Success in travel writing has long been considered the holy grail for new authors. Yet is it all it’s made out to be, and is it a feasible way of making a living?
Being a travel writer is up there with actor, sports star, and novelist when it comes to gilded professions, such is its difference to the ins and outs of most people’s working lives, and with good reason. It’s a privilege to travel, and to be paid to write about your experiences. The writing is work, but it’s not bricklaying or teaching, cleaning or nursing. It’s travel writing. A job where you look forward to long hours is a job to be grateful for.
That said, as with any attractive role, it comes with its sacrifices. It involves concentration, attention to detail, and professionalism. Good features demand strong forward planning; noting down hotel and meal prices, setting up interesting and relevant interviews (where possible), covering various bases to ensure the feature is as good as it can possibly be. It involves working – and negotiating with – PR companies and tourist boards to ensure the piece you’ve been commissioned to write comes together and that you do your destination, the publication, and yourself justice.
Freelance travel writing also means knowing your audience. Which title are you writing for (or pitching to)? What’s the style and tone? Who are their readers? It’s no good pitching a private island retreat that costs the equivalent of a small London flat to a magazine aimed at young professionals who couldn’t dream of affording a flat of any variety, let alone one in London.
When it comes to the travel itself, a jobbing freelance travel writer has certain unique issues to wrestle with. Perhaps twice a year, I take part in group press trips. In general, these are trips organised by a PR agency on behalf of a tourist board, resort or hotel, or the tourist board itself, in which several journalists travel to a destination to experience it for themselves and cover it for a particular publication, including websites, magazines, newspapers, and blogs.
Group press trips are akin to the first day of university; half a dozen or so strangers thrown together for the first time expected to get along swimmingly. I enjoy it, though I’ve heard horror stories from others. This may suggest I’m the oblivious horror story, but I like to think I’ve just been lucky.
Some freelance travel writers avoid group trips, while others dislike individual trips. I enjoy both. The latter offers greater freedom in terms of shaping one’s itinerary and story ideas, but the pleasure of travelling alone does have its pitfalls.
Days spent exploring foreign cities or wild nature alone are liberating, but often counterbalanced by the lonely return to an empty hotel room in the evening, or days stretching out in a way that test’s even the most solitary of individual’s limits. And before the travel, there is the ‘green-light’ issue – getting the commissions.
Being a freelance travel writer isn’t just hitting the road; it’s sourcing and pitching ideas, something that requires time, research, and thick skin. Editors are busy people with cluttered inboxes. If you want to do freelance travel writing, you have to accept that your email may not get replied to, or even read.
While it’s frustrating not to receive a response to a pitch you’ve worked hard on, it’s important to remember that your email is likely one of over a thousand during that week which the editor has received. A cocktail of persistence, pig-headed determination, and possibly blithe naivety are recommended to anyone diving in head-first to world of pitching travel features.
Freelance travel writing is time consuming both at home and abroad. Pay rates in UK publications are low at best, with the industry squeezed and editors limited in what they can offer. As such, it’s important to weigh up the economic viability of a trip.
For example, in 2016, I travelled to the Seychelles for a monthly magazine on a ten-day trip. It was fantastic, I met a giant tortoise called George. I couldn’t ask for more.
However, I’d been made redundant that year, and was still grafting my way back into journalism. Put simply – I was available. The choice was simple. A week plus in Seychelles, or sending out cold emails at my flat in Finsbury Park. Suffice to say, while I love FP, it’s tortoise game is found wanting.
But aside from time and money, what does it take to make freelance travel writing work? A good place to start is to look at what editors want. These lot, after all, are the gatekeepers to your travel writing dream.
I have experience as a commissioning editor, and while brief (a one-off project for an airline website) I learned some things about what I wanted from writer’s, but more importantly what I didn’t.
Responsible for commissioning and editing around 40 pieces of content, my main concern was that the writer delivered what was asked. This included not just the copy, but also the dull, finer details; links to attractions (so they can be fact-checked), prices, hotel websites, and of course, paperwork. I marvelled at how quickly one writer was able to file an invoice having written the piece, yet found filling out a necessary contract a task of Sisyphean difficulty.
As a freelance writer, and one who’s done some commissioning, I’d always advise filing as close to word count as possible. I don’t believe a few words over or under are going to see you blacklisted (some editors actually like room to play with while editing), but filing an extra thousand words when you’ve been given a specific word count is certainly a no-no.
As stated above, it’s important to have a thick skin in freelance travel writing. It’s also important to admit that skin sheds from time to time. I still have days where I feel like I’m getting nowhere, days when pitching fails and there’s no work coming in, when freelancing itself seems too tough, let alone the travel aspect of it. But it is a choice. To remain in freelance journalism requires weighing up what income you need to get by. It means deciding whether you like working alone, understanding how good you are at managing your time and – this is key – if mental health issues are a problem in your life. Freelancers often report issues related to poor mental health; it’s important to know whether this could become a problem with you if you extricate yourself from the more social world of the four-walled workplace.
In a bid not to litter this piece with my thoughts alone, I asked a couple of more seasoned travel writers their thoughts. Christopher Beanland is the author of The Wall in the Head and Concrete Concept and a travel writer for titles including The Independent and The Guardian. He characterises himself as a writer of “novels and journalism about places, people and cities and art and architecture and culture,” as opposed to a travel writer, specifically. “I don’t want to get pigeonholed, I just write. But honestly, I just want to tell good stories well.”
When asked what advice he’d give to someone trying to break into travel writing, he’s frank. “Don’t. Become an influencer and get 500 quid a post like someone I met on a trip the other day.”
He has a point. A small pool of bloggers and influencers earn large amounts of money from their trade, far outstripping the pay rates of writers. However, while Beanland highlights the frustration comes with there being little money in the art of travel writing, he adds that “we’re incredibly lucky to see the world.”
Inevitably, there’s a trade-off between memorable experiences and lucrative earning, something Beanland, and others, accept as part and parcel of the trade at current.
Mike MacEacheran is a travel writer for titles including Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, Thomas Cook and many more. He likens travel writing to “spinning plates,” noting that “even with a corking assignment from a newsstand editor, the whole thing can fall apart if there’s a lack of buy-in from a tourist board, hotel or airline to provide complimentary flights to make a trip economical.”
While some journalists are willing to operate at a loss, for him, a trip isn’t worthwhile unless it’ll “help me pay my bills and mortgage.” As such, when weighing up whether to take on a commission, MacEacheran has to obtain supplementary commissions wherever possible. This also helps to reduce costs, as tourist boards are more likely to provide financial (and other) assistance to a writer with multiple commissions.
“The business of making travel writing work is the challenge, as it’s probably about 50 per cent of what I do. Not the actual writing.”
MacEacheran, who is based in Edinburgh, also says that it would be much easier if he were London-based, in terms of attending events and tourist board parties, while concluding that while it’d be great to receive a response from every pitch, “that’s wishful thinking.”
“I edited magazines for ten years before going freelance, so I know what it’s like from the other side. Being an editor is extremely stressful and time-consuming and there’s only so much time in each day.”
So all in all, it’s a tough game. The money isn’t great and there are various factors to consider before – and if – you even get around to the travel. But, as Beanland puts it, it’s a way to see the world. Only you can decide if you want to wreak havoc with your own to achieve that.
Ronan J. O’Shea is a writer and journalist based in London. As a freelance journalist, he writes for trade and consumer titles such as easyJet Traveller, The Telegraph, The Independent, Travel Weekly and Escapism. He has also written lifestyle and health pieces for US sites including Medium, and runs a blog called The Anxious Travel Writer. His novel, Bad Bread, Good Blues, is available as an e-book from Amazon, and will be available in print in late 2018.