Travel Writing on the Cheap
by Allen Cox
journalist Judie Fein once told me that a new writer must never
worry about the pay. "Just get some published clips," she said.
"Begin to build a portfolio of the best travel writing you can do
and the pay will come in time."
When Judie gave me
that advice I was in the Yucatan attending her travel writing
workshop, and was paying out-of-pocket for my airline ticket, hotel,
meals, entrance fees, cab fare (and the list goes on), all the while
calculating how many dozens of articles I'd have to sell to recoup
the cost of the trip. I had already dug myself into a hole before my
first query ever landed in an editor's inbox. Unfortunately, Judie
was correct about the pay–I had already learned that editors with a
budget of $25 for a 2,000 word travel feature are all too common for
an aspiring writer. At that rate, I'd have to sell 100 articles to
recoup the cost of the trip.
expensive. How would I ever break even? Would the math work itself
out? I began to puzzle over how a travel writer begins to build a
portfolio of published clips without breaking the bank, and
eventually turns a costly hobby into a sustainable career.
If you're just
starting out as a freelance travel writer, consider perfecting the
close-to-home travel feature. There are destinations and even
foreign climes that you don't necessarily have to cross oceans to
reach. Abandon the notion that you have to fly halfway around the
world to find a compelling travel story, and even the
airline tickets you do use to get that perfect travel review don't have to
be first-class or leaving the continent. It leaves you able to
afford more trips and therefore more articles, whilst still
entertaining your readers. If you do decide to stay within the local
area, then realize that your home town is an exotic destination for
somebody, somewhere. With the right pitch, regional, national, and
even international publications that run travel features will be
interested in the place you call home.
Think about what's
unique or new in your region and translate that to possible
topics—food, the outdoors, local history, nightlife, natural
attractions, festivals, museums, subcultures. Give the commonplace a
new spin. The rule is that there are no rules, no limits to the
topics and subtopics you can come up with. Consider the topic of
food, for example. Is there a type of cuisine for which your city is
known? How about romantic dining destinations? Food fads? A
concentration of a certain type of ethnic eateries? Food-centric
festivals? Cook-offs? Under the topic of food, there are at least
six articles right there.
Next, narrow it
down further. Take romantic dining destinations, for instance. If
you live in a coastal area, you could write a round-up feature about
the five most romantic water-view restaurants, or the best spots in
your city to share a picnic basket packed for two. How about
something unusual like a champagne brunch in a hot-air balloon? Get
creative: spin topics off of topics off of topics until you run out
of ideas, and then choose the ones you can sell.
When you sit down
to write your query letters, try to think of different slants for
multiple markets. The more closely you align your ideas to a
particular publication's tone, subject matter, and audience, the
greater your chance of acceptance. Popular travel writing trends
today (depending on the publication) include green travel, adventure
travel, "voluntourism," family travel, ethnic travel, gay travel,
senior travel, food travel, spiritual pilgrimages, art and literary
travel, women-only travel, solo travel, and sports travel (diving,
golfing, skiing, etc).
Once you've settled
on some topic ideas and angles, it's time to go out and get the
story. Grab your notebook and camera and embark on an errand of
discovery. Interview people. Capture quotes that are gems. Take
copious notes of the setting, the details, and your impressions.
Since most travel editors expect photos with a travel story, take
lots of high-resolution shots.
So far, in the
process of researching the close-to-home travel feature, you haven't
spent much out-of-pocket. If you do incur any expenses such as
meals, transportation, or entrance fees, be sure to keep your
receipts—they'll come in handy later.
The Press Pass
or not, think of yourself as a travel journalist and join a
professional association that offers some perks. Some membership
organizations for freelance writers issue a Press Pass as a benefit
of membership, allowing free or discounted admission into many
events. Membership can also be your invitation to join press and
familiarization (fam) trips where most expenses are covered or
It's true that many
publications discourage complimentary services (comps) paid by tour
companies, resorts, hotels, or restaurants because they don't want
your perception to be influenced by a freebie. If you accept comps
and submit a subsequent query to an editor, disclose that your
research was part of a press or fam trip and that some services were
complimentary. For freelancers on a budget, an alternative to comps
is to negotiate the lowest discounted price for the service and pay
Take a Vacation
If you're like most
people, you take an occasional vacation. You travel to places that
interest you, visit the in-laws, do a little sightseeing, and you
pay for it out of your own pocket. .
traveling anyway, why not turn it into a working vacation? You're a
travel journalist, and any place you go is raw material for at least
one story. Travel writing doesn't mean you have to stay in posh
resorts and dine in five-star restaurants; you can sleep on your
sister's couch in Kokomo and find something about the city that
would make a saleable story.
Since your vacation
is now a business trip, you can recoup at least a portion of your
costs. Legitimate expenses incurred by freelancers are
tax-deductible, and several excellent books on the business end of
freelancing address the topic. Of course, the whole point is to pay
for your trip and hopefully make a profit by selling as many
articles as you can at the best possible rate of pay.
Play the Odds
As a freelance
writer, you spend as much time sparking editors' interest in your
ideas as you do writing stories. But, before you ever send a query,
do your homework. Read a few issues or online versions of the
publications that are potential markets for your work. Become
familiar with the tone and style, and with the editors' preferences.
Look for writer's guidelines and an editorial calendar. Once you
have a story idea in mind that you think matches a publication's
editorial needs, pitch your story, keep track of the queries you
send, and—this is important—follow up.
If you don't hear
from an editor within about four weeks of sending the query, write
them a polite follow-up nudge with the original pitch attached.
Don't neglect this step. Often, when an editor hasn't responded to
the original pitch, he responds to the follow-up. This extra effort
on your part could result in an assignment and, if nothing else, it
demonstrates that you are an organized professional with an interest
in their publication, which may bode well for future proposals.
After having sent
out a few queries don't sit back and rest. Keep them coming. Set a
personal goal, for example, to pitch two articles a week to ten
different publications. The greater the number of well-written,
well-targeted queries you place in editors' inboxes, the better the
odds of landing a paying assignment. If you have few or no clips,
that assignment is likely to be on speculation (on spec) meaning the
editor wants to read the manuscript before they accept it, a
reasonable request if he's not familiar with you or your work.
Judie Fein was
right in her advice that fledgling freelancers mustn't worry about
the pay. Inevitably, an editor will agree to publish your story, but
for a pittance or only for the byline. But it is exposure and a
clip, and only you can weigh the value of that. The more
well-written clips you amass, the more editors seem to take you
seriously and assign articles that pay reasonably well.
travel journalists say they will never get rich travel-writing. Many
diversify into teaching, editing, hosting tours, writing in other
subject areas, or branching out into other media such as radio spots
or documentaries. For travel freelancers just starting out, breaking
even feels like success. In time, as Judie assured me, the pay will
Allen Cox is a freelance travel and
lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines, guidebooks,