When you tell someone you meet you are a travel writer, a predictable list of questions usually follows. Does that mean you get to travel? How did you become a travel writer? Do you travel by yourself or in a group? Who pays? Do you take your own photos? Where’s your favourite place?
The job definitely has a novelty factor, which is understandable. The idea you get to travel for ‘free’ for work is certainly an idea that many people find appealing, and I admit to being a bit starry-eyed when I met anyone resembling a travel writer early in my career.
In answer to the first question, yes, I do get to travel. Lots. In the past few years I have been everywhere from Arnhem Land to Antarctica; from Christmas Island to Easter Island. I’ve tracked polar bears and visited the house that inspired Anne of Green Gables in Canada, I’ve cruised the Kimberley coast in Western Australia and the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and had my photo taken at Hobbiton in New Zealand. I’ve skied in Aspen and Vail, swam with dolphins in Hawaii, and hiked up a volcano in Indonesia. I’ve stayed everywhere from a mining camp in the Northern Territory to luxury safari lodges in Kenya and South Africa. It’s hard to pick a favourite place - it would have to be a toss-up between the Grand Canyon, where I spent a week rafting down the Colorado River, and Laos, where I floated down the Mekong River in a slow boat, swam in turquoise waterfalls and watched hundreds of monks line the streets collecting alms at dawn.
I’m usually away for a few months every year, for anywhere from a few days to a month at a time. But there are some travel writers who are largely deskbound. They report on travel news, based on media releases, newly released reports, and interviews. With the growing demand to meet online traffic targets, it is increasingly difficult for them to get away.
Freelance travel writers such as myself are usually invited on what are called media familiarisations, or ‘famils’, by tourism boards, resorts or airlines who want to promote a destination. We then pitch ideas to travel editors at newspapers, magazines and websites we hope will be interested in a story. Travel editors also email freelance writers asking them if they are available to go on a famil their publication has been invited on to write a story for them.
Often you travel in a group with other travel writers and a public relations representative, but you can also travel on your own, or join a cruise or organised tour. A group famil is always fun – you bond with the other writers (who can become great contacts), you have the same requirements so it’s OK to ask lots of questions or Instagram your meal before eating, and you always have someone to have dinner with or go for a drink afterwards.
Travelling solo can be a tad depressing when you find yourself alone in a romantic suite, or dining on your own at a beautiful restaurant, but often a local marketing or PR representative will join you for dinner. However it can also be a great way to meet the locals, which can make a better story. People who have felt sorry for me have asked me to join them at their table, and I’ve had some fun nights playing foosball with ski bums in dive bars in the US.
I’ve almost always been the youngest person on tours and cruises I’ve been on with regular customers, but I’ve made some great friends who have been excited to meet a travel writer and have their holiday recorded. Some may be nervous I may write about them, but I am always respectful and if I really want to mention someone I will seek their permission first. I also collect email addresses and let them know when my story is published.
Like any job, there are pros and cons to being a travel writer. It’s not a well-paid profession, but it is a great lifestyle, and that is the choice we make. The trip is usually paid for out of the marketing budget of the company that invites you, and writers are paid per word by the publication they submit the article to. There may be some out-of-pocket expenses, such as meals that aren’t included in the itinerary, but considering the time spent away and the amount we get paid for our stories it is not possible to make a living if you are forking out hundreds or thousands of dollars for flights, for example, on a regular basis.
Some publications pay contributors for photos, which can make a trip more worthwhile. Others rely on free images supplied by tourism boards or buy them from photo agencies. Most of us balance out writing personal stories about our travels with writing round-ups and other stories based on past experiences, research and interviews, for which you are paid the same word rate but don’t require the time spent travelling.
Despite common perception, media famils (familiarisations) are definitely not ‘free holidays’. Hosts want journalists to see and experience as much as they can in a short amount of time, so itineraries are usually jam packed. There’s little or no time for lying around the pool, unless perhaps the PR who’s invited you represents the resort and understands that may be a big selling point for readers. There’s also an understanding that you will produce at least one story from the trip, but preferably more, and usually having a confirmed commission from an editor before you depart is a requirement.
As for how I became a travel writer, it was a circuitous path, and that’s a whole other blog.