I don't do trips so much now I work for search and social media company iCrossing. But I'd got them to agree to give me a month off (unpaid) to coincide with my girlfriend's summer holidays (she's a teacher) and decided to try and pull in a commission that would allow me to go somewhere interesting without having to pay for it. We'd pay the extra for my girlfriend to accompany me and, in theory, everyone would be happy.

I've not done much of the Americas and so focussed on Central America. I found out quickly how the market has tightened. I pitched at most of the editors and found they weren't commissioning much. What they were, needed to be places that lots of readers would go to: France, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Australia.

But eventually I landed a commission to El Salvador. A new destination introduced by one of the larger Latin America specialist tour operators. It sounded seriously cool! The newspaper was a smaller UK daily national - I'm not naming it here - but it's one of four UK upmarket dailies with a circulation in the 250,000 mark.

For those of you reading this who don't know how abysmal pay is for freelance travel writers let me tell you up front. For 1500 words I was offered £250. The travel editor told me that he would welcome pictures but that he had no budget, so I'd have to give them for free. That's the going rate. (I know that to be the case). So I didn't negotiate.

I've taken my girlfriend on trips before. Usually it's easy to agree that, because she shares my room and my transfer taxi and my minibus if we're being driven around, there's no additional cost. We just pay for her extra meals. And of course for her flights.

As is often the case the tour operator couldn't help with flights. So I approached the airlines directly. In return for a free flight for me, they would get the mention in the 'getting there' part of the Fact Box at the end of the piece.

  • BA and Iberia said 'not interested'
  • KLM took 2 weeks to decide and then offered a 'media rate' of about £850(!)
  • United Airlines wanted to know if I could guarantee them a mention in my copy as well as in the Fact Box. (Answer - not a hope. Even if I put it in there it would definitely get taken out by the sub-editor at the newspaper.) So they said No
  • Continental Airlines offered a similar rate to KLM
  • American Airlines offered $550 + taxes (total cost about £600)

At the same time, the tour operator came back to me and said I'd have to pay around £700 for my girlfriend to accompany me. The local operator in El Salvador decided that he could make a buck or two by effectively charging us pretty much full rate for her. I negotiated a bit. We reduced the length of the trip and cut out one long day trip to a temple outside El Salvador in Honduras. Managed to get the girlfriend's costs down to £400.

I then checked with American Airlines and found that they couldn't give
any reduction for my girlfriend. Her tickets would cost around £1000.

So... my 'cheap' adventure off the back of a commission was going to
cost me £600 with an income of £250 and my girlfriend £1400. (OK. I'm a
nice guy, I'd have picked up half the tab for her!)

Know what I did?

I canned the trip and booked two full fare tickets to Malaysia for a total cost of £1400.

When I emailed the tour op to tell them, they suddenly found an extra £350 in the budget to contribute towards my flight costs. But, by then, I'd had enough. Interestingly when I emailed the travel ed of the newspaper, he replied in a moment and was quite relaxed. 'No problem, completely understand. Feel free to pitch other ideas my way.' This sort of thing looks like it happens quite often.


Combining a press trip with a holiday, rarely works. Shame, because it's really good to have a second opinion sometimes. No justification for a second free ticket, but reason enough to have someone along for the ride who pays for any additional costs incurred.

Airlines just aren't interested in mentions. More interesting was the discussion I had with one American carrier. They said they'd more likely give away a free seat for Fact Box plus a copy mention in a smaller regional paper (where the editorial guidelines about mentioning sponsors in the body copy are often more relaxed) than for a single Fact Box mention in a National. Indeed 'National's are often happy to pay a media rate for flights' I was told. (Presumably for staffers. I can't think they'd pay for a freelancer?)

Central America will remain off the beaten track for Europeans because there's not enough competition on the air routes. Fares out there are at least 50% more than to SE Asia. Such a shame as it's culturally fascinating.

Travel Editors aren't that bothered about losing a feature. Let's face it, they probably have piles of others knocking about.

Travel Editors would rather commission a mainstream destination (presumably because more readers might go there and more companies would be interested to buy an ad next to that feature). Travel supplements will become increasingly homogenous. Sad for the traveller looking for inspiration, sad for the more adventurous tour ops, sad for the developing countries like say El Salvador that would dearly love some tourist cash.

Making money as a freelance travel writer is virtually impossible - unless you have a regular gig with a big circulation National or an upmarket magazine (I reckon that's probably about 20 or so people in the UK - so if you are an aspiring travel writer reading this be very aware of how incredibly competitive it is).For most of us in the trade, long haul trips are about
getting a reduced price holiday or seeing some place we really want to
see. Not about making money.

Or is there a way to do press trips to obscure places and make them work that I don't know about?

21 thoughts on “The travel press trip that didn’t happen

  1. Sorry to hear you didn't make it out there, and I know exactly where you're coming from.

    I've found that the only way to make a far flung trip pay is to sell a LOT of articles off the back of it.

    I spend at least six weeks a year in Australia, and have to do an awful lot of lining up in advance to fund it. I'll usually only get about half the accommodation covered, and I've never been given flights. On the plus side, if anyone ever wants a piece on just about any part of Oz, I can usually turn it round pretty quickly.

    I did Central America (Cancun to Antigua, Guatemala) last year. Managed to get the flight to Cancun in return for a mention in a web piece, and the tour to Antigua. But I had to pay for my own meals, incidentals and flight back to Cancun.

    It ended up being reasonably expensive - probably creeping towards £700 - £800. But it was profitable - I ended up selling 12 pieces, not including the web round up pieces that I used some material in.

    And I think that's the only way freelancers can do it - identifying lots of separate stories, rather than one overarching one. Alas, the latter is often what the nationals want - a piece taking in numerous aspects of a multi-day trip.

  2. This sorry saga is all too familiar.

    I've learnt to separate a family holiday from a working trip as it just doesn't work to force the demands of the job onto my wife and three-year-old child.

    If it's work, I'll go alone, keep it brief, focused and expect the PR/tourist board to have set up a comprehensive and well-planned itinerary to meet the requirements of my commission.

    If I feel the latter is lacking, I'll pull the trip. I have done several times, in fact. I'd rather not go than waste my time and run up expenses to fix a poorly designed press trip.

    As for making offbeat destinations pay, multiples sales are the only way forward. That and developing real specialist local knowledge.

    But those trips are pretty rare in the current climate. That's why I've stayed primarily close to home this year and expanded my coverage of my home patch via Hit the North at http://atkinsondavid.blogspot.com/.

    I'm going to the AITO event tonight and will be looking for ideas for autumn into winter. I've got a list of ten ideas I'm working on, but how many will I 1) actually be able to set up with AITO operators 2) and sell to a national outlet for the necessary strong commission?

    I suspect not many.

  3. i make so little as a full-time travelwriter that i couldn't possibly afford to pay to take my family on holiday, so we just wait for those 'family holiday' pieces to come round. so far they have but you can't choose what you want, we go where they send us. but i don't do it unless i get flights free for all four of us. i've never paid for my girlfriend/wife to accompany me so either i go alone or the PRs cave in.
    nevertheless, good blog J. maybe i'm one of those 20? it's certainly tougher than ever before to get commissions and i can only see it getting tougher. i reckon we're seeing the end of that golden era of print travel writing. there was a time when writers could send in a list of the places they wanted to go that year...

  4. The other possibility, as several of our colleagues at the BGTW know, is to marry a travel journo and then travel as a team - but don't tell your gf I said that!

    More seriously, I'm wondering what other media prospects might light up the eyes of airline marketing peeps these days?

    They know they can't get editorial mentions in the nationals, and any mention in regionals is gonna be lightweight. Did you get any sense that an online editorial package might be of more interest? (EG a live blog of the trip, tweets, flickr pics, facebook wall posts, podcast items, etc.)

    (David, I've had to pull out of the AITO event tonight, so say 'hi' for me! ta)

  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences guys
    @ Alastair. Re airlines. I think it has to be a new route that they have budget set aside to publicise to make them sit up with real interest. I got the feeling that right now most of them are running scared... losing money by the second and instead of seeing this as a need to increase attempts for visibility in the press by sponsoring flights, slashing their promotion budgets instead. I did offer a post about flying to Central America (making clear it couldn't be an overt plug, more a debate about why Central America will stay off the beaten track due to the difficulties and cost of getting there) and even a free banner here on this site to sweeten the deal. It didn't seem to interest them. I think they're way behind he curve when it comes to understanding the power of social media (though I would say that wouldn't I!)

  6. Jeremy - thanks for a very interesting post and I hope that aspiring travel writer will take heed.

    I was on a couple of press trips to Croatia earlier this year, with flights and all expenses paid. It was great because I did get a lot of material for the blog. The main problem with press trips is that you can't set your own agenda, the trip has to try to cover the interests of all members of the group. The other dilemma is disclosure and if your content is believable if you have been a on freebie.

    Alastair - I'm undertaking a UK Blogging Tour 22 July - 1 August 2009 with flights sponsored by bmibaby. I'll be writing, tweeting, posting videos as I go along, time and internet connection allowing. I'm looking for tips and volunteer guides from residents in my ports of call, Birmingham, Newquay, Manchester, Belfast and Cardiff. to make the tour more interactive I think this is the type of trip that may appeal more to potential sponsors.

  7. Really great, honest post.

    Just to be obtuse, though... do you really think anyone besides a small number of travel writers really loses out if the press trip dies? Karen, above, identifies one problem. There's the ethical dimension that has been discussed to death elsewhere: e.g. http://is.gd/1pRYQ. Press trips have been responsible for filling newspaper supplements with acres of bland, thinly disguised selling copy, dressed up as travel journalism. (It's far more honest just to write *actual* selling copy for an operator, airline, or whatever, if you ask me). I know that isn't necessarily writers' fault; editors demand positive opinions to keep advertisers and PRs happy. But press trips don't serve the reader or consumer to any great extent, nor do they often seem to incubate great "writing", and I won't be sobbing much if they're on the way out.

    [And there's no mileage for an airline getting a mention in a piece, surely? We're all meta- (or at least Web) searching these days (well, those of us who fly...) and, bar occasional objections to "ever flying with airline X again", we'll usually go with the cheapest (direct). A mention isn't worth much to them, unless it's publicising a new route. I see their point, I'm afraid. But I'd say you're spot on when it comes to Central America remaining second-fiddle to Asia. Though that plethora of Asia flights has been largely demand-driven. If more people want to fly to C.America, they'll eventually lay on more flights, I guess.]

  8. Hi Donald. Nice to hear from you. And obtuse is good!
    Press trips... My trip was a solo trip which I put together myself working with a tour operator and an airline rather than an organised thing to which a whole stack of journos were invited. But I completely agree with you about organised press trips where a stack of journos are dragged around - as Karen describes above. Personally I hate them...
    Airlines getting mentions... I disagree. More web-savvy people might well be meta-searching. But I think there are still plenty of less well-travelled people who would read a piece and use the factbox info to help make decisions. (but that's just an opinion of course)
    And also re flights being demand driven. I'm not totally sure. I think it's about competition as much as it is about demand. Look at the number of airlines flying to say Bangkok (loads) compared to say Sao Paolo or Mexico City (far far fewer). It's about open skies, landing rights, promotion of these destinations by their tourist boards etc as much as it is about demand. It's also about the Middle Eastern airlines competing agressively on SE Asia and Oz routes and driving down prices in the process.

  9. Interestingly, although I generally hate PR organised press trips, they are almost always the ones that offer to accommodate a friend or partner and I have, surprisingly, written some of my best stories - Soaked in Seattle, Do it Right or the Dog Gets it (that was dog sledding in Canada), a sneak preview of the new Acropolis Museum last year - from PR organised press trips. As far as organising air fares, the best way seems to be to stay aware of new routes and to try to get a flight while the airline is promoting the new route (my forthcoming Aer Lingus flights for two to Nice, for example).
    I wouldn't turn up my nose at Press trips. But I do think its important for you to make clear to the press people in the field that you know what story you are after and what you need to do to get it. You can, once you're out there - wherever that is - put your foot down to get your own story/pictures.
    Don't think I can possibly be one of the 20 but I do make a sort of living, mostly from doing lots of bits and pieces all over the place and recycling the experiences I've built up.
    One last thing - probably impossible to try to organise a holiday around a working trip that you want to do, but far easier to be a bit loose and open about vacations with your partner. Then, see what press trips are on offer and be ready to take one up when it appeals. A lot of times, partners are included in those kinds of trips. Sorry, BTW, if this seems a bit rambling. Just posted the ideas as they occurred.

  10. Excellent article and very accurate depiction of the life of a freelancer.....I would only suggest (for future trips if you ever try your hand at going this route again) that you bring in another player besides the tour operator - the Tourism Board of your chosen destination - often they will find creative ways to work with you (by arranging another commission or freeing up some funds to help with expenses) because they tend to think more long-term than tour operators do.

    As for airlines, I don't know how it is in your neck of the woods, but here in the US nearly every seat is taken on nearly every flight I've been on for the past couple of years, the result primarily of schedule cuts, so the airlines are not very motivated to help. What we do is put every dollar possible that we spend on our credit card and rack up frequent flyer miles that way (groceries, utilities, mortgage, gas - everything) and then [grudgingly] use the miles when a press trip doesn't include airfare and the airlines won't cooperate - not the best solution but at least it reduces the cash out of our pocket.

    Lastly, teach your girlfriend how to shoot video - good quality stuff, not like "home videos" - as there are more and more websites now that are clamoring for travel video, and will pay for professional quality stuff.

  11. Your reply re flights to Asia vs C. America is why I've been reading this blog, in lurk mode mainly, for ages... some points I genuinely hadn't considered. I recant my original naivety...

    Partly, anyway. The Asia boom, that dates back to when I was a student and probably before, really boosted these places: *everyone* went to Thailand etc. (I went to Guatemala, funnily enough). Also significant, I guess, is the fact that so many of them are stop-offs en route to Oz: they have a geography that the Americas doesn't. But the stuff you cite is clearly pivotal too. You're right.

    I'm still not sure about the "airlines getting mentions" thing, though. You could sell New York to me in a piece; you could even sell me a specific package tour upstate, say. But sell specifically a flight on United to NY, when you can't even mention the airline in the main body copy? No chance: I'll hunt the deal that suits me, prices, depart/arrival times/airports etc. So, we'll agree to differ on that one.

    Hope you have a good summer trip anyhow. You'll probably stumbling across something incredible and get a 3-book deal out of it...

  12. Lots of really interesting points here. I could (travel)blather on for hours in response, but I'll try to keep it tight.

    Trisha got it right: I think the key problem for you, Jeremy, may have been the lack of tourist board representation in the UK... I specialise in the Middle East, and travel to various countries there regularly. A visit to Syria is always tricky to organise, since there's no tourist representation in the UK; last trip I ended up out of pocket. Jordan, though, is a doddle since there's a tourist board here. Bahrain is a problem (no t.b.); Oman is much easier. Going through a tourist board also ensures that my requests for flights and accommodation are passed on through the 'proper' channels, and also benefit from the t.b.'s pre-existing network of contacts. I might be a rarity, but I've never yet had to cancel a trip for lack of ground support.

    Combining a press trip with a holiday? Total non-starter for me. Tried it once, 9 years ago when starting out. Never again. Boundaries!

    Airlines aren't interested in mentions? Some aren't (BA case in point) - but many are. I've just had comp flights to a certain Gulf country okayed purely on the back of factbox coverage in a national paper: the airline in question is small, trying to expand and probably needs the exposure. I haven't spoken to them: approach made via tourist board. I agree with you, too, that factboxes do matter far more than BA etc realise: a good, well-written travel story followed up with the fact that Airline X flies you direct to that destination is powerful, immediate linkage. It gives readers a kick straight into the mindset of researching the trip and booking it. BA don't see that? They're lazy, crazy or both!

    Travel eds aren't bothered about losing a feature? Absolutely my experience too. The attitude often seems to be 'there's plenty more where that came from' - sometimes delivered in a friendly, sympathetic manner, sometimes not!

    Travel eds would rather commission mainstream destinations? Not my experience. To their credit, I find that most eds still respond to a good idea, regardless of destination. If the idea is strong, it will sell the piece. (Mind you, I've been trying to hawk something on Iraqi Kurdistan for ages now, to little effect...)

    Making money as a freelance travel writer is virtually impossible? Well, sort of. If all you do is freelance travel writing for papers and magazines, then I agree it's tough - you need the kind of lifestyle where you're away 2 weeks in every 4, writing constantly, saying yes to everything... but it's possible. Robin McKelvie is the busiest man I know...
    I combine freelance travel writing for papers/mags with freelance travel writing for guidebook publishers, plus a bit of freelance travel writing for PRs and some other freelance stuff - all that, combined with six-monthly royalties on the sales of my pre-existing guidebooks, makes a living to support wife, child and dog. Rich I'm not - but this kind of job satisfaction makes occasional pension panics worthwhile, I think...

  13. "I think it's about competition as much as it is about demand."

    It's about population too - far more people live in Asia than Central America... It's simply a far bigger market.

  14. @ Matthew @Trisha - yep. That was the point I was going to make but Matthew got there first. No Tourist Board representation for somewhere like El Salvador... so that wasn't an option. Interestingly Matthew, BA have comped me flights several times in the last few years - on routes they wanted to publicise (Tirana and St Petersburg) Even upgraded me to Business on way home from Tirana.
    @ David. Yep... true about population mass in Asia AND all the traffic going there from Australia too.
    Great insights! Thanks

  15. @Jeremy,
    Great post, lots of food for thought. Interestingly I'm coming at this from the other angle. We want to send writers out to write independent & honest reviews of the small, independent local tour operators who offer adventure holidays and cultural tours on http://www.tourdust.com and are trying to find a way to make it pay for itself.

    We can put on the actual holiday at no cost and can pay a modest rate for the review, but are trying to find ways to make it more financially worthwhile for the supplier and the writer (whilst keeping our costs down). So all of the issues raised above such as paying for the travel costs and selling multiple pieces off of one trip are issues on the other side of the fence. We're playing with ideas, such as pitching the piece to other media outlets or offering part cash + a part share of any commission revenue we earn on that product. Travel costs are an issue as is the organisational burden. Would love to hear ideas?

    And regarding South America, flights are such an issue. I remember trying to fit it into a round the world ticket, and finding out that flights to S America had filled up long before. There just isn't enough capacity or competition from Europe to South America, whereas Asia often ends up being cheaper than a holiday in Europe.

  16. I frequently combine business and pleasure travel, and have had it work fairly well. I always plan to pay for my air travel, as you found out the airlines are impossibly stingy with seats, but I've not had a problem securing accommodations (free of deeply discounted), meals, drinks, admission to attractions and events, etc.

    While it's rare that the entire trip will be covered, when I balance out the work/fun ratio of expenses, I'm usually pretty pleased.

  17. I work in PR representing travel and tourism industry clients, facilitating hotel reviews, media stays and the occasional press trip. It has been my experience that hotel accommodation is usually fairly easy to secure as long as the hotel PR/marketing can see the ROI value in terms of how many stories they can be mentioned in. This can be spread across months in the same publications or across different publications covering aspects of their operations such as leisure facilities, cuisine, activities for kids, interior design etc but make sure your credentials are legitimate and you can send some portfolio examples.

    Airlines as many have mentioned are quite difficult to secure as some have unrealistic expectations of coverage - requesting full page features with images in consumer magazines. I would suggest that aside from the mention of the airline in the pull-out box, research what new products the airline is pushing i.e new business class seats, enhanced inflight entertainment, options for business travellers, even freight and holiday package options etc and pitch these features to airline and travel trade magazines in addition to perhaps some on-line and blog coverage. They do usually prefer to host media on inaugural flights to new destinations as routes that already enjoy high traffic don't need the publicity as much.

  18. Hi All,

    I am a travel PR and I’m happy to report that I’m still organising trips! Although I work for a private holiday rentals website so I do only cover accommodation, not flights.

    However, I have been mulling over an idea for a while now, which may be of interest to anyone who, like Jeremy, is finding the press trip landscape rather arid at the moment! It would be great to discuss with anyone who feels like it may be something they could, and would like to do, in any case.

    Here’s an outline: our site lists private holiday homes available to rent, an accommodation option which is becoming increasingly popular as travellers realise it is a cost-effective and also an authentic way to travel, and that there is an absolutely huge choice of properties to choose from worldwide (we even have some in Central & South America!). - In a holiday home you can live like a local and really make your home ‘where you hang your hat’.

    My idea, therefore, was that we could send an experienced travel writer ‘Around the world in 80 holiday homes’ so they can speak about their experiences of living like a local in various different destinations worldwide. Blogging and tweeting (of course!) about their experiences as they go, uploading photos and videos etc… to produce a rich media experience for their readers and enabling them to ‘virtually’ follow the person around the world. I believe this has the potential to generate a significant following, as per the now well-known http://soultravelers3.com/ of whom I’m sure you are all aware!

    The person could produce features for the print press too, and we could work together to coincide their trip with local festivals/events of interest etc…

    We could source/fund all the accommodation for the trip, but other funding (travel etc…) still needs some more thought. We have scope to dedicate additional budget to it though.

    This would not need to be a commercial ‘sponsored’ blog/column; my idea is that the person will simply thread in to each piece the benefits of staying in a home from home, “Writing this watching the sunset from my balcony”, “Just off to make myself an espresso on ‘my’ machine”, etc…. and of course provide a link through to the home they are staying in.

    I’d be very interested to hear feedback on this from a writer’s perspective (bad, or good!), and to discuss with anyone who thinks it might be up their street… Could be a great option for escaping all the doom and gloom reports here at home (Our MD quite liked the idea herself, but she’s just had a baby….!)


  19. How times have changed. In 1996, I asked a PR for a coach tour while I was in Australia and was offered return flights with Virgin (Upper Class one way) and Ansett via Hong Kong as well. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't happen nowadays although I did get a discount on Mexicana's new flight to Mexico City in February (partner did also). I do sometimes travel with my partner but usually expect to pay their air fare. I have made a living from travel writing for 25 years now and it has been this tough before (Gulf war, 9/11). You just have to be more inventive and more up front about asking for regular work.


  20. Totally agree about your comment: "Travel supplements will become increasingly homogenous."

    I frequently pick up a copy of broadsheet travel supplements, and am almost always dissapointed. They just seem to cover the same old, tried and tested (and tired) destinations every week. France, Italy, USA etc - dull, dull dull!

    Yes - these are nice countries, but I want inspiration. But then, that's the great thing about the web - so many smaller sites covering more off the beaten path places.

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