How I Travel for Free

In the vast blogsphere, I am one small voice among many. In fact, my blog is more of a whisper, generally ignored in wake of the giants of travel writing, such as Conde Nast Traveler and Wayfaring. Still, for the small readership I have, my blog has done surprisingly well. My writing has even allowed me to travel for free.

This is the dream (or at least my dream), but it’s also a lot of hard work. Travel writing is, first and foremost, writing. If you’re going to succeed in this business, you need at the very least a natural knack for weaving words together. Writing courses help, but only so much can be taught. If you can’t write worth a damn, try travel photography, or videography, or anything else, please. I cannot count the number of stories I have read that are bursting with potential – but fall painfully short because they are so poorly written.

Secondly, to be a successful travel blogger, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there. You’ve got to hunt down the good stories and convince companies to hire you. When I wanted to write for a newspaper in the UK, I walked into the Editor’s office and told him so. Confidence and persistence will take you far in this business. No one is going to beg you to take their money and travel with it.

I first got the idea to write in exchange for accommodation when a hostel in Barcelona invited me to stay for free – or, for the price of mentioning them in a post.

Big travel bloggers often petition large companies for tours, transport, and accommodation in exchange for promotion on their sites. I’ve heard of travellers getting a free car in exchange for including it on their Instagram every once in awhile. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. When I wrote for a newspaper in Wick, I took a free boat tour in exchange for an article on my experience. I’ve written about three hostels across Europe and received 9 nights free.

Is this type of travel writing ethical? While I would never compromise my integrity, it’s unavoidable to feel as though you owe these companies a positive review. Not to mention that the staff is likely to offer a distinguished “travel writer” a little cushier stay than the average grubby backpacker.

I look at it like this: when I write book reviews, I don’t choose books I doubt I’ll enjoy. Similarly, when petitioning hostels, I contact small, new establishments that offer amenities to suit my tastes. I manage to mention factors I don’t particularly enjoy in a positive light: for example, as a solo traveller, I may not enjoy the family-dynamic of a certain hostel, but I know that nomadic families will. As with book reviewing, I attempt to fall under whatever spell the hostel casts, without limiting it to my own desires. I won’t ignore unpleasant experiences, but I also won’t dwell on them, either.

Staying for free at hostels saves me money, but it doesn’t pay the travel bills. I also sell stories to online magazines. Okay, I’ve sold one story. I researched World Nomads, found an opening for a story I had in mind, and read through their previous posts to get a feel for their favoured length, style, and tone. I made a tidy $60 AUD for approx. 500 words. (read it here)

While I haven’t yet convinced Lonely Planet to fly me around the world for free, everything comes in baby steps. As an amateur travel blogger and a studying writer, I am more than content with the journey I am on, and the path I have chosen to forge myself. Whether you want to become the next NomadicMatt or are simply curious how others do it, staying true to yourself is the most important part of this business.

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