Who would want to be a travel writer?

Guest post by Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Towards the end of my 12 years as a full-time freelance travel journalist on The Sunday Times I would sometimes meet a fellow writer for a drink and a gossip and we would ironically call these little get-togethers The Best Job in The World Club.

It may seem hideously ungrateful, but we were both sick of constantly being told we had the perfect working life, often by friends who were earning four or five times as much as we were.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a great life, but it certainly wasn’t one long free holiday. It was hard work and offered – as well as low pay – no job security, no financial benefits and no determinable career path. Lately it’s got harder still.

I started travel writing full time in the mid-1990s. I had worked in journalism since leaving university with a 2:1 in philosophy, first on free local papers then at The Sun where I became a news sub-editor at the tender age of 23.

I quit office life at 27, never to return. I spent three years travelling in Asia and Latin America (before internet cafes or mobile phones – imagine!) then starting writing articles and mailing them on spec to travel editors at national newspapers.

Looking back, this was some of the best writing I’ve ever done but every piece was rejected on the same basis that if nobody else wanted to publish me then I couldn’t have been any good. Finally I got a couple of pieces in the Financial Times, which gave me a cuttings file and some credibility. My relationship with The Sunday Times started shortly afterwards.

Back in the 1990s, travel writing was the preserve of a rather clubby elite. There were no bloggers, no ranting reviews on TripAdvisor. The world was there for us to explore and sum up in elegant turns of phrase. There were press trip invites every day of the week but my editor at The Sunday Times (understandably) despised these cosseted jollies and instead we travelled alone, wined and dined by hoteliers from Antigua to Zanzibar, accommodated in the finest suites.

In those days a writer on a national newspaper would typically fax over 1,500 words and a couple of weeks later a cheque for £500 or so would land on the doormat. As a young man with a shared flat in London and no commitments, I was in hog heaven.

Ten years on and the fees paid to travel writers on national newspapers hadn’t gone up a penny. In fact, many publications slashed their rates. In this period – from 1996 to 2006 – the average price of a house in the UK rose three-fold from £62,000 to £179,000.

Meanwhile, I had accumulated a wife and two children. I started travelling less and churned out endless top-10 style round-ups (unheard of in 1996, all the rage in 2006). I was working harder than ever, earning less and less. I was unhappy writing round-ups about places I’d never visited (again, unheard of in 1996, common practice by 2006). Still my friends persisted in telling me I had The Best Job in The World.

And for many travel writers it was no longer enough to write. As newspaper embraced multi-media, they were instructed to take pictures, blog and run around with a video camera. For no more money.

Then came the recession and newspapers were hit by a triple whammy: falling sales, the loss of classified advertising to online and a huge slump in display advertising. One newspaper travel editor was told to lay off staff or stop using freelancers altogether. The freelancers lost.

Many people will have quietly celebrated this turn in fortunes: the pampered elite thrown out on the street. But it can be argued that a whole generation of good writers with years of experience and a great depth of specialist knowledge was being discarded.

Today in 2011 it is almost impossible to be a full-time freelance travel writer unless you have a private income. Many of my contemporaries – well-known journalists and authors – have gone part-time, topping up their income writing corporate brochures, leading tours or – in one case – renovating bathrooms. Others have given up altogether.

On the other hand, it’s a lot easier today to become a travel writer. When everyone has a blog there is no difficulty in getting published in the first place. And there are countless opportunities to see your name in lights – providing you don’t mind working for free.

Many newspapers now operate a dual economy – they continue to pay freelance travel writers for pieces that appear in print, but online travel editors are given no budget to buy in copy, so they will happily take articles and publish them on their websites, explaining apologetically that they can’t pay a fee.

When the recession first hit, it looked for a short while that the press trip might go the way of the fax machine. Airlines pulled down the blinds and refused to hand out tickets. But now tourist boards and tour operators seem as keen as ever to organise press trips, anxious for coverage both in print and online.

However, filling those press trips with bona fide travel writers is not so easy. Most travel desks are now stripped to the bone with staff working so flat out that they can barely afford to take a day out of the office. This creates an opening for young aspiring writers to get on board – providing they can persuade an editor to give them a commission.

How to get a commission? As ever, it’s who you know that counts, but the growth of internships at newspapers and magazines has provided a great opportunity for young writers to work with – and gain the trust of – editors. Cynics might point out this involves working for free in order to write for free, but many good interns are getting footholds in the industry and travelling at somebody else’s expense.

It may not be The Best Job in The World, but travel writing is still a great adventure and a wonderful privilege. Though arguably you shouldn’t still be doing it when you’re 40.

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28 Responses to “Who would want to be a travel writer?”

  1. Alex Rascanu says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Mr. Hodson! It made for a very interesting read.

  2. Nellie says:

    Brilliant piece Mark. I’m one of those young writers you mentioned. Writing for free? Traveling at somebody else’s expenses? Guilty as charged. I’ve read and heard many stories from veteran travel writers, and I agree that travel writing can be tough and low-paying, but to be able to write, breath and dream travel – that’s good enough for me. 😉

  3. The Dropout says:

    I’ve been on several travel junkets because I worked for media companies who distributed the junkets in lieu of payrises. And if you’d worked extra hard, the company wouldn’t make you use your annual leave to take the trip.
    The trips were usually great, apart from having to listen to the freelancers moan about their terrible lifestyle. (One travel writer later lost the last scrap of respect I had for him when he filed a 1,000 word travel piece complaining about how cruise ships only provided miniature soap nowadays.)
    I appreciate the insight into the freelance travel writing scene but, honestly, you can’t expect much sympathy when you complain about 12 years of being a travel writer.

  4. Great insight Mark…and to think I started blogging (not travel writing though) when I was waaaay over 50:-)

  5. Carl Parkes says:

    Six travel guidebooks to SE Asia from Moon Publications and Nat Geo. Two Lowell Thomas awards from SATW. Never made more than $30K per year. Now unemployed and living in subsidized housing in SF. Go figure. Fifteen years of my life gone.

  6. Charity says:

    I have done two internships, one in online journalism and the other in print journalism fo rmy local paper and local free paper. I have found that people will readily let you work for them for free but rarely follow through with a job offer. One of the problems is that often employers use internships as free labour but aren’t willing to train you enough to be capable to do a full time ‘real’ job.
    I would personally advocate graduate schemes above internships, as then you are sure of training and a job at the end of it.
    Otherwise a very insightful article!

  7. This ‘best job in the world’ is becomming downheartening. Travel editors, like policemen, seem to becoming younger every day. The hated (by me, anyway) ‘Ten best of…’ this, that and the other has taken the place of a well researched – i.e. going there – in-depth article. Every day travelling is the result of weeks of pitching and waiting for replies – if they come, with a fee that hasn’t gone up in a decade and is usually lower. Lordy, lordy, why do I still do it!

  8. Conner says:

    “I was working harder than ever, earning less and less”

    so true. I have many of the same experiences a la best job in the world. As I face deadline, can’t make ends meet, have no health care and massive taxes it hardly looks ideal…..

    thanks for this post.

  9. David says:

    Churning out endless top-10 style round ups, writing about places you’ve never visited…God, it’s all so true. Thanks for a great read.

  10. Kimberoo says:

    So true, thanks for a great post! I must say I had a laugh about the Top Ten’s so prevalent in this day and age, when none of us have been to any of the destinations mentioned! It’s still a wonderful experience however, to read a well written travel piece in print…it makes me hope there’s some small future for it 🙂

  11. Alison says:

    Thanks so much for this article, Mark. I’ve been a travel writer for the last seven years, but recently decided to move towards a more desk-based job – (which, rather ironically, includes getting people to write travel pieces for free). Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing – giving up the travel for the desk. But 40 looms, and the scenarios you describe are all too true.

  12. Very good article and something close to my heart as well! I write about wine and food and spend a lot of time eating and drinking my way around the winelands. I am freelance so get no holiday pay, no mileage, no benefits. I can’t drink on these ‘freebie’ visits as I have to drive back – in fact, I can’t actually get drunk out anywhere as it’s unprofessional. I get paid the smallest fragments of tiny, little crushed leftover peanuts in the world and as more and more bloggers set themselves up as experts, the less people want to pay me anything. But I have the best job in the world apparently, say friends who see the endless supply of samples which turn up at my door and which have to be tried. Well all I can say is that yes, there are worse jobs in the world than mine, but at least yours earns you enough money to buy the wines you want to drink rather than facing the prospect of 11 semi-sweet roses under R30 a bottle which I look forward to this evening. When I die of liver failure, overweight from all the calories consumed and possibly behind the wheel of a car because I miscalculated a big tasting, will I think it has all been worthwhile? Probably!

  13. Rease says:

    This is really well said. A lot of people just think travel writing is a life long vacation. The freebies do not put money in your bank account!

  14. Mark Hodson says:

    Thanks for all the great feedback and comments, everyone. I’ve also had private emails from other travel writers who share my views but don’t want to go public, for obvious reasons.

  15. Nice article Mark and I really appreciate the long experience you have and how you have seen the industry change. I become more and more convinced each day that the secret to success is in the audience we as bloggers are building ourselves. The internet, and the willingness for people to write for free just to get some clips, has made it difficult to support yourself under the traditional method. But the internet has also even the playing field between publisher and editors on one side, and the budding writer on the other. We can now be our own publisher and gain our own readership and audience…if we are willing to put in the time. I think there is a lot room for writers (bloggers) to succeed and not write for free, but rather pay themselves to write.

  16. Akila says:

    A wonderful piece that simply reaffirms in my mind why I am not aspiring to be a travel writer.

  17. uner says:

    i was considering of becoming a travel writer, it seems happier than any other job. but your confession now make me think twice if that’s what i really wanna do for the rest of my life. you are true indeed, unless i have other private income, i may not suffer in the next years to come. and again Todd has the right view, too.

  18. Spud Hilton says:

    Wonderful insight and context for anyone involved in travel storytelling.
    As one of the few full-time editors left, I want to point out that we operate a little differently than described (or, it seems, the norm). I am still taking freelance stories, primarily destination pieces that are well-told tales with a point, not just a diary rehash. On the downside (for writers) we work on spec only. Most importantly, however, I don’t care what writers have done before, only whether the story in front of me is any good.
    Again, great post.

  19. Roosh says:

    You spent too many years working for the man instead of building a brand around your name. If you started your own web site back in the late 90’s, and updated it “for free,” you would have most likely been at the top of the travel blog heap today.

    There are kids in their 20’s making thousands of dollars from their travel sites. Not because they are better writers than you, but because they don’t depend on a gatekeeper to evaluate the worth of their work.

    It’s not that travel writing doesn’t pay, it’s that your particular form of travel writing doesn’t pay.

  20. Okuta says:

    It’s really good life story to share,Mark…
    I m sure u can be a billionaire if u are a part of generation X, which means u live in computer era.
    I love travelling, but be a travel writer for a company means making money for sm1 else,ãπϑ less for me.. Reading ur story strengthen my belief to make my own business.

    Ãπϑ I ° • · ♡·♥ τнänκ чöü ♥·♡ · • ° for ur time in writing it.

  21. Zuleka says:

    “There are kids in their 20′s making thousands of dollars from their travel sites.”

    Baloney!

    Couldn’t agree more with this article. I’ve stopped freelancing for newspapers altogether because it just doesn’t pay. Going on travel freebies is not that interesting anyway; there’s usually an itinerary and you are compromised. I laugh now when I see these pieces in print – knowing how much time it cost the writer, and the pittance they were paid. Vanity publishing!

  22. HW says:

    Travel writing is my sole income. It has been for about 18 months when regular newsdesk/subbing/reporting shifts on regional UK dailies went down the pan. Those shifts were my bread and butter money, to support the travel writing which, as you rightly say, pays so poorly. It explains why I am sitting here, in a freezing house, taking a short break from writing two commissioned pieces from two trips last week. I have at least six other firm commissions lined up for the next few months, but five of these are for publication in 2012 – and I don’t get an advance any more. At the weekend I was eating in one of the finest restaurants in England. Back home, my freezer is filled with Iceland packets and I will walk to the local store later to look on the bargain shelf for items on their sell-by date that will be half price or less. I (half) joke about “Luxury suite and chips” following some of my trips. Yes, we stay in fantastic five star hotels but, on the nights food is not provided, we find the cheapest chip shop around! This is how it is for me, someone who’s been an internationally-published travel writer for years, not the “you’re always on holiday” remarks of acquaintances. I think what you have written here Mark has being a travel writer in today’s climate to a T. But d’you know what? I am not, ever, giving up. I will carry on stoically. freezing my hands and butt off because I can’t afford the heating bills. Maybe I’ll see some of you around; you’ll know me. I’ll be the one with the steaming bundle under my arm, trying to dodge the hotel operations director, as I head up to my luxury suite – and chips.

  23. Steven says:

    Excellent article. Great comments. Makes you look at the reality of joined internet ad programs, etc. So, how does anyone actually make any money?

  24. This is a good piece for those with unrealistic notions about the travel writing industry. The stark reality is that the market is flooded and will remain so. In my heart of hearts I believe to have the expectation of making a living at travel writing is to over-inflate the actual value of what you are delivering to mankind. In the big picture leisure travel is a modern luxury and writing/reading about it is a non-essential byproduct. It seems natural that travel writing as a career should come and go. I’ve written a few travel pieces but what I write is a natural result of my investigations some of which require travel. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to get paid but that’s just added fulfillment to what I do naturally. It’s like making your own wine and selling a bottle here and there. Don’t get me wrong. I AM a writer and I value good writing. It’s part of my identity. But I’ve learned that my identity and what I do for money are not mutually exclusive.

  25. Fliss says:

    Thank you for your honest article. As an aspiring writer (of some travel kind) it’s disheartening to read endless blog posts telling me how ‘brutal’ the job is and then leaving it at that; home truths are becoming cynical and boring! Your article seems to put a light at the end of the tunnel, yes it’s hard but c’est la vie! and someone’s got to do the job, right?

  26. Interesting honest article! I think there are people making a lot of money from having travel blogs, but most of this is probably from representing brands, public speaking and advertising. I’m a trained journalist and started out as a newspaper reporter, before launching a travel blog and going travelling. I had unrealistic notions about being able to live off my blog but quickly realised this was not going to happen. So, on returning home, I got a job as an SEO copywriter and continued blogging on the side. Then I launched a freelance travel and lifestyle copywriting business this year. It’s a struggle to get by but copywriting has more opportunities thank journalism and blogging, though I’m currently doing a combination of all three. I’d love to be published in a travel mag like National Geo but getting past the gatekeeper you mentioned feels like an impossible task!

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