The New World of Travel Writing

As a writer, editor, and teacher, I care about travel writing that matters. My own journey of learning about and reflecting on the ever-evolving world of travel writing and publishing is a continual one, propelled each year by the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, held each summer in the Bay Area, where I live. Even more recently, I was thrilled to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival and TBEX travel bloggers gathering as a guest speaker—where the conversation gained momentum.

One of my prime lessons this year has been the fact that today, what might be called “mainstream travel writing” encompasses a broader spectrum than ever before. This stretches all the way from the traditional independent journalism that newspapers and magazines have been publishing since well before I enterered this field three decades ago, to a kind of cutting-edge destination marketing that includes blog posts and other writing as part of a larger package negotiated with a destination marketing organization or other travel-related company.

One importance of this for the budding travel writer is the fact that there are more ways than ever to make money writing about travel. Bearing in mind that for the vast majority of writers, the money to be made in this way is still “icing on the top” rather than the career cake itself, it can still be inspiring and encouraging to realize the full range of options out there, from writing for third-party outlets (publications, websites) to working with travel-related companies such as luggage and clothing manufacturers, hotels, airlines, and tourism boards.

The issue this ever-broadening spectrum has raised for me is a thorny one that has been around for a long time in one guise or another, but that seems even more central now. Namely: Who controls the content?

In the traditional publishing world in which I grew up professionally, publications paid for their content by running advertisements. There was a generally well-respected division between “church” and “state”—editorial and advertising.

Legendary travel writer and editor Don George shares his thoughts on his craft  (Photograph by Dan Westergren)
Legendary travel writer and editor Don George (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

When I was travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, the most we blurred this division was when we published “special sections,” usually themed by geography—Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and so on. The closest we came to merging editorial and advertising (there’s even a name for it now, “advertorial”) was when we did sections on Mexico and Hawaii. At one point, the newspaper’s ad salespeople approached me saying, “Such-and-such resort will buy a full-page ad if we can guarantee to include a story about them. Can you do that?” And my answer would always be, “No. All I can guarantee is that the main articles will be about some aspect of Hawaii.”

I leapt from print into cyberspace in 1995. In the two decades since then, at most, if not all print publications, these church-state divisons have become increasingly blurred—but at many, the notion of editorial independence from advertising is still a cherished principle (though the degree to which it is followed is often scaled to how financially robust the media outlet happens to be).

On some of the new content islands that have risen via the plate tectonics of online publishing, however, these distinctions are irrelevant. Some self-publishing content creators now approach a destination or a travel provider and say, “We want to work with you. We can offer you a full menu that includes blog posts, tweets and Twitter chats, Facebook shares, Instagrams, and Pinterest pins, plus appearances at conferences and conventions. We’ll work with you to help you get your message across. And it will cost you this much.”

Clearly, this isn’t travel journalism, nor does it pretend or claim to be; this is essentially marketing. And while in the Old School part of my brain, this kind of content is immediately editorially suspect, I’ve learned that doing marketing of this kind doesn’t have to mean sacrificing standards. High-quality storytelling can be incorporated into these efforts. In the same way that three decades ago nonfiction appropriated the stylistic elements of fiction to create the New Journalism, we might say that today, the best cutting-edge marketing is appropriating the traditional storytelling elements of travel writing to create the New Marketing.

What this relationship does ultimately entail, though, is a sacrifice of independence. The message is finally dictated by the destination or company that is paying for it. Does this mean that the New Marketing creators blindly produce whatever their payers ask them to? No. The best ones work with the payer to try to ensure that the quality of its offering is as high and appealing as it can be, so that they can promote it with passion and conscience intact. In this sense, they actually provide a further service.

But what worries me about this model is that, taken to its ultimate extension, it would mean that travel coverage would depend directly on budget. Destinations and companies that have little or no budgets for promotion would fall off the metaphorical map.

A big part of what I loved about being travel editor at the Examiner & Chronicle was that I got to shape and share a little world each week. Every Sunday I’d have one story about Asia, one about Europe, one about North America. I’d cover South America every other week, and the Middle East and Africa at least once a month. I’d combine articles every Sunday to create a picture-puzzle mix of travel styles and budgets, tips and tales.

This world was a reflection of me, of course, and of my thinking about my readership—but my desire to engage, inform, and inspire that readership was what fueled my editorial decisions each day. That same desire also fueled my own decisions about where to travel on the newspaper’s dime, and what subjects to write about. Where the funding was coming from to publish the section was almost never a factor in my decisions.

So, a related question this new world of travel content raises for me is this: Where is the consumer in this new equation? The consumer, the reader, was truly paramount for me. In the new world of travel content creation, there is a danger that the reader is being reduced to an afterthought, useful chiefly as a statistic—an accumulation of fans, likes, unique visitors—that can be used to convince a travel company to employ one’s services.

These twin reductions—in the range of destinations covered and in the attention given to readers’ interests and needs—diminish both the world of travel storytelling and the actual world which is the subject of that content.

These are the thoughts my own wanderings in the past few months have inspired, and they’ve raised further questions: Going forward, who decides editorial focus? Who vets editorial content? If the funding for independent third-party travel outlets such as newspapers, magazines, and websites dries up, who will dictate the content? If there’s no budget to pay independent travel writers, how can they maintain their independence? Who will pay for the mind-expanding narratives that explore the wide world outside and the soul-stretching essays that explore the wide world inside? Whither travel publishing?

I’ve also become convinced that more than ever, individual travel writers are becoming the gatekeepers—the stewards—of the planet that readers see, regardless of medium. In this regard, the following guidelines seem urgently critical to me:

1. Transparency is key. It’s important to be clear about—and to state clearly—who funded your travel and your content. Readers won’t necessarily think less of you or trust your descriptions and assertions less if you reveal that you were the guest of a destination. But they may well think less of you—and question your content more keenly—if you don’t share this information up front and they discover it some other way instead.

2. Integrity is essential. No matter who is paying for you, you have to maintain your own quality guidelines and principles. Integrity is the bedrock of readers’ trust in you. Don’t promote something you don’t believe in. Don’t tell us something is wonderful if you don’t really think it is.

3. Quality in creation is still paramount. Do the best you can to make your writing accurate, detailed, and lively. All the tips I wrote earlier this year about creating quality—attention to passion points, sensual details, music, meaning—are critically important in this emerging new world.

4. Honor yourself, honor your subject, honor your reader. Know your subject and your audience thoroughly, tailor your content to serve that audience, and create the most passionate, evocative, engaging, and connected work that you can.

5. Cultivate your sense of respect, gratitude, and wonder. Those of us who get to travel the world on someone else’s dime, whether on assignment or on a press trip, are incalculably lucky. It’s essential that we bear this in mind and keep our experiences in perspective—and that we continue to connect with the core of wonder that inspired us to travel this path in the first place. Honoring our shared craft in this way will enhance and enrich us all.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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  1. Poornapragna Gudibande
    March 4, 2015, 7:50 am

    Thanks Don for very candid article. What i am seeing is that even the newspapers/magazines are also no more interested to look at fresh talent. We continue to read same authors week after week. This is where web is a great leveller. Where content is the king. You are the boss. No favours asked. No favours given!

  2. Gary Singh
    San Jose
    November 10, 2014, 5:52 pm

    Thank you for being civil. I wish I could.

  3. josepg gyamfi
    ghana, west africa koforidua
    November 7, 2014, 7:40 am

    I appreciate. You all the guide. Lines and the the direction you given. Us

  4. Aleksandra Slijepcevic
    United States
    November 6, 2014, 12:33 pm

    Very insightful article! I have deep respect for travel writers, in part because they follow their passion of writing and traveling, and at the same time, providing their insight to the reader. For someone who is looking at ways to enter this writing world, does anyone have any entry-level advice? :)

  5. Lash
    Sydney, Australia
    October 29, 2014, 1:56 am

    Hi Don,

    Thanks very much for your insights and perspectives on the new travel writing that’s emerging quite rapidly and massively. Since you’re a true veteran of the travel writing industry, your perspectives are particularly valuable.

    Thanks also for pointing out, quite delicately, that it is difficult to earn a living via travel writing. Apparently that has always been so, but it seems to be getting harder and harder as prices paid for written pieces seems to be in a free-fall and more & more hopeful writers continue flooding an already competitive field.

    As travel blogger with a well-known travel blog, I appreciate your views.

    You’ll be happy to know that we travel bloggers have formed professional associations, communities, courses and support groups who are all striving to maintain professionalism with all of the major points you’ve mentioned here are important factors. We all hold ourselves to the standards of transparency, high quality writing and integrity.

    Then comes the issue of how to earn a living, as you pointed out.

    I’m not sure your worst fears of the future of travel writing will ever transpire. Nearly all travel bloggers are independent people who simply love travel and who primarily write about their own personal travels, with tips, advice and stories they can share.

    Even when we do get press trips here & there, those trips/destinations do not make up the bulk of our writing. They are just one little bit amidst all the other personal (non-funded) adventures we’re taking & covering.

    So I don’t believe things will ever reach a point where only destinations and companies that are paying for coverage will be in the limelight. We travel junkies just love talking about our own trips & adventures too much for that.

    We’re all scrambling around to find a way to fund our travel lives & blogs. To date, press trips and paid articles are just a small part of that income. And if paid travel writing continues providing such a meager income, as you’ve suggested, then it will never get very far. We’ll have to create products, personally-guided tours and other ventures to earn a real living.

    In any event, thanks again for sharing your insights, concerns and guidelines for excellence in travel writing.

    Best regards, Lash of LashWorldTour

  6. Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar
    New Delhi
    October 28, 2014, 6:38 pm

    Don I guess there will always be few people who will give highest importance to integrity, quality content and respect for their readers. Be it now or 3 decades ago. And they will always have the edge over others that may want to write a skewed review in return for payment of free flight and stay. A very well written article.

  7. Robert Neff
    United States
    October 28, 2014, 5:47 pm

    My time researching a location is probably 80% hashtag and 20% web sites. I am finding the web sites are moving toward their agenda. Social media allows me to get to the locals and interact.

  8. Karen Misuraca
    October 28, 2014, 4:15 pm

    Just exactly what we discussed at BATW’s recent “Money: Making It in Travel Journalism” confab — like it or not, some of us have to make a living. Thanks for this common sense yet heartfelt approach!

  9. Kieran Meeke
    TRVL / London
    October 28, 2014, 4:02 pm

    I see a real split between what I call tourism writers – which are now the vast majority – and actual travel writers. If you are hosted, you are almost inevitably compromised and, even if not, the result is often just a list of identikit five-star hotels and Michelin restaurants the reader can probably not afford. Bloggers too often write about themselves, almost by definition. How often do you read a good conversation with a local? Readers are not well-served but the question is will they pay for a good product? If not, they will be treated as a subject for marketing. But I suspect there is about as much quality writing as ever, just more layers of noise to drown it, part of the ever-growing advertising machine. That’s more outlets for writers, true, but you have to ask what your own personal brand is. That will give you your pole star.

  10. Lauren Manuel McShane
    October 28, 2014, 3:42 am

    Thanks for this encouraging piece! It is so important for us to always “connect with the core of wonder that inspired us to travel this path in the first place.” It really is a blessing to travel and do it for a living. But as you mentioned it’s doing it with integrity and with the same vigour we did before money played such an important role in it. I will keep coming back to this article :)

  11. Ronny Stoddart
    Wash DC
    October 27, 2014, 4:22 pm

    Kudos, Don, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece! As we all — writers, bloggers, editors, marketers — try to navigate the murky waters of travel writing today, you’ve provided good insights and sound advice on how to move forward honestly and ethically.

  12. linda markovina
    South Africa
    October 27, 2014, 9:34 am

    Just…thank you. I needed this kind of article. Honour yourself, honour your subject, honour your reader. I want to put this on a t-shirt and wear it on the next press trip.

  13. Dick Jordan
    San Francisco Bay Area
    October 26, 2014, 2:35 pm


    These days pay for travel stories is more like the “sprinkles” atop a cake’s icing rather than the icing itself.

    Without ever leaving home, a novelist might write a single book, a trilogy, or a series of novels featuring the same character.

    But travel writers who pen pieces about places, must pack up and go there. And going there means buying plane, boat and train tickets, renting cars, paying for lodging, tours, museum admission, and other activities, and dining out.

    After returning home, the writer may spend many hours sorting through notes, photos, brochures and other information gathered during the trip, and then over days, weeks, or even months, toil away to produce a great travel narrative.

    Many travel stories are written, but far fewer are actually bought by publications that pay writers rather than provide them with “exposure,” and the pay often isn’t that great.

    And if the travel writer paid his or her travel expenses, odds are good that payment for the story would not come even close to reimbursing the writer for the trip costs, let alone net the writer any income.

    Ideally, the publication that will run the story pays the travel writer’s trip expenses and pays for the story and photos that the writer submits to it. But that happens far less than those who read travel publications might realize.

    One alternative is that the “destination,” tour company cruise line, airline, or a combination of them, foots the bill for the trip, or at least covers some of the costs or gets the writer a “media rate” for lodging.

    But some travel publications have publicly stated policies under which they will refuse to run a story based on a trip that the writer did not fully-fund. So unless the writer “cheats” and doesn’t tell the publication that he or she didn’t pay for the trip out-of-pocket, or unless the publication follows a “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” policy, that story won’t be published.

    Getting “comped” or discounted travel means that the travel writer may earn enough from the sale of the story to pay the rent or mortgage, put food on the table, and maybe buy baby a new pair of shoes without having to gamble the meager pay for the story on a roll of the dice at a Vegas crap table.

    Over lunch at a meeting of travel writers and tourism entities earlier this year, a writer who, like you, teaches travel writing, asked those seated at our table what advice he should give to his students who want to know how to pay the bills. “Marry rich, and if you can’t marry rich, marry ‘with benefits’” is what he was told. Many travel writers have other “paying gigs” from which they earn a living or have a spouse or partner who does.

    The lack of a viable business model isn’t of concern solely to travel writers. It’s a problem for travel editors, but more importantly, for their readers.

    It’s not just “The Greatest American Novel” that may never be published. “The Greatest Travel Story Ever” may never be told, either.

    Dick Jordan
    Tales Told From The Road

  14. John Baumgartner
    San Diego, CA.
    October 25, 2014, 8:30 pm

    Excellent article. We’ve developed an interesting solution to the problem. On our community simply writes about their travel experience without concern as to who they reference as travel suppliers. We provide an itinerary at the end of each blog that has the hotels, flights, & activities experienced, so that our readers can ‘follow in the footsteps” of their favorite travel writer. If the reader books the trip, we compensate the writer. Compensation is equal for all suppliers so there is no incentive to chose one over the other. The end game is the booking anyhow and if the story can be told in an objective manner, everybody wins.

  15. Cara Parker @ Pura Vida Epiphany
    CNY en route to Panama
    October 25, 2014, 7:46 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It is true that consideration of the consumer should be the primary objective of travel writing. Can you offer a post or reply with the method you use to determine your reader? I would find that incredibly useful.

  16. FW North @ Lunaguava
    Guatemala (currently)
    October 25, 2014, 12:13 am

    As a bumbling travel writer trying to be heard amidst the cacophonous (and apparently endless) stream of blogs, magazines and all other travel media clamoring for attention across the web, I do find the increasingly prevalent view of the reader as a mere statistic the most striking (and disturbing) aspect of this new world. It’s incredibly crowded out there, so this state of affairs is not entirely unexpected, but the frenetic search for fans/followers sometimes seems to have little to do with actually engaging readers in a meaningful way. The guidelines you mention are indeed essential in these blurry times, but it remains to be seen if they will hold against such fierce competition as now exists within the travel writing community. I’ve been guilty of coming up with some inane list on occasion, in a desperate attempt at visibility, but each time I’ve felt like an abject sell out – or just an idiot. Very insightful piece. Thank you and good luck!

  17. Durant Imboden
    October 24, 2014, 9:46 pm

    You ask, “Going forward, who decides editorial focus?…If there’s no budget to pay independent travel writers, how can they maintain their independence?”

    In some cases, they an do it by being writer-publishers. My wife and I have published an independent travel-planning site about Europe since 2001, and nobody tells us what to cover or what to write. We earn our living by providing useful advice to travelers. It really isn’t all that different from publishing a weekly newspaper, a specialized magazine, or a newsletter (a medium that was popular back in the day).

    I think self-publishing probably works best if you have publishing experience, focus on a niche topic that you know and love, and don’t need or expect overnight success.

  18. Nancy D. Brown
    San Francisco, California
    October 24, 2014, 7:23 pm

    Good tips on travel writing, Don. As a journalism school graduate, I agree that transparency is key. I do find it interesting that as a blogger, I always disclose if I am a guest of a tourism bureau or hotel, while many newspapers and magazines do not disclose this information to their readers.
    What a trip!

  19. Doug Lansky
    October 24, 2014, 5:38 pm

    Well put, Don. John Oliver recently took on the topic as well. Entertaining video clip:

  20. Bret @ Green Global Travel
    October 24, 2014, 5:07 pm

    Great piece, Don, as always. In my sessions on “How to Build a Better Blogging Brand” today at TBEX Athens, I put forth an idea for a new(isn) revenue model we’ve been trying out with some success, which allows bloggers to generate revenue without sacrificing Brand or Storytelling integrity. Basically, we sell promotional sponsorship of stories to third-party candidates who are not mentioned in the story whatsoever, much like a TV show being sponsored by a brand that’s not featured in the show itself. We’ve had great luck with this approach recently, such as selling sponsorship of our Norway trip to a famous clothing brand based in Norway. We’ll be sharing more details of this strategy on our site soon, and I think the possibility of selling “Native Advertising” and promotional sponsorships as opposed to Advertorial content can offer a respectable way for online publishers to earn decent revenue without sacrificing Brand Integrity.

  21. Thomas Dowson
    Devon, UK
    October 24, 2014, 11:40 am

    An engaging and thought-provoking piece, particularly as I battle with drawing some of these boundaries for my own work. This post was, however, slightly spoiled when on exploring this part of the NG website further I find this:

  22. Juergen | dare2go
    traveling in South America
    October 24, 2014, 9:58 am

    So good, I bookmarked for future reference!
    One thing which puzzles me almost daily with many travel blogs: how do you keep a following interested and engaged if you jump from one place to another, one continent to the next, one activity to the opposite extreme? Like from “Jungle Trekking in Brazil” to “Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Berlin” to “5 Top Dives in the Maldives”…
    We write for a well defined small niche and target our content accordingly. Traffic of course is low (due to size of niche), but the respect we receive from our audience is very high.
    Most bloggers, who go on paid press trips, seem to plan their itinerary only according to payment. So one week I might find a really interesting article on their site, but then for months nothing which really grabs my attention.
    Consequently bookmarking any travel blog has become (for me) a thing of the past. This is not how you build up reliable long-term traffic!

  23. Shahida Pervin
    October 24, 2014, 9:13 am

    Thank you for a nice article. I am just about to launch my travel website next month and this article helps to find the travel blog and websites to understand the current tends and get inspiration. If you have a few moments, please visit my website, Heritage Itinerary

  24. Boomergirl (@boomergirl50)
    October 24, 2014, 8:56 am

    We’re seeing it here. Lots of pay-to-play between major print and broadcast outlets and not all are transparent and yes, I think it is seriously affecting smaller tourism operators and organizations with limited marketing funds. Thank you Don George for providing your perspective on the changing worlld of travel writing. I look forward to more conversation on the subject.

  25. Dale
    Berlin (at least for now)
    October 24, 2014, 8:55 am

    I wasn’t fortunate enough to be at TBEX Cancun but did make a point of listening to Don speak via the closing keynote recording made available by Chris Christensen and the discussion included has resulted in a lot of constructive thought towards just what kind of travel writer I am and where my partner and I are taking our ‘brand’.

    We both started out writing for friends and from that a community began to build of people who continue to read us, not because of the adverts we could publish and make money from, but because of the way in which we travel, and the way that we write.

    As we now start to consider a transition from hobby bloggers to a professional full-time business, we’re looking into crafting a business model that works for the people we write for as the first priority.

  26. Geeky Explorer
    Barcelona, Spain
    October 24, 2014, 7:52 am

    Great insight and guide for the ones that would like to begin a career in travel writing, like myself.

    Thank you!

  27. Leigh Powell Hines
    Raleigh, NC
    October 24, 2014, 7:32 am

    Fabulous advice. Thank you for providing your wisdom. I agree 100 percent with your guidelines.

  28. Chris @ One Weird Globe
    Southern Thailand
    October 24, 2014, 5:01 am

    Great post – as a travel blogger and author myself, you’ve definitely hit on what it means to be a travel writer today. There are a lot of hats to wear, that’s for sure, and marketing / branding yourself is one big facet of it.

    Regarding your statement: “Destinations and companies that have little or no budgets for promotion would fall off the metaphorical map.” – has this not already happened with mainstream media? National Geographic may well be one of the last stalwart of traveling to the corners of the earth without bending to an advertiser’s will. ‘Church’ and ‘state’, to use your analogy, is still quite intact.

    For better or worse, bloggers like me can’t readily play that game. We can certainly incorporate an exotic, lesser-traveled destination into a number of different stories (I do it routinely for my itineraries, blog posts, and books), but few revenue streams are guaranteed. Further, the farther off the beaten path we travel, the more likely we are find a ‘dud’ – a place that is rightfully off-the-beaten-path, closed, not interesting, or the like.

    There are still plenty of issues within the travel blogging industry – start-ups looking to build their business on the backs of bloggers seeking ‘exposure’, SEO companies more interested in getting a link placed than engaging in creating something meaningful, and lowball rates that barely merit a reply. I’m encouraged, however, to see more companies employing the creativity and energy blogger bring. There’s definitely a right way to do it, and we’re seeing the results of this everyday.