How to be a travel writer

David Browne
Travel journalist

1. How long have you been a travel journalist?

Nine years so far. I was previously a staff journalist at the BBC and
left on a redundancy/early retirement deal, to pursue my travel
interests as a freelance.

2. How did you start out as a travel journalist?

I started by doing research projects, updating guide book entries.
This is very tedious work and involves a lot of phoning and emails,
from home. The original writers do the travelling. It is possible to
be a travelling contributor if you contact a big publisher like the
AA or Thomas Cook Publishing, as many country guide books are put
together by a loose team coordinated by a staff project manager. I
then went on to write about travel industry current affairs for a
specialist travel news bulletin, and I write occasionally for
newspapers and magazines. I have also contributed chapters to a book
on adventure travel.

The opportunities for writing a whole book are rare, as publishers
give such projects to already-known writers who have time to live or
travel through a country over a period of 6 months to a year. You
also need to identify the travel and tourism potential of a country
to be able to submit an original idea for a new book, and bear in
mind that the days are gone where you could submit an idea for a
really obscure country (as the concept of Lonely Planet guides
started out) – the publishers will want to be sure that the book
would sell to a mass audience, in order to make money.

3. What’s the best way to start out as a travel journalist?

Submit your work. Write articles on places you have been and submit
them “on spec” to newspapers, magazines, online bulletins. Don’t
expect to be commissioned until you have built  a track record of
published material. But take great care to research the style and
range of coverage of the journal you are submitting to. Length is
important, few newspapers would want more than 1500 on average. Some
want specific recommendations about places to stay, how to get there
and so on, sometimes as a separate “box”, as opposed to being part of
the narrative of the article. A good way to start is to imagine how
to spend a productive 48 hours in a place, then write an article
around that. It’s a good discipline to get into, wherever you go. One
word of the blindingly obvious: don’t try to get away with writing
about places you have not been to, just because you have read about
them on the Internet. And do not rely on the Internet for updating
facts like telephone numbers and opening times. Many establishments
don’t update their web sites sufficiently for them to be reliable.
Sad but true.

4. Should you be a freelance travel journalist or a staff-travel journalist?

If you want a regular income, then go for the salaried staff
position. But it will be mainly office-based with occasional trips
abroad. If you want travel and adventure, then you must go freelance.
You will need to be disciplined about costs as your expenses will
often come out of a fixed project fee, so the more economical you
are, then the more money you make overall. And you must be good at
keeping accounts as you will need to do your own income tax return,
and you will be taxed on your profit, not the whole fee, and will
need to justify the difference to the Income Tax people. But don’t
expect to claim the costs of a holiday as a business expense. Travel
writing is work, with relaxation in unusual places thrown in. Travel
writing is not well paid, and this shows in the quality of work in
some popular guide books. It’s obvious that the writers have used
cheap and cheerful accommodation and glamorized it in their writing
of a review. Then again, you don’t put adverse comments about a
down-market flea-bitten hotel in a guide book do you? You just leave it out.

5. Is travel journalism dangerous?

About as dangerous as crossing a busy road in London. How do you
measure danger? All travel has its risks, but some risks are more
acceptable than others. You must take sensible precautions wherever
you travel and be respectful of local cultures, especially when it
comes to dress. Women particularly are vulnerable to danger and
unwanted attention if they wear skimpy tops and short skirts in some
countries. But men too should dress casually according to the
environment. Do not take valuables like jewelry with you unless you
are prepared to lose it. Bright jewelry attracts the attention of
potential thieves and it is not just the loss of value but the trauma
of being attacked that is hard to bear. Lock the doors in sleeping
compartments on trains and don’t get in situations where you must
rely on strangers to watch your bags. Travel light and wash clothes
as you travel. I could go on for many pages of advice about staying
safe when travelling. Get good travel insurance, but make sure you
are covered for business if you intend to write about the trip for
payment. It is business, after all. One specific tip – carry an extra
wallet or purse with a little money in it, such as a bundle of
useless old foreign notes, and expired credit cards. If you are
mugged, hand over this ‘false’ wallet and safeguard your real money.
On a plane, check where your nearest emergency exit is, and how to
reach it in the dark. A personal experience article about surviving
an air crash could make your career in journalism, remember that!

6. What’s the best part about being a travel journalist?

The travel opportunities, such as going to boring conferences held in
great places. I’ve been to Qatar, Delhi, Washington DC, Madrid,
Frankfurt, Oslo, Hong Kong and many other places to report speeches
at a conference, then spent a day or two exploring the city in my
free time, gathering material for future feature articles. Don’t try
and write just about your own holiday – you have to write to entice
other people to the location and give them reason to go there, and
pack your article with factual information, not just colourful poetic
words that spring from the heart as you bask in an ecstasy of delight
in a remote corner of a foreign land. Tell people how to get there
and what to do, warts and all.

7. What’s the worst part about being a travel journalist?

Without doubt, the low pay. When you measure how much time has been
taken up with a project and checked it against the pay received, you
are way below the minimum wage. Once you have a track record of
published articles, you will find that you may get invited on
Familiarity trips (Fam trips) or press tours, where you are hosted by
a company or a national tourism board. Then you get to stay in smart
hotels and eat good food at someone else’s expense, so it has its
compensations. But fam trips are hard work as you have a punishing
schedule of travel and meetings and briefings from various
stakeholders in the country’s tourism sector. The next worse part
about being a travel journalist is the travel. I mean hours of boring
travel – couped up in planes, economy class, or on trains through
miles of barren countryside, or worse on coaches whizzing along
motorways where reading and writing make you feel queasy and travel
sick. Be prepared for the boring bits by reading ahead your research
material so that when you arrive at a destination your hit the ground
running and don’t waste time looking for a place to stay. Prepare
your journey well and use the limited time in a destination to the
best advantage, and that means a lot of homework before you leave.
Your articles will be better informed for having read about the place
ahead of time. Boring but true.

8. What would you say are the qualities needed to be a travel journalist?

Number one is to be a good journalist. Travel is just a speciality.
All the skills of observation, note-taking, story-telling,
self-editing (prioritising), looking for the human interest angle and
the news peg are  just as important in travel as in business or
sports journalism. Being able to keep a good note of what people say
to you is important, and keeping a thorough journal of your own will
help later when you get home, because you will see and hear so many
things on a trip that one day will blend into another in your crowded
memory. Keep good files with up to date materials such as leaflets
from attractions and museums for later use. Remember one trip can
produce several articles, one on how to have a holiday stay, one on
regional food and wine, another on mountain walks, and another could
be a review of one hotel that you stayed in, and all these could
appear in specialist journals long after you return home.

Explore posts in the same categories: Advice

One Comment on “How to be a travel writer”

  1. […] How to be a travel writerthen went on to write about travel industry current affairs for a specialist travel news bulletin, and I write occasionally for newspapers and magazines. I have also contributed chapters to a book on adventure travel. … […]

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