My top three all-time favorite travel writing perks would have to be: a) my business class tickets to Malaysia kicking off a several-day tour that included Singapore and Guam; b) my pampered cruise through Patagonia around Cape Horn, the southernmost land mass in the world, with excursions that included walking amid thousands of penguins and sipping cocktails from atop a glacier; and c) my all-expenses-paid trip to the Galapagos Islands, the birthplace of the Theory of Evolution, where I came nose-to-nose with a giant 300-year-old turtle.
My runner-up list isn’t bad either, as it includes a trip to Rio, a week’s stay in an Ecuadorean jungle lodge, and a cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage.
How did I land such great assignments?
For starters, they weren’t assignments. They were FAM (familiarization) trips.
A FAM trip is put together by a tourism board or Chamber of Commerce, or even a private business like an upscale resort, which invites travel writers to visit in the hopes that said scribblers will afterward heap paeans of praise upon their attractions.
In my experience, the “group” generally consists of six to 10 journalists of varied interests. There are a couple of serious “foodies” – gourmands eager to sample, say, sun-dried Porphyra seaweed from the northeast coast of Brunei and have come an awful long way to get it; an adrenaline junkie who wants to mountain bike around a volcano or zip-line over a canyon; a couple of “generalists” who studiously write down everything anybody anywhere tells them in the hopes of producing a slew of saleable pieces; and a cultural “anthropologist” who wants to experience (in a few days) what it’s really like to live among these people.
There’s also invariably one person who confuses being treated special with actually being special and demonstrates this by showing up to everything late, complaining about glitches in service, and being generally obnoxious to his hosts.
Everybody hates this person and tries to steal his passport, so he can’t return to the U.S. If you’re on a press trip and don’t recognize anyone in your group matching this description, that person might be you. You don’t want to be this person.
So, given the composition of the group, the tour organizer schedules a variety of hotels, restaurants, attractions, and tours.
You’re not usually obliged to join every single facet of this itinerary, but it’s good form to take the tour of the hotel that’s putting you up, even if you’re 100% sure you’re never going to write about the 1,500 thread-count of the bed sheets.
But participating in activities brings me to those “super perks” that I consider even more valuable for the travel writer than the business class ticket and the free cruise, etc.
I’m talking about:
1. Exposure. These diverse itineraries expose you to many things – from the arcane to the mundane. You might just discover your next great passion. Your world expands figuratively as well as literally.
2. Opportunity. The perks afford you the chance to experience – and write about – an exotic locale, better class of service, thrilling adventure that you couldn’t afford to take part in if you weren’t travel-writing.
3. Access. Company heads and tour directors and top chefs are eager to meet you. They take your questions and return your phone calls. They go out of their way to accommodate you. You get to pick the brains of very accomplished people. That, my friend, is cool.
4. Reporting what you saw. Yes, there are innumerable bloggers recounting their tips and reviews, but your press trip gave you a unique perspective and behind-the-scenes peek which gives your writing authority that you can use to convey to armchair travelers what that experience feels like and/or influence actual sojourners on what’s worth doing. Just remember that you went as a travel writer, not a travel marketer, and your loyalty is to your reader and your publication, not the hotel or restaurant that comped you. You don’t do your credibility, and certainly not your readers, any favors by showering praise where none is deserved, just because you got it for free.
These “super perks” may not be as glamorous, but if your intention is to be a good travel writer, they are more valuable than the complimentary champagne, nightclub tours, dolphin swims, poolside massages…
Still, as far as “less valuable” perks go, not too shabby, right?
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]