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.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
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?