So You Think You Want to Be A Travel Writer?

My suitcase being luxuriously wheeled over to the lobby at Ian Andersons Caves Branch, Belize.

People I meet on the road are always shocked when I answer their routine “what are you doing here” question with “I’m a travel writer and photographer.”

One customs officer – on one of my multiple returns to the States – was so stunned when I answered that I was a travel writer coming back from Taiwan, that he literally shouted,“whaaat?!!”  You’d think I told him I was an astronaut or an exotic dancer.

Over the past summer, I learned a lot about what it takes to do this full-time, working for three months in Belize and surviving my first week-long press trip to Taiwan in August.

I’ve blogged about the highs and about my amazing experiences over the last few months (you haven’t even read  about Taiwan yet).

But… you know it, it’s not all roses or glamour being on long-term travel and working (yes, it’s work!). In fact, this has to be one of the toughest and most demanding occupations out there.

Here are some of the challenges of being a long-term travel writer, shuffling between home and overseas assignments.

  • You’ll have really, really long days.  Most of the time you’ll be leaving your hotel at the crack of dawn and be out all day – sometimes standing for hours or touring, or hiking or on a long drive to another town and back. And when you return, there’s no rest for the travel writer. A quick shower is followed by more hours on the computer, quickly gobbling down food, blogging and writing, meeting deadlines, editing and processing photographs – even when your body’s tired and your eyes feel sleepy. When I was in Taiwan, I had no time to deal with the 12-hour time difference – I had to be on the go from day one. I was out from 8 a.m. and returned to my hotel room around 9 p.m., sometimes later. All the while, on the road, I’m taking photos, writing down notes and shuffling between sites, restaurants and buses. When I did return to my room, I’d spend a good hour downloading then backing up all the photographs from the day, and preparing a blog piece on Belize for the next days. By the time I went to bed, it was well past midnight, only to do it all over again the next day.

  • You’ll be moving a lot. As a travel writer, your job is to scope out different hotels, activities, interview people and basically find your way around the areas you’re assigned to. Most of the time, this means moving around a lot, dragging your stuff onto buses and other forms of transportation. It also means living out of a suitcase. It can be fun when you’re away for just a few days but on the long term assignments it can be exhausting, particularly when you’re lugging around professional camera gear. One thing folks often underestimate is the weight of our equipment. Packing light is always an oxymoron for photographers.
  • You may have countless dinners alone.  Ah the solo dinners! When you’re the only writer on assignment, you may not be in one town or city long enough to make friends or acquaintances. There were times I enjoyed the quiet and my own company. But after about a month, it got lonely pretty fast, especially in smaller towns. I started taking my meal back to my room whenever possible, unless I was scoping out a new restaurant.
  • Your relationships might suffer. It will take some very special people in your life to understand the life of a travel writer and photographer right off the bat. If you’re single, it will be hard to maintain a love life since you’re constantly moving on the road and you’re on foreign land. If you’re already in a relationship, staying in touch daily can become a challenge if you travel to developing countries where the internet may not be as solid, or where Skype isn’t even an option. And as far as friends, not all will get that you’re actually working and that you don’t have hours to spend on Facebook chat or even email. Bottom line – it’s something to consider. On the plus side, you’ll find out pretty fast who your real friends are.
  • You’ll be away from family. Being on the road means being away from family, sometimes just a week and other times longer. This is one of the toughest for me, because even though they are supportive of my work I constantly miss my parents, my nephew, my siblings and my cousin.
  • You’ll have to be really good at time management.  It will seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Between the touring, the articles and the blogging, not to mention all the folks around you who want to sit and chat when you’re trying to work quietly in your corner – learning to manage time is a must. I had to learn to decline invitations or even politely end conversations by saying I had a lot of work to do. Locals are just being friendly and most times don’t understand that you’re on the job.
  • You’ll have to constantly pitch and hustle. Travel writing and photography equals uncertainty in jobs (for most), constant hustling and endless determination. You think up stories, study publications, decide where to pitch, email your idea to the editor and hope for the best. And repeat. You could be the best writer ever, published several times in magazines and still not get a response to your pitches. But you keep trying because, well, that’s how you succeed. Photography has better odds but again, it takes persistence and passion. Are you the type to cave in quickly? Forget about it. Here’s a little more reality for you on this topic.
    At the Confucious Temple in Tainan, Taiwan (August 2011)
  • You’ll have several bad hair (and bad nail) days. When you’re on the road, you’ll be too busy to mend your chipped nails or your messy hair from all the outdoor activities. There will be no time for hair salons, pedicures or any of that every-day-life stuff unless you schedule it into your free time. And usually, free time is precious – it’s for writing and blogging or hitting the pavement researching.
  • You’ll have to remain cheerful at all times.  Regardless of your mood or what’s happening in your private life, there’s no place for it when you travel. You have to stay on your game to get the information you need, produce the articles and socialize with your hosts. In this business as in others, your reputation is important. Emotional health is therefore key when overseas – and at the end of the day, blog posts have to be written in a cheerful voice, the articles sent to your editor and the photographs processed. And unlike your regular office job, there may not be a colleague to complain to or with whom you can share stories. You may even be too far away to call your best friend or mom, or it may be too expensive from where you are. Basically, you are your own best friend on the road. Zero room for personal drama.
  • You may encounter prejudice or even (for females) jealousy. It’s an issue rarely talked about in my opinion. But if you’re like me – an African, single female writer and photographer working overseas – you may at some point or another come across a less-than-welcoming (read: prejudiced) host, or someone who underestimates your talent and ability to pursue your assignment. Or a local photographer who decides to address you at an official event as “baby” instead of treating you as his professional equal. You might even have to deal with circumstances beyond your control or expectations – like crazy behavior from a hotel owner’s jealous, psycho girlfriend. Just like at home, there are plenty of rude folks out there, except overseas you’re more vulnerable. So you’ve got to be thick-skinned in this line of work and be prepared for such encounters.
  • You’ll answer a lot of questions. You’re doing something that many, many people only dream of and are curious about. The questions will roll in, the jokes too – you’ll have to learn to smile and answer quickly, even when you’re tired. It’s a skill, trust me. Even your friends will pitch in, thinking you’re on this long vacation because you’re constantly touring and posting Facebook photos of pretty sights; what they don’t see is the back end when you’re up until 2 a.m. writing. Still others will ask you how you got your job and what it’s like traveling alone. Just saying – lot of questions coming your way!

If you’ve read through all of these and you still want to be a travel writer/photographer, then go for it and by all means, don’t let anyone discourage you – not even that little voice inside your head! You can start by reading up on this article on Matador or signing up for MatadorU’s travel writing or travel photography courses.

As for me, this summer was eye-opening. I have no regrets and if I could do it again full-time in the future, I would. Sure, it was exhilarating most of the time, exhausting other times, frustrating here and there and a couple of days, downright scary. But all of those experiences make for great stories anyway, and the bottom line is that I found out I love all three of those things that much: travel, writing and photography.

Besides, how can I ever tire of this “office” view?

photo-17.jpg

 

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller. Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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11 Comments

  1. Jamaica My Way 17 October, 2011 at 11:32 AM #

    Love this article. Its informative and really breaks it down. And ummm …helloooo….the last picture rocks LOL!

  2. Sprat 17 October, 2011 at 11:44 AM #

    Great article Lily….and it really is eye-opening some of day to day issues that you encountered. Of course, most of us would never image what an assignment such as this, really entails. You have summed it up beautifully, giving your readers the true depth of the ‘good, bad & the ugly’.

    I have enjoyed tagging along on your adventure…and the experience you have gained seems to have outweighed the ‘downside’.

    And the office view….quite impressive 🙂

    Thanks Lily….

  3. Lebawit Lily Girma 17 October, 2011 at 2:14 PM #

    Thanks Kristi! 🙂 I’m glad it was helpful and yes… I so could get used to that view!

    Jackie thank you so much! It definitely has some tough sides to it, but as you said, for me the positive outweighed the negative. Although…I’m still tempted to post short stories on some of those challenging days…;-)

  4. Candice 18 October, 2011 at 4:47 PM #

    Hey Lily, I’m totally doing an article on this same subject sometime this week. I can’t help but find myself getting angry now when someone says, “You’re living the dream!” And I’m all like dude, yeah, the job is great but I can barely afford to feed myself. Press trips = meals.

    But then there are pictures like these (especially that last one) that kinda kills the whole argument, eh? 🙂

  5. Lebawit Lily Girma 18 October, 2011 at 5:02 PM #

    Candice! Yes, it sure does kinda squash everything, lol. But I get frustrated with the comments at times too…it has to be one of the most misunderstood careers out there. And I think not to many folks talk about the “downsides” – I have quite a few experiences I could blog about…but I’ll let some time pass first. 🙂 Can’t wait to read your piece!

  6. Alex Evans 19 October, 2011 at 5:41 PM #

    Very informative. It just goes to show that everything has it’s cost. Many times people overlook the downsides and only see glamorous, glossy surface. All in all, I think it takes a special type of person to be able to live their passion despite the numerous obstacles, and it definitely sounds like you’ve managed to do so.

  7. Diana 22 October, 2011 at 3:40 PM #

    This article speaks to the reality of life on the road.

  8. Lebawit Lily Girma 23 October, 2011 at 11:03 AM #

    Alex – thank you 🙂 I think this summer’s experiences have definitely taught me how to balance it all and keep things in perspective. And loving what I do, is what keeps me going.

    Diana, thank you! I know you can relate. 🙂

  9. Fidel 3 June, 2012 at 10:15 PM #

    More great advice. Dang, why didn’t I discover you sooner?

  10. Lebawit Lily Girma 3 June, 2012 at 10:20 PM #

    HA! Thanks, Fidel! I’m glad you found me now.

  11. Bree 4 November, 2012 at 11:58 AM #

    I have traveled extensively around the world and would like to travel write. HowI does one get started. With a blog and began sending queries? please advise. Your work is amazing.

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