Get That Cool Job: travel writer

Melissa Klurman is in “total stress mode.” The longtime travel writer is leaving on a press trip in the morning—an all-expenses-paid visit to a private game reserve in Zimbabwe—and hasn’t finished packing. After that, there’s still a mile-long checklist of things she has to do before heading to the airport.

The pressure won’t end once her plane touches down in South Africa, the first leg of her journey. She’s stopping off at a travel conference to reestablish old publishing industry connections and hopefully make a few new ones. Then there are endless meetings with tour operators and press representatives for luxury resorts.

But then she’ll spend a few precious days on safari in one of the world’s most beautiful nature preserves. She admits that this part of her job is pretty glamorous.

“The travel is wonderful,” she says, all the tension draining from her voice. “That’s why we do this, right?”

How did she get this cool job? And more importantly, how can people just starting out in the business snag an assignment like hers? Klurman, a contributor for Martha Stewart Weddings, Travel Agent, and Family Fun, says a lot of it is luck.

“Not like winning-the-lottery luck,” she says. “You have to have the right idea at the right time and pitch the right editor. And don’t worry, because the longer you do it the better sense you have about what’s going to resonate.”

Charles Runnette, who has written travel stories for The Wall Street Journal and Virtuoso Life, agrees. He says that figuring out the kinds of articles that editors want is the key.

“My first couple of jobs were when I learned what editors wanted,” he says. “That’s when I started stuffing good story ideas in my back pocket and using them for the rest of my life.”

What other qualities are essential? Being comfortable with uncertainty is key, because there are times when you’ll have more work that you can handle and others when you’re twiddling your fingers. You also have to be comfortable being on your own, both in terms of the writing and the traveling. (It’s extremely rare that a press trip allows you to bring someone along.)

The dozen or so travel writers contacted for this article all agreed on one thing: it’s easier than ever to break into the business. There are many more opportunities than there were a decade ago, thanks to the explosion of online outlets. And that editor who’s going to give you the great gig is more accessible, thanks to social media.

“Social media has really lowered the barrier for getting in touch with people at these publications,” says Zach Everson, a freelance writer for USA Today and many other publications. “Almost every assignment I’ve received over the years came from an editor I met through social media. Sometimes I don’t hear from them until years later.”

Everson, who this coming week will set sail on a cruise along the coast of Norway, says you should also use all the online resources at your disposal to promote your work.

“The first thing to do is start your own website so that you can showcase your portfolio,” Everson says. “Editors have never asked me for my resume, but they always ask to see my clips.”

And what if you don’t have clips from prestigious publications? These days that’s no longer a deal breaker, according the Linda Cabasin, editorial director for Fodor’s Travel.

“I don’t really care where you’ve been published,” says Cabasin, who’s always on the lookout for writers for the company’s line of travel guides. “I look at the venue, of course, but I mostly look at the quality of the writing.”

Cabasin says that the important thing is building up a strong body of work, whether it’s on your own blog or in well-known travel magazines.

“Go ahead and start writing,” she says. Write about any trip you’ve taken, write book reviews, whatever. And if you can show that you have a particular focus—you’re a foodie, or you’re into adventure travel—so much the better.”

And don’t forget to post plenty of photos, videos, and other media along with your articles, Cabasin adds. Proving that you’re able to handle it all makes you much more marketable.

There are very few full-time jobs for travel writers, so you’re almost certainly going to be hired on a freelance basis. Look to smaller publications for those first few paying gigs.

“Start small, start local,” says Cabasin. “Begin by pitching local publications and local websites. It’s the easiest way to get some valuable clips.”

When you do snag an assignment for a larger publication, it probably won’t be a cover story. In fact, it might not even end up in the table of contents.

“I wrote a lot of short, back-of-the-book pieces before I got to write the larger features,” says Klurman. “You know, those stories on what to pack or what to wear. You take something that’s not exactly what you want to do because it gets your foot in the door.”

And what about the pay? Because the vast majority of online publications pay very little—or not at all—it’s tough to make a living as a travel writer. Many people combine it with something else, often public relations, social media marketing, or leading tours.

“Most people getting into travel writing are going to barely get by,” says Runnette. “I always joke that they better be a trust-fund child or marry somebody rich.”

And the pay hasn’t budged, even for writers at the top of their game.

“A colleague of mine recently said, ‘I knew you when you started off writing short pieces for Gridskipper, and now you’re writing features for Condé Nast Traveler,’” says Everson. “And I said, ‘Right, and the rates are about the same.’”

But once travel writers have established themselves, the types of assignments they get—whether it’s skiing in the French Alps or sampling the bourbons of Kentucky—make it well worth it.

“It is a blast,” says Everson. “I love doing it. Look, I just spent four days in New Mexico. I took a hot-air balloon ride over Albuquerque with one of the best balloon pilots in the world. Now, there’s an experience that’s typically not available to most people. I know how fortunate I am. There are some wonderful things about being a travel writer.”

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