How Can I Become A Paid Travel Writer?

Somebody famous once said that it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.

Just who exactly that famous person was is a matter of heated debate on several I’m-Smarter-Than-You-Are web forums, but you can Google it all you want if you’re interested. Turns out a lot of people said some version or another of the oft-quoted adage over the years, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. Though this tidbit of wisdom has many variations, the meaning is virtually the same. In essence, the greatest joys in life come not from the getting, but from the longing.

My journey toward becoming a travel writer began in 1992. I had reached the ripe old age of eight and, with the help of a yellow Ticonderoga pencil and some wide-ruled notebook paper, penned my first guidebook: “The Geysers of Yellowstone.” My journey took many twists and turns in the ensuing years, and while there’ve been countless ports of call, I wouldn’t quite say I’ve reached my destination.

The trajectory of my life changed altogether sometime between my awkward pre-teen years and my overconfident university days when I decided that it was the glamorous world of film and television that was the life for me. I moved to New York City after I graduated, started a career on the producing track and endured the 12-15 hour days for as long as I could.

Fast-forward two years later and I’m a burnt out 23-year-old with a one-way ticket to the Caribbean Island of St. John. The clean air and crystalline waters helped me clear my head and finally realize that I had the right idea back in 1992. So, I traded the No. 2 pencil and blue-striped paper for a MacBook Pro and hit the road in search of stories. That was six years ago now, and I haven’t looked back since.

Did I become a travel writer overnight? In my head: yes. In reality: oh god no. That would be far too easy.

The path toward becoming a travel writer is laden with bumps, bruises, and, for some of us, the occasional monkey bite and subsequent rabies treatments. But the light at the end of the tunnel is a bright one, bright enough to make all the rocky rides — physical and emotional — worth every penny.

How To Get Your Foot In The Door.

Know this upfront: You’re going to have to whore yourself out at the beginning. Not your body, but your creativity.

Nobody will hire a writer who doesn’t have any clips, and the only way to get your articles published is to try and find respectable websites that deal with newbies. Those websites, more often than not, won’t pay. It’s supposed to be mutually beneficial — you get clips, they get content — but in reality, they get to keep their websites fresh with original stories at no overhead.

It sounds ludicrous, I know, but you have no idea how many of those Huffington Post articles you’ve read were written by budding writers like yourself. For free.

But I digress… The online landscape for travel journalism is evolving fast, so it’s good to do some research on what websites will get you the most exposure as a cub reporter. Once you’ve got a few clips published on the free websites (or even a local newspaper or newsletter), you can upgrade to websites like Matador or The Expeditioner, which pay a nominal fee for content. Writing for sites like these isn’t going to pay the bills, but it will give you the chance to say you’ve been paid for your work.

Others go about launching their travel writing careers in a totally different, totally 21st century way: blogging.

How Do I Become A Travel Blogger?

Travel blogging ain’t what it used to be. We all have that friend who made us follow that blog where they told us every minute detail of what they did every day of their god-awful vacation back in 2008. Those blogs are still mucking up the blogosphere, and if you’re an aspiring travel blogger writing travelogues for your mom, dad and sister-in-law, you might just want to stick to that and call it a day. But there are some extremely savvy entrepreneurs out there traveling the world and making three-figure salaries solely from ad revenues, content sharing, e-books and the like.

After years on the fringes of what was considered “respectable journalism,” travel bloggers now join writers from established newspapers and magazines on media junkets and famils. Don’t know what those are? The answer rhymes with tree frips.

For anyone hoping to progress into fulltime travel writing — whatever that means these days — here’s one all-important tip: Get used to rejection. If you can manage that, you’ll probably find a lot more acceptance down the road.

Here’s one more tip: Schmooze your way into every travel industry event in your region. If you thought networking was a vital part of your current job, you cannot even begin to imagine how important it is as a freelance journalist looking to get your work published. Chances are if an editor can’t put a face to a name, they won’t bother reading your pitch. Chances are if an industry leader hasn’t encountered you at an event, they won’t hire you for the job.

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Making The Leap Into The Great Unknown.

It’s far too easy for those contemplating an escape to come up with excuses as to why it’s a bad idea. In addition to the usual litany of potential problems, budding travel writers have the added stress of being away from home for long stretches of time — far from their devoted friends, their loving family and the girlfriend they just started dating three months ago. Yet, if you’ll indulge me in one more idiom of questionable origin, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

With the exception of a few desk-side positions as editor of a magazine, newspaper or digital publication, most travel writers and bloggers have to navigate the wild world of freelancing. Freelancing comes with the flexibility to be wherever you want, whenever you want, but it doesn’t come with a constant salary or the benefit of getting credit for what’s known as “passive face time.” That means your value as an individual is judged solely on your results. If you can produce clean and engaging copy on a tight deadline, you’ll succeed. If you get lazy and forget that travel is your job and not just your hobby, you may get swept up in transit.

It may take some time, but once you’ve established yourself as a published writer or an accomplished and widely followed blogger, you’ve officially unlocked the first key to a lifelong career. Things will get easier as your journey evolves, but there are many more doors ahead in route to your destination.

Is Being A Travel Writer As Fun As It Sounds? 

Yes and no. Despite what it may look like, it’s not all piña coladas and bungalows on the beach.

Your friends will spew hate on you because of the exotic photos you post on Instagram. They’ll deride you because of the nonchalant Facebook updates about how exhausted you are from gallivanting around some beach on a media trip. But the reality they don’t realize is that being a travel writer can be utterly exhausting and extremely lonely. I once ate an eight-course meal with wine parings at a famous restaurant in Australia’s Barossa Valley BY MYSELF. Now tell me, what can be more amazingly depressing than that?

I’ve lived on the road without a fixed address for six years now. That means weeks/months/years away from my family, an unimaginable amount of time away from my friends, and long stretches of living in the in between. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had apartments in New York and Sydney and many amazing experiences in the middle, but a good chunk of that time was just me and my trusty suitcase.

Yet, perhaps I’m being a bit too dramatic. Us travel writers and travel bloggers do for work what most people do for play. And we’re not just a pack of solo vagabonds carting our loneliness around the world. We’re families, couples, and teams. We come in all shades and types and find a way to juggle what it means to be citizens of the world. We manage labyrinthine visas and multiple SIM cards, and we function on a Web-based toolkit of Skype, Google Docs and social media.

It’s not the life for everybody, but it is for me … and it might just be for you, too.

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Mark Johanson is an American travel writer and the former travel editor at International Business Times. His stories have appeared in Newsweek Magazine, National Public Radio, among others. You can drop him a line and check out some of his work by visiting www.markjohanson.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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