Travel Writing Is Not Fun and Sun

By McKee, Susan | The Quill, April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Travel Writing Is Not Fun and Sun


McKee, Susan, The Quill


Strong ethics, research keys to success

As a professional travel writer, I occupy a place in the journalistic hierarchy somewhere just above pond scum. It's tricky territory for a freelancer for two major reasons: press trips and poseurs.

Almost all newspapers and magazines still buying freelance will not pick up a writer's expenses, and the rates they pay don't come close to making up that shortfall. Freelancers are responsible for their own health insurance and other costs that are typically part of the benefits package for an employed journalist. Add in travel time and, as one writer put it, the profit margin shrivels like salted leeches in the sun.

If you don't have a trust fund to underwrite your travel writing specialty, two solutions beckon: write only about your own hometown (yawn!) or take press trips.

Like many freelancers, I started out as a general assignment reporter for a major metropolitan daily back in the days when budgets were reasonably flush. If I had to travel somewhere for a story, the editor would approve expenses and send me on my way.

In a perfect world, editors and publishers would cover travel costs. However, it's not a perfect world, and they don't. I make a reasonable return combining trips hosted by PR companies and tourist boards with assignments for which my expenses are reimbursed by publications.

The major reason I accept media jaunts is logistics. I have limited time in a given destination, so I rely on the experts for scheduling. During my free tune, I can revisit places I need to see more in depth. Occasionally I've used the press trips as scouting missions for later returns on my own nickel.

Of course, the risk I run is that the hosts will show me only what they want me to see, something I try to minimize through advance research.

The purists scoff that a writer can't possibly be independent if traveling on someone else's money. Yet, in my days as a newspaper staffer, freebies abounded.

Business writers were guests for lunch in corporate dining rooms. Entertainment writers were feted at Hollywood galas. Fashion editors bought designer clothing at "discount." Automotive and electronics writers "tested" expensive equipment. And the sports guys - well, you know that life in the press box isn't spartan.

A good journalist does not slant a story based on who paid for what.

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