A Job With Travel, But No Vacation
In March, Thomas Kohnstamm, a 30-year-old Seattle native on assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, for Lonely Planet travel guides, walked out of a bar in a neighborhood called Sabana Grande and quickly found himself in trouble. A group of young men emerged from darkened doorways and set upon him. He was pistol-whipped and knocked to the ground, and the bandits began rifling through his pockets. Angered to learn that Mr. Kohnstamm had the equivalent of just $8, the thieves demanded his belt, his shoes, and eventually his pants.
It was at that point, Mr. Kohnstamm recalled in a telephone conversation last week from the Netherlands, that the police arrived. Armed with submachine guns, they ordered the bandits against a wall and retrieved Mr. Kohnstamm’s possessions – including his ATM card. They then explained that for purposes of their investigation, they would need to know Mr. Kohnstamm’s PIN. In the end, Mr. Kohnstamm said, the police shook him down for just $25, but in the process, he gained a priceless bit of wisdom about the Sabana Grande neighborhood of Caracas, which he dutifully reported in the “Dangers & Annoyances” section of his Lonely Planet guide: “Caracas has some well-known issues with petty crime, robbery and armed assaults. These problems are not just hype and should be taken very seriously.”
In the interview, Mr. Kohnstamm, a travel writer, described the experience as one of “the darker realities of the job.” He added that he stared death in the face on an assignment when the brakes of his car failed on an icy road in the Andes. Other realities of the job, he said, were “being broke, spending massive amounts of time staying in fleabag hotels, and there are aspects of the writing that are just data entry.”
It’s summer now, and countless travelers are fumbling their way around the globe, heads buried in guides published by Let’s Go, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Frommer’s among others. Probably few stop to consider what goes into producing travel guides or even who wrote them. And as it turns out, many of the intrepid young writers scouring the planet doing research for next year’s crop of guidebooks never stopped to consider what those jobs would entail, other than the romantic – and often overstated – prospect of being paid to travel.
While the phrase “travel writing” may invoke thoughts of steamer trunks, trains, Isak Dinesen and Graham Greene, or at the very least, well-financed junkets to spas in Rangoon for some glossy magazine or other, writing budget travel guides is most decidedly yeoman’s work. Most who do it quickly learn the one hard and fast rule of the trade: travel-guide writing is no vacation.
“Many underestimate exactly how much work goes into making a guidebook,” said Jay Cooke, an editor for Lonely Planet. “Some potential authors think it would be fun to travel and get paid for it. But they’re expected to write tens of thousands of words. It’s a big, big job, and it goes far beyond journal keeping on a beach somewhere.”
Indeed a day in the life of a guide writer can be wearing. Amelia Atlas, a recent Harvard graduate who is now in Berlin researching a guide to that city for Let’s Go, said that last Wednesday she set out early to case a new neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, for her Berlin guide. She visited three hostels and three restaurants before collecting the shopping and eating options around a particular square. She visited a section of the Berlin Wall that still stands, made notes about the historical displays there, and set about walking the neighborhood block by block to see what she might find. After a quick dinner, Ms. Atlas went to her apartment to write about the day’s findings. Then she planned to go out to sample the nightlife. “Manic is a good word,” she said.
That’s when things go well. A colleague of Ms. Atlas’s at Let’s Go, Margaux McDonald, wasn’t having such luck. After a bumpy two-day journey from Ko Chang, Thailand, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in late June, Ms. McDonald, a 27-year-old graduate student in theology and public policy at Harvard, opened her backpack to find her laptop was broken. She has since been in what Let’s Go editors call “dead tree mode,” taking down information about guest houses, restaurants, national parks and bus schedules, in an old-fashioned spiral notebook. Ms. McDonald gave her current location as “somewhere between the middle of nowhere and my own private hell.”
Let’s Go editors were planning to send a new computer to a post office in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, on the hope that Ms. McDonald could pick it up. If she could find the place.
“Have I gotten lost?” Ms. McDonald asked rhetorically. “I’m virtually always lost.”
For Saritha Komatireddy, a Let’s Go writer currently in Vietnam, the biggest challenge was getting used to the local transportation schedules.
“It’s not uncommon for a train to be four hours late,” she said. “You can’t let it ruin your mood.”
Michael Spring, the publisher of Frommer’s Travel Guides, said that the tight margins of guide publishing require companies like his to employ younger, less seasoned writers. Experienced editors, he said, vet the work to ensure accuracy.
“There’s no question that a younger writer needs more hand-holding, but the editors are here to help them,” he said.
It’s difficult to generalize about the pay scale for guide writing because it varies so widely, though most guide writers seem to agree that the wages are not enough. A writer working from scratch on a comprehensive guide to a country may get an advance of $100,000, from which a year or more of travel expenses must be deducted. Some companies offer guide writers royalties, like conventional publishers. But most guide writing is decidedly less lucrative, and expenses are almost never covered separately. MTV and Frommer’s, for example, are collaborating to publish a budget travel series for Europe for which they are paying writers $1,500 for roughly 150 pages of work.
“None of them are in it for the money,” Mr. Spring said. “It’s a happy alternative to a 9-to-5 world.”
Robert Reid, a professional guide writer who has written for Lonely Planet, said that making a living from guide writing was tough in part because of the number of young people who were willing to do the job for next to nothing.
“Just like a Stones fanatic would probably lug around Keith Richards’s amp for free, with guidebooks people are a little bit in awe of the idea,” Mr. Reid said.
Leif Pettersen, a struggling 36-year-old guide writer from Minneapolis who details the woes of his profession on his blog, www.killingbatteries.com, said he earned no income for the first year of his career. The temptation to take freebies from publicity-seeking hotel and restaurant owners is strong, Mr. Pettersen said, adding that he resists the urge while on assignment for Lonely Planet, which forbids freebies. Let’s Go writers face similar restrictions, and are urged not to identify themselves as guide writers, so as not to invite favorable treatment. Mr. Spring said Frommer’s writers are allowed to accept free hotel rooms, but not free meals or tickets.
Mr. Pettersen’s advice to aspiring guide writers was: “Start out with a giant wad of savings.”
Another factor in determining how enjoyable – or miserable – a guide writing assignment will be is timing. To conform with the academic calendar, Let’s Go, which is owned and run by Harvard Student Services and employs Harvard students exclusively, sends its researchers into the field in the summer. There are currently 80 Let’s Go researchers on assignment around the globe.
But other guide publishers, like Lonely Planet and Frommer’s, are on year-round publishing cycles, and consequently their researchers may find themselves traveling at less than ideal times in certain regions.
To meet his deadline for a Lonely Planet guide to Romania and Moldova, Mr. Pettersen had to do his research during winter, when roads were icy, the sunset at 4 p.m., and fun-loving tourists were nowhere to be seen. Mr. Pettersen said his excursion reached a low point on a darkened, pothole-filled highway between Drobeta-Turnu Severin and Timisoara in Romania. Mr. Pettersen’s car, a 16-year-old notoriously delicate Romanian car called a Dacia, had faulty headlights. Unable to see or avoid potholes, he battered his vehicle until the muffler fell off and he lost a critical bolt that fastened the hood shut.
Mr. Pettersen said he stopped for the night at a rural boarding house, and found the place full of drunken industrial workers who seemed none too pleased to see him.
“I just sat in my bed and stared at the ceiling,” he said. “I was too terrified to take off my clothes.”
Asked to describe the overall experience of traveling in Romania and Moldova during winter, Mr. Pettersen thought for a moment, searching, it seemed, for the precise word.
“Terrible,” he said. “There’s been a lot quiet weeping into my keyboard.”
Mr. Kohnstamm, the writer who was pistol-whipped in Caracas, said he’d once had an assignment to do research in Patagonia during winter.
“Even the penguins had left,” he said.
“Why do it? For the lifestyle,” added Mr. Kohnstamm, who teaches a seminar on guide writing titled “Travel Writing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for MediaBistro, a company that caters to freelance writers. “I didn’t make a lot of money last year, but I got my advanced diving certification. I took a course in paragliding. I went out partying in Bogotá and met a lot of cool people. It can be kind of addictive.”
Publishers of travel guides say they go out of their way to give new writers a reality check. Laura Martin, the editor in chief of Let’s Go, said that researchers are given 20 hours of training in subjects like self-defense and driving and that they’re asked to do a dry run in Boston before setting out for more exotic destinations. Lonely Planet writers are schooled in cartography, and encouraged to attend annual seminars on guide writing. And even editors of the on-the-cheap Frommer’s and MTV guides said they hired the most well-traveled 20-somethings they could find.
“It’s not just an open-eyed American descending on a new destination,” said Mr. Spring, the Frommer’s publisher.
He had his own advice for new guide writers. First, he said, don’t complain. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for you getting six weeks of free travel in Europe,” he said.
And second: “Make a list of the places you’d like to come back to when you’re not travel writing.”
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