usually mid-range, and it’s easy to get repeat assignments for good work. So call up your local newspaper editor, pitch them your story idea, and get started with your new travel assignment.
Local and Regional Guides
Any given area you can imagine has one or two guides to attractions, food, and leisure. These range from major glossy magazines to websites to small publications that come out every year or two.
The pay is often low, and it’s hard to get repeat work, but it’s a good way to get travel writing credits without leaving home.
Travel Aggregator Sites
Airfares are set by airlines, not by the sites selling tickets. This means Kayak, Cheapflights, and Skyskanner can’t compete based on price alone.
Instead, they run several articles each month of travel advice and local color so travelers grow to like them better than the competition.
The pay is excellent, and most editors would rather work with a handful of regular contributors. This makes breaking in tricky, but once you’re on board, you can expect plenty of work.
Airline magazines are one of the “holy grails” of travel writing. They’re tough to break into, and hard to get regular assignments from, but you are looking at a dollar a word for thousand-plus-word articles.
Start by pitching something in the shorter regular advice sections, then work the relationship you create into a feature assignment.
These are the best-kept secret in travel writing. If you’re going to the Maritime Museum in Singapore, pitch a naval history magazine. If you visit Paris with your kids, submit the story to parenting publications.
Whatever trip you take, some hobby or trade magazine will be interested in some of the places you visit. You won’t get regular gigs out of these assignments, but the pay is sometimes surprisingly good…and it lets you cast a wider net.
The government or civic groups in charge of promoting an area always need content and rarely have somebody on staff who can write well enough to provide it.
Most cities, counties, and states have one, and many will pay you regularly for comparably easy assignments. They can also be reliable sources for those press trips I mentioned.
There’s a lot of lodging competition out there, and so hotels maintain blogs, and often print magazines, designed to attract people to the destinations where they have locations. Those publications need excellent content to do their attracting.
Breaking in here is difficult, but the pay is medium-to-high and regular work is practically guaranteed once you have an editor’s personal email address.
One final word about markets: it’s not cheating to double-dip!
It is cheating to write one article and sell the exact same piece to a local paper, a regional guide, two aggregator sites, and an airline magazine. If you get caught doing that, you will tank your career forever.
But it’s completely legitimate to take one trip and write a different but similar article for several different markets. It’s one of the ways travel writers break even on bigger trips. Always pitch multiple ideas to multiple markets for every journey you take.
How To Become a Travel Writer
Every successful travel writer has a different story about how he or she got into the business, and there are no guarantees in any kind of professional writing.
That said, many of the most profitable travel writers who weren’t celebrities first (lookin’ at you, Bourdain) followed a path something like this:
Step 1: Build a Contacts List
Put together a list of 100 or more publications that might buy your writing. Use the list of markets I gave above, or buy a copy of Writer’s Market. Media Bistro also has lists of markets and, if you subscribe, gives tips and editorial calendars for many of them.
Make a spreadsheet with the publication, what they buy, why it got your interest, and the editor’s name and email address.
Step 2: Build Your Idea List
Start with your home region. Make a list of 10 article ideas you can write without driving more than 50 miles from your home.
Once you have that list, use some internet research to come up with nine more ideas from each article. When you’re done, you’ll have a list of 100 ideas and a list of 100 publications to send them to.
Step 3: Pitch Your Top 10
Choose your 10 favorite ideas and pitch each one of them to the 10 most likely publications. As a rule, you shouldn’t pitch the same publication more than once a month until you’ve made your first sale, so you’ll be pitching every publication on your list before this step is over.
Step 4: Wait
A week feels like a year to a writer, but a day to an editor.
You will be waiting a while before you get an assignment. You might not even get assignments off this first pass. If you’ve gotten nothing after two months, try again with another 10 ideas.
Step 5: Get (and Complete) Your Assignments
If you do Steps 3 and 4 well and systematically, you will get an assignment. Finish it on time, under budget, and having followed instructions to the letter.
While you’re completing this assignment, look for 10 more story ideas from things you learn while doing your research.
Step 6: Repeat
Use those first assignments as springboards for more ideas, new markets, and additional destinations. Once you’ve gotten some confidence and writing samples from where you live, begin looking for destinations you could research with a weekend trip. After that, put your eyes on real vacations.
Look, nobody pretends travel writing is easy. But ask any travel writer in the world and he’ll tell you it’s worth it. This is one of the most fun ways to make a few bucks with your words, and it helps you celebrate and relive your experiences while you’re at it.
Jason Brick is a professional freelance writer who speaks internationally to writers about business, and to businesses about writing. His YA novel, Wrestling Demons, was released this spring to rave reviews. When not stringing words together into entertaining and informational sentences, he cooks, travels, and teaches martial arts. He lives in Oregon.
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