Becoming a successful travel writer involves some imagination, some legwork, and a powerful eye for detail to transform the rich experience of a place into a clear, exciting article. If you can do all of that, and if you’re willing to put time into marketing your work, you can join the ranks of successful freelance travel writers.
The key to successful travel writing is putting yourself into the mind of the prospective traveler. When a traveler arrives at a new destination, what is he or she in the mood for? A bite to eat? A place to sleep? A sense of local color and history? A pleasant neighborhood to tour? And how important is familiarity? Do travelers want to feel like they’re “at home” even when abroad, with all the necessities and comforts they rely on readily available (and with very little language barrier)? Or do travelers want to feel excited and challenged out of everyday things, to accept the difficulties of living, as much as possible, like a native?
Since you don’t know what kinds of travelers are going to use your articles as references, you’ll want to cater to as many of these needs as possible when you gather your information. Depending on where you intend to sell your article, you might focus on certain traveler needs more than others. Many travel agents want to downplay the unfamiliarity of a place to present a more “tourist-friendly” image; while some adventure travel-oriented magazines prefer you ignore all references to American-based chain stores within a five-mile radius of the destination. The general rule in travel writing is to reverse the old cliché, and to say: more is more. The more excitement and more attraction a place offers, the more likely travelers will read and use your articles to prepare for their destinations.
As for the nuts and bolts of writing travel articles, it’s obviously best if you’ve actually been to the place you’re writing about. There are a thousand little details about a place—smell, colors, sounds, the general flow of traffic and attitude of the people—that only personal experience can provide.
If you’ve been to a place, your original observations help to make your article “stand out” from the rest. Thousands of people have probably described Paris as a “city of romance.” Without direct experience, how will you know—and write—that Paris is also a city which boasts a really good, Gypsy-haunted crepe restaurant overlooking a sunset quay on the Seine? These kinds of specific details not only make editors look more favorably at your articles, but they also make your articles more popular with travelers.
Travelers, as a rule, aren’t interested (or don’t want to believe they’re interested) in going to the “standard destinations” just like everyone else; every traveler wants to believe their next destination is somehow unique and adventurous. By providing travelers with those original, out-of-the-way observations, you tap into their psychological need, and make your article more popular (and you more successful as a travel writer.)
Unfortunately, we can’t all travel to enough exotic locations per month to make a name for ourselves as travel writers. When you need to write an article about a place you haven’t visited, be sure to research the location thoroughly. Existing guidebooks, maps and other travel literature can help to give you some hard facts about dining, lodging and sightseeing opportunities in a region, all of which you should include in your article. Beyond that, look at some encyclopedias, books, or other reference materials to give yourself some idea of the history and culture of the place. If you can’t include actual experience in your article, at least try to give your readers some sense of the place’s appeal and unique character.
Finally, if it’s an option, watch at least one film in (or film about) the city you’re writing about. A well-stocked video rental place should have a few options, depending on the city, and it also may be possible to find adequate footage online or at a city’s tourist bureau website. This will provide some of the strong sensory details of the place that make travel articles interesting.
Once have written and perfected your travel article, where do you market it? You could try selling your articles to existing tour guide or travel book companies, although these typically have a large stable of “stock” writers and this may make it difficult for newcomers to break in.
A second option is to write and pitch a query letter to a tourism bureau, to large travel agencies, or to travel-centric magazines. In your query letter state briefly your background, the subject of your article, and your unique approach to the material. Chances are, if you’ve done your homework well, the editor will show interest in your article and publish it.
If that fails, you could try the Internet. The Internet has numerous travel blogs and travel-related websites in need of content. Although the pay rates here may not be as high as for print media, it can be easier to break into as a freelance travel writer. If you absolutely can’t find anything, use a writer’s reference book. The Writer’s Market, in particular, offers a wide selection of publications interested in buying travel articles.
If editors reject your articles at first, just brush them aside and keep writing and submitting work. If you’ve got the talent, soon enough you’ll get your foot in the door. And once you’re established, get ready for a fantastic career. What other job do editors pay you to visit a place, just so you can write about it? Welcome to the world of freelance travel writing.