Being a travel scribe is not all it's cracked up to be, explains Sharon Stephenson.

Let's play a word association game: I say travel writer, you automatically think glamour, adventure, permanent holiday, dream job.

Travelling the world for free and getting paid for it? It doesn't really get much better than this. Or does it? Recently the UK's Daily Telegraph claimed that travel writing is the most overrated job in the world.

"Most people dream of becoming travel writers, but once you look beyond the brochures for the Maldives, you'll see that the job is akin to a nightmare with good weather," said the article.

It also singled out chefs, architects, advertising execs and investment bankers as occupations that are seen as highly desirable but in reality make miserable careers. While I'm not about to nibble upon the hand that feeds me, let's just say there are downsides to travel writing that most people don't realise.


Firstly, it doesn't pay much. I've been a journalist for more years than I care to remember and, by some twist of fate, fell into travel writing about a decade ago. During that time, pay rates for freelance travel articles have not only stagnated, for some publications they've actually gone backwards.

Just ask noted travel writer Pico Iyer, who once described his early days writing Let's Go guidebooks as "covering 80 towns in 90 days while sleeping in gutters and eating a hot dog once a week".

Some hardy souls do make a living solely from travel writing, but either they're not in possession of my shoe-and-handbag habit or they're bankrolled by a significant other or a Lotto win/well-upholstered bank account.

The only way I've managed to stay afloat is by taking regular journalism assignments and, whisper it, part-time PR gigs.

If you are, however, lucky enough to sell a travel story, don't crack a bottle of the good stuff yet.

Most publications only pay after the story shows up in print, which could be six months to a year after you wrote it.

Which brings us to another bugbear of travel writing - editors who hold on to stories/lose them/agree to use them and never do [Point taken - Ed]. To be fair, most travel editors have a huge slush fund of stories, both that they've commissioned and that have been sent "on spec".

Waiting for your story to appear in print can be an exercise in teeth-gritting but you have to learn not to take it personally.

You'll spend about 90 per cent of your time pitching stories, begging for free travel from airlines and tour operators, pleading with editors to take your copy and chasing payment.

When you do manage to land a press trip, there's an understanding you'll practise what the Telegraph called "politeness". In other words, even if the destination and flight are rubbish, you have to say the opposite. Polishing the turd until it shines is, after all, the pathway to future freebies.

Although the trip might be free, you're very much at the whim of the travel provider - visiting places they want you to write about and trying to squeeze as much as possible into short amounts of time.

On press trips, there's scant opportunity to stay longer in a place or do your own thing.

You will, however, spend hours in queues, waiting for flights/ferries/trains/taxis, enduring annoying fellow passengers, jet lag and conversations with far too many passport officials.

Travel writing is also hugely competitive: for every slot in a publication, there are numerous writers trying to fill it.

What's more, with the proliferation of travel blogs and sites such as TripAdvisor, you're competing with folk who are doing your job for free.

For all of that, the positives can be outstanding: I've had some of the most sublime moments of my life while doing this job, exploring destinations and having experiences my parents could only have dreamed about.

It's been a privilege and a pleasure to be a travel writer and I hope to keep doing it as long as I'm able.