Everyone thinks that travel writers travel the globe for free, fly everywhere first class, stay in resorts and spas, and get pampered at every destination. This can happen although it is getting rare. The days of magazines paying all of your expenses for trips are long gone. Certainly some of the powerhouse travel magazines like National Geographic may still do this for their writers, but breaking into this echelon is so difficult that I’m not even going to discuss it further.
Of the thousands of people reading this newsletter I bet I could count on one hand the writers who still travel in deluxe mode. No one throws down the red carpet for travel writers these days. Most of the time we have to settle for a more tattered carpet involving budget red-eye flights, low cost accommodation, and eating at cheaper restaurants, if we’re actually going to make some money on our travel stories.
However, travel writers can indeed arrange free or discounted services to defray their travel costs when on assignment. But, in this age of “instant” travel writers, there are professional and ethical responsibilities that must accompany these travel privileges.
In the past two years I’ve been on countless “FAM Tours” (Familiarization Tours) and press trips as a guest of various Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs) and other tourism agencies. These tours have included travel, meals, accommodation, and even the occasional gift. I’ve been comped on a 4-day wine cruise in the San Juan Islands on a 126-foot schooner, stayed in numerous hotels and B & Bs for free, and attended film festivals, rodeos, conferences, and other special events gratis. It can be a good life, but it’s hard earned, believe me.
I’ve just returned from 28 days in Europe, primarily England, researching 28 stories for 11 different magazines, and made enough from my writing to pay for my trip. On this trip I had dozens of free passes to museums and tourist attractions, some free accommodation, some free meals, and personal guided tours. But there’s a price I have paid for this free trip…there were strings attached. And I’ll get to that later.
Most travel writers use their credentials to arrange these free and discounted services, and this is all perfectly acceptable as long as certain obligations are met. Travel writers can, and should avail themselves of these. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Here’s how to go about it.
Start with FAM Tours
Most Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs) periodically organize FAM Tours. These are a great place for the beginning travel writer to start because you do not necessarily need letters of assignment for them…intent to pitch stories after the trip will usually suffice. Contact the CVBs in your region and request that they put your name on the list for future FAM Tours. These are great sources of travel stories, and I’ve made a killing out of FAM Tours because the coordinators feed you all of the information you need to write a good story.
Here’s a hot tip about FAM tours for you; get a copy of the itinerary and pitch stories about the places that interest you to magazines and newspapers beforehand. If you turn up at a FAM tour with an assignment in hand, they’ll be tickled pink. Better still, let them know in advance that youëve got an assignment and you just might find yourself assigned to that luxury hotel room.
What to Do on Your Tour
Here are some tips on what to do on your FAM tour. Be on time for all meetings, excursions, meals, etc. Travel graciously; be polite and courteous even when one part of the trip may not be to your interest. Do not complain about the weather, the food, the hotel, the hosts, or anything else. Do not be a “needy” travel writer. Do not boast about your glorious travel-writing career and threaten anyone at the places you visit with bad press. I’ve seen all of these ugly “travel writers” in action and these behaviors are embarrassing to the rest of us.
The Self-Guided Tour
A more difficult, but potentially more rewarding press trip is the self-guided tour. This is where you decide where you want to go, when you want to go, and what you want to see. After deciding what your destination is, what you want to see, and what you want to write about, you’ll need to get a letter of assignment. This is a letter issued by the editor of a publication, which says you are working on a piece about your travels for that publication.
Here’s the tricky part. Ideally, you’ll have built up a stable of editors who’ll issue you with a letter of assignment at the drop of a hat. But unless you’ve been writing for several years and have several willing editors, you’re going to have to beat the travel magazine bushes with pitches for stories about your destination. This is time consuming and disheartening, as your responses will be mainly “no thank you”. But there’s no way around it. You see, it’s the free publicity from nicely written travel articles that lures lots of other people (with their disposable tourist dollar) to their town. No tourist bureau is going to give you VIP treatment unless they perceive that you’ll bring their town or area some good old publicity. So you need that letter of assignment…it’s like gold.
You’ll also need some clips or weblinks of previously published travel articles. This will help the editor decide whether to go with your story or not, and will certainly help your cause when you contact the tourist department at your destination. It’s all about credibility…and clips enhance your credibility big time! I was at a travel writer’s conference recently and was very interested to hear all of the editors on the panel say they always go to a writer’s website to check out the writer’s clips.
One other thing about the letter of assignment; I always get as many as I can. That way it’s going to be very difficult for the Chamber of Commerce or CVB to turn you down when you politely request comp accommodations, press passes, etc. If you can show the CVB that you’re going to write several stories about tourist attractions in their town, they’re really going to pull out all the stops for you.
Once you have your letter(s) of assignment, contact the Chamber of Commerce or CVB at your destination. I prefer to do this by phone first. That way you have a direct contact person with whom you’ve already explained your trip to. Then, send an email to them (immediately) introducing yourself and listing your assignments. It helps to throw in some facts about the magazine (i.e. circulation, who reads it, etc.)
The CVB or Chamber should then arrange a press pass that will get you into the town’s main tourist attractions. They will also generally book some comp accommodation at a local hotel and sometimes arrange free meals at local restaurants. Of the dozens of times I’ve done this, I’ve only been turned down once, and that was by a very small town with no budget for this sort of thing. They did, however, arrange a discounted hotel room for me.
Never be tempted to fabricate a letter of assignment or exaggerate about a magazine that “might publish” your story. Problems arise when unscrupulous or bogus travel writers milk this unwritten arrangement and have no intention of producing any literature after the tour. This sort of misrepresentation is morally wrong and the result is that genuine travel writers are greeted with less and less enthusiasm when they pitch their requests for accommodations, free passes, etc., to tourism coordinators. Many a CVB coordinator has become gun shy of travel writers from this experience.
Okay, you have your letter of assignment, and now you’re on your self-guided tour. First, make sure you visit the CVB Coordinator or your Chamber contact to thank them for making the arrangements for you and to go over your travel plans. Promise them that you’ll send them the articles when they are published.
It’s Time to Pay the Piper
You’ve had your fun, and the trip was marvelous. Now what? I have mentioned there are strings attached. Write your stories, write them well, and get them in to the editor as soon as you can. One little extra that I do is to run the first draft of my stories past my contact at the CVB for fact checking. It’s nice to be able to tell the editor that this story is “clean” and that all of the information is correct…saves them checking, doesn’t it?
Finally…and I’m surprised at how much this important step is neglected…send your FAM Tour hosts a pdf of the article and a hard copy of the magazine with “their” article in it. They really appreciate this. This goodwill goes a long way. I have been invited on several FAM Tours completely out of the blue because one CVB director told other colleagues that I actually follow through and deliver articles about their town or area.
Follow these steps to get low-cost or no-cost travel around the world, and you’ll find doors being opened for you that you never even knew existed. Just make sure you honor your side of the arrangement.
Roy Stevenson is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. Over 500 of his articles have been published in more than 140 regional, national, and international magazines, newspapers, in-flights and e-zines in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. He writes on travel and culture, military history, art, communications, health, fitness, running, triathlons, sports and film festival reviews. To see some of his stories, please go to http://www.Roy-Stevenson.com.
Writing magazines featuring his stories include The Writer, Writer’s News, The New Writer, Writer’s Forum, The Right Way To Travel, WritersWeekly.com and Writing for Dollars.