So you think you can be a travel writer?

by Carrie Hutchinson
11 May 2018

Stop. I already know what you’re thinking. You’re screaming “Hells yeah!” in your mind and imagining flying business class to glamorous destinations where you stay in the finest hotels and explore the sorts of places only the rich, famous and folks who know someone go. Let me alternately LOL and cry myself into a coma.

Sometimes, although rarely now, that can happen. Like every area of the media industry, the travel writing biz has undergone radical change, with less money to go around and more people wanting a slice of the commissioned pie. Here are a few tips to help you decide whether it’s right for you.

Being a great writer is only part of it. While you need all the skills of a feature writer – hitting deadlines and word counts, and presenting clean, accurate copy – to work constantly you also need to diversify your skills. Producing quality images is a massive bonus, so do a photography course, practise and learn how to use Photoshop or Lightroom. Start building followers on social media, particularly Instagram. Recently I received an email from one outlet that now offers writers a fixed fee for a package of print and online pieces, social media and video footage. This is going to become more prevalent, so become a talented jack of all trades and you’ll be a valuable asset to editors.

Patience is key. The travel part of travel writing usually comes as a famil. These involve a group of writers and PRs meeting up at the airport then spending the next week living in one another’s pockets. And there is always one person who is consistently late, moans about everything, and is so culturally unaware they’re an embarrassment. Your only real option is to smile and ignore them. Thankfully, I’ve also met some of my best friends on these trips.

Famils themselves are unusual beasts. They are jam-packed with activities, many of which won’t be relevant to the angles you’ve pitched. Some sweet talking might excuse you from one activity to visit a site more suitable for your story, but not always so there’s nothing left but to go with the flow. That’s it, take a deep breath.

You’ll need to be able to avoid temptation. Oh, how you’ll want to go bar hopping in Paris, see a band in Austin or trawl the night markets in Chiang Mai with the others. But you’re on deadline, so it’s room service for you. See that plunge pool outside? It’s important to test it – for the story, you understand – but you have seven hours at this hotel and you need to fit in some sleep, so a five-minute splash will have to do.

Start close. Assuming you’re freelance, you’ll need, from a financial point of view and to satisfy your host, to place about three features for every week you’re travelling. It can take a long time to establish the relationships to be able to do that. Instead, write articles about your hometown to build a portfolio of clips and a book of contacts before you start thinking about far-flung destinations. Setting up a blog is another great travel portfolio builder, plus, if you build your numbers, PRs will see it as a legitimate outlet.

Nurture another niche. If you’ve ever seen those Facebook posts that go something like, “Meet Manuela. She gave up her job in finance to travel the world for free,” and wondered how she does it, rest assured she doesn’t. Manuela is either lying or independently wealthy. Travel writers are not rich; some are barely solvent. Some live, whenever they’re home, with their parents; others are A+ blaggers who haven’t paid for anything in 15 years. Both are fine if you can live with yourself. In Australia, travel writers earn anything from about 35c to $1 a word, unless they’re a big name. To earn a decent living, many also specialise in other area, do some editing, write for tourism bodies, run writing courses or become part-time copywriters. That’s just part of making the business work for you.

Prepare to be amazed. If you can juggle all that, travel writing is the best job on earth. I only do it part-time now, but it has taken me places – on a flying safari to Kenya, swimming with manta rays in the Maldives, dancing on a stage in New Orleans – I’d never have been able to go otherwise. It’s a tough gig, but, as they say in the classics, someone’s gotta do it.

Do you write travel? What’s your best / worst travel writing anecdote?

Carrie Hutchinson

Carrie Hutchinson

After more than 20 years as a writer and editor, Carrie Hutchinson has covered just about every topic in the lifestyle sector. For the past 12 years though, she’s specialised in travel, writing features for publications all over the world, providing copy for tourism boards, and editing magazines, including, at the moment, the Australia and New Zealand edition of National Geographic Traveller. Find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Carrie Hutchinson

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2 responses on "So you think you can be a travel writer?"

  1. Rachel Smith says:

    I’ve been on some amazing famils and others where I would’ve taken a helicopter out of there if I could.

  2. John says:

    A great piece, Carrie, and you really offer the other idea of the ‘glamour’ of travel writing. It’s true you can meet some brilliant people on a famil – as I did in 2013 when I met Carrie on a Thailand famil. Then there are other occasions when the media group you are with are so vile, you leave your group and go off alone – as I did last year on an ocean liner famil in Asia. And yes, going off on your own on a ship was not easy, but proved far easier than being with a group of drunken journo yobs who embarrassed themselves at every turn.

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