Top 5 Secrets Travel Writers Won't Tell You

Photo + Video + Film
by Julie Schwietert Apr 14, 2008

Travel Writer Spencer Klein on assignment (and between surf sessions) in Panama.

Think that being a travel writer isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be? Think again.

While cubicle-bound readers fantasize about the freewheeling lifestyle of travel writers, most travel writers are quick to point out the frustrations of their work: deadlines, living out of a suitcase or backpack, and increasing competition for bylines (and, ideally, ones that pay).

I say bah!

What these travel writers aren’t telling you are the secret benefits of the trade. And that’s because they either haven’t figured them out yet or they want to guard the secrets carefully because conventional wisdom says the number of publications is ever-shrinking while the pool of writers is ever-growing.

The truth is that good writers who tell important stories will always have work. And that’s why I’m sharing the top 5 secrets that most travel writers won’t tell you.

5. Travel writing is about much more than your own travels.

One of the specialized niches of travel writing is book reviewing. With the market for memoirs, travelogues, and place-based narratives exploding—as I write this, the two of the top five paperback non-fiction bestsellers fall into this category–developing your skills as a book reviewer is one way to break into travel writing.

And best of all… you get books for free.

Publishers reserve copies of new books for reviewers; these are referred to by the trade as “review copies.” Most major publishers will be happy to send a review copy to writers who contact the agent with a brief request detailing their writing experience and publication history.

In addition, publishers want to know that your review will be published by an online or print magazine that has a high circulation. To see successful request letters I’ve written and to learn more about how to request review copies, visit my website and click on Writers’ Resources.

4. Travel writing can land you free or heavily discounted travel opportunities.

Press trips are a controversial topic among travel writers, but the possibilities they offer are worth exploring. Trips and experiences are organized by various segments of the tourism industry, both domestic and international, with the goal of impressing writers and, in doing so, gaining favorable coverage.

Press trips are sponsored by chambers of commerce, hotels and resorts, conference planners, special events organizers, outdoor recreation outfitters, and many other representatives of the travel industry. Several online media forums provide regular updates about press trips.

If press trips interest you, it’s important to consider the following:

–Most press trip sponsors reserve trip spaces for writers with letters of assignment from high-profile print publications. It’s critical that you read the specifications for each press trip carefully and apply only for those whose criteria you legitimately fulfill.

Don’t compromise your professional or personal ethics just to get a free trip.

–Clarify what the terms of the press trip agreement are prior to accepting a place on the trip. Don’t compromise your professional or personal ethics just to get a free trip—this will only undermine your travel writing career in the long run.

–Giving full disclosure in any article you write based on a press trip is important. Discuss this matter fully with your editor.

Travel writer Jenny Williams in Turkey

–Don’t overlook the possibility of writing stories outside of the established press trip itinerary. Extend your trip by a couple of days, if possible, to learn more about the unpolished, unscripted place the press trip organizers showed you.

If that place doesn’t resemble the place you were shown, you have an obligation to tell your readers both sides of the story.

3. Travel writing sources and resources are everywhere. Use them.

As you’re planning a trip, do some basic research and identify the obvious and not so obvious sources and resources in the community who can facilitate your trip.

First, scan members of Matador and see who lives in the area or who might have expert knowledge of the region. Send him or her an e-mail to establish pre-trip contact.

In the United States, chambers of commerce can be very useful sources of information about a city or state, and can provide you with maps, local statistics (economy, population, etc.), lodging information, and interview contacts—all of which give you a jump start on your on-the-ground fact-finding.

I’ll be traveling and writing in New Orleans in June, so I’ve e-mailed the city’s Director of Communications to request a press kit. Chambers of commerce and an area’s PR/Communications employees can often assist with discount lodging as well.

2. Travel writing isn’t always a solo venture.

Some travel writers are extroverts, willing to engage with people across differences of language, culture, and belief in order to get a great story. Many of us though tend to be an introverted, solitary lot, insistent that we write best when we write alone.

Because this description has always applied to me, I decided to challenge myself this year by testing some collaborative writing projects with other travel writers whose work I admire. I’ve been amazed by the results.

My collaborations with Peter Davison and Eva Holland have been more fulfilling than I could have imagined, producing articles I’ll be proud to see published, as well as fostering a network of travel writers who share information, resources, and support generously.

1. There are no sure-fire secrets.

If you haven’t figured it out already, a great deal of life’s successes can be attributed to being in the right place at the right time, with the right person and the right dose of luck. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard, write well, and develop a densely populated network of colleagues and friends whose work interests you and who are interested in your work

In fact, these are critical tasks of the travel writer and your diligence will likely position you well for all the conditions of “rightness.” But if you feel like your travel writing career is getting off to a slow start or grinding along, stick with it. The market for good writers isn’t shrinking; it’s always expanding. Be genuinely happy for others’ successes, and keep sowing the seeds so you can enjoy your own.

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