Editor’s Note: This article is Part One in a Three-Part Series
It’s funny how one small decision can change your life.
Fourteen years ago, I was working as a stringer for The Chicago Tribune. Based in Colorado, I covered the usual news topics.
Then Columbine happened, and I spent the next year covering the sorrow of a high school massacre. I knew I had to write about something different.
Travel writing seemed more appealing, so I gave it a try. After all, how hard could it be? I wrote up a few pitches and sent them out with a smile. But even with my writing background, I got nowhere. My pitches were rejected or simply ignored. I just couldn’t break into the field.
Then I took a one-day workshop on travel writing. It turns out that the field of travel writing has norms, procedures and standards all its own. Having someone explain how to get assignments, work with tourism boards, illustrate my stories with strong photos and even structure my articles made all the difference.
That long ago workshop provided the foundation I needed to get started in travel writing.
Understanding the Business of Travel Writing
The first step to understanding the field of travel writing is to understand the business behind it.
Back in the good old days (as I’ve heard older travel writers tell it), travel writing was a well-paid form of journalism. Publishers needed travel content for their print and TV outlets, and hired from a small pool of highly-qualified travel journalists. The publishers paid good money (up to $1/word) and travel writers could make a decent living covering only travel.
Big advertising dollars supported these numerous travel sections and outlets, providing the dollars needed to pay travel journalists and sometimes even their travel expenses.
But then the Internet came along and everything changed.
More and more people went online for their news and information, and newspaper and magazine budgets began to shrink. Those big advertising budget began to shrink, too. Eventually, some publications cut their travel coverage. Today, there are fewer print and broadcast outlets that buy travel pieces than there were even five years ago.
But while print and TV outlets for travel coverage were shrinking, online publishing opportunities began to spring up. Unfortunately, those big advertising dollars didn’t transfer to the online world. Online advertising dollars tend to be spread thin. This means that while there are many online publishing outlets, only a handful of these outlets have large budgets.
As a result, selling travel editorial to online outlets often means lower pay. The good news is that there are more online publishing opportunities than ever. You just need to know where to find them.
Get Paid to Travel
You’ve seen the ads. They seem to promise that you can make a nice living simply by writing about travel.
Such ads are a little deceiving. Yes, you can get paid to write about travel, but these days, at least in most cases, it’s not enough money to live on. Most travel writers I know have secondary sources of income.
Still, there are many riches in this world that are not monetary. While I have not gotten rich from travel writing, I have enjoyed a very rich life and career in travel journalism.
I’ve watched thousands of birds fly above the billabong in the Outback, practiced tai chi at dawn in Hong Kong, snorkelled with beluga whales in the Arctic and had memorable experiences in almost 40 other countries.
Destination and Tourism Partners
Perhaps you’re wondering how such a rich travel life can be possible then, when travel journalism pays so little.
This is due to a strong partnership with tourism destinations, resorts and attractions.
Destinations and travel businesses rely on word of mouth and travel coverage to promote their travel brand. They can’t rely solely on advertising.
It’s one thing to say in an ad that Manitoba is an exciting destination. It’s another thing completely for a writer to detail the exhilarating experience of being surrounded by 16 beluga whales while snorkelling in the Hudson Bay, or to share what it feels like to ride an elephant through a village in Thailand.
This is why many destinations and travel businesses have a public relations budget that allows them to offer press trips or sponsor single writers and their travel.
Some press trips are provided free of charge, others are provided at a media rate. Destination marketing organizations also put a great deal of time, expertise and money into providing information and local insight to the travel writer. They are an incredible – and important – resource for travel writers.
This public relations assistance allows writers to travel and experience the destination, thereby providing the editorial coverage that destinations and travel businesses need to build tourism revenues.
Some publications won’t accept “sponsored” travel, believing that sponsored travel is not unbiased. However, the majority of editorial outlets realize the basic fact that without this assistance, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide coverage of far-flung destinations.
Personally, I have never had a problem with providing my true journalistic opinion in my travel coverage. I tell it like I see it – and the destinations, resort and travel businesses I write about understand that. My readers deserve the truth, and that’s what I give them.
Nothing in Life is Free
Before you think you can rush out and get a cushy travel trip for free, think again. Only travel writers who have a firm assignment from a publication or online outlet receive travel assistance. This is, after all, a partnership. The destination or travel business will provide travel assistance, but only if the travel writer provides true editorial coverage that is valuable to the destination’s bottom line.
So how do you obtain a travel writing assignment?
Tune in next week for Part Two of What You Can Learn from a Travel Writing Workshop to find out!
Visit Travel Writing On Location  for more information on these workshops:
Native American & Spanish Heritage in New Mexico: Santa Fe. May 2-6, 2013 
Spirit of the Old West: C Lazy U Dude Ranch in Colorado, April 26-29, 2013 
Beyond Eat, Pray, Love: Sights and Culture of Bali, Indonesia, Sep 20-27, 2013