What it's like to be a travel writer, from free booze to near-death experiences
We spoke with three travel writers who report from exotic, wild or luxurious destinations for money.
Writer A is an editor at a lifestyle blog and a writer for a variety of publications who mainly travels on free press trips.
Writer B is a travel journalist and author of several travel books.
Writer C is a literary editor, adventurer and travel journalist who is working on several books and often reports from wild and isolated locations.
WRITER A: It was actually sort of accidental. When I started working in editorial, in general, I started working with a lot of brands. I was initially contacted by a hotel that was opening in Costa Rica. They were offering me a free one-week stay to explore the brand new property. I brought it to my editor and said, "Is this a thing?"
I then was exposed to the notion of press trips and junkets. That property was designed with a very wonderful Costa Rican architect. So it made sense for me to go and explore it from a design element. And I found myself eating and drinking for free in Costa Rica.
WRITER B: I'm from Australia and I was sort of born with a passport in my hand, as they say. I used to hitchhike up and down the coast. When I was in college I went off to India and in those days it was very cheap getting over there, easy on the dollar.
I did a camel safari in Rajasthan, which seemed very exotic and bizarre, and, I don't know, I thought it would be a great story. So, I just wrote it out and sent it in to the national newspaper and they published it. They sent me a check—they didn't tell me they were going to publish it. That's how professional things are down there. My friend saw it and said, "Oh, I loved the story." I'm like, "What?" I rushed off and buy the paper and there it was, my adventures in Rajasthan.
WRITER C: I got into it by accident, I never even considered myself a writer. I always traveled a lot and I always wrote, every day. Twenty-six months ago I went to a conference about travel writing and won a contest there, so I started publishing a lot more work. I work in a lot of genres but I am pretty much an explorer or an adventurer, although I do urban environments too. I'm about to go out and live in the wild in New Zealand for two months and not deal with people.
The ethics of free press trips
WRITER A: I was just in a magnificent hotel in Italy. From an admiration standpoint and from its offering, it's one of the most exquisite facilities I've ever stayed at. The thing is, I know how much that room costs, and that's something that is so outside of my price budget. So, if I'm approaching a story from an aspirational perspective, then I feel like I'm being honest and objective because this is something to dream toward. However, there is a level of dishonesty when I feel like I'm conveying something about a place that's definitely out of reach for most.
It's so tricky. It's very, very tricky. "Look at this wonderful place that I'm reviewing because I had the most exquisite time." However, I didn't pay for anything.
WRITER B: So I've never actually taken a press trip. No, there's not really much point in [press trips] from my point of view. You just sort of go, and people show you stuff and then [the journalists are] taken back and they're supposed to write it down and they've actually had no genuine experience, also no individual experience. It seems pointless to me.
Writer c: It would be hard for me to have a good press trip because I like to do my own thing. The single one I had was nice because I got to organize and choose things myself—but I still prefer winging it on my own.
WRITER A: There are rights and practices policies in place that prevent me from writing stories where I've been comped anything for them. I had one other wonderful press trip to the middle of France to review what [a champagne brand] was doing. And tangentially, was able to explore a bunch of hotels in the Champagne region. And I could write about those for [a website] but not for a publication like the New York Times.
WRITER A: Primarily, [traveling on press junkets is] highly scheduled. Everything from room visits to architectural background on the structure that you're in, to dinners and lunches, even to exploring the area around the facility that you're reviewing.
Yes, it is fun. It's always fun and enjoyable, but it is exhausting because there's very little time to breathe. You are ushered from one place to another, most often with a carrier. Like a handler.
Travel is exhausting. I think a lot of people don't understand it. Being on a schedule that someone provides for you opens up doors to places you couldn't afford or couldn't access on your own. But it's not really a sigh of relief. You shuffle through, from event to event to event. You don't really get to experience a city in a fuller, broader sense. I'm not sure how long a human body could sustain a lifestyle of press trips.
Writer b: I try to travel as little as possible actually! The experience of traveling has become increasingly degraded over the last 20 years—it's just endless standing in line, and then flights are grim and crowded.
But having said that, it's always amazing to arrive. One of the quintessential modern experiences, to walk into an airport and reemerge in Zanzibar or Moscow... I don't mind jetlag back in New York, it can be quite creative... I wander into Veselka at 4 am and join the club kids and junkies all getting their borscht. Alcohol helps a lot to get one over jet lag too!
WRITER C: You know, every place I go, there comes a point where I'm crossing a threshold of comfort. When I first go someplace I look for certain comforts, certain kinds of hotel rooms or camping sites, but there comes a point where I'm not going to get those things. And I have to accept that. Once I accept that I'm going to be happier than if I'd gotten those things.
It does get exhausting. I might travel a little differently than other people. I try to stay in one place for a long time. I've been to 13 countries this year, which isn't that bad. Most of them I've stayed in for a pretty long time. Three weeks to three months. When you're only going places for a few days, just going from hotel to hotel, that's exhausting. Especially if you don't have a home. You find ways to deal with it. I have no address, but I have friends around the world that I leave things with. Next year I'll have an apartment in India for six months while I work on a book. Otherwise, yeah, it can be very tiring and not very healthy.
Paying your way
WRITER A: I actually stayed in a few other places in Italy over the summer and ending up reviewing all of them, even though I paid for them out of pocket. It's interesting to see a place when people are not aware that you're a journalist. It's interesting to pinpoint whether or not there is any variation in service, if the rooms differ. It was a really valuable experience, for me, to write about places that I didn't pay to stay in and still found myself liking a few of the places I ended up at.
WRITER C: I definitely travel very, very light. I bring a tent everywhere I go. I either Airbnb, or stay with a friend, or camp. Very rarely do I stay in a hotel. My expenses are getting from place to place, not expensive hotels or events. To fund my travel I have the books I'm working on. Those books give advances or promises. And I do some freelancing and I edit several literary journals.
WRITER B: Sometimes you just have to cobble it together, like one magazine will send you to Bhutan and the other one will pay for you to go to Bangkok and you put them together and that covers your costs. I mean I still sometimes, if I really feel strongly about something, I'll pay for the trip myself under the assumption that someone will buy the story. The reality is that it’s much better getting somebody else to pay for it.
Unfortunately, the magazine world implodes. Stories are getting shorter and the expenses budgets are going down. The trips tend to get shorter and a little bit more frenzied than they used to be. What are you going to do?
WRITER C: The adventure writers use sponsors a lot. For example, you can't go to the Antarctic without a sponsor. I had a lot of sponsors, but I got rid of them. I just decided those won't be the kind of trips take. I feel like when I have sponsors I'm not as free to write whatever I want. And I'm more interested in smaller stories and human experiences. I want the epic journey, but I want my version of epic. So far I'm making enough money to pay for my travels and pay for my life, which is great.
But I think a lot of people get into the outdoor adventurer thing to become famous. I want the smaller, more low-key experiences. Someone who goes to a desert island for a year and writes about it, that's a really interesting book, but going to a remote place for a few months like I'm about to do is more achievable for most people. I think people will be interested to see what it's like and how it changes me because that's something they might actually do. I am interested in making my work economically relatable because travel writing is based in a colonialist tradition.
WRITER C: Everywhere I go, I'm always amazed at the goodness of people. I know that sounds really corny, but I'm amazed at the goodness of people and their willingness to help. Sometimes I'll come across someone on the street who doesn't have very much money, and you might think they won't be part of your story because you're working on a different concept, but everyone has their own story, that's what I've learned. Everyone is a walking book.
WRITER B: [A magazine] came up with a great idea—there was a guy named Nicholas Logsdail, and he's British and he set up the first contemporary art gallery in London in 1967. He was just 22 years old and he's the nephew of Roald Dahl and always had this fascination with East Africa. He went and bought a Swahili palette on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. Then he renovated a small factory, a palm oil factory as well there, and turned it into an artist’s retreat. Lamu is this very mythic, remote little island. [The magazine] decided to send me to London to interview him and then to Africa to go to this place.
I didn't know where it was on the map. It was like, “Where the hell is Lamu?” It’s very exotic and bizarre. You fly into some remote coastal airstrip and get a dhow, this ancient Arab sailing craft. It takes across you across the channel.
It’s very medieval, exotic township where there's no cars because the alleys are so narrow and only donkeys can go through. I spent a week there hanging out and it was wildly fun and exotic and bizarre. That was a great trip. I never expected to be able to do that. I never really would have suggested that. Certainly you learn. It was a great travel experience.
WRITER A: You put a bunch of writers and editors in a foreign location and get them very drunk, a lot of very interesting things will happen. I've been present while people have gotten lost and disappeared. There have been many instances of odd, sexual encounters that are kind of unavoidable when you're abroad and people are drunk.
Because food and drink is such a heavy, important part of travel writing that it just makes sense that crazy things will happen. Everything from vomiting to one-night stands.
WRITER B: I got held up gunpoint in Houston, Texas. Second night there, it was at some art center and a couple of gentlemen came up and they had a gun and relieved me of everything that I had on me. That was pretty hairy. I [was never] robbed anywhere, here in New York or in South America, or Africa, it was in Houston, Texas. Again I was embarrassed to tell my editors, “Man I might need another few more days. I was shaken down.” He was like, “Oh I'm really sorry that happened to you but it’s great for the story."
WRITER A: Seeing other people complain and seeing other people be hyper-entitled [is frustrating]. A lot of work goes into planning press trips. Yes, there are a lot of obligations, but there are a lot of writers out there who are so entitled that will make specific egregious requests or take advantage of the system while on a trip, and that also makes me uncomfortable.
If somebody's footing a bill for you between five and twenty thousand dollars, it's not fair [to complain]. It's best to make an effort to try and enjoy what's being offered.
WRITER C: The worst experiences I've had have also probably been the best. Hiking alone and feeling frightened because it was pouring rain or I've injured myself and I'm really isolated and spending a night terrified. That's always scary for a nature writer. Or not having any water. Things that are really practical. But I've never had anything really bad happen. When I was crossing the Honduran border, I walked in from Guatemala with someone else. To make a long story short, I put myself in danger with a border patrol guard. He took off his pants and something really bad was going to happen. I got out of it. That was very scary, but I don't regret going. I would take the trip again. Maybe I would do something different. But it wasn't avoidable. As a woman traveling alone, definitely there are times when scary things happen.
WRITER C: Travel is interesting for me because it helps me understand the world that I'm in and expand myself. It's a great bridge builder to other people. They don't have to travel themselves to read my stories. I think travel can happen anywhere, you can travel in your own city. Travel is a little more of a state of mind to me, it's more about seeing things differently than staying with what's expected.
WRITER A: It's impossible to not want to see the world. I have an opportunity to visit Hawaii in January and explore a few islands for a travel story. That's not a trip I could take on my own, but if I can find a way to see that and live that on an editorial salary.
You know, editors and writers don't really make a great deal, especially in the first five, ten years. It's a way of ... It's more than a perk of the job, it's the value that's offered to editors to explore and be able to share with other people that can't explore so they have something to dream toward. I have severe wanderlust. When I'm in my office, which I love going to, if I'm in there for a few weeks, immediately I'm like, what's my next stop, where am I going to next?
WRITER B: Travel writing is a very… Well, it's often referred to as a very promiscuous genre, cause it's so first person. You can write really about whatever you feel like, whenever you step out your front doorway.
The good, the bad and the very lucky
WRITER A: Beyond the jet lag, there is the potential for alcoholism, there is the weight gain from eating like a king. I love what I do and I'm really happy doing it now, but at some point, I would like to be able to travel independently.
The other thing about being out of office, even if you're on staff, it limits your ability to excel within an organization. Rather than bunkering down and making your writers better, you're pulled in a bunch of directions. It makes more sense for someone who really wants to lock down an upper-echelon editorial job to suspend the frequent life of free travel and focus on life there, or at home, or with their home publication.
WRITER B: I think the good thing about travel writing is that you can't lose. If something goes wrong, then it’s like a great story. If things go well, I think the worst thing is it sounds boring.
WRITER C: When you're trying to have off-the-beaten-path experiences, you're going to have some risk because you're alone. The job of the travel writer is to make that a learning experience.