Travel Writing: The Dirty Subject of Money

Let New York Times contributor Tim Neville help you navigate the out-of-pocket expenses of your next travel writing trip – and maximize your earnings along the way.

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At some point in the pitching process, if all goes well, your assigning editor is going to bring up the question of payment.

When you’re starting out and need to publish your work, some websites may run your copy “in exchange for exposure”. This is great if you’re an #influencer or blogger whose income relates directly to any traffic that this exposure might boost to your own site, but for writers who need to get paid, this is disastrous. You can’t pay your bills with a URL. Even if you don’t need money, please insist on getting paid or just go travel and forget writing altogether. The craft, your time – and the time of every other writer trying to make a go of it – is worth something.  

Negotiating rates

Each publication sets its own rates, with national print magazines generally paying much more than websites, even if those websites are for national magazines. For print in North America, editors typically pay by the word but it’s really a flat rate. “400 words at $1 a word” means “$400 for a story that’s right around 400 words.” Websites generally work with flat rates. In every situation, you should always ask for a contract and understand the rights you’re selling, exactly.  

Earnings vs. expenses

If you’re lucky and your career takes off, your editor, upon considering a pitch, will ask for a budget breakdown – X for flights, Y for hotels, Z for food. An expense account is really just an agreement for a publication to reimburse you retroactively up to a certain amount for out-of-pocket spending incurred doing the job. I try to put everything for an assignment on a credit card that earns me frequent flyer miles.  

The unfortunate truth is that many publications simply don’t have expense money for you at all. If that’s the case, you’ll have to do some math to figure out how much you stand to lose (or earn). At first, taking a hit will just be part of breaking in but the idea is to make a profit quickly.

If your story does require some travel, ask your editor right away about how to cover those costs. Usually, you’ll have to pay for everything yourself but sometimes you may get a little extra to cover meals or other expenses. Media outlets generally include the maximum amount in their contracts and spell out what you need to do to get reimbursed. Typically this means you’ll pay for everything upfront, submit a report on it, and then they’ll pay you back. Getting an “advance” isn’t very common so be sure to save your receipts.

If you’re pitching a story about something you’ve already done, it’s generally poor form to ask for retroactive reimbursement. But do keep track of how many nights you’re out of the country, where, and what you spend on lodging and transportation, no matter what. That data may help limit what you owe come tax time. In the US, reimbursed expenses to a freelance writer technically count as income, so offsetting that with what you spent is critical.  

Press trips

The most common trick for keeping expenses down is also ethically the ickiest. Travel professionals know that having their hotel, their beach, their country covered by a real writer on assignment is the kind of marketing that money cannot buy. They call this “earned media” and it’s highly coveted. The bang for the buck is so great, in fact, that often it’s in a marketing department’s best interest to just cover all of your expenses for you. Free flights! Free five-star hotel! Free gourmet meals!

No doubt that sounds dreamy and plenty of travel writers need these “press trips” or “fam trips” (short for “familiarization”) to make their careers work. Public relations agencies and tourism boards find writers and influencers to invite on trips simply by monitoring the media to see who’s writing or posting about what. Many publications rely on press trips, too, since they may have legitimate reasons for covering a place, but no budget to send a writer.

If a magazine wants your story but can’t pay your expenses, you first need to know its policy on writers accepting “assistance” from people who stand to benefit from any article. If it’s no issue, then it might be worth getting a “letter of assignment” from your editor to present to those tourism boards or PR firms when asking for help.  

Often, though, it is an issue. Press trips can be win-win situations but they come with one major caveat: many of the most respected publications out there have a problem with writers accepting freebies. It calls into question the publication’s independence and authority if businesses and people who stand to benefit from coverage are allowed to give a writer perks that no anonymous paying guest might get. Fortunately, publications with strict no-free-stuff policies generally offer decent expense accounts. 

Covering your costs

In worst-case scenarios, a publication wants your story but has no money for expenses and has a policy against accepting freebies. In cases like those you basically have a choice: do the story on your own (you’re going there anyway!) and hope the fee gets you closer to breaking even; or try to find several stories to do while you’re there. The latter is obviously better.  

If you can line up three assignments in, say, France, then you have drastically tilted the expenses-to-income scale toward income. Even better, you also now have a shot at getting at least some things covered. It’s easier to eke $200 in expenses out of an editor by saying you’ll be in France anyway than to request $2,000 for everything including international flights. 

When a job falls apart

It happens. For whatever reason, an assigned article never runs. Editors kill or “spike” finished work as a last resort, usually because something drastic has changed that undercuts the article’s appeal. Maybe a natural disaster has struck or, gulp, maybe, after multiple tries, the writer just couldn’t produce what the editor needed. Often when things fall apart writers who have already filed a draft can ask to be paid a kill fee. Rates vary but around 25 percent of the full fee seems about right. From there, it’s like a divorce and the writer can try to sell the same article elsewhere. Contracts usually spell out the specifics; be sure to read them carefully or ask to have the terms included. 

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