What it’s really like to be a travel writer

Girl on beach reading Lonely Planet guidebook for Greece

Girl on beach reading Lonely Planet guidebook for Greece. Photo: Jay Bergesen / Flickr Creative Commons

If you like to travel and have your own blog, you may have entertained the idea of being a travel writer. Imagine getting paid to go and do the same fun stuff you’re already doing, going all over the world.  The reality can be quite different, however.  Lonely Planet guidebook writer Leif Pettersen wrote this brutally honest post on his Killing Batteries blog: So you want to be a Lonely Planet author – Redux.

Travel can seem so glamorous that it’s hard to imagine what a writer would complain about.  Pettersen makes a strong case that in the end, travel-writing work is still work.  Ever thought about the gazillion listings for all those hostels, hotels, and restaurants?  Often one writer had to visit all those places on their own, in the least amount of time possible.

There is also the creative challenge about writing about the same famous landmarks in an original way.  What more can be written about Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu?

What Pettersen finds maddening is that many travelers think they can do that job better than a pro can. Here’s a quote:

Nearly every research trip I take involves an encounter with a smug backpacker, sometimes holding a beer at noon, who’s under the impression that they’re doing exactly what I’m doing, except I’m getting paid.

Guidebook work is done as freelance contract work, which means no benefits and no steady salary. They usually get paid one lump sum, and all their expenses come out of that.  If you think that some guidebooks can feel hastily-written and rushed, it’s probably because the writer was racing to finish the job and preserve as much of his budget as possible.

For a broader overview, here’s a New York Times article that appeared in 2006: A job with travel but no vacation.  There was a sobering quote near the end: “Nobody is going to feel sorry for you getting six weeks of free travel in Europe.”

Despite the complaints, travel writing is a job with one huge benefit: getting to see the world.  Have you ever done paid travel writing?  What was your experience like?  Please share your thoughts in the comment.

Posted by | Comments (11)  | June 24, 2011
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Writing

11 Responses to “What it’s really like to be a travel writer”

  1. TB Says:

    I always wanted to be a travel writer. Write reviews of the places I’ve been to. The only problem is money hehe. How do you manage your budget, work loads and time?

  2. Hugh Says:

    Anyone who wants to be a travel writer or just enjoys to travel will enjoy this hilarious and insightful book by Thomas Kohnstamm: “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism” I still read Lonely Planet and other guide books while I travel, but I read them in a whole new light and with a new perspective.

  3. GypsyGirl Says:

    @Hugh: That’s the first book I happened upon when I thought about becoming a travel writer. Vagabonding was the second; which proved to be more insightful, and further more with Rolfs’ second book.

    In addition, I’d recommend LP’s (How To) Guide to Travel Writing by Don George.

  4. Davis Says:

    This from Jan Morris’ Guardian appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor:

    Few of us want to be called travel writers nowadays, the genre having been cheapened and weakened in these times of universal travel and almost universal literary ambition, but Leigh Fermor made of the genre a lovely instrument of grace, humour and reflection.

    There’s nothing wrong with the genre. It just seems so often to be in the hands of people who haven’t yet become good writers.

    Some of my best copy has come from letters I have written while on the road.

    It’s writing first: where you’re writing from is secondary.

  5. Davis Says:

    Oh, dear. I am still learning how to work this “comment” stuff. In my post, Jan Morris is only responsible for the copy down to “… lovely instrument of grace, humour and reflection.”

    The sudden drop-off in quality of the copy after that is all my doing.

  6. GypsyGirl Says:

    @Davis Just a little punctuation and you’d have been golden. But I’d totally agree with you. Good writing shines no matter the topic, which is why come Saturday, I begin a workshop taught by Rolf himself, in Paris.

  7. Davis Says:

    @Gypsy Girl. Lucky girl. I think Rolf is one of the most sensible travel writers practicing today and hope he has a huge influence on its development as literature.

  8. GypsyGirl Says:

    @Davis I second what you said! He’s smart, genuine and humorous. And is one of the big reasons I’ve buckled down to learn good craft before spilling too many of my stories.

  9. Davis Says:

    @GypsyGirl. I am writing my blog using my old travel journals. At the moment I am in Oaxaca a dozen years ago. I find the blog format favors the episodic. (I think you can click on my name to link to my blog; this stuff is still new to me.) I started keeping a journal thirty years ago on my first trip to Greece and it has been a major part of how I have taught myself to write.

  10. Linda Says:

    Hmmmm, I left this comment before, but it didn’t stick. I liked Kohnstamm’s book, plus Smile While You’re Lying. They both gave a real sense of the pitfalls. The best guide for making money at it I’ve seen is Travel Writing 2.0. There are writer interviews on the blog as well, including one with Rolf!