sihanoukville cambodia

So you want to be a travel writer?

Travel the world and get paid for it! Stay for free in luxurious resorts! “Wow! I want to be a travel writer,” you say. Before I give you the bad news, I’ll give you the good news.

My travel writing career

In 2004, I went to the Gilis off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia. They’re often incorrectly called the Gili Islands, but since “gili” means island, that’s like saying I went to the Island Islands, which doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, I had such a great time, I wrote a 1500 word article and sent it off to the Sydney Morning Herald along with some photos. They published it and I made $1500 for my efforts.

Bali from the Gilis
One of my published travel photos – Bali from the ferry that took me to the Gilis

I made even more for a two-part article about Vietnam that got published in Heritage, the Vietnam Airlines in-flight magazine. From memory, I think I got 50 cents a word or about $1800.

Here in Sihanoukville, I wrote for a popular travel blog for about six months. I enjoyed it at first because it gave me an excuse to go to places and write about them. As I ran out of places close to home, I had to travel further afield. Before long, it was taking me half a day to research my articles and another hour to do my write-up. I got $30 or $40 for my efforts, so I finally quit.

sihanoukville cambodia
Working on location for a travel blog

I was also getting regular gigs from a magazine that caters to wanna-be expats. They paid between $250 and $400 for articles. I enjoyed that for awhile because it gave me the chance to get out of the house and interview people with businesses here. The money wasn’t bad, but I stopped writing for them when I started getting work that paid better and didn’t include interview and travel time.

The loneliness of the old-fashioned travel writer

I’ve met two rather embittered former travel writers. Although travel writing was never the dream job so many imagine it to be, it had its perks. They were able to travel to far-off locations on someone else’s tab and make a decent living at it. They had to work, though. While resort guests were lounging around the pool, they were out doing research or up in their rooms writing.

That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy their jobs. Travel writing in the old days beat sitting behind a desk in an office. Before the internet came along, travel magazines had to foot the bill. Now they just rely on people like me who write something while they’re travelling or can report from their home base. As Sophie-Claire Hoeller writes in The Truth About Being a Travel Writer: “Today, anyone with a laptop and some airline miles thinks they’re a travel writer. And they all want a piece of the action.” That was me. I’m not ashamed of it and won’t be humiliated by ex-travel writers longing for the good old days.

I do make my living writing, though, and make better money writing about other subjects. Hoeller goes on to write:

Obviously, how much you make depends on the type of writing you do, as well as the outlet, but for guidebooks, you may earn as little as $4,000. FOR THE ENTIRE BOOK (!!) — and that includes your trip, expenses, and research time. Smaller listicles or columns can pay around $100 a pop, while magazine articles these days command less than a dollar a word. 

As I wrote above, even that’s better money than I made. It was worth it to me because writing was an adjunct to travel or a perk of living in a travel destination. When writing is your sole source of income, it’s not enough unless someone is also paying your expenses.

According to former travel writer Leif Petterson, things have only gotten worse for professional travel writers. Leif left an enviable career in travel writing for PR in 2013 after losing four clients in four months:

My biggest client closed down. My second biggest client decided they were no longer in the business of creating original content. Two more clients went into extended editorial fugue states. I found new clients, but the fees were barely sustainable. I could pay my mortgage and feed myself, but not much beyond that without dipping into my savings. Compiling morale-wilting “listicles” was my sole source of income some months. I started aggressively hunting for a day job.

I live in an inexpensive country and don’t have to worry about a mortgage. If travel writing doesn’t pay me enough to make it worth the effort, I’d suggest not even dreaming about quitting your day job and travelling the world as a travel writer. The only one who is going to gain from it is the publication you write for — and even they are struggling. They have to compete with Trip Advisor and blogs like my Sihanoukville Journal that don’t make money, but allow bloggers to write what they want, when they want to.