Travel Writing on the Cheap
by Allen Cox
Veteran travel 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.
Travel is 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
Journalism degree 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 discounted. 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 beinfluenced 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 it.
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. .
Since you're 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.
Even rock-star 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 come.
Allen Cox is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines, guidebooks, and e-zines.