When you travel, normally the last thing you want to think about is work. Yet trips can be an excellent opportunity for finding stories, and those stories can be a great way to dampen the financial hit.
Even if you’re not a travel writer, a trip to a new city or country can offer an opportunity to tackle a new subject and expand your portfolio. It can also transform reasonable, related expenses into tax deductions. That can be a big deal, especially considering that traveling when self-employed is doubly difficult. After all, you’re not getting paid for time off, and you’re not working.
But identifying and writing stories on a trip isn’t easy. Besides having to manage relax time and work time, stories become especially difficult to source and research because you’re often stepping so far out of your beat.
Your approach will likely depend on your areas of coverage, but here are important some factors to consider before you write on your next trip.
“Pitch first and report later, or report first and pitch later?” It’s an age-old question, but it’s one that’s easier to answer when it comes to using a trip to do a little reporting.
Danya Henninger lives in Philadelphia and specializes in coverage of food and beer for print and online publications. She says to consider your market before taking on the risk of traveling without an assignment.
“If it’s saturated, make sure you have some kind of deal before getting into it,” she said. Henninger went on a trip to San Francisco for the city’s annual Beer Week with her husband, partially with the hopes that she could publish a story on the festivities.
But the angle she’d had in mind, a comparative story of San Francisco and Philadelphia, didn’t get any takers. “And then the San Francisco market is already so saturated with beer writers that there wasn’t really another story for me to pitch,” she said.
“I never go to a place for story research and then later look for assignments,” said Diane Daniel, an American freelancer based in the Netherlands. “That’s too much of a gamble. I always line up assignments ahead of time.”
That said, you should still keep looking for additional stories even if you’re traveling for something specific. Henninger recently worked reporting for one piece into a trip to Ottawa. Now that she’s done the reporting, she’s confident that she’ll get a second story out of it because she was open to the possibility.
Read recent coverage on your destination
It’s important to do a survey of coverage before you start pitching; you don’t want to re-report those stories, but you do need to understand what stories have been beaten to death, as well as the big themes and changes that will provide context and greater depth to your pieces.
You also may spot opportunities to pivot—if there is a health outbreak, what has its economic impact been? Before a recent trip to Portugal, a zip line that had been constructed between Spain and Portugal had been referred to in one article as an economic development project. That detail caught my attention, and I ended up reporting on the zip line for Fast Company.
Ari Daniel Shapiro, a digital producer for NOVA and a freelance science reporter for public radio and other outlets, always makes sure to scour scientific publications and university websites before any trip.
“I usually have a sense of where I’ll be in a particular country or what the particular focus of the topic is that I need to cover, so that helps hone the focus,” Shapiro said. “I’m looking for stories that haven’t been told before [in non-academic media] and that have good characters and scenes.”
Cast a wide net—and don’t default to travel writing
Travel stories might seem like an obvious choice, but there are a lot of downsides. Travel writing is a saturated market where a lot of people are willing to work for very little. Unless you have a lot of bylines to prop up your rate, you’re probably not going to make much. And the best-paying outlets—airline magazines and other high-end publications—often have long turnaround times on pitches and are highly competitive.
That’s not to say don’t try travel writing if you have a great story, but if you do, consider your target outlets and their rates carefully. Alternately, consider what newsy events might be taking place during your trip, or emerging trends or business stories that might be of interest to readers back home.
“I often contact tourism people to see what is new,” said Daniel, who spent 25 years at newspapers before becoming a full-time freelancer in 2002. “I scour blogs and reach out to bloggers, telling them what I’m doing. Sometimes they ignore me because I’m asking for free advice or they don’t have time, but often they’ll share great intel because they want to see their city promoted.”
Besides reaching out to experts and other organizations with a stake in the local scene, she also recommends reaching out to “non-experts.” That could be anyone from friends, acquaintances, or businesses who are located there there to people who’ve simply traveled to your destination recently.
People without a particular story to promote will have noticed some of the same things that will strike you upon your arrival, be it the unusual density of bookshops or major construction projects underway. Getting a head’s up in advance will allow you to do the research to schedule interviews ahead and save time on the ground.
Also important: Try to get people on the phone so that you’ll have a chance to cover more ground and get the benefit of spontaneity.
Always plan ahead
The more efficient you can be with your reporting, the more time you’ll have to relax and do your own thing.
Leave time to get lost, but do have a schedule. If you need photos, designate a particular time in your day to take them. Know you can go back to people on the phone but try to get them while you’re in town. They’re more likely to make your appointment a priority.
Daniel tries to compress all her reporting in a couple of days. That way, she can get her personal time in at the end of a trip.
“It’s actually a ridiculous amount of work for the payoff,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it’s fun work.”