I get this question a lot, so here's my attempt to explain it in just a few paragraphs, even though I could probably write a thousand pages on this topic by now!
First of all, there are several types of travel show hosts so I can only speak for what I do on Fun Taiwan and Fun Asia (on the Discovery Travel and Living Channel).
I get paid to do what most people save up holiday days and hard earned salary do when they’re not working. And I love rubbing it in.
Free stuff includes: amazing off-the-beaten-path experiences, overnights in ridiculously luxurious hotels, tons of exotic foods (though sometimes, that includes tarantulas, centipedes, half fertilized duck eggs, tree worms, etc.), meeting some pretty extraordinary and entertaining people around the world, and the occasional illness or explosive diarrhea which takes you out of commission for a few hours/days.
It IS as fun as it looks on TV. I sincerely love 90% of what I’m doing on TV. There’s some waiting time, but I tend to use that to talk to the locals, take pictures or find something weird to eat. We don't have to re-film scenes that often so it doesn’t get too redundant.
It’s a challenge to meet a guest, make them feel comfortable with you and the camera crew, get them to concisely say something interesting and informative regarding their field, and then summarize everything to camera, sometimes in a different language (On my show, I bounce between English, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese and occasionally Spanish). However, how fun is it to get to meet all these people and see the world through their eyes! I’ve always felt that the best way to get to know a place was to meet a local. And everybody has a story and every single person out there can teach you something.
I am much more bold when there is a camera crew following me around because then you always have the excuse of “We’re filming a show for the Discovery Channel….” And I will be more willing to make a fool of myself singing karaoke on stage or bungee jumping off of a 70-story building.
I am forced to constantly challenge and push myself physically. Like I said, the audience can always spot a fake, so when we hike to peaks, compete in races, enter pole dancing competitions, etc… I like to do the whole thing – the things that come out of your mouth after running an uphill marathon can’t be scripted or faked. The look of utter exhaustion on your face helps.
If lucky, you achieve a level of fame that allows you to get that extra scoop of ice cream, get backstage passes to some crazy festivals or concerts, permission to enter normally off-limits locations, or get THAT much closer to a bull shark while shark feeding in Fiji.
You don’t always get to choose where you go, who you meet, or what you do. (I actually still get jealous watching OTHER travel show hosts going to places I’ve never been before and want to go to.)
It takes 7-14 days to film one 1-hour episode, and I spend a few days doing pre-production work and another few days writing voice over after editing, so I will spend a lot of time away from home, family and friends. And for me, that also means that there are acting opportunities or events that I can’t do because of the intense filming schedule.
Doesn’t matter if you’re tired, you still have to force yourself to put on a professional face and make sense on camera. The audience always knows when you’re not sincere, so this is a tough part when you’re just really tired or completely uninterested or having a crap day.
Your time isn’t your own. My production team and manager tell me where I’m going to be when. I’ve missed tons of birthdays, concerts, weddings, family gatherings. And there’s really nothing you can do about it. (Or, you force family to gather wherever you are – that sometimes works for me.)
You can’t ever complain about work because people come back with “you have the best job in the world – stop whining.”
It’s pretty freaking awesome to be a travel show host. I do love my job!
PS: I originally wrote this post in response to a question on Quora, an awesome question and answer site where you can read firsthand experiences from experts in all sorts of industries. Check it out for yourself! (You can start by leaving a comment on my answer here! Travel: What is it like to be a travel show host?)