The Hawaiian resort surpasses every travel fantasy, from the white-sand beach to the gargantuan pool, luxurious marble bathrooms and doting staff. (A spritz of cool water, anyone?)
Too bad while everyone else is reveling in paradise, you’re racing around with a notebook, asking questions and scribbling furiously. You’re hot, tired and cranky.
Welcome to the world of travel writing. You’re interviewing a chef when you could be deep into a new mystery at the beach, inspecting the kids’ club when you’d rather be playing tennis, or touring hotels when the rest of your family is snorkeling. You rarely daydream by the pool or anywhere else. You interview other pool-goers, skiers waiting in the lift lines and cruisers filling their plates at lunch.
The good news: You get to go places other people only dream about and meet amazing people. You come home with an entirely different perspective than the average tourist. Even better, you get paid for the privilege. I’ve hiked in Alaska’s Denali National Park with a teacher who raised her children in the bush, gotten pointers from champions as we skied down Colorado slopes, and squeezed into the kitchen of one of France’s foremost pastry chefs, tasting fresh-from-the-oven concoctions.
An extra plus: My kids often can accompany me because I write a syndicated newspaper column, Taking the Kids, about family travel. My gang thinks I’ve got a terrific job, even if they grow impatient when I interview a museum director, traveling grandma or hotel manager.
You don’t have to begin life wanting to be a travel writer to become one now. I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, chasing national news around the country, when the travel editor asked me to write a story or two about my misadventures traveling with my young children. The tales resonated with many other traveling parents in our audience, and the column took off.
Now, more than a decade later, I’m glad for the serendipity that brought me into this field. Travel writing isn’t making me rich, but my family has amassed a fortune in experiences and memories.
If that’s what you’re after, give travel writing a try. At the very least, you’ll get that behind-the-scenes view all tourists crave. You also are likely to gather background for your novel, screenplay or short story.
1. Start at home
Approach your local newspaper or company newsletter with a story based on a recent trip or one you’re planning. Or, query editors elsewhere about a story in your own backyard, whether it’s the new restaurant scene in Brooklyn, a runner’s guide to Chicago or the local favorite shopping haunts around San Francisco. You can find the names ofand often the e-mail addresses forfeature and travel editors listed on newspaper and magazine Web sites or in Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books).
2. Do your homework
Before pitching your story, research the information you need to sell your idea to an editor. Are more people river rafting with kids these days? Is Portugal a new hot destination? Are women opting for ski camps? Are men hitting spas? Most state, regional or city visitor and convention bureaus have staff assigned to answer reporters’ questions. You also can tap sources at resorts, hotel chains, cruise lines, adventure outfitters and even the National Park Service. Check out the Travel Industry Association of America, which tracks trends, for support for your pitch or to come up with ideas.
Another important part of your homework is understanding what the magazine to which you’re pitching wants. Travel + Leisure Research Editor Mario Mercado recommends reading several issues of the publication you’re planning to pitch to better understand the kinds of stories desired.
Travel writer and novelist Shirley Streshinsky agrees: “Do not, as I once did, suggest a story on Bali to a travel magazine that runs stories exclusively on Europe. And if stories in a given magazine tend to run to 1,500 words, do not turn in a 4,000-word manuscript.”
3. Find your niche
It always helps if you’ve got some expertise on the subject. Mine happens to be family travel. Other writers specialize in snow sports, spas, food or cycling, senior or gay travel. Build on your expertise (or develop one) based on your interests. If you’re a gourmet cook, consider writing about new chefs; if you’re a golfer, explore golf resorts. Reporting, you’ll find, can be a terrific way to learn, whether it’s learning about the history of Nantucket, training sled dogs in Minnesota or hand-painted pottery in Spain. You’ll be amazed at how much people will help you, too, sharing their perspectives, talents and even secrets known only to the locals.
Once you’ve got your niche, you can explore new angles to travel venues that have inspired reams of copy. Take Walt Disney World. I’ve written about standing in line and being afraid of roller coasters, not just about the newest rides. In London, rather than writing about the usual tourist haunts, I wrote about exploring London’s Portobello Road antique (and junk) markets with my 8-year-old son. (He loved all the old military memorabilia.) Instead of writing about the waterfalls at Yosemite, I wrote about the California families who come to the park every Easter.
4. Be honest
When pitching an editor, be clear about whether you accepted any press discounts for the trip about which you’re writing. Some publications won’t want your story if you do, while others won’t care. Chances are, though, you won’t be afforded any great discounts or invited on press-only trips unless you’ve got an assignment letter from some publication or have published several pieces. Even then, you may not be offered a great deal. But the more travel stories you’ve done, the more likely you’ll get invited along on “junkets” designed to introduce travel writers to new places, hotels and cruise ships.
But these organized trips aren’t the only way to approach travel writing. I prefer a more realistic view of each place, exchanging views with locals and other tourists. And when you travel on your own, you’re also not tethered to a group itineraryand agenda.
5. Be realistic
Don’t expect an editor to send you to some exotic locale. That rarely happens, especially when you’re new to the game.
When you’re breaking in, you also need to be realistic about what you can sell. Be ready to write what the publication needs, rather than the story you’re dying to write. Travel + Leisure‘s Mercado recommends establishing a relationship with a magazine by suggesting several short 200- to 350-word pieces for various departments. “Tenacity has its rewards,” he says. “You may start with some short blurbs, but those can develop into 2,000-word assignments.”
5. Keep pitching
I’ve pitched dozens of ideasgood ones, I thoughtthat editors didn’t like. When I wanted to do a family view of Costa Rica, the editor of a national magazine told me Costa Rica was “overdone.” Other editors may like the idea but want to use a writer they know. It’s important to realize that rejection often has little to do with your ability or ideas. Perhaps the newspaper you approach about your Alaskan cruise has just published an entire section on the subject. Maybe the magazine you thought would love your story about the bike trip in France just printed a piece about a bike trip along the Oregon Coast.
If one editor turns you down, try another at a different publication. Ask the editors for suggestions. Mercado says he often refers writers to other editors at his magazine or elsewhere. The more clips you’ve got to showeven if you’ve only published travel stories in your local weeklythe better your chances. The clips not only show that you’re serious, but that you’ve been successful.
This article appeared in the August 2003 issue of Writer’s Digest.