The Truth About Being a Travel Writer

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Being a travel writer is a dream job, right? Sipping mai tais by the pool of a five-star resort (where you’re staying for free, of course) as you jot down a few notes about yesterday's zip-line adventure and soothing hot-rock massage. All before an epic, 10-course repast prepared by one of the world's top chefs. And the best part, you're getting paid to do it!

Yeaaaaaa... not so much. Sure, there are all-expense-paid trips where writers are wined-and-dined by hotels, resorts, and restaurants in hopes of receiving favorable press, but that's just a small part of the business. As a full-time job, freelance travel writing can be hard, underpaid work that requires A LOT of hustle. And an even greater ability to deal with not knowing when you'll get paid next.

So, just in case you were about to turn in your notice and head to Bali with a new Chromebook, we talked to three travel guide writers to get their insider take on what the job is really like.

The Internet made travel/guidebook writing harder...

Today, anyone with a laptop and some airline miles thinks they're a travel writer. And they all want a piece of the action. "The Internet turned travel writing on its head by opening it up to everybody with a pretty picture or thought to share," says Joshua Berman, a freelance writer and author of four guidebooks. As a result, publishers (especially of guidebooks) want writers to contribute a ridiculous amount of content to compete with all the crowdsourced material online.

...and the pay even worse

Let's just say, you don't go into it to get rich. The sheer number of people who want to be travel writers and who are willing to write for free has simply destroyed the economics of the biz, and turned them grossly in favor of the publications. 

Obviously, how much you make depends on the type of writing you do, as well as the outlet, but for guidebooks, you may earn as little as $4,000. FOR THE ENTIRE BOOK (!!) -- and that includes your trip, expenses, and research time. Smaller listicles or columns can pay around $100 a pop, while magazine articles these days command less than a dollar a word. 

"Professional travel writers don't take assignments because they love to travel," says Berman. "They take assignments because it's their job."

Trips are rarely fronted by publications...

Nowadays, it's rare for publications to pay a writers' expenses. Which is why so many of them take deals and accept press trips that are often comped by resorts, PR firms, or state/country tourism boards. How else are they going to review a luxury 5-star resort in Bora Bora on a writer's salary? The key is to accept freebies and discounts WITHOUT letting it influence their subjectivity.

And if it’s not a press trip, THEY'RE paying for it

Often, the writers are paying for the trip out of their overall income for the article or book, and so it behooves them to spend as little as possible actually traveling.

Trips aren't actually that glamorous

If you are covering your own expenses, there's a pretty big gap between the level of luxury you're reporting on, and the level at which you're traveling, says Thomas Kohnstamm, a guide book writer and author of the book Do All Travel Writers go to Hell? “You might be writing about super nice places, but staying in the worst dirt bag place in town. And you usually won't be able to afford the stuff you're covering."

If you're on a comped press trip, however, it may be free -- but it's a grind. Your days and activities are usually planned in advance and there's little room for spontaneity. And nights are often spent organizing your notes or working on other articles. 

In fact, it's nothing like being on vacation

Unless you spend eight hours at a desk when you visit the beach. Sure, you might be reporting on at a fancy restaurant in Rio, but if you're even eating there at all (and often you are not), you're still taking notes, looking up phone numbers, opening hours, prices, etc. “It’s not the same as traveling for pleasure," says Kohnstamm. "You may have one foot in the pleasure world, but there’s much more of you working. It affects your ability to enjoy yourself in situations that should be really enjoyable."

Adds Rolf Potts, author of the books Marco Polo Didn't Go There and Vagabonding: "The main misconception is that you're on this kind of permanent vacation, just enjoying yourself in faraway lands and dashing off accounts of your experiences. In truth, there are far easier ways to travel without having to take notes and collect stories and check facts all the time.”

It can also get lonely

Generally, you’re traveling solo. “I occasionally get lonely,” Potts admits, “but this is actually a good thing, since it compels me to get out and meet more people.”

Travel writers have to be hustlers

And not in a Nas or Three-Card-Monte kinda way. It's about busting your butt way more than it is about writing chops. Most starry-eyed travel writers get burned out fast, and realize that they’re not making any money. Or even, that they went into debt for a byline.

It’s the hustlers who can make ends meet as travel writers, and mostly because they have a strong network of editors for whom they write and are connected to various tourism boards. Turning a one-week paid trip to Tahiti into ELEVEN different stories for as many outlets is how you make it as a freelance travel writer.

And even then, making ends meet is tough

Basically, you take on article, upon article, upon article. And even then, it may not be enough. Many travel writers work second jobs, says Potts, who still teaches to help pay the bills. "There are easier ways to take a vacation," he adds, "Travel writing has to become a way of life.”

Sophie-Claire Hoeller is Thrillist's associate travel editor, and is convinced she did something bad in a previous life that's cursed her to always fly within three rows of a screaming child. Follow her on Twitter @Sohostyle

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