Freelance travel journalism is often a coveted career. Sauntering around the world with publications picking up the bill is total fiction but undeniably appealing. In reality, writers often linger on the precipice of poverty; rates have stagnated since the mid-90s despite a cumulative living cost increase of 97.40%. The industry also comes with few to no tangible benefits – no health insurance, pension plan, unpaid sick days, or absences for unexpected life events. Dwindling fees have made it near impossible for many to imagine a full-time career in the field.
Travel Journalism Then and Now
Travel writer Kristen Luna puts the year-on-year comparison into sharp perspective. “In 2006, rates were a standard $2 per word. Even when many magazines launched websites back then, they paid a minimum of $1 per word. In 2008, my entire income was based on travel writing, more than $50,000 a year, from travel assignments from anchor clients like Forbes, who paid $1 to $2 per word.”
Luna states she currently limits travel assignments. Here’s why.
“I hardly ever take travel assignments as the hassle, the pitching, the sourcing of images, the whole hullabaloo is not worth the paltry $250 many publications offer.” The sizeable investment of time and personal funds expected in travel writing research negates the financial rewards, with rates quartering in the space of fewer than 20 years.”
One former newspaper and magazine editor reported paying $0.37-0.50 per word in 2001, a rate which has not increased in 22 years despite the steep hike in the price of being alive.
Writers Haven’t Been Quiet About Their Frustrations
Other travel writers have tweeted their frustrations recently – they’re being paid the same day rate as in 1995 and paid $100 less in 2023 than in 2015 for the same publications. In a subscriber survey by the industry newsletter Talking Travel Writing, 177 journalists aired their grievances with the industry.
Sixty-four percent said finding well-paid commissions was one of their biggest struggles, along with securing regular income (52%) and negotiating fair rates (31%.)
Industry fees’ steady wane is intensified by the time investment required by travel writers. According to former Conde Nast Traveler features editor Fiona Kerr, a feature story in the major publication includes a minimum of four days of on-site research, plus set up and writing time, before edits. No other stories could be sold off the back of trips conducted for Conde Nast Traveler, meaning that journalists could expect a maximum return of $1000 on this significant time investment.
Major Publications Haven’t Raised Rates in 20+ Years, and Some Publications Have Reduced Pay
Despite being one of the best-paying publications in the UK, the magazine’s rate per word has remained unchanged since the publication launched in 1997. In a tweet, travel writer James Stewart noted that he had been offered day rates of $150-200 from mid-size magazine publishers.
Similarly, Francisca Kellert noted on Twitter that some publications she works with had halved their rates over the past 20 years. Responses to her thread paint a bleak picture: writers with bylines at the most prestigious publications in the business lamenting that they still live like a student to afford it and make it work by being nomadic and traveling constantly.
Does Travel’s Shrinking Rates Indicate Lower Rates for All Journalists?
Travel’s shrinking rates indicate a dip in rates across journalism. According to a study conducted by Georgetown University, more than one-third of all journalism jobs will be lost between 2002 and 2031. The 2022 study also found journalists with bachelor’s degrees earn a median of $39,700 net three years after graduation, with master’s holders increasing that rate to $49,300.
These low-income roles are among the most coveted – the number of secure staff writing and editing roles has plummeted, too, with newspapers retaining 63% fewer employees than they did 30 years ago. Staff roles are vanishing, publications are shuttering, and the freelance market is becoming saturated. In travel this phenomenon was exacerbated by the halt in travel in 2020.
Other lifestyle verticals suffered slightly less than travel. One writer reported receiving a rate of $0.62 per word for lifestyle content in national publications while offering as low as $0.21 per word for travel articles in equitable publications.
Is Travel Journalism Its Own Reward?
If you’re on the outside looking in, you may see travel journalism to be a reward in and of itself. The opportunity to take press trips funded by public relations representatives has led to travel reporting being perceived as a luxury job.
Fiona Kerr noted, “Lifestyle mags don’t pay for their travel content because ‘A free holiday is a treat,’ and it’s really becoming a race for the bottom.”
This reliance on these press trips to sustain the industry output also causes concern for some. Writer Susanne Masters believes this model is a disservice to readers and has this to say: “It is also unfair on small independent suppliers of travel services who cannot afford to hand out freebies.”
Realistically, few journalists can justify the expense of undergoing research without support, a familiar phenomenon in consumer journalism. It contributes to, as Kerr puts it, “The image of travel writing not being a serious branch of journalism and being all about a freebie.”
The genre’s reputation in history as the pastime of rich older white men, roving the world and noting their observations is not alleviated by this persistent devaluation of story-led narrative journalism or low rates. Marginalized writers, unsupported by personal funds or generous partners, are increasingly shut out.
Most Travel Journalists Diversify
Most travel journalists now diversify their income streams just to make ends meet. Sixty percent of 176 travel journalists who responded to Talking Travel Writing’s survey said editorial work accounted for less than 40% of their income.
Taking an alternative tact Steph Dyson, co-founder of Talking Travel Writing has similarly divested from full-time travel journalism. “Travel blogging is significantly more financially lucrative than journalism, thanks to the earning potential of advertising, affiliates, and sponsorships.” Ranking competitively for the SEO-friendly round-up and listicles that are increasingly popular in travel outlets, Steph is able to focus her travel journalism output on narrative and long-form features about the people and places she cares about.
The Downside of Diversifying
A diverse portfolio of income streams comes with some professional ramifications. Kristin Luna took on work creating written and visual content for Convention and Visitors Bureaus and listed it on her LinkedIn profile. She reports that her editor at the New York Times revoked a story commission upon seeing Luna’s marketing sideline online. She was not offered a fee for her time and was told her story was deemed unusable due to her commercial connections.
This is similar to other significant restrictions on travel writers in major US publications. The New York Times is just one publication that does not work with writers who have reported based on press trips. This means many journalists are excluded from opportunities, press trips being their only economically viable means of reporting stories, with national publications rates averaging as low as $200 per 1000 words.
Fewer Niche Travel Writers in 2023
These days, very few travel writers are solely travel writers. Many publications still produce inspiring work, writers crafting compelling tales, and readers benefitting from industry expertise and expert storytelling.
Still, neither writers nor publishers can be expected to remain unbiased, insusceptible to the mounting pressure of profit lines. Readers will continue seeking travel stories, but it seems inevitable that a slimmer and wealthier subsect of writers will produce them.
About The Author
SJ Armstrong is a travel writer and editor from London. She has written about her experience traveling in 90+ countries for publications including National Geographic Traveler, Telegraph Travel, and more.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks Travel.