Getting Paid to Travel: Interview with Scott McNeely

Scott McNeelyScott McNeely on a helicopter ride over San Francisco

For many keen travellers, the prospect of paid travel writing has an almost magnetic appeal. What could be better than exploring the far reaches of the world while pulling in a paycheck?

Scott McNeely has written and edited guidebooks for Lonely Planet and Fodor’s, and now works for Viator. In short, he has done the “paid to travel” thing.

TravelBlogs caught up with him to talk about how he made it as a travel writer. And for those of you who dream of one day being a writer yourself, Scott shares what it’s like to be a travel writer.

Over on Viator, you’ve listed your favourite city as Istanbul. Why Istanbul?

I lived in Istanbul on-and-off for over a year, and I fell in love with the place, the people, the food. It’s one of the world’s truly great cities. People have a negative attitude about “the Middle East” and “Muslim countries”, but Turkey shatters all those misconceptions. It’s a great country for first-time visitors to the Middle East. And if I could learn to speak Turkish, I’d be living in Istanbul right now.

When and how did you get your first break as a writer?

My very first assignment was writing a first-edition travel guide to Romania. It was in 1991, right after the revolution. This was not a good time to write a travel guide about Romania. I nearly starved. I went days without speaking English. I learned how to say “No! I do not like pork liver” in Romanian. It was an amazing experience, but it certainly wasn’t an easy introduction to travel writing.

What came first: your love for travel, or your love for writing? Or to put it in another way, do you travel to write, or do you write to travel?

That’s a tough one. I’ve always loved to travel and to write. I wouldn’t say this to my former guidebook employers, but I think it’s best to travel AND to write, but not mix them up. I know a lot of jaded travel writers who are sick to death of both travel and writing. So I try to travel to travel, and write to write, if that makes sense.

Writing for publications like Lonely Planet or Fodor’s would be a dream job for many travellers. As someone who has “been there, done that”, is it as great as it seems?

If your idea is to travel the world on a publisher’s dime, you’re kidding yourself

Yes and no. There’s no denying the ‘coolness’ factor of being a travel writer. People get very jealous about that. The idea that you get paid to travel, well, that’s too much for some people. I also really like the fact that, as a travel writer, you are forced to spend weeks and weeks in a single destination. It’s a good way to get an in-depth appreciation for a place, that most travelers don’t have the time, patience and/or money for.

The downsides? Well, people forget it is hard work, and often very boring. Think about walking into 300 hotels and asking to see a room, explaining each time why, taking notes, etc. Good travel writers are very detailed people, and that means a lot of tracking down facts, asking questions, and the like. While other people are spending the day on a beach, or haning out, the travel writer is at the bus station trying to sort out which buses go where, when, and for how much.

What advice do you have for people who want to make a living as travel writers?

The people who do well in the industry tend to have 2 things in common: they become experts in a single area or two, and they work across multiple media types (writing, photos, video, blogs etc.). If your idea is to travel the world on a publisher’s dime, you’re kidding yourself. But if you want to become an expert in a certain culture, language or destination, and you’re willing to work in multiple formats, then you have a good shot at success.

Where are you going for your next holiday?

Let me preface this by saying, I have a 19-month old son. So I make a distinction between places I want to go next (Tunisia, Brazil, Laos are top of the list) and places that I am likely to go next (grandparent’s house, the local park, the beach). When my son is old enough, I want to take him trekking in Nepal. And I want to show him the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

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Discussion »

  • #1Bo Boorom

    This is such a simple article but it has helped me out so much! I am 23 and I am a History major at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. I want to become a travel writer and I definitely know I can, but after this article I see myself doing it even more now. I want to travel and be able to pay the bills. I dont expect to make a ton of money, I just want to enjoy what I do and this is definitely it. Just the oppurtunity to do this excites me! I was hoping for any information that may help me on my journey. I’m not so sure where to start? Please Help me.

    Thanks!!

    -Bo Boorom

  • #2katie

    I’m a 23 year old, absolutely love writing and wanting to learn more about this ‘crazy’ but beautiful world we live in.
    I think traveling and being able to write, will do so much for myself confidence. Also love to inform people on every detail of why they need to get out learning about the different cultures, learning the way other’s live their lives, and how it’s so different…How much of an eye opener it would be to any one that experienced it.
    I want to see it all. From going to villages that are less fortunate, helping in any way i could. Taking in and learning how they live life day to day. See the strength they have to keep it together and support one another.
    This would be my dream job. Not for the money, but the experience of it all.

    Katie Delbridge ;)

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