What They Don’t Tell You About Being A Travel Writer

Travel Writer Equipment - Annie Spratt

Who’d have thought travel writing would exist? You get to experience something you otherwise wouldn’t, and they pay for it? What is this, a writer’s wet dream?

When I flew to Boracay for my first travel assignment, I couldn’t believe I was doing it. Here I was, a writer that had stumbled across various dead-end jobs before finding this gig, and I was well on my way to collecting passport stamps and magazine bylines.

That honeymoon period lasted barely two months though, because while travel writing was fun, it also offered what any other job did—the potential for it to suck.

But what job doesn’t suck, am I right? After all, job hunts are merely a game of ‘Find The Vacancy With Suckage You Can Handle For What They’re Paying You’.

Maybe you’ll balk at some of the point on this list, maybe you won’t, we’re all different. So here I present to you the other side of travel writing, and maybe you can make your own decisions.

There are boring travel assignments too

I figured I’d get the most important bit out of the way.

You’d think that any job would be a done deal as long as it involves a set of return flight tickets. You’d just stuff your laptop into your backpack and knock out your articles in the artisan cafe just beside your hotel. Then you’d catch your flight home and collect your sweet pay for a work well done.

Yeah those jobs are mostly taken. Instead, you might have to write advertorials for schools or medical centres, and the only reason you’re flying there is because your company has promised the client that someone would show up.

So you board a three-hour flight, take a tour through the premises, buy your own lunch (because they don’t provide that), then rush back to the airport to catch your flight back home.

On the flight, you listen to a recording of the PR person droning on about their cutting-edge facilities (which in this case are ergonomic stools and high-resolution projectors for students), and you wonder if he thinks he’s getting paid too little for his job’s suckages.

Then you try and bang out your article before you land, because it’s due the same day, and you almost get into the flow of writing before the stewardess tells you that you’re landing and all electronics should be shut off.

Not really what you had in mind, but hey, you wanted to be a travel writer, right?

Travel Writing Bored Girl - Sharon Mccutcheon

Become a travel writer, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Photo: Sharon Mccutcheon

There’s more travel involved than writing

Most magazine features measure up at about 2,000 words, including sidebars. That means you’ll probably need to squeeze in everything into 1,700 words or less. You could probably bang out your first draft in a day.

Conversely, your flight, land, and water transfers (yes, you sometimes do all this in a day) could take up to eighteen hours, not excluding the various to-and-fros between your accommodation and the particular place of interest.

Factor in the few days you have to spend getting to know the area, and the return trip, and you’ll basically discover that writing actually takes a backseat to commuting in these instances.

The only sightseeing you’ll be doing is out of plane or bus windows, and the only local culture you’re going to soak up is through the taxi radio. The rest of your time is just spent moving from one place to another.

Woman sticking head out of train

I swear if I need to board another train… Photo: Engin Akyurt

Everything that can go wrong will go wrong

That’s just the law of nature. The more you travel, the more chances there are for things to go wrong.

This can range from your fixers forgetting your vegetarian requirements on guided tours to them not turning up entirely, leaving you stranded in a place where people don’t speak your language.

What’s worse is if they send someone else to pick up the slack, and said someone totally butchers the plans you’ve made for the story, resulting in a week of improvisations just to get the necessary material you need.

Let’s not even talk about flight delays, or missing your flight because immigrations had an issue with the steel knob on your camera tripod.

Sometimes it’s not even your fault. You could get government approval to bring a drone into a country for video footage, only to be denied entry at the airport because apparently drones are the devil and no amount of signed contracts and official approval would sway the officers’ decisions.

Ice cream fell on the ground

Expect some boo-boos. Photo: Sarah Killian

No money no honey

If you’re lucky like me, you’d be sent on all-expenses-paid assignments, and that’s a pretty sweet deal. But I’ve also had my share of needing to fork out a substantial sum of unforeseen payments just to see the assignment through.

I could’ve used that advice as a newbie, because I was still recovering from my years earning USD 400 per month, so paying my own taxi fares alone was a huge dent on the wallet.

In times like these, you’d think that being boarded in a swanky hotel would at least make up for it, but no. Instead, you’ll have to pay USD 40 for a burger just because you’re stuck in a five-star hotel in the mountaintops of Krabi and have no access to other forms of sustenance.

So even though you’re just going to travel for work, you best believe you’ll need to bring enough money as if you’re going there for a holiday.

Hand holding up

You’re going to need more green than you think. Photo: Jp Valery

No second chances

We’ve grown in an age where we take so many conveniences for granted, such as the ability to instantly communicate with people from halfway across the world or to read different languages with the help of Google Translate.

And nowhere does that gratitude kick in harder when you’re back at home and realise you’ve forgotten about a key piece of information to your story.

Your interview subject is now thousands of miles away, in a hut, minding her own business as she stokes the fire to her mud oven. E-mail’s not going to save you now.

You could make up some facts and send in the story anyway, but I’m going to assume that you have the conscience not to print unverified facts.

The chance that you’ll miss something important doubles (this is how you use unverified facts) if you’re doing both writing and photography. Have you tried jotting down and remembering facts when you’re stalking the market for photo opportunities?

It’s like trying to sing a song with another tune playing in the background. You can do it but it’s not fun and needlessly hard.

Travel Writing Man Crying - Tom Pumford

That feeling when you forgot to verify the exact fact your editor asked you to. Photo: Tom Pumford

Sometimes you just want to stay home

Really. There will be times when you’ll need to cover a certain festival that coincides with a long weekend holiday back home.

You’ll think of the things you’ll need to face on your trip—the crowds at the airport, the infants on the plane, the queue delays from people forgetting to put their keys on the tray—and you’ll wish that you could just stay home and enjoy some quiet downtime with your loved ones.

Well that’s too bad, because you’re going to join the holiday crowd and be a part of the holiday celebrations with strangers who see you as an outsider, and you’re going to like it (or at least pretend to) if you want them to share their alcohol with you.

Travel Writing Laying In Bed - Elizabeth Lies

Sometimes even a trip to your favourite country can’t get you out of bed. Photo: Elizabeth Lies

Extroverts preferred

Many writers—such as myself—would identify with being an introvert, and if you’re thinking of striking out into travel writing as one, then I pray that you get enough time to recharge your batteries because you’re going to be surrounded by people and crowds the moment you leave your doorstep.

You’re going to have to channel your people skills to liaise with your fixers, to interview your subjects at your destination, and at times, even approach total strangers for the sake of your story.

Sometimes you’ll be sent on media events, and here, you’re expected to participate in every item on the itinerary while mingling with the rest of your fellow journalists.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

A group of people dining together

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the introvert’s biggest nightmare. Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

Only heavy sleepers need apply

Let’s face it, your employers are running a business, and if a story requires you to travel and source for information, you can be sure that you’ll be sent to said places in the most affordable way possible.

That could mean sharing your room with strangers (perhaps a photographer, videographer, or fellow writer), or it could be a gruelling flight schedule just so your employer can on one day’s worth of accommodation.

And in situations like these, you’re almost guaranteed to run on nothing but a smidgeon of sleep, especially if you you rouse easily.

Expect to be woken up by your roommates’ snores, the yells of drunken hotel guests, the disco beside your hotel room, or traffic so close to your window that you can reach out and touch a passing motorcycle. Or you could learn to sleep with noise-cancelling earphones.

If there’s any time you should be envious of heavy sleepers, it would be now.

Sad pug wrapped in blanket

This is you as a light sleeper. Photo: Matthew Henry

So you want to be a travel writer

Don’t let my list dissuade you from realising your dreams. If this is truly your dream, you’ll find a way to make it happen anyway.

Besides, all the things listed above are tainted with my own prejudices and flaws as a person. And remember, as bad as I made them sound, they were still suckages that I very gladly accepted as part of the job.


What about you? Do you travel a lot for your work? What did you love or hate about it?

39 thoughts on “What They Don’t Tell You About Being A Travel Writer

  1. Fantastic review of travel writing. I’m hoping to dip my toe in eventually and this was a much-needed, pragmatic (but loving) dollop of awesome counsel. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Too bad the ‘rona looks to be changing this field forever. But who knows, maybe more opportunities are abound due to these changing circumstances.

      Loved your thoughtful comment. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with your foray into travel writing!

  2. Great post as always Stuart!
    I’ll just add one thing and that is the fact (perhaps more self imposed) that each travel article should then be able to be broken down into different smaller and salable articles. While you’re sitting on that first plane trying to pound out the article you may have a person beside you who is chatting or farting….there’s another article. And then of course there’s all the observations in the airport…more fodder. And of course let’s not forget the behind the scenes look of the article….the other side so to speak.
    This article could be directed toward any type of writing….So, you wanna be a freelancer, eh? ok here’s what you need to do and expect. I love it.
    The notion of such writing is seen as romantic and a quick turn around when it can definitely be boring, dirty, and uninspired.
    Keep writing Stuart!

  3. Oh yeah! I’ve definitely had my fair share of ‘extra-curricular happenings’ such as being chased by a pelican when I was cycling along a beach once, but I doubt anyone would want to buy stories like that. Thankfully, I have my blog for those stories, lol.

    Thanks for your encouragement, Faye! I always appreciate the effort you put into these comments, and today’s was a great read :)

  4. I feel you! Friends are always telling me that I’m lucky to be able to go for travel assignments (which I am, lol) but I think a lot of people don’t see the less glamorous parts. Like being awake for 30 hours because you couldn’t catch any sleep on the flight and then jumping in to interviews/ photo shoots straight away. Or having your toe nails fall out after a hike in the jungle which was supposed to last for 4 hours but ended up being 12 (also had a search and rescue team look for us coz they thought we were lost lol). BUT. It does make for some interesting tales! Wouldn’t trade it for the world. PS: I’m curious about the pelican story.

    • Haha yeah, I mean there are the positive points to travel writing, and part of that includes the catastrophically bad days such as your stories (they make for great material).

      But it’s the ‘meh’ things that really get me. Eating airport or airplane food, losing money to currency exchange, crowds, having to pee during inconvenient times on the plane…

      But oh crap you have some pretty awesome stories lol.

      Ah the pelican story isn’t really that interesting. It’s just those ten seconds that struck a newfound fear of birds in me.

      Was at somewhere rural in Krabi or Phuket (I forget), and I was cycling through the kampung roads to get to the little town for groceries.

      There was a freakin pelican in the middle of the road. No cars or passers-by to help.

      So I thought I’d be as non-threatening as possible and just cycle past, but the damn thing tried to bite me then gave chase. It was pretty fast and I was on one of those bicycles with a basket, so it wasn’t really built for speed.

      I didn’t even know what bird it was at the time. Had to Google it once I got home.

      I do miss those days, despite this article. Well, onto bigger and better things!

  5. where do I sign up? You make it sound so glamorous :)

    Hopefully, you’ll soon start getting those plum assignments where you can hang out at a cafe and write your article…

  6. Great post. Love that you’re keeping it real. Travel writing always sounds wonderful from an outsider’s view.
    Who knows where this industry will end up but people will always want to travel, even if only in their own ‘neighbourhood’ or country.

    • Yeah, I for one am interested in seeing how the industry changes with the new norms. But yeah, as bad as I make it sound, I’ve got to say that they were also some of the best years of my working life. Thanks for stopping by, Sal!

  7. Pingback: Sunday Post #3 A Hint of Autumn – The Violet Review

    • Don’t get me wrong, it really is. There’s just downsides to it like anything else. I’m very curious how the industry will turn out after this pandemic though. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  8. I actually attended a webinar yesterday on travel writing by this couple in New Zealand. About extroverts… The wife talked about her niche being introverted travellers. This was quite a different take on travel writing than the promotional nature of the webinar. I’m quite intrigued. Of course, there are two sides to every story. Anyway, great post.

  9. Hiya Stuart, I can’t deny, you’ve penned down an awesome article to think about but it seems the aspect of travel writing you’re talking about is more of the kind you’re hired to do. Travel bloggers around the world are basically travel writers and an ample of em have a few books to their credit.

    What makes it different from having an employer is that they can get sponsored trips from tour agencies or governments, travel on their budget and instead of travelling wide, choose to explore their country home (which I currently do) instead.

    One thing I agree on is the misadventures that may occur during travels but some even go ahead to write some of the most read posts because of such hitches.

    I believe travel writing is fun or can be fun. It’s at least a 50% better when you don’t have an employer telling you what to write.

    • Oh yes, you’re on point there, Eromonsele. Without the gatekeepers that are editors, you’re actually free to do whatever you want, and directly reach your readers, instead of having it filtered through someone else’s preferences first.

      The downsides of that is having less pull when it comes to access and expenses though (even though it takes a few months to claim).

      Maybe someday I’ll go back to travel writing on my own, but for now, it’s all about novels for me. Thanks so much for stopping by and weighing in your insightful thoughts!

    • Haha, if I’m being honest, travel writing does have its moments too. But yes, people don’t often realise that there are lots of ‘meh’ moments too. I’m sure you’ve come across many such instances as a travelling teacher. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. ” ‘Find The Vacancy With Suckage You Can Handle For What They’re Paying You’.” – I think this is the best description of job searching that I have ever seen!
    I’m not a travel writer, but I found this a fascinating read.

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