How to Grow Your Travel Writing Income

Want to make more money from freelance travel writing? NY Times writer Tim Neville shares his expert income-boosting tips.

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Man with backpack on laptop at train station Photo © Getty Images / kiszon pascal

In case it wasn’t obvious, travel writing, and freelancing in particular, make for pretty poor business plans. Unlike manufacturing widgets, you can’t hire more workers, get a bigger factory, and buy more trucks when demand is high. For you, what comes in, goes out, always. One to one. You get an assignment. You do an assignment. The money you make depends entirely on how much you do at what pay rate. And, sorry to say, but the pay rates haven’t changed much in 20 years. People burn out fast.

Despite the challenges, drawing up a freelance business plan can help you see when you really need to work hard and when you can back off a bit. The plan doesn’t have to be an elaborate document worthy of review at Harvard Business School but just a simple graphic if you like that lays out your financial goals and how you hope to achieve them.

Making a plan

Let’s say you want to make a modest $50,000 a year from freelancing. Since various outlets pay freelancers at different times – sometimes as long as six months after your story has run! – it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict how much money you’ll have at any given point. Instead, use your business plan to focus on how much you are getting assigned. To hit $50,000, you need to get $1,000 a week assigned, with two weeks left over to make up any missed goals or to surpass them. How are you going to do that?

Start off by making lists of the different kinds of assignments you could feasibly do, for whom, and how much they’ll pay. Maybe it means trying to get one or two $100 online assignments a week, a $500 assignment in a big newspaper, let’s say, and one $300 magazine piece. Already you can see how stressful every week is going to be.

The trick is to work your way up to bigger assignments that cover multiple weeks. One $2,000 story every two weeks would give you much more time to focus on quality work. Depending on your financial needs, one $9,000 feature from a big national magazine means you can set aside months to work on it. Eventually, you want to think bigger than just $1,000 a week, which will keep you running in the rat-race, and instead focus on hitting $10,000 every 10 weeks. That will give you more time to work on the bigger, soul-fulfilling stories you dream about. The paychecks may arrive sporadically but at least you’ll know how much you have coming in. 

Find new markets

Unfortunately, hitting even a modest target as a freelancer can be tough. Editors don’t get back to you. A story goes from 1,000 words to 250. Your buddy really wants you to join him on a trip to Thailand so there’s no way you’re going to work hard that month. We’ll talk about trying to sell the same story to multiple outlets later, but for now, start thinking about ways you can create more markets for your work beyond finding new publications. Think of it as building islands in various money streams. 

Writers in general sit on a lot of knowledge that can be quite valuable to others. Stick with the business long enough and soon you’ll have developed a pretty extensive “library” of experiences that you can tap for other means. I’ve traveled twice to China to give keynote addresses about travel. Norie Quintos, a long-time writer and editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, recently became a media consultant. She also uses her skills in other innovative ways. She helps students apply to universities, a process in the United States that includes writing an essay, as a writing coach. They do the work. She just guides them through their own story. 

Passive income

Finding ways to generate passive income can really take the pressure off of hitting your business plan goals. Matthew Kepnes, better known online as “Nomadic Matt,” scaled his travel blog up to now include travel guides, a school, and partnerships with other travel-related industries, like World Nomads. Will Hatton, aka the Broke Backpacker, played a similar game, scaling his writing up to include guided tours to the places he knows the most about. 

No matter how you develop your business, don’t get so caught up that you forget what makes you interesting to others in the first place. In other words, keep traveling, keep writing. 

Ways to diversify your income

Write a book

Lucrative book deals from major publishers are rare but even a poorly paid one can open the door to other income streams, like speaking engagements and royalties. Look into compiling your stories into an ebook.

Get a column 

Having just one steady writing gig every week or month can help smooth out the crests and troughs of the money flow.

Copy editing

Knowing the other side of writing – editing – can lead to freelance work reading copy for a local weekly or website. Bonus: getting to know editors you may want to pitch to. 

Partnerships 

A tricky one that can be very lucrative for some folks. Businesses pay writers with large audiences to enter into some sort of partnership that helps that business to achieve a goal. #influencer. Be careful. Some media outlets won’t work with you if you look like you’ve lost your independence. “Look” is the operative word, there. With conflicts of interest, appearance matters, even if untrue. 

Sponsored content

Another tricky but attractive option. A brand pays a traditional media outlet to hire a writer to tell a story of the brand’s choosing. The outlet then runs that story, making sure readers know it is sponsored. Writers are generally left to do their thing and are not asked to shill, still, be cautious. See “appearance,” above.  

Boost your beat

Being a full-time freelance travel writer is awesome, but so is being a full-time freelance writer. Find stories in other realms, or “beats”, especially if they have a relationship to travel. Write about food or adventure sports or sustainability. You’ll find travel ideas while digging up other work. 

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