What the life of a travel writer is really like (and how do you get it?)

Sipping cocktails, flying first class and jet-setting to the most exotic destinations in the world. Does that sound appealing? Well, if you’re a travel writer, this could be your reality. However, prolific travel and features writer Sue White says that it’s not all about five-star luxury and 1000-thread count sheets (but it can be!). She says that travel writing can be intense – and tough.

Sue was interviewed on Bondi Beach radio’s travel program Wanderlust. If you’d like to listen to the whole interview, you can do that here:

Sue White
Sue White

However, if you’d like the highlights, here’s what Sue had to say about her globe-trotting ways. First, she says that most people think travel writing is more glamorous than it really is. “This is one of the real myths about travel writing,” says Sue. “As soon as you tell someone that you’re a travel writer they just have this vision of you up there sipping cocktails and having spas and lying on the beach. And it’s very hard to explain to people it’s not always exactly like that … For me, when I go on a travel writing trip … it’s actually pretty intense.”

In fact, when you go on “famils” (the industry term for “familiarisation trip”), your itinerary can be jam-packed from morning til night. “You’re basically going to keep up that level of intensity from when you’re up in the morning until you flop at the end of the day,” she says. “You’re out the door by eight in the morning … and you won’t be back in your hotel room until maybe 10 or 11 at night … on a quiet night.”

Packed with culture, sights – and food
The jam-packed itinerary of a “famil” typically also includes a culinary adventure so that you can sample every cuisine offered at the destination.

Sue says: “It makes for some really good food and dining experiences, because often you’re going to the best restaurants or the most interesting new hot places, and often you’re being quite well looked after. So, you’re not just going there and having a sandwich. You’re going there and having a three-course [meal]. But then at dinner you’re having a five-course [meal] with wine … So the temptations are in your face all the time.”

So if you expect to lose weight on your trip, chances are that’s not going to happen.

Breaking into travel writing
Sue didn’t actually plan on being a travel writer. Even though she changed careers to become a feature writer, Sue says she didn’t think travel writing as a real option because she initially thought it was too competitive. But during her travels, she realised she was stumbling across great stories and found herself writing notes.

“When I came back, I realised that I had some good stories there and started pitching those stories in to places like The Sydney Morning Herald and other places,” says Sue, who then considered which publications her story ideas would suit best. “It’s easy to come up with the ideas, it’s actually super easy. There are ideas everywhere. There are ideas in your own backyard … But figuring out who is going to pay you for those ideas, that takes time and energy, and most people aren’t interested in that long slog part.”

However, Sue emphasises that it’s not hard. You just need to know what to look for – and it’s a technique that’s taught in the Travel Writing course that Sue teaches at the Australian Writers’ Centre.  “There’s a real formula to how most magazines and newspapers sections run,” Sue explains.

“One publication might only run stories on domestic destinations. So if you’re then going to pitch them a story about somewhere from overseas … you’re wasting everyone’s time. And it’s surprising to me how many people still do that. They’re not willing to actually do their research, because the research part isn’t the sexy part. The sipping cocktails on the road is the sexy part, let’s face it.”

Holidays don’t always make for good travel stories
Sue warns that you need to be ruthless when determining whether your trip will truly result in a travel story worth writing. “The challenge with travel writing is that everyone thinks that they’ve got a travel story when they just go away for a long weekend. So you have to really be quite ruthless with your own ideas and really filter [them]. Ask yourself: Is this really a story? Did I really do all of the work that I needed to do to make this something of interest for a reader?’ ”

Do you really get free trips?
The short answer is yes. But if you’re just starting out as a travel writer, the first-class travel and luxury hotels usually come after you have a few runs on the board. However, Sue says this doesn’t take too long. “When you start out, you are really doing it on your own,” she says. “You’re paying for everything and you don’t necessarily have support from, say, a tourism body or organisation. But, as you climb the ladder – the metaphorical ladder so to speak – you get sent places.”

Sue says this doesn’t necessarily make for a better story. “Some of the stories that I’m proudest of … were the stories where I just went somewhere wearing my travel writer’s hat and just poked around … Nothing beats talking to locals. I talk to locals anywhere I can find them, at the traffic lights, in a cafe, at the hotel, on a walk, I’m just chat, chat, chat… to try and draw out insider’s tips that my readers otherwise wouldn’t know. ”

If you’re interested in getting paid to go on adventures, check out the Travel Writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre.


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