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What It’s Really, Truly Like to Be a Travel Writer

“Travel writer” is, without question, the best job in the world: Who wouldn’t want to have wild adventures around the globe, then write up the results in publications read by millions of fervent dreamers who hoard their PTO in hopes of one day emulating your glories for a few days at a stretch? It is also, of course, a terrible career choice—a sure route to poverty, instability, and dissatisfaction. At least, that was my experience over nearly a decade writing about travel and food for the New York Times, Saveur, and AFAR, among many other outlets.

Point is, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the public of image of the travel writer—dashing and glamorous, with a Webster’s-thick passport, a bulletproof expense account, and (oh god!) a full head of hair—and the slightly badder, fatter, balder reality. Friends, I am here to present to you the latter. And I will even, for just a moment, sugar-coat it:

1. You get to travel. Seriously, you do! That’s kind of the whole point—it’s why most travel writers get into the business in the first place. You might be traveling to the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, or to Scottsdale, Arizona, or to the really cheesy, touristy part of your own hometown that you feel compelled to include in a story to satisfy your editors, who clearly don’t know a damn thing about what it’s really like outside their plush, antiseptic offices. But at least you, the travel writer, get to go out into the world and experience it, to smell unfamiliar air and see unfamiliar sights and meet (and smell) unfamiliar people.

2. It’ll cost you. Having your expenses covered by a publication is not a sure thing. Plenty of them pay nothing but your article fees, expecting you’ll either front the costs yourself or leverage relationships with publicists for free or discounted airfare, hotels, and meals. Others will pay some of your expenses, though not all of them, leaving you to deduct the remainder from what you’re actually getting paid for the story. A few will cover the expenses altogether, but always do so after the fact, making on-time credit card payments a precarious maneuver.

3. At least you can deduct everything. Yeah, I’m going to talk about taxes. You can skip to the next entry if you’re bored, or I can keep this short: If you write about travel, everything you can possibly think of that’s related to travel is deductible at tax time: suitcases, restaurant meals (a.k.a. “research”), SIM cards, visa fees, odor-reducing underwear. I once bragged to a friend about this, and he looked at me like I was speaking Khmer (which I actually might have been; see #4 below). But then again, he was a drug courier living in an unheated shack atop a building in lower Manhattan, so who was he to judge?

4. You will become insufferable. You will start sentences with “When I was in Tunisia/Paraguay/the Svalbard Archipelago…” You’ll turn down plans with friends because you’ll be tubing in Laos that day. You’ll order foreign food in a foreign language in your hometown, and the server will actually understand you. (I have done all of these.) And even though you’ll cringe at your own behavior, you won’t be able to stop yourself.

5. Really, you’ll be the worst. Your friends at home will never see you anymore, and when they do, you’ll annoy them. Meanwhile, you’ll make fast friends in every new land you visit—and then never see those people again. It’s almost like you don’t even exist. You’re just a memory, a rumor that gets passed around over drinks when one of your stories finally gets published.

6. Regular life is boring. For the past 17 years, I’ve lived in New York City, which is obviously the most exciting and important city in the world. And yet, the more I left it for adventures overseas, the harder it was to return to my normal life: wife, kids, apartment, grocery shopping, deadlines, taxes, emails. At first, sure, I’d enjoy the change of pace, but within weeks, or sometimes days, I’d start craving the thrill of the road, the unparalleled freedom of being abroad, where no one knew me and I could be anyone I wanted, do anything I chose. The quotidian responsibilities of home belonged to someone else. Here my only responsibility was to experience the place as fully as I could, to live in the moment and hold on to that feeling just long enough to translate it into prose, to make my readers understand what it was like to drive the damp backroads of Ireland, smuggle beers onto an Indian reservation, or tend apples in a Turkish orchard. In some ways, the boringness of regular life helped: It propelled me into worlds I’d never have known had I been more satisfied with my lot.

7. Did I mention it’ll cost you? As frustrating as I often found my “regular life,” I still wanted to be able to pay for it—and travel writing was not much help on that front. Even publications that paid well didn’t pay all that well, especially considering the amount of time it took to research a pitch, travel to the destination for a week, and write the story afterward. If my wife hadn’t had a good job, I would’ve moved fully out of the country—most likely to Bangkok or Istanbul (i.e., somewhere with great cuisine and an international airport).

8. It’ll make you a better writer. Travel may not make you a good writer, but it’ll make you a better writer—with all that you’ve seen and done, you’ll always have material. How you shape it is your call (and, if they’re any good, your editors’), but you’ll never lack for stories to tell, vistas to convey, characters to quote, and meals to reconstruct. Travel for the sake of travel writing will occupy your brain with the infinite alternatives you’ll need to get through those awful moments when, tragically, you are not traveling.

9. But also: You get to travel! Forget all that. Forget the tawdry and dull details of the career. Forget the ways you’ll become annoying, to your friends, your family, and yourself. Forget the dispiriting odds you’ll become the next Paul Theroux, let alone (yeesh) the next Matt Gross. Forget my cynicism and jadedness and elitism. Because, as a travel writer, you get to travel. You get to do the thing you love, the thing you’d not only do for free but that you’d pay to do, and you get to do it all the time, because it’s your goddamn job. A crappy, frustrating, ill-paying job that makes you unsuitable for any other line of work, let alone normal life in mainstream America, but the job you’d kill for, you’d die for. The best job in the whole entire world.

Matt Gross is the former Frugal Traveler for the New York Times and the former editor of BonAppetit.com. He also wrote a book called The Turk Who Loved Apples. No one really has any idea what he’s up to now.

Photo by Petrina Tinslay