The American travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain said, “Travel is not a reward for working, it’s education for living.”
While a break away at this time of year can be a great way for us to recharge our batteries and top up the creative well, Anthony Bourdain’s quote is apt for some writers. Travel is not just an education for living, it’s how they earn their living.
There are plenty of perks to travel writing. I’ve had to endure overnight stays in luxury five-star country houses, cope with free first-class rail travel and free access to many tourist attractions. But there’s a lot of hard work too. On one press trip, my promised fifteen-minute sit-down interview with the Head Butler, turned into a five-minute chat in the sweltering kitchens as he busied himself with the evening meal because the other dozen journalists over-ran their time slots.
But if you’re prepared to be flexible and open to opportunities, travel writing could become your passport to publication.
There are about as many ways to break into this market as there are travel routes around the world. Steve Newman is a travel writer based in the North East, and he fell into travel writing via his local GP practice.
‘I was in the doctor’s surgery and saw a copy of a cruising magazine. I had just come back from a holiday in Menorca and had taken pictures of cruise ships, so I wrote to the editor asking if he would like to see something. It just went on from there.’
West Midlands-based Richard Franks began as a journalist first before moving into travel.
‘I knew I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, and some of my first “proper” jobs were in journalism—but I worked on local news desks rather than travel publications. I wasn’t very well travelled as a child and I think this made me especially curious about what’s out there. I suppose you could say that pushed me more towards travel once I became more of an established writer.’
Meanwhile, Amy McPherson, originally from Australia, moved into travel writing when an editor approached her, having read Amy’s blog. Amy began writing about her travels while at university and continued sharing her stories every time she took time off from her corporate IT job.
‘One day, an editor from a travel and lifestyle website for women wrote to me asking if I did this for a living. I didn’t know you could do it for a living! Then she asked if I would like to. I started writing a column for her and realised this is exactly what I wanted to do in life. So she started mentoring me about how I could get more work.’
The old writing adage to write about what you know applies to travel writers, too, with some specialising in specific destinations. Richard focuses his travel writing on the West Midlands and Scotland, but he says it’s unnecessary for every writer to find a niche.
‘It’s a good idea to specialise in locations or specific travel trends and topics—it allows you to stand out in a very crowded market. It’s by no means necessary—plenty of travel writers and journalists are very good at what they do, without sticking to a particular niche—but it can position you as an expert in the minds of many editors and readers, which results in better work opportunities. It was easy for me to decide; I live in the West Midlands and have spent a lot of my life in Scotland.’
Chicken and Egg
When writing travel pieces, many novices wonder which comes first—the travel or the commission? For Amy, it was the travel first, when she was starting out, but now she’s established, she secures the commissions first.
‘In the beginning, before I made a name for myself and gained the experience I have now, I used to travel somewhere first, self-funded, then pitch, because it was the only way I understood what stories I could write. Now, I pitch ideas first, knowing the sort of stories I could write about a destination without going. And I only travel if I have a commission. It saves me a lot of time and stress, not to mention money too.’
The travel market is always changing, especially as more travellers get their information online. In recent years, some prestigious print publications, like the Sunday Times Travel Magazine and the English-language edition of Lonely Planet magazine, have closed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for new writers.
Steve believes the sort of content editors require is changing. ‘It’s become much more specialised with people wanting to know more about a destination. Without doubt, there are opportunities. Editors are always looking for new angles and writers.’
Richard agrees. ’In the last few years, I’ve noticed a shift from colourful narrative features towards round-ups and more informative Q&A-style pieces. A lot of publishers, especially newspapers, have tighter budgets than ever and are under pressure to make sure every commission performs well online, and we now live in an age where readers have short attention spans!’
It’s rare to see a travel feature without a raft of photographs these days, which makes sense when publications are trying to show a reader what they might see when they visit a destination. Steve believes writers who can supply their own photos are making the editor’s job easier. But as for photographic equipment, it’s the image editors are interested in, not the device used to take it.
‘If you can supply words and pictures, it gives you a definite edge. It’s not the quality of your equipment but the quality of the picture, and how it fits in and explains the words. I have an entry-level Digital SLR camera and back everything up with my phone. It’s amazing how many of my published pictures were taken with it.’
Richard suggests taking photos can help, but as a writer, the story takes precedence.
‘When trying to break into travel writing, most guides suggest you should learn photography because a writer who also takes good photos is very rare in this game. This is good advice in general, but it’s certainly not a deal breaker. I spent a lot of my early writing years offering words and photographs from trips, but I quickly found out that it’s very difficult to focus on a story and good photos at the same time, and this would run the risk of compromising writing quality.’
Amy takes a practical approach, depending upon the market she’s writing for, and also understands that if an editor wants a specific style of image, there are other sources that offer images.
‘These days, I think travel writers need, at least, some basic photography skills. I’ve acquired a bit of photography knowledge from friends who are predominantly photographers, but I am not great, and will never be a “travel photographer”. My images are good enough for some publications, but will never be good enough for the likes of National Geographic, for example. Thankfully though, most tourism boards and PR agencies have a good library of photos to use.’
In many respects, breaking into the travel writing market does not differ from any other writing market. Determination is key.
‘Never give up!’ says Steve. ‘You will get an awful lot of rejection, but perseverance will pay dividends.’
Amy agrees. ‘If you are starting straight into freelancing as a travel writer, you will get rejections. Nine out of ten of your pitches will be ignored. Learn from your mistakes and keep improving your pitches. You will get there.’
But she also recommends thinking differently, especially with new technology coming down the line. In some ways, our competition comes not from other writers but from artificial intelligence.
‘Think like a journalist. Travel writing is not writing a diary. A good travel story has the same elements as a news story: Who, Where, When, What, Why, and How. In a world where artificial intelligence can spit out an article in ten seconds, anyone can write “Top Ten Hotels in Paris,” but not everyone has the story of that wonderful concierge at the Parisienne hotel who fled a domestic crisis to work under a Michelin star chef as a dishwasher, just to fund their apprenticeship as a junior concierge.’
Richard recommends networking to let people know you are available. ‘Build connections with PRs and editors. Sign up to TravMedia (Travmedia.com), the travel industry’s LinkedIn, and attend travel conferences like the World Travel Market (www.wtm.com).’
Remember, we don’t need to travel far to be a travel writer. Everywhere is a visitor destination for somebody, and that place could be our home town. Who better to write that piece than the writer who lives there and knows the place inside out? It’s how it started for me.
Business Directory – Travel Writing Top Tips
Steve Newman: ‘Study the publication you want to break into and search for something they haven’t covered for a while. Do have a business website, Instagram and Twitter account. and keep them active.’
Richard Franks: ‘Be consistent in your approach, and don’t take rejections personally. Even though I write for some of the world’s biggest travel publishers, I still receive far more rejections than I get commissions. It doesn’t always mean it’s a bad idea—it just means it doesn’t work for them at that time.’
Amy McPherson: ‘Have a realistic view of the industry. Yes, we all like to show off a bit, but it is not all glamour and fame. In fact, quite the opposite! Make sure you really, really want to do this job! Just “love to travel” is not enough. Most of our work is behind a computer screen.’
© Simon Whaley