Confessions of a travel writer: Working while you're on the road

Could you write a 1,600-word feature on a boat in the middle of nowhere... on your iPhone? Then maybe you've got what it takes to make it in the travel writing game

4 mins
My phone beeped as I waited to board another overnight flight. The email, from one of my most affable editors, made my heart sink. ‘Nick,’ it read, ‘I need that 1,600-word piece on the Caribbean earlier than planned. Any chance you can file in the next few days?’

Such requests are not uncommon in this game – schedules change constantly based on editorial and advertising interests, and world events also play a big factor – and normally this wouldn’t be anything more than a slight inconvenience. This time, however, was different. I was en route to the Indian Ocean to write a piece on sailing around the Maldives aboard a dhoni fishing boat. I already knew it would be a WiFi-free week and with no prospect of docking anywhere to use a computer, I had no choice but to write the entire piece on my iPhone.

And, so, by the time the plane doors were placed to automatic, I had added an international data roaming package to my phone. “You’ll be notified when you’ve reached your limit,” assured the agent. More on that later…

A day later, I was cruising through the picture perfect South Ari Atoll with desert islands dotting the horizon. While my fellow passengers sunbathed, snorkelled and savoured this slice of paradise, I was sat on deck surrounded by notes and hunched over my phone, writing and Googling on its tiny screen whilst cursing the intermittent signal.

Perhaps the toughest part was writing the piece while still giving my Maldives assignment the time and attention it required. There were fishing villages to explore, interesting locals to seek out, tales to gently extract…

It may be obvious, but this job is a constant juggling act of travelling and writing: both time-consuming tasks by their very nature. On average, I’m away between two and six times a month, working on a number of stories from each trip, all of which need researching and writing to a high standard. Meanwhile, deadlines are forever looming overhead like the darkest of storm clouds.

To make it work, I regularly (but begrudgingly) set my alarm for 4am to do a few hours' worth of writing before heading out to focus on whatever piece I’m away to cover.

I’ve seen dawn rise over the Omani desert while waxing lyrical about wintry Alaska, and have written about where to spot celebrities in Hollywood as the slums of Mumbai whizzed past on the other side of a train window.

There’s also the small matter of dealing with edits and urgent last-minute queries that come in ahead of imminent publication. It’s not wise to leave under-pressure editors waiting days for a reply. Then there’s the endless cycle of invoicing, chasing payments and pitching future stories... Plane journeys provide a few productive and distraction-free hours, though watching an inflight movie has sadly become a rare treat.

By the time I eventually filed that feature, just as the peachy sun begun to set over another day on the Indian Ocean and a pod of spinner dolphins leapt from the darkened depths, I was slightly cross-eyed and could no longer move my thumbs.

I won’t go into my shock – and near cardiac arrest – when, weeks later, my (former) mobile phone company charged (and later refunded) me £694 for data charges incurred in the Maldives. That’s a whole other story. But the worst bit of all? Another editorial change meant that the piece I had slaved over on a boat in the Indian Ocean wasn’t published for several more months.

Like this? Read more of Nick's thoughts on 'The best job in the world'

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...

Main image: Maldives dhoni boat (Shutterstock) – we can think of worse places to work...

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