Secrets to Earning Six Figures in Freelance Travel Writing

How Travel Writers Earn Big in 2016

Ever dream about earning big from travel writing?

It’s a popular niche in the world of digital nomads, freelancers, and wannabe writers. But can you actually make a living at it?

Yes. I’ve been a travel writer for nearly two decades. I’ve written about traveling through southeast Asia on a budget, hiking the Pisco Trail in Peru, combing through the ruins of Antigua, Guatemala, and many other adventures in the form of blog posts, articles, books, and copywriting projects.

I’m headed to the Philippines this week. But I’m not jet-setting from one exotic location to the next every week. That might be one of the biggest misconceptions about travel writing.

A lot has changed for travel writers since I got started. At one point in time, travel writers regularly took all-expenses-paid vacations to exotic locations all over the world on assignment for a long list of magazines. It still happens, but not like it used to.

So how do you make a decent living as a travel writer, and hit the six-figure mark? I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, because I’ve had to navigate the industry’s sometimes troubled waters, jet lag, and changing itinerary.

If you want to build your freelance business as a travel writer, here’s a few things you need to know:

More hats, more hustle

I surveyed 82 people when putting together the second edition of my book Travel Writing 2.0. The travel writers who are making $100,000 or more annually have one key thing in common. They all have 10 or more income streams related to travel.

If you want to be a successful travel writer, you have to wear more hats. A travel writer is seldom just writing anymore. The corresponding payoff, however, is the ability to control your own destiny and generate multiple streams of income from your craft. For example, I write for magazines, businesses, and travel sites. I sell books. And I run an online travel magazine and a couple of travel blogs.

Writing articles for editors is still a viable income stream of course, though the pursuit of pay in that area has changed in some fundamental ways. The print publications that have survived are thinner and leaner, which means less content and sometimes lower pay than before.

No shortage of places to pitch

On the other hand, there are exponentially more outlets to pitch to because of the rise of online publishing. There are literally hundreds of travel websites to pitch now. It used to be easy to keep track of places to pitch with only about a dozen travel magazines on the stands and a couple dozen custom publications. Now there are so many opportunities for travel writers, it’s impossible to keep track of all of them.

If you want to make a living as a travel writer, you can. Check out the resources at TravelWriting2.com or do your homework and pitch some of the old standbys like BBC, Lonely Planet, or my site Perceptive Travel.

Turn your travel blog into a business

Most travel writers I know run their own blog, along with writing for clients. But don’t stop there. Turn your travel blog into a business. Here are some other ways I (and many other travel writers) earn from a running a travel blog:

  • Direct display advertising
  • Network display advertising
  • AdSense
  • Affiliate ads
  • Sponsored posts
  • Long-term sponsorship deals
  • Social media promotion programs
  • Selling e-books
  • Teaching courses
  • Doing travel consulting
  • Leading local tours
  • Selling trip planning/itineraries
  • Participating in bundle programs

Realize there are far more viable ways to earn money from a travel blog than there were just five years ago.

Niching down in the digital age

One of the biggest changes in the travel-writing world is the decline of the generalist. In the pre-internet days, it made a lot of sense to say you could write about anything anywhere. In the digital age, that’s a detriment.

You need to find your niche as a travel writer. Maybe it’s writing about international travel on a budget, luxury resorts, cruise-ship life, ecotourism, or adventure travel. When you’re first starting out, you might bounce around writing about different travel-related topics for clients. But travel writers with a core specialty or expertise in one area now get a lot more work with a lot less effort.

Why? It’s easier to be found on Google when a client goes looking for a writer. They’re probably not going to search for a “travel writer.” Instead, they might search for “medical tourism writer.”

Find your niche in travel writing, and you’ll also find more clients willing to pay pro rates for your expertise. It’s also easier to get a “yes” when you send out well-written queries and letters of introduction (LOIs).

So where do you find well-paid travel writing gigs these days? At one point in time, magazines were the bread and butter for travel writers. But that’s changing.

Eight of my last 10 freelance jobs were not for outlets run by a publishing company. They were for company blogs or websites run by the likes of Gore-Tex, BedandBreakfast.com, and Viator. Most of them pay better rates, and on time.

Be your own brand

Another thing the six-figure travel writers all have in common is their own brand. These experts really hit the motherlode by running their own blog and attracting a like-minded audience.

It’s no secret that traditional travel publications are struggling just to retain subscribers. But travel blogs are gaining more readers each quarter. The top 50 travel blogs in the world reach at least 80,000 unique readers per month. Many travel writers have a larger following than the print version of Travel & Leisure—with 1/100th of the staff.

Develop your own brand as a travel writer, market your business and services, and take advantage of all the digital tools available to help you grow. That’s what the six-figure travel writers I know are doing, and more travel writers hit that magic number every year.

Keep in mind, most aren’t earning from just writing travel-related content. The income flow is more like that virtuous-circlefrom a diversified mutual fund portfolio, however, than a company paycheck. Some of those sources—such as profiting from social media influence or selling self-published e-books—didn’t even exist with any regularity until recently.

Those who do have a large body of work in different formats find it leads to a virtuous circle. The book supports the blog, the blog supports the freelancing, the freelancing supports the book. Media appearances help all three.

Book your ticket to travel writing success

The most successful travel writers hustle to make it happen by doing the following:

  • Find a specialty that you can own and even dominate. In the long-tail-keyword-niche world we’re in, being the go-to expert on Cartagena travel or wine in British Colombia can be much more lucrative than bouncing from one subject to the next each month.
  • Learn to do more than write. Many travel writing freelance contracts now require photos, video, or even social media sharing. For a travel blog, these are essential.
  • Pitch non-traditional outlets for work. Start pitching tourism boards, brands you like, or tour companies with no content on their website.
  • Add more self-directed income streams to your mix. There are very few barriers now to launching a blog, self-publishing a book, running a course, or selling consulting services directly.

If you really want to make it as a travel writer, you can. But don’t expect to spend most of your time sipping margaritas, traveling first class, and raking in piles of money.

Done any travel writing? Post in the comments about where you’ve found good pay.

Tim Leffel is the author of Travel Writing 2.0, now in its second edition. He runs five websites and has contributed to 50-plus outlets as a freelancer.

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29 comments on “Secrets to Earning Six Figures in Freelance Travel Writing
  1. Dave Lynch says:

    I often thought of travel writing, but can’t afford travel. What do you think of the idea of writing articles about places to see and things to do in my own home city and promoting it? Then adding affiliate links where appropriate for places to stay, etc.
    Is that a viable idea, do you think?

    • Tim Leffel says:

      Most editors wish they could get MORE pitches from local experts instead of travel writers trying to find a home for an article from a far-flung press trip. There’s a great need in many cities, states, and regions for an authoritative local site with solid information, especially outside the Paris/London/NYC places that still generate lots of guidebooks.

  2. Felix Abur says:

    I’ve also thought of becoming a travel writer but I lack the funds to travel. The few trips and vacations I have taken, all I do is leave a TripAdvisor review. I wish I could do more and earn from it. Will be watching the comments here to see what others in my position have done to set themselves up as successful travel writers

  3. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    I worked in the travel industry for a number of years and naturally gravitated to travel writing. I still publish the occasional travel article but my horses have pretty much grounded my travel, so I’ve switched niches. I think this year I’ve had 5 travel articles published, and they’re all online publications. As you say, they pay fairly decently and quickly.

  4. Rory Brannum says:

    The International Tour Management Institute (ITMI) in San Francisco offers a two-week certification program for those who would like to get paid to travel. Many graduates also freelance as writers or maintain blogs. It is a highly-regarded program in the travel industry that can open a lot of doors. It could be an option for those who would like to get destination experience but don’t have the wallet to travel.

    • Dave Lynch says:

      Thanks Rory – I am in Ireland so that’s not a good one for me but I will see if we have something similar. I was thinking of writing posts about things to do in Dublin – focusing just on the one city and surrounding area for tourists coming here…

  5. Diane Young says:

    Hi Dave, writing about your own patch is a great idea! The local businesses and Chamber of Commerce would love for you to promote area attractions, bring in visitors and boost the city’s economy. Get on mailing lists for upcoming events and start pitching editors in neighboring states. Like Carol suggests, niche down in your articles, don’t try to cover too much. Can you supply photos to go with your articles? If not, meet with some photographers and see if anyone would partner with you.
    Good luck, Dave!

  6. Tom Bentley says:

    Tim, lots of good stuff there on doing well with travel writing (which as you point out, isn’t always directly about travel writing). I’ve had lots of travel pieces published, though I’m not even close to being a six-figure travel writer. However, I just returned yesterday from a month on Oahu and the Big Island as a house-sitter, and I’ll probably land several assignments (already have two) from that trip for venues like the LA Times and the San Jose Mercury News and a travel mag or two.

    House-sitting doesn’t work for everyone, and you will have some kind of obligations as a sitter (and for my girlfriend and I, we were fundamentally working full-time out of the Hawaii houses), but it does land you in places like Hawaii—and the Bahamas, Mexico and Panama, where we’ve also house-sat. And I’ve written many travel pieces from all of my stays. Google MindMyHouse (the service we use) to see what’s out there.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know John Soares does this to! There’s also home exchange vacations, which I’ve done, where you swap your current dwelling for another in another city. Can be a great way to travel cheap.

    • Tim Leffel says:

      You’re not alone—there are a lot of travel bloggers that do house sitting as well. You’ve got to love pets, but it’s a great way to take accommodation expenses out of the equation for weeks or more and to have a good base to get writing done.

  7. Shaloma says:

    My friends have told me I should travel and write but I didn’t realize it was possible to do this and still be able to pay your bills lol. Though I don’t think I’ll be doing that – much too sedentary for that – it’s good to know.

    • Tom Bentley says:

      Carol, yes, I knew John has done it too. As long as there’s a good Internet connection at the house, where I can still do my business writing and editing (and my girlfriend her marketing writing), house-sitting is a great way to see places where the lodging fees would otherwise be brutal. In the case of Hawaii, we worked until early afternoon, with plenty of time left for a good snorkel or sight-seeing.

  8. I’ve done some travel writing and expat living writing. I couldn’t make a decent income from it alone, though. I make my living writing for a number of online sites ranging from home improvements to international real estate with other topics thrown in occasionally. I think it’s unrealistic for most of us to make a living in one niche.

  9. Cari Mostert says:

    Talk about a sudden revelation! Dave’s comment and Tim’s reply switched on that teensy light-bulb in my brain. Duh-oh! I live in one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world – the African Lowveld. I even write (with my husband) an ezine about southern Africa – why didn’t I see this. Here I am writing about squizzles and bludwots and I’ve got a gold mine under my nose! Oh my – what was I thinking! OK – run out of exclamation marks now. Carol, thank you so much for posting these wonderful articles, Great stuff.

  10. Joan Dawson says:

    I’ve written the occasional travel article and am at a point in my life where I’d like to write more. For those saying travel is expensive – it doesn’t have to be. There are lots of resources for making it more manageable financially. Here are some ideas –

    1. House sitting, as mentioned. Caretakers Gazette is another excellent resource.
    2. Teach English abroad – often a natural for writers!
    3. Work Exchange programs – I worked 30 hours a week at a spiritual retreat in Italy in exchange for food & lodging.
    4. Farm help – WOOF has a listing of farms that need help.
    5. Couch surfing, airbnb and the like can keep costs down.
    6. Put your own ad on Craigslist in countries you’d like to visit – barter your writing skills in exchange for rent.
    7. Volunteer – many provide lodging.
    8. Visit countries with good exchange rates or with inexpensive food and lodging options. I stayed in a nice furnished apartment in Quito that cost me $260 for 6 weeks (& wrote my 1st travel article on an American girl in jail for being a Colombian mule).

    Good luck to all!

  11. Abby says:

    There’s so much negativity surrounding travel writing, even from other writers. When I first started telling people that’s what I wanted to be, the most common response was probably eye rolling.

    Everyone seems to think that print magazines are the be all end all of travel writing, but brands and businesses are easier to get into and pay better. There’s a million businesses that sell travel-related things, and even more that use the concept of travel to sell other things. My dream job ever since I was little was writing for J. Peterman catalogs, which uses travel imagery to sell clothes.

    So far my best client in the travel niche is a nearby city’s business development district. It’s run by the downtown business owners to promote stuff to do in the area. They needed someone to curate and edit their online community events calendar. It pays great, is fun to do, and now I always know what’s going on this weekend.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Love it! I’m always pitching writers who long for travel gigs to take a look at local tourism bureaus, convention centers, and also the agricultural marketing groups — the apple growers, salmon fishermen’s associations, and so on. Also any high-end niche tourism companies — small-ship cruises and the like. They all want stories, too!

      One of my fave travel assignments I ever heard of was a Seattle writer-friend who did a travel story for BMW’s magazine they send their car owners. He got paid to drive a BMW up the coast to take his son to college, and write about it. Sweet! People don’t realize how varied the travel market is.

    • Tim Leffel says:

      Yes, there are 10X more outlets that are not consumer travel magazines like you see on the newsstand. And working for company sites and blogs often pays better (and on time).

  12. Mandla says:

    Hi Carol thanks for the great work. l’m really digging your articles and working on buying your ebooks. l have a lot of work to do.

    On the issue of pitching, l just want to digress a bit.l am aware that one should send a lot of “cold pitches” to clients per day e.g 40-50 or more per day.l just want to know how many pitches an article writer/journalist should ideally send per day? Considering that pitching story ideas requires way more research,how many story ideas should l be pitching per day to editors? l once heard one journalist say they send one pitch per day. Would that be enough for an article writer/journalist?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t know anyone who sends 40-50 pitches a DAY, Mandla! It would be hard to send anything customized and effective at that rate.

      There is no one answer to your question of how many YOU should be sending — you’ll know once you do a lot of marketing. You’ll see you sent 100 pitches, and how many clients resulted from that, and then you’ll know your response and conversion rates.

      It’s not just the frequency but the QUALITY of the pitches you’re sending out that matter. There’s no point sending 100 useless pitch letters. First, learn how to pitch effectively! We have some great resources for that in Freelance Writers Den, and on my Useful Writing Courses site.

      Remember that ‘build rapport’ point — for me, I only had to cold pitch one idea with most editors, and then I’d have a relationship with them and be able to send them more casual pitches and continue getting assignments. So it’s not like you have to send dozens of cold pitches forever.

  13. Diane Young says:

    One cold pitch

    After reading 6 months of past issues, carefully following the submission guidelines and spelling the editor’s name right who heads
    up the correct department, ONE polished-til-it’s-sparkling cold pitch
    is worth a hundred useless, cookie-cutter pitches that,odds are, will
    never be opened.Freelancing is hard. Do your homework or go home.

  14. Hi, Carol such an amazing and well-explained article. you have included many important tips as well will try some of them. Let’s see how it works for me. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  15. Drew Drake says:

    Nice work Tim. So many people must dream about traveling and writing but forget the work that is involved.

    I’ve been on the road several times for extended periods. My current trip is 19 months in and it’s long overdue that I applied your advice and started adding specific travel to my income.

    My specialty is Digital Nomading for free or cheap. I am a house-sitting hero and it means I basically get to live wherever I want for free.

    Great tips 🙂