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10 Ways to Save Money as a Freelance Travel Photographer

A freelance travel photographer shares tips for lowering costs, getting things for free and finding secondary sources of income.

As a freelance photographer who’s constantly hustling to find new clients and make connections, the only logical place for me to live is in a big city. Big cities are where all the ad agencies and brand headquarters are, so this is where most creative networking needs to take place. The only issue is, as someone whose work and style heavily involve outdoor lifestyle, nature photography and picturesque locations, I need to constantly travel outside of the city to actually create my work.

These two aspects of my work tend to conflict as the high costs of living in a city and the numerous costs of travel don’t exactly lend well to a freelance income. Luckily, over the past few years, I’ve figured out a few tips and tricks to lowering my travel costs, getting things for free, and finding secondary sources of income.

1. Join a points program

Whether you’re flying weekly for all of your big name clients or you’re just snapping photos on your yearly vacation, travel is expensive and points add up. Do some research into what point cards are best for you. There are some cards that will give you great return on flight vouchers and upgrades, while others will give you free hotel stays.

If you’re flying enough, you can qualify for elite status with an airline which Film Maker and Vlogger Casey Neistat explains beautifully in this video. Figure out what works for your needs and get a points card ASAP.

2. Create social content for big brands

An easy way to cut down on some upfront expenses for travel is to reach out to brands and companies and get free stuff in return for content. The content you produce can come in the form of photos & videos that the brand can post on their social accounts or if you have a large social following, you can offer to post photos of their product on your Instagram.

As a photographer, you have what everyone wants, the ability to create content, but as a travel photographer, you have a one up: location. Maybe you need new luggage and you’re going to India. Make a pitch deck for Herschel, Patagonia, Osprey, or anyone else that makes bags and give them a concept of what kind of content you can deliver in exchange for their goods. This way, they get free social content and you get free gear.

3. Use Starbucks wifi

If you need wifi on your trip for uploading video content, submitting photo work or generally anything other than using Facebook, you’re going to need to find a Starbucks or other cafe with free and fast internet. Hotel internet is almost always garbage and costs an unreasonable amount of money because people want the convenience of having wifi in their room. You will hit your bandwidth limit and they will charge you.

If you’re travelling within a North America or a lot of major cities abroad, it is pretty much guaranteed there’s a Starbucks within walking distance of your hotel, if not inside your hotel. Most Starbucks offer Google Fibre which is likely 10x faster than the wifi you’d get at home or in your office. Take a walk, get a latte and upload your images on better internet. It’ll save you money and save you time so you can get back out and continue snapping photos.

4. Casinos!

I cannot recommend casinos enough and it’s not for you to gamble your travel savings away on your first night in town. Whether you like gambling or not, casinos are still a must on your trip.

The trick is to play for 30-45 minutes—this is usually when free parking kicks in, which can be a huge money saver if you’re travelling by car or camper. It doesn’t hurt that you get free drinks while you’re at it but that’s just the start of the perks.

Casino member cards are free, often offer you a small amount of credit to play for free ($5-$10) and like the points cards mentioned earlier, the perks add up. Hotel upgrades, free meals and in some cases, if you end up frequenting the same chain of casinos, you can even have them pay for your flights.

Do some research, find a casino rewards program (my personal choice is Total Rewards and if you’re smart about it, you’ll be saving money and having a great time doing it.

5. Buy airfare through a bulk ticket program

If you know you’ll be travelling avidly for a short period of time (a year or less) and you have a planned route for a trip around the world, book a bulk ticket. These will usually sell in blocks of miles and can save you thousands of dollars. Unlike rewards miles programs or airline loyalty programs, you get your savings up front because you’re guaranteeing your business from the start. Though it can be a big spend at first, you will save tremendously in the long run and will never have to worry about whether you still have enough money to make it home.

6. Trade your services for food or stay

While brand partnerships might have paid for your gear and upgraded your flight, there’s still something to be said about hustling once you’ve reached your destination. Find contact info for local businesses, go into shops & restaurants and pitch your photo services. Offer to make them 10 photos of their food that they can use on Instagram in exchange for a meal, take some photos of an event at the hotel in exchange for a free night, take better photos of an Airbnb in exchange for a discount.

You have a skillset that holds value and you can save a lot more money by exchanging for goods & services with small businesses than asking for straight up cash. I promise you, the only thing that tastes better than the meal you travelled all this way for is that same meal for free.

7. Pack light, even your camera gear

Only take one carry-on bag, a few sets of clothing and use your clothing to cushion your camera gear in your bag. One bag means no luggage fees, no chance of losing your stuff and no need to take an overpriced airport cab to the place you’re staying.

Yeah, that 80-200mm lens might come in handy at some point in your trip but you’ll find more likely than not, when that moment comes, your giant lens will be locked up in the safe back at the hotel. Unless you’re on this trip to shoot something very specific like a sporting event or a bird migration, pack a couple of small versatile lenses and a light mid-range camera.

8. Book freelance work ahead of time around your travel plans

Going to Banff? Someone needs mountain photos. Going to the fireworks festival in Dubai? Contact a fireworks company and offer to bring them back photos for their social channels. You’re looking for something that won’t take a ton of your time to accomplish but something that is only applicable to where you’ll be. Think specific holidays & festivals, unique locations & landmarks, anything that isn’t able to be duplicated outside of your travel destination. If the company would need to pay to have someone go to where you are, you’re already saving them money by being there.

9. Pay attention to conversion rates & local currencies

In some countries, American dollars are more valuable than local currency and in others, they’re useless. Know what kind of currency holds the most value where you’re going and don’t get caught with money that you can only use at a currency exchange shop. These places drive the price up because you have no other options. You need to be aware of whether you should be converting into local currency before you get to your location or taking USD to buy things and trade for local currency once you’ve arrived. Figure out which gives you a better return and always have backup cash in something that is valuable locally.

10. Sell every photo you’ve ever taken as stock photography

Once you get back from your travels and you have thousands of photos from your trip, put any images you don’t sell to a brand on a stock photo site. Whether you went golfing in Florida or sailing in France, a good archive of stock destination photos can be a great source of passive income.

Take photos of things that aren’t already all over Google. Avoid the Eiffel Tower and take photos of the streets, the cafes, and the flower markets. There is a huge demand for nondescript (read: licensing free) scenery. No matter where you go, take lots of photos, upload them to a stock photo site and tag well.

Matt Moreland’s online portfolio

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