Confessions of a travel writer: The best job in the world?

Site inspections, pushy PRs, and food poisoning: in his first online column for Wanderlust, award-winning travel writer Nick Boulos reveals some of the less glamorous 'perks' of the job

7 mins
I have the best job in the world. At least that’s what I’m regularly told, by strangers, acquaintances, friends and family. “So, how was your holiday?” my nearest and dearest often pip when I return home blurry-eyed from the airport – usually for just about long enough to re-pack my suitcase and have a cup of tea.

It’s a question that makes me wince. I hate the ‘H’ word. Ask any self-respecting travel writer and they’ll tell you the same thing: it ain’t no holiday. Yes, it’s an extraordinary way to earn a living; a profession with the most life affirming of perks (the travel and the writing bits being the obvious two), but as is the case with every job there are parts that are tiresome, challenging and downright awful.

Dealing with difficult editors and waiting months (sometimes a year!) to get paid being just two. Then there was the time I had to drag my sorry self to every hotel, restaurant, museum, café and bar in Faro while battling crippling food poisoning. That city guide won’t research itself…

But one of the trickiest aspects is often managing expectations – particularly those of PR (public relations) people who facilitate these wonderful trips in order promote their destination or hotel.

Doing this job without them would be virtually impossible, and most are stellar individuals who are a joy to work with and know exactly how it should be done. Every now and then, however, heads clash as differences of opinion arise: namely what they’re keen to push versus what the writer deems to be more necessary for the assignment.

One memorable experience of this took place in Laos. Our group – a mix of journalists and PRs – had finally arrived in Luang Prabang with much excitement. I had longed to visit for years, and with only one full day there before moving on, there was no time to waste. Only, it seemed, there was.

Instead of heading straight out to tour the temples and stroll along the banks of the murky Mekong, we were enrolled in an archery competition. Archery? In Laos? I didn’t know that was a thing.

As it turns out, it isn’t. But the General Manager of the hotel that was hosting us was an archery aficionado, and had set up a shooting range within the grounds that he was most keen to show off. I voiced my concerns.

“It’s a brand new activity,” said the hotel’s enthusiastic PR.
“But it’s not relevant. I can’t write about it. Nobody comes to Luang Prabang for archery.”
“But it’s new.”
“But it’s not relevant.”
“But it’s new.”
And so on and so on.

Some time later, as the last of my arrows flew through the air and landed limply in the grass, I slowly laid my bow on the ground and politely announced that archery, for me, was now over.

Another tiresome part of the job is ‘the site inspection’: three little words that instil dread in the heart of every travel writer. The site inspection usually involves journalists being herded through almost every room of a hotel. At least that’s how it feels.

It’s an exercise that is seldom useful. I much prefer to experience a hotel as a guest would – surely that's the point of a review? – and you don’t normally find guests asking for a sneak peek of the tenth floor conference rooms.

In St Lucia, a very rare morning of ‘free time’ had been replaced with a visit to a hotel that I had no scope to write about. “Oh, but they’re super keen to show you around. It’s just a quick look around, won’t take more than 20 minutes,” assured the PR. Lies!
What transpired was an ordeal lasting three hours (THREE HOURS!) in which a member of middle management, who continuously chuckled away like Dr Hibbert in The Simpsons, showed off every room category (including several still occupied), every dining venue, and explained the origins and concepts of every piece of art on display.

The highlight of the tour came when ‘Dr Hibbert’ stopped abruptly and stamped his foot on the floor. “This,” he said, “is the best non-slip natural stone in the world.” Fascinating stuff.

Despite such frustrations, I’m under no illusions. I reckon I do have the best job in the world. There aren’t many people fortunate enough to swim with whale sharks in Mexico, camp in Antarctica and hang out with Richard Branson on Necker Island all in the name of work. Just don’t call it a holiday. 

Do you have any sympathy for Nick? Is there another aspect of travel writing that you'd like more insight into? Tell us in the comments below...

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Main image: Buddha statues in Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

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