How to Work Abroad as a Travel Writer
Combine Travel and Living Overseas with Your Passion and Talent for Writing
Is it possible to live abroad and make a living as a writer? How about as a travel writer?
Yes but…is the answer, with a big emphasis on the “but.”
Just as it would be hard to move somewhere and suddenly become a tour guide leader or local actor, it is hard to suddenly become a working writer without building up contacts and experience before departure and after arrival. Any job that sounds fun and glamorous is bound to have dozens of aspirants for every open spot and that is especially true with travel writing. Someone already working as a writer at home is naturally going to have a much easier time of it working abroad.
The good news is, writing is one of those jobs that can be done from almost anywhere now. Thanks to technology, you only need a laptop, access to a broadband Internet connection, and the gear to make phone calls over the Web, as with Skype. Throw in a good digital camera and some basic HTML skills and you’ll have even more possibilities to pursue.
If you are an industrious writer and are a creative opportunist, you can actually do better abroad than you can do at home. First of all, if you have an income flow already, you can move to a less expensive destination (or travel in cheap countries). You will quickly feel richer by lowering your expenses.
Second, if you become an expert on the place where you’re living—or even one specific aspect of it—you can pitch articles on angles with no competition. Instead of trying to convince editors you need to cover some exotic beach that everyone wants to visit, you can pitch specific and unique stories related to your expertise—your new home.
None of this is automatic or fast, however. Making it work takes patience and ample planning.
The Reality of Traditional Travel Writer Demand
For most people, waking up one day and saying “I’m going to be a travel writer and live overseas” isn’t very practical. Even if you have the greatest ideas in the world for stories, few editors are going to take you seriously until you’ve got clips you can show them. In the old days this meant sending in photocopies with your query submission, but thankfully you can now do this electronically from anywhere, with either links to your work or links to scanned copies on a portfolio site. (Both are far preferable to attachments, which some editors will automatically delete without opening.)
If you haven’t built up a history of publication, start doing that now and come back to this article in a year. Editors are still a bit snobby about preferring print publication clips to those from web-only publications since the former has a higher barrier to entry. This is slowly changing though: more traditional publications are releasing web-only material and some of the better travel websites have gained more respect. The important thing is to start building up a portfolio through article placements and/or well-written blog posts.
Once this is in place, your attempts to get published won’t be much different overseas than they would be at home. You query editors, you hope for a response, and when you get a bite you turn in your articles. Eventually you get paid something for your efforts. At the very biggest publications that’s $1 to $2 a word. At the vast majority of outlets, you’ll make a small fraction of that.
Living in a foreign place would give you one giant advantage over all those aspiring travel writers sitting in their home office in the U.S. or Canada, however—local expert status. Editors get deluged with material from writers living in London, New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. You can bet they don’t receive many inquiries from a local expert in Panama City or Kuala Lumpur though. With the right contacts, this could lead to hard news “stringer” work as well: see Jason Motlagh’s article, "Work as a Foreign Correspondent."
If you’re up for the grueling task of being a guidebook writer, that is another area where living in the region can give you an edge. The number of guidebooks on the market has proliferated in recent years so there are more open spots for writers than there used to be—and at underwhelming pay scales that scare off most professionals. Start contacting publishers in advance of your move and keep an eye out for announcements of requests for writers. Guidebook writing is not a very lucrative pursuit anymore, but if you have a home base in the covered region, that will decrease your overall costs to get the research done and allow you to do it in a less harried manner. Plus once again, it enhances your status as the “go to” person for that region.
The Local Expert Webmaster
There’s a more controlled way to earn a bit of money as a local expert without spending all day querying magazine editors or sending guidebook proposals. You start your own website and steadily build up an audience. As Anthony Page notes in "Be a Working Nomad," it is relatively easy these days to run websites from a virtual office.
See what is already available in the region where you will be living and find a niche that hasn’t been covered. In a popular country such as France or Mexico, you may have to get really specific, focusing on one aspect of travel that has been neglected. Is there a need for more information on wine trails, cycling, hiking, boutique hotels, or diving? Find a niche that interests you and then cover it like nobody else has or can, adding a blog to keep it all fresh. You write what you want, when you want, and you call the shots on which angles to cover.
If your destination doesn’t already have a good general travel website, you may be able to forge new ground by doing an overall guide yourself. Perhaps the country itself isn’t covered well or your specific location doesn’t have a good information site in English. If you can create a useful, informational site on that destination, you will eventually be able to rank high in the search engines. This will generate traffic than can turn into advertising dollars and will make you the de facto expert when you are pitching stories to other publications. Eventually the media will come calling for story quotes, increasing the virtuous circle.
How much money are we talking about? At first, you will surely be working for almost nothing. After a year or two though, hundreds of dollars a month can turn into a couple of thousand, supporting a simple lifestyle at a slower pace. Spend enough time searching destination sites on the Internet and you’ll find that many of them are run by English-speaking expatriates. The site has become their main source of income. They write all the content, they fill posts with photos, and they build up a following and good search engine results. Some people I know doing this are now making as much money as someone with a good office job in the U.S., but working fewer hours and living better than they could at home.
Stepping Away from Travel
While travel writing might sound fun and glamorous, it’s certainly not a reliable way to pay the bills, even if you do move to a country with far lower costs of living. First of all, it can take months to a year before your articles get published and you get paid. If you start your own site, it will likely take at least six months to get properly indexed by the search engines and start making you more than beer money from advertising, even if you do everything right. Unless you leave home with a few steady columns and assignments in your pocket, it can be tough to keep the income stream going.
Many writers find other sources of income that will lead to more immediate payment. These can be opportunities for companies back home or local opportunities found by making friends and being visible. Copywriting, ghostwriting, technical writing, editing, and public relations work pay the bills for many an overseas writer. Throw in some English teaching or some “virtual personal assistant” work for a harried executive in your home country and it becomes much easier to make a comfortable living instead of just getting by.
Tools for the Expat Writer
For travel writing, start with the information and links in the Travel Writing Guide from Transitions Abroad. The links provided there will supply a steady stream of job leads and contacts that you can access from anywhere. A few free and paid services provide possibilities for writing travel jobs and editor contacts.
To keep in touch, carry a rugged and light laptop with a WiFi card, a Skype phone or headset, and a jump drive for accessing documents at any Internet café. For immediate communication, it will probably be worthwhile to get a local cell phone account plus a calling card for cheaper overseas calls. Bring a portable digital recorder for interviews and podcast recordings, as well as a quality digital camera for photos.
Sign up for a virtual phone number with Skype or another service so editors can call or leave a message at a number in your home country. Set up a PayPal account and link it to your home bank account: this is how many website editors are handling payment now. Get a mail forwarding service for physical checks or have a designated helper at home who can deposit them in your account.
Most successful travel writers will tell you their job is 20 percent writing, 80 percent marketing. Invest some capital in tools that will enhance your image and make you look like a professional. Get quality business cards. Set up an attractive portfolio site under your own designated domain, with paid hosting. If you start your own website, hire a designer to create a site from scratch or to modify an existing off-the-shelf template that looks attractive. The last thing you want when working for a tropical beach somewhere is for clients to think you’re unprofessional. With patience and diligence, however, you can work overseas as a travel writer and be as successful as your peers who are rooted to home.
Editor's Note: Tim's book, Travel Writing 2.0, and its associated Travel Writing blog, are both best-in-class resources for prospective travel writers looking to earn a living at home or abroad. His book on A Better Life for Half the Price is packed with excellent information destined to be a great resource for anyone seeking to live abroad.