The Five Best Tips To Start a Travel Writing Career

"So...how did you become a travel writer?" is easily the number one question I receive when people ask what I do for a living. I don't have a short response for this question, but I have received incredible guidance along the way. Here's a bit about my journey, including the best advice I received when I got started.

My path to travel writing was not linear at all, but through all of my various careers, there have always been two constants: a love for traveling and a love for storytelling. I was very fortunate as a child to have parents that had both the financial means and the willingness to pass on their love of exploring new cities and countries with their kid. I had my first major plane ride to Hawaii when I was six months old, and my first trip abroad to France when I was eight. My parents instilled in me that learning was not limited to the classroom, so whenever I studied a particular culture, they tried to show it to me in person. Now, before you go off calling me a spoiled brat. My parents didn’t raise no brat. These trips didn’t come for free! For pretty much every major trip I had to either put together a scrapbook or report, and once (after that first trip to France), I had to report back to my entire 4th grade class about what I saw and learned. Of course I was annoyed about it but looking back, these reports started my love of storytelling.

First plane ride and I look terrified. En route to Hawaii, 1986.

Cut to college graduation. I graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communications with a concentration in public relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (HEEEEEEEELS!). I truly thought that once I made my way to New York City I was going to be there for life, practicing public relations for life. Ya’ll. I was so wrong lol. I had the great fortune of entering the workforce during one of the biggest financial crises in history. I’m scrappy though, so after dozens of interviews, babysitting jobs and side hustles, I made my way into a full time job in television (that I absolutely hated). While I knew I was blessed to have a job with benefits I knew it wasn’t for me and I knew I wanted to get back into PR. One day I was on a flight, probably home for the holidays, and I started reading the inflight magazine. Something clicked. I stared at the beautiful photos and the articles and thought “oh my god, this is what I want to do!”. But, again I was wrong. Because at the time, I defined “this” as travel public relations.

Halloween costume as a “PR bitch” NYC, 2012…costume wasn’t too far from the real thing lol

So back in New York, I finished up the one-year stint in television and started a career in travel public relations, which was essential in my path to becoming a travel writer. I researched PR firms that specialized in hotels and resorts (my number 1 love is hotels) and stalked people at those firms on linked in, asking them if there were any openings. The heavens smiled on me when an acquaintance at a firm told me that they in fact did have an entry level position opening and a week later, I was in. My career in travel public relations tightened my writing skills, taught me how to communicate with executives, strategic planning, and how to chat and be “on” with pretty much anyone. Most importantly, it helped me form relationships with other travel writers who took me under their wings when after four years in PR, I confessed that what I really wanted to do was write. Here are the top five tips they shared to help me get started.

Durham! My adopted hometown and the place I currently write about the most. Credit: My NC Homes

1. Start with what and where you know.

So many people decide they want to get into travel writing because they think they’ll literally be traveling and writing all the time but when you’re just getting started, nothing could be farther from the truth. While there are definitely exceptions to every rule and you may have luck selling a story from a recent trip you took, editors aren’t really looking for what us in the industry like to call “parachute journalism,” especially if you’re not an experienced reporter. Parachute journalism is just like it sounds, dropping into a city for a week and writing a story to an audience as if you know all about that place now. Instead, the best way to get some articles under your belt is to write about where you are. Does your city have a burgeoning dining scene? Are there some amazing street artists revitalizing a nearby neighborhood? Did a new hotel just open a few blocks away? Positioning yourself as an expert of a specific city is the best way to get constant assignments from everyone from your local magazine to Travel + Leisure.

I’ve worked very hard to establish myself as an expert wherever I lived. When I left New York and moved home to DC to pursue travel writing full time, I pitched DC stories. When I moved to Madrid, I sold Madrid stories. Now that I’m in North Carolina, I write about North Carolina all the time AND I have editors coming to me for stories. I think you get the idea…

2. “Hey! I’m going to (fill in the destination) next week. Do you want a story?” is not a pitch.

Holy hell am I glad I learned this lesson early, especially once I became an editor of a major travel publication. Sending an editor the above note is seriously the easiest way to become blacklisted. Editors want STORIES, so it’s a good idea to give them an idea of what your story is…i.e. a pitch! A pitch is generally a few sentences (or the first paragraph) of your story idea, then a few sentences about why you’re the best person to write it. Asking an editor if they want a story without telling them what the story actually is, just because you’re about to go on vacation, is so damn annoying and only makes you look lazy as shit. Please for the love of God, don’t ever ever send this sort of email, especially when you’re a newbie writer.

Favorite mug. Constant reminder.

3. Don’t write for free. Ever.

When I worked in travel PR and started moonlighting as a writer, I had coffee one day with a National Geographic Traveler writer whom I greatly respect. I told her that I decided that I really wanted to be a writer and she broke out into a happy dance. I then said “I was thinking maybe I could write a few stories for free for _______ website and then see about payment.” She immediately stopped dancing. She took both of my hands and looked me dead in the eyes and said “do not write for free. Ever.” Every single justification I tried to give, she shot down. She made it crystal clear to me that travel writing is a JOB. Just like any other work I wouldn’t do for free, this career is still work and therefore I deserve to be paid for it. More importantly, when you decide to work for free, you’re ruining the industry for all the writers working alongside you and those to come. Value yourself, value your work, state your price and never work for free. Note, this is not to say that there aren’t major publications out there that won’t try to get your work for free, but please hold out. There are just as many that will pay you for your work.

4. Aim high. Working your way up is a myth.

That same NGT writer gave me this advice and I didn’t listen. I don’t necessarily think that writing for smaller websites for lower pay was a mistake, but I know for a fact that it was fear of rejection that caused me to go for lower hanging fruit. By the way, if you have a fear of rejection, becoming a travel writer will cure it. The point is, what I’ve realized is that if you have writing skills, you have writing skills. If you truly have a story that you feel is the perfect fit for a major news outlet or magazine, and you can tell an editor why it’s the perfect fit, then go for it! That said, there’s also no shame in starting with smaller publications to help strengthen your pitching muscles and build up your confidence like I did.

About 15% of my year looks like this, if I’m lucky. A couple hours later, I was back on my laptop. Turks and Caicos, 2016.

5. Travel writing is not a vacation.

If you think that becoming a travel writer means that you’ll be lounging on a tropical locale, frosty beverage in hand, snapping photos for instagram and casually jotting down notes when you have the time, leave this blog right now. I’m not even kidding. GO AWAY. Haha glad you stayed. Look, I don’t know how many times I can say it but travel writing is a J-O-B. I have exactly one vacation a year (if I plan enough in advance) to the same place every summer (Martha’s Vineyard) and that’s only because if I didn’t take at least a few days off with friends over the course of a whole damn year I’d go insane. Most days I’m like “what’s a vacation?” I have no PTO, no paid holidays, I work a lot! Sure I may have a few hours of downtime in a fantastic location when I’m on a work trip, but trust and believe I spend way more time hunkered over my laptop than I do floating in turquoise waters. So be honest with yourself. If you’d rather have 2-3 paid weeks to fit in your traveling with no obligation to write a single word about it when you get back home (AND THAT’S ABSOLUTELY FINE BTW), then maybe travel writing is not the career for you.

So did I crush anyone’s dreams out there? lol I hope not! Which of these tips do you think is the best for you to utilize right now? What publications are you shooting for with your travel writing? Let me know below!

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