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The Wisdom of Travel Writers

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If you like to write and you travel often, there's a chance you may have thought about becoming a travel writer. If you've ever dreamed of supporting yourself with a career in travel writing, the following article reveals the secrets of the trade as told by seasoned vets.

Recently, travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm brought a swarm of media attention to his profession by publishing the book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism. In the book, he discusses the more unsavory practices he undertook while working on his first guidebook for Lonely Planet, among them drug-dealing, promising write-ups in exchange for free goods and services, stealing info from other guidebooks, and inventing content about places where he'd never actually traveled. In practice, it appears as though Kohnstamm is not so unique. While not all travel writers act as low-down as Kohnstamm, a number of them have obliged the public with the truth about a career sometimes rife with indignities.

I've traveled so much that I think I know more than the guidebooks out there, plus I have a ton of funny stories and personal insights to share. Surely there's a job out there for someone who can write content like mine, right?



Possibly not. The travel writing business has its own restrictions that can sometimes limit the freedom with which writers wield their pen. Like Kohnstamm, Chuck Thompson is an author who penned his own insider look at the darker side of travel writing, called Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. With colorful language, Thompson summed up his thoughts on writing copy for travel pubs:
After more than a decade in the business, I've grown tired of coming home from the intoxicating hell of the road and leaving the most interesting material on the cutting-room floor. The stories my friends actually pay attention to never seem to interest editors, most of them emasculated by demands to portray travel as an unbroken fantasy of on-time departures, courteous flunkies, sugar-white beaches, fascinating cities, charming locals, first-class hotels, golden days, purple nights, and, of course, ''an exotic blend of the ancient and the modern.'' The most memorable experiences — getting laid, sick, lost, home — always seem ''too negative,'' ''too graphic,'' or ''too over the heads of our readers'' to find their ways into print.
If it's your desire to share off-the-beaten-path experiences, there may be an outlet for you, but it might not be with the highest paying or farthest reaching pubs.

Do travel writers get to eat and stay at places for free?

Actually, it's usually up to the publisher to pay for the writer's accommodations, and the burden oftentimes falls on the writer him or herself. Writing for the publication Transitions Abroad, seasoned travel writer Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations, among other titles, explains:
Ads for travel writing courses and workshops love to talk about ''all expenses paid,'' but this is a rare event for most freelance travel writers. If you have an assignment letter in hand for your great idea, from a reputable travel magazine or big newspaper, you can likely swing some freebies. Otherwise, forget it. If a travel provider cannot see an obvious payback from providing you free hospitality of some sort, don't expect to get it. I reviewed hotels in nine countries for a well-known travel trade publication and ended up staying at a lot of ritzy properties for free. But that's because of the guide I was writing for and the kinds of customers that used it. If I had been writing for some obscure travel site on the Web, or even Transitions Abroad, the hotel managers never would have replied to my letters. Every tourism business wants publicity, but it has to be the right publicity for them to care.
Will I get paid at all?

Eventually. Leffel warns:
Money comes long after the travels. The very biggest and best magazines pay ''on acceptance,'' which means when you hand in a manuscript they are happy with, you get paid. Most stories are accepted ''on spec,'' meaning you write the story without knowing if they'll accept it. You will get paid upon publication — after the story actually shows up in print. In the best case, this will be within two or three months. More likely, it will be six months or a year.
Tom Brosnahan, a prolific travel writer who has worked extensively for Arthur Frommer publications, breaks it down on his site Writers Website Planner. He estimates that big newspapers pay $75 to $200 for travel stories, regional and local magazines may pay $250 to $800 for a feature story of 2,000 to 4,000 words, national magazines may pay $750 to $3,000 for the same feature, and the highest paying magazines may pay $3,000 to $10,000 and up, depending on how much they really want the story.

On the site, Brosnahan advises wannabe travel writers to remember ''what you get paid is not what you earn.'' For guidebook writers, he estimates the salary to be around $20,000 to $40,000 a year, but that's without taking out benefits or costs incurred — which can oftentimes include the traveling! He notes, however, that a more entrepreneurial travel writer can earn more money by consulting in publicity or marketing, lecturing or doing corporate work in some capacity.

Is there a silver lining to life as a travel writer?

Some travel writers out there don't find themselves complaining too much, despite the inherent difficulties of the travel writing career path. Travel writing provides an excellent opportunity to combine travel with work, and it definitely lacks the scenic monotony of office work. Knowing the downsides of the career can only help your future endeavors, at least allowing you to enter the field with the correct set of expectations.
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