By Tim Leffel
Does That Glamorous-looking Job Really Pay?
If you just look at the Instagram feeds of travel writers and bloggers, you would think they’re all leading a charmed life. They post gorgeous photos from different spots on the globe every week or two and always look like they’re off on some great adventure, having a blast. But are they really making any money from this?
For many, the answer has long been no. They’re having great experiences, but are perpetually broke. For an ever-increasing number, however, writing about travel can be a lucrative full-time job. There are ways to earn income as a travel writer that are more varied and more stable than in the print-only days of yore. There are more outlets, more gigs, and more advertising opportunities for bloggers who strike out on their own. This is an incredibly competitive category of writing—as any one that looks fun tends to be—but in the Internet Age we have surpassed the old saying, “The money sucks, but the perks are great.”
Here are just a few of the ways travel writers are earning money as we approach 2020. Most professionals employ several of these to cobble together enough to earn a full-time living. As with self-employed writers of any stripe, multiple steams of income help us keep the bills paid and smooth out the peaks and valleys.
Freelance Writing for Others
The oldest way for a travel writer to earn a paycheck still exists, though the freelance world looks quite different than it did when I started in the early 1990s. Newspapers and magazines have faded in readership, pages, and importance, overtaken by online magazines, blogs, and corporate content sites. For every print outlet that died, we now have 10 or 20 online outlets to pitch instead. The one thing that hasn’t increased, however, is pay rates. It still takes a lot of gigs together to add up to thousands of dollars, even with steady corporate assignments in the mix. Most travel writers use freelance writing as just one piece of the income pie, not the whole thing.
Books and E-books
When I first went backpacking around the world in the pre-internet age, nearly everyone had a guidebook or two in their daypack and the authors of those guidebooks frequently made enough money to live on from the advance and royalties. Authors barely make enough to cover expenses from guidebook writing now, but the trade-off is that anyone can publish their own book and keep a much larger share of the income than in a traditional publishing deal—with the same access to customers online.
It is not uncommon for a writer who knows a city well to self-publish a guidebook that outsells Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Bloggers with a strong following can clear $1,000 or $2,000 per month from a single how-to book only available in an e-reader version. Some have launched a whole series that earns them the equivalent of an office salary at a publishing house. With good e-mail marketing, social media, and a blog, they’re getting the kind of exposure that used to be limited to best-selling novelists.
The most successful travel writers today are not writing for magazines on the newsstand or books on a store shelf. They’re working for themselves, as bloggers. The top 50 travel blogs in the world by traffic are all reaching at least 80,000 unique visitors per month, with the majority reaching more than 100,000. Many print magazines would drool over a circulation that large. The very top travel bloggers actually reach more people than the websites of the top travel magazines do, but with just a few people working on content and admin instead of a team of hundreds.
Without even getting to that level of readership, travel bloggers have a whole host of ways to monetize their content through advertising, ranging from Google AdSense to network display ads to affiliate programs that pay a commission. Bloggers with high traffic or a well-defined niche get interest from individual companies as well, leading to direct ad deals for products or services that are a good fit for the audience.
Do you know why those popular Instagrammers you see plugging a travel company have #sponsored in the description? It means they’re getting paid to talk up a destination or service, the same way a magazine with “Sponsored Content” in tiny type is getting paid to fill their pages with articles that are really just ad copy. If a blog post about some new booking service has a sponsorship message on the page, it’s the same as a Food Network show making references to name brand products they’re using in the kitchen.
Whether through social media mentions, sponsored blog posts, or just posing in a gear company’s clothing, popular travel bloggers with a following have become paid endorsers of products and services they use and like. While some traditional journalists decry the practice, most bloggers just see it as a natural evolution. As they have become a personal brand that tens of thousands of readers trust, they’re getting paid to recommend things or places they enjoy. Instead of a 100-person company splitting advertising and content, they’re a one-man show wearing two hats.
As companies see a strong return on investment—for a fraction of what they spent to advertise in print or on TV—many travel bloggers have found a path to six-figure earnings. While it’s difficult to find a print writer earning $100,000 a year unless they’re at the top of the masthead, there are dozens of travel bloggers who make that feat look easy. (After 5-10 years of hard work getting there, that is.) Many others are earning more as a part-timer than they could in a retail or office job.
Tours, Consulting, Speaking, and Other Media
Travel writers who specialize in a certain city or region can parlay their knowledge into non-writing jobs that supplement their income. They start a local walking tour, sell itinerary planning services, or do consulting work. Some get hired by international tour companies to accompany groups. Some get invited to speak at conferences or on cruise ships. Others gravitate into TV contracts or start podcasts that eventually become ad-supported.
More people around the globe are traveling than ever before in history and travel is likely the biggest industry in the world. It is a very fragmented and competitive industry, however, which can mean a long startup time to gain traction and stand out. For those who persevere and find success, however, there are more ways than ever to earn income writing about the joy of travel and interesting destinations.
Tim Leffel is an award-winning veteran travel writer who runs multiple content websites and is the author of five books, including Travel Writing 2.0, which is in its second edition. He runs the online courses Travel Writing Overdrive and Productivity Power for Writers.