The Ambidextrous Travel Writer

The Ambidextrous Travel Writer:

The Ambidextrous Travel Writer is a monthly advice column for travel writers & bloggers, written by author Susan Farewell.

Endless Vacation vs. Responsibility to Readers

Being a travel writer is not just an endless vacation
6 July 2010 Post Author:
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Years ago, I thought of writing a book called, “I left Paradise a Day Early” on the many hardships travel writers have to endure while on the road.

I “shelved” the idea back then because a colleague/friend said to me, “Susan, normal people won’t get this.

Of course, how can staying in a pristine villa at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, sand outside your door, be seen as a hardship? How can riding horses through the cacti of Arizona be all that bad? How can having to go to Australia one week and Norway the next elicit pity?

Travel for me is my job, my profession, and it’s a demanding one.

While I love the actual act of traveling (even flying these days) and I never get enough of exploring new places, travel for me is my job, my profession, and it’s a demanding one.

It’s not easy juggling deadlines when you’re on the road. And this peripatetic life does come with a price. Travel often takes me away from my family, and friends. It can be a challenge, especially if you’ve got someone or something back home that needs your attention (a child, an ill relative, even an old cat).

But as a travel writer, there’s no cutting corners. You can’t write about travel without traveling. Whether it’s checking out a little known corner of Barcelona, or an isolated beach in Maui, you’ve got to see it for yourself.

Professional travel writers take this responsibility seriously, which is why, at the recent TBEX conference in New York, I found myself distressed over the attitude shown by many of the newer members of our profession.

During one of the panels, several people were talking about “getting the free stuff, the free trips.” It was as if this was the only reason they had become travel bloggers, so they could get to travel

I am not the only one that felt extreme agita over this attitude. During the Q&A time at the end, another writer spoke up stating emphatically that when we take subsidized trips, we are entering into a business agreement. The PR people are just offering us the opportunity to do our jobs.

I couldn’t agree more. For me, travel writing is never as easy as saying “Yes” to a press invitation. It’s a well-researched strategic choice, one that is first and foremost dictated by my readers.

The first question I ask myself is “Where do they want to go?”

The trip that follows keeps in step with that. What would they do in this destination? I find myself doing many things—and all things—so I can tell my readers about them. I know that chances are they’ll just pick a couple of my recommendations and very likely spend a huge chunk of time relaxing (whether it’s on a sandy beach or in a Parisian cafe).

It doesn’t matter what travelers decide to do. They are here to vacation. I’m the one who can’t relax. After all, I am here to work.

~Susan


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24 Responses to “Endless Vacation vs. Responsibility to Readers”

  1. Natalia says:

    Thanks so much for this. I write a travel blog, and for now it is just for fun – I don’t make any money from it, I don’t get any freebies. And while I realise that for some people, it is their job and how they make money, it is disappointing to read blog after blog where it is obvious whoever is writing it *is* doing it just for the freebies (it is pretty obvious a lot of the time) and will rarely give a true review of where they have been.
    .-= Natalia´s last blog post: Greenwich =-.

  2. Alison
    Twitter:
    says:

    As a travel photographer by profession and a travel blogger by choice I can certainly relate to this. I LOVE to travel and I love my job but I do have to bite my tong sometimes when people tell me how glamorous my life is. Unfortunately while most people are laying by the pool at the resort, I’m carting a pack-load of gear to the next shoot. Very glamorous indeed :)
    .-= Alison´s last blog post: Expat Life in New Zealand- An Interview with LeeAnn =-.

  3. Dave and Deb
    Twitter:
    says:

    I agree with you completely in the line “The PR people are offering us the opportunity to do our jobs.
    A press trip is hard work and it is our job to take it seriously. I disagree with Natalia that people don’t give a fair review. When we take a press trip, we have our integrity to protect. It is going on our blog after all and if we start writing about everything being roses because we got something for free, people will stop reading.
    If we don’t like something, we will say it. For instance, Air France gave us a free flight on their new premium class. We gave it a very honest review stating the flaws as well as the benefits. Air France thanked us for our review and acknowledged that they have a few things to work on. They tweeted it and put it on their website.
    When we were on the Princess Cruises Trip in Alaska,(an adventure destination that worked beautiful with our blogs niche) we had every moment of our day scheduled, it was a great experience, but it was also a lot of work. Luckily we love our work!
    When we are given a press trip, we feel a responsibility to the company that is sending us there to tell about our experience completely. We do everything so that our readers can choose what aspect they will enjoy the most when they go.
    While we don’t want to jam pack our year with press trips, we do appreciate the opportunity to go to some exotic locations that we otherwise couldn’t afford and keep doing our job.
    .-= Dave and Deb´s last blog post: The Ultimate 5 Dive Destinations in the World =-.

  4. Teresa Gotay
    Twitter:
    says:

    This is a great post with some valid points. I was at Tbex as well. Writing is my number one passion. Whether I make $20 or $20,000, first comes first: Writing a quality piece, not only for the audience, but for myself.

  5. pam
    Twitter:
    says:

    I was at a party last night and was explaining what I do — that was kind of weird. Try getting work place sympathy from a crowd of strangers when you’re talking about your last trip to Hawaii or your Village digs in NYC. It’s not happening. Sure amongst us girls we can be all, “Yeah, this is hard work.” But what do you think the marine welder is thinking? It’s important to keep the fact that work or no, exhausting or no, we are a freaky privileged lot.

    That said, I do think it’s essential to focus on doing the best possible work when you’re traveling. And that yes, it’s a business arrangement with your hosts, but in my mind, more importantly, it’s a an arrangement with your readers. It’s our responsibility as writers to inform, to use our experience to either take our visitors along with us vicariously or to help them create the best possible travels on their own.

    I LOVED it when at TBEX when Spud Hilton said, “It’s not about YOUR trip, it’s about your READER’s trip.” If we keep that at the front of mind at all times, we are doing our jobs and being, as you so excellently stated, “responsible to our READERS.” Bless them, for without them, we are nowhere. Let’s agree to do right by them before anything else.
    .-= pam´s last blog post: Oregon Entropy =-.

  6. In a nutshell, it boils down to writer/ journalist that travels vs traveller that writes/ plays at being a journalist. More of the former, less of the latter please.

    On the subject of press trips – I don’t do the group ones any more for a number of reasons. The ones I have set up individually are tailored to my – or rather my readers’ – needs. I see them as a necessary evil, largely about keeping costs down and being able to cram as much into a short visit as possible.
    .-= David Whitley´s last blog post: Bad language- The shame of the Brit abroad =-.

  7. Wendy
    Twitter:
    says:

    Your post is so right on…in many ways. Tell someone you are a freelance travel writer and usually you get the “oh gee, must be rough” speech.

    And I have been asked “do I need to travel to write about a place?”. When I was editing for a travel writing program, it was easy to tell if the writer had actually been there or not…or for that matter if he had spent any time at all exploring something other than the tourist spots. So, my answer is “not at all…unless you want to sell your piece or have anyone read it.”

    As a freelance writer for travel as well as other interests and as a freelance editor, I appreciate your comments. It is always a good idea to know where your audience wants to go!

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. I think “how to get free stuff” is a frequent question, because people don’t know. It also used to come up on the travelwriters.com board a lot too. But, I don’t think there are any bloggers that are doing this for “the stuff”. It’s just too much work for what amounts to maybe a free hotel room twice a year. People ask because it’s the only opportunity they have to get an answer, not because that’s their main focus.
    .-= Christine Gilbert´s last blog post: The Adventure Begins- NYC and Beyond =-.

    • Pam Mandel
      Twitter:
      says:

      Well stated and well thought out, Christine, I think you’re right. People ask me ALL THE TIME how, but I agree, this isn’t their motivation. I think most of the people I talk to are genuinely looking to write useful information and extend their resources, they’re not in it for the junket aspect.
      .-= Pam Mandel´s last blog post: The Girl’s Guide to Travel Romance =-.

      • I agree – I really think most of the people who ask me the same questions only ask because they’re curious, not necessarily because they’re motivated by it.

        And what I tell them is something along the lines of what Pam said above (and so very perfectly expressed too)….” it’s essential to focus on doing the best possible work when you’re traveling”……because once you become known for doing good work, the opportunities WILL come your way, you won’t have to seek them out.

  9. Some press trips are mostly work, and some are mostly fun. Spending hours on a bus, touring hotels, and touring the Hello Kitty Museum if you hate Hello Kitty is likely to be work.

  10. [Continued from previous comment]

    Going on an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise with your spouse, with most of your time spent eating, drinking, or getting rubdowns in the spa (if you like spas, as I don’t) is work only to those with a talent for acting.

    I’ve been on press trips that were mostly work, and I’ve been on press trips that were mostly pleasure. In each case, I’ve produced a great deal of coverage, but on the “mostly pleasure” press trips, the bulk of my work took place after I got back to the office.

  11. Carla King
    Twitter:
    says:

    Thank you so much. I’m a motorcycle adventure travel writer who specializes in going solo on various unreliable indigenous motorcycles. While people say they want my job I doubt it — getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in China with a blown engine only sounds glamorous in hindsight. Yeah… what we do for our readers! (Not fooling anybody, am I?)

  12. Sara
    Twitter:
    says:

    Yes! Totally agree…take me for instance, I was hired to work on the plane. Everyone thinks I get to enjoy all the glamour, i.e. picking up trash. But, noooo! I’m there getting paid to be on the plane and to write about it. Ok, not to write about it, the airline doesn’t exactly want me writing about them. Which is why I don’t say who I fly for. Hmmmmm…not quite the same thing as you guys;-)
    .-= Sara´s last blog post: Airline Fees IMHO =-.

  13. I’d say that the thoughts expressed above are potentially too soft on the issue. Folks in it for the freebies not only are misguided, but they aren’t even doing the job appropriately when they do produce the content. Taking the freebies skews the view. Unless it is fully disclosed there are issues with that approach.

    Yeah, it sucks to have to pay for the travel, especially if you’re not making much money from your writing efforts, but until you’ve had the experience as a paying customer you won’t really understand the value of what you’re writing about and what your readers will actually get to experience.
    .-= Wandering Aramean´s last blog post: American Express and US Airways team up on lounge access =-.

    • Trisha
      Twitter:
      says:

      I do agree that anyone in this business who is just looking for freebies is misguided, and I think that most of them will wind up being weeded out as PR people (who talk to each other as much as editors do, which is a lot), share the names of writers and bloggers who don’t have the outlets or audience to be of any benefit to their client.

      However, I disagree that you can’t understand the value if you’re not paying for the trip – I think that most of us who are travel writers and bloggers have done enough traveling to understand the costs, and to appreciate the value of what we’re (occasionally) given. Those that are upfront with their readers about the fact that they didn’t pay for the trip, and who still give their honest and unbiased opinions, are doing right by their readers, and for me that’s the bottom line – not who paid for it, but how is it presented.

  14. Linda
    Twitter:
    says:

    I tend to agree that “the thoughts expressed above are potentially too soft on the issue.” In particular, there are a lot of self-titled travel writers with no paid credits to their name popping up on cruise ship press trips. Often, they are travel agents who “write” on the side. They openly talk about how they’ve set up websites and blogs about cruises in order to get in on the free travel goodies, even discussing it in front of their PR hosts.

    I once took a friend along as my guest on a cruise ship press trip. Afterwards, another friend inquired about the cruise. My guest said she had a wonderful time, pointed to me, and said, “She worked.”

    If a press trip skews your view of a destination or cruise, then you are in the wrong business. I’ve always said my articles are no about me, but are to inform my readers.

    I fear the tsunami of freebie-seekers is eventually going to drown out legitimate travel writers who are trying to make a living. I saw the first wave of the trend last year and it seems to be building.

    • Trisha
      Twitter:
      says:

      I agree with you that it will be a problem, but I think only for a while….PR companies are just now starting to learn about the difference between bloggers and writers, and only a few are figuring out how to vet bloggers properly…..in the past, with writers it was not hard to choose those that had assignments (or nearly-guaranteed outlets) with respectable circulation numbers…..the popularity and ubiquity of travel blogs is a new thing to them.

      But I think in time as more PR folks learn how to distinguish between legitimate travel bloggers (those with high traffic numbers, a targeted demographic, and good social networking reach), and those who are just running a sham blog for the freebies, we’ll see less of the scammers on press trips. Just as it’s always been with traditional writers, bloggers will have to earn their spot.

  15. Well said!

    I usually come home from a press trip more exhausted than when I left (sort of reminds me of our family vacations with young children), though exhilarated because of all the information I collected. Then I spend weeks, months even, blogging and trying to sell stories about the place I’ve visited. “Civilians” often ask me what is my favorite place. I find that question impossible to answer with just one place, but I can tell them where my favorite VACATION is and that is at HOME. :) I think how you can tell a travel writer from a civilian is that the civilian gets to lay around the pool and always pick WHAT they want to eat WHEN they want to eat it.
    .-= Carole Terwilliger Meyers´s last blog post: Great Sleeps- Radisson Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotel- London- England =-.

    • Very funny – I like that distinction…..it reminds me of all the times I’ve forced myself to try something different from a menu instead of what I’d really like to have, just to be able to write about it! :-)

  16. Anonymous says:

    Being on your profession,I would say that it is indeed a demanding job. Being away from your family would be a great challenge!

    But what’s the most positive effect there is having a chance to go to places and create some wonderful experiences that you would love to share with your family or to others!

    It may be a demanding one but for sure,it’s still one of the most like job! :)
    .-= Anonymous´s last blog post: Blackpool Airport =-.

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