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Travel Writer On The Road  

What it's like to be a travel writer out on the road...  

Before he set out to revise parts of a best-selling guide to Greece, Paul Hellander, the Australian travel writer, asked some good questions about a first big writing assignment. Here are his questions and my answers, for what they're worth (posted here with Paul's permission):

Paul: I have been given the fairly large task of updating the sections listed below. The time allocation that the publisher has indicated is something like this:
  • Northern Greece 30 days
  • Central Greece 15 days
  • Islands of NE Aegean 30 days
  • Sporadhes Islands 20 days (I think)

Tom: The time allocations look sufficient, but hardly relaxed. You will discover that this is work, not vacation (holiday). You need to travel fast both to get the ton of work done and to get your assignment completed before the information you collect goes out of date.

Paul: Is it absolutely necessary to visit every single place and establishment that is listed in the book when doing an update, or can the updating be done by phone or by local literature equally as well?

Tom: I would feel it absolutely necessary to visit each establishment mentioned in the guide. As for telephoning, this can be done if you've neglected to get a phone number or a price or hours of operation, but you can't judge by phone the quality, ambience and suitability of a place, or how it may have changed since last time. And local literature? Anything in print is already going out of date, by definition. You want TODAY's information, not yesterday's.

Paul: Upon arrival in a new place, what is a good routine to get organised, so as to optimise to the maximum the minimum time allotted?

Tom: The first thing I do when I arrive anywhere is FREAK OUT at all the work that needs to be done in an amount of time which is usually insufficient. I now expect this freak-out, and it no longer concerns me. I just get to work. I sit down with the book and a map and organize my work by streets so I don't spend a lot of time going back to the same locales to pick up places I missed. That is, I don't do all the hotels, then all the restaurants, then all the museums, then all the archeological sites, etc. because often there are several of these establishments on the same street.

Paul: What is a good routine for maintaining computer archives - particularly backups? How have you monitored hard and software security while on the road? i.e. how do you stop your equipment from being stolen?

Tom: (a) choose hotels carefully for safety both from the management and staff and from other guests

(b) have a strong suitcase with a lock, and leave the computer locked in the suitcase in the hotel room when you're not carrying it with you or working in your room

(c) lock it in the trunk of a rental car when you must, but insulate it from the heat of the sun so it doesn't melt!

(d) Don't use the computer in lots of public places so that potential thieves can mark you as a target

(e) have double backups of your work, and e-mail backups home frequently. (Or leave them on the e-mail server until you get home.)

(f) Take some notes and collect some local literature so that theft of the computer does not mean having to start all over. After all, work done is worth more money than the computer.

Paul: Getting around: the obvious way to travel is by local transport (bus, dolmus, taxi etc ..) but what other means have you used? Buses don't always go where and when you want to and taxis can be expensive.

Tom: I've used every possible sort of transport: bus, train, plane, rental car, farm cart, tank truck, Pepsi wagon, motorcycle, moped, bicycle, boat. I even rented an entire bus once when I had to catch an important flight. Generally, I bite the bullet, lay out the money and rent a car when I'm on a route where I know I'll be doing lots of driving every day. It may be a considerable expense, but I shorten the fieldwork time and thus the number of days incurring expenses (hotel, meals, etc.), and I also get the info to the publisher while it's still fresh. But I don't rent cars in cities. I walk mostly, with some bus travel and the occasional taxi. Face it: the big expense in this work is transport. You will spend far more on transport than on lodging, meals, admissions and materials (books, maps) combined.

Paul: Is the money that the publisher allocates for the task sufficient? Naturally, I have contacts all over Greece to help out with accommodation and food, but not everywhere, and I am going to have to spend a considerable amount of money on travelling, eating and sleeping.

Tom: About the best pay normally offered to a guidebook writer these days is US$800 per week, plus some money for expenses; most publishers pay even less. Fees of US$400 to US$800 per week can be fine when one is starting out young and inexperienced, but it's not a lot to raise children or pay a mortgage with, and it often doesn't increase as you gain experience. In any case, the success of the project depends greatly on how efficiently the writer works. (See also Guidebook Contract Offer and Is Guidebook Writing Worth the Money?)

Paul: Did you find that being an author working for this particular publisher 'opened doors' anywhere? For example, did you find that you were given a free meal or a free bed in the hope that you might be favourable to a particular establishment?

Tom: Do NOT try to get free rooms and meals by saying you're working for a certain publisher! Do everything incognito. First and foremost, if a proprietor knows you're an author he'll EAT YOUR TIME: the morning in which you had 20 places to inspect will be spent sipping coffee and being regaled with how great his establishment is. He'll take you off to meet the head of the local tourism department, to show off how important he is: you'll feel like Exhibit A. You will not be allowed to escape his grip. It's a disaster. Not only that, but he'll expect a quid pro quo which you can't deliver. It's far better, both ethically and practically, to work completely incognito.

Hope this helps. Being a travel writer is often not easy or lucrative, but it's always interesting, sometimes exciting, and usually very satisfying.



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Tom Brosnahan