The truth about being a travel writer

"Oh my God – that's the best job in the world."

This is something you hear fairly regularly when you're a travel writer. I'm not saying this to show off, it's just the way it is – the perception is that I have the best job in the world.

(Or at least one of them. Being a rock star would have to be pretty awesome; they get thousands and thousands of people screaming for them every night. If I want any sort of social interaction at my workplace I have to Skype my parents.)

On the face of it, travel writing does sound pretty amazing. You get paid to travel! You get to see the world, indulging two passions at once. You get to inspire people to follow their dreams. You get to see things and meet people that constantly amaze you, and you get to call it a job.

The universal perception is that that is an incredible thing.

But maybe not everyone thinks that. There was an article in the London Telegraph a few weeks ago listing the "five most overrated jobs" in the world. Number one? Ahead of chef, advertising exec, architect and junior investment banker? Travel writer.

The reason being that, to paraphrase slightly, the pay is crap, there's no stability, you quickly become a hack who's always travelling on group "famils" at the behest of someone else, and there are millions of TripAdvisor critics out there who are prepared to do your job for free.  

Ouch.

So what's the truth? Is this the best job in the world? Or is it incredibly overrated? There's no shortage of interest from people in becoming a travel writer, so I thought I might as well give you the truth.

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It is the best job in the world. And it isn't.

First, the good bits. You do get to travel the world, regularly, and you often don't have to pay for it. There's a perception that travel writers get "paid to travel", but that's not strictly true. I get paid to write stories; sometimes the travel to inspire those stories is free, but I'm not getting paid to do it.

(There's a modern-day exception to this rule however, which comes in the form of a handful of bloggers and Instagram gurus who are so popular that they're paid day rates by tourism boards and tour operators to visit destinations and promote them. It's hardly objective journalism and it's rarely declared, but that's the way it works.)

More good stuff: as a freelance writer, you get to decide how much work you do, and when you do it. You pitch the stories you want to write, and if they're commissioned, you write them. There's no boss looking over your shoulder, and no office politics to deal with. You get to be that guy working from the café with his laptop (or the one working at home in his underpants).

You get invited to do incredible things on an almost daily basis. You sit down with people who off-handedly mention sending you to Cuba; you get emails asking if you have time to go on safari in Kenya; you have airline reps ask things like, "So, where can we send you this year?" Incredible. Almost ridiculous.

You also get to have amazingly expensive experiences you could never normally afford on your own dime: I've stayed on the private island where Johnny Depp hangs out in Tahiti; I've flown Emirates business class; I've been dropped at wineries by helicopter – twice this year.

And if you ever take any of these things for granted, you don't deserve to be a travel writer any more.

But that's not all there is to the job. There are down sides. There's the pay, as the Telegraph mentioned. Travel writers don't make a lot of money. You get millions of perks, but you can't pay your rent with perks. Most expenses you incur on the road are yours to deal with. Word rates that media outlets pay writers have stagnated, budgets have tightened, and potential outlets for your work are closing almost daily.

There's always the internet, but no one pays much for work on the internet. Every freelance writer, travel or otherwise, will be able to show you hundreds of examples of online publications who want you to write for them "in exchange for exposure". Again, you can't pay rent with exposure, especially if you're just exposing your work to other websites who also publish in exchange for exposure.

Guidebook writers make even less money than feature writers (who work for magazines and newspapers). They're expected to tour entire countries in weeks, gathering a ton of information and living off a pittance for the privilege of being able to call themselves travel writers. Glamorous, it ain't.

This is also a surprisingly lonely profession. You often travel alone, sleep in hotel rooms alone, wander cities alone. When you're not travelling you also work alone, usually at home. People will often say, well why don't you take your girlfriend with you when you travel? I can't. She has a job. And I'm also supposed to be doing mine when I'm away.

Another down side is that there's the chance you'll start to see travel as work. You have to go places and do things you might not be particularly interested in, or even actively dislike. You have to spend endless hours in transit through airports and trains stations and on buses.

You're also away from home a lot, which might start out sounding like a good thing, but after a while being away from your partner all the time, from your friends, from big events and even just small gatherings, can be pretty frustrating.

So no, this isn't a perfect job. And it's probably not the best job in the world.

But even with all of the down sides, for someone who loves to travel and loves to write, this is a truly great job. And those don't come along every day.

What do you think are the most overrated jobs? Would you want to be a travel writer?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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