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The Best Job in the World: How To Get Started as a Travel Writer

By Lori Allen

I have friends who wonder aloud whether travel writing really is a job or simply an excuse I use to get out of town. I would argue that it is indeed a jobthe best one imaginable for anyone with terminal wanderlust.

Don’t get me wrong, as a travel writer you will spend some hours with your bum in a chair and your hands on a keyboard. But in my book, of all the kinds of writing you can dofiction, academic, marketing, technical, etc.travel writing is the most fun…and the most rewarding in terms of the quality of life it helps provide.

Here are a few reasons why…

An excuse to travel

Perhaps you already took a long vacation this year. You might find it hard to explain to that voice in your headthe one that monitors your bank accountthat you’re going to take another. But if you can make enough money selling a story about your trip to cover its cost…or at least defray, say, the cost of the airfare…well, then, that is not such a bad arrangement.

And, in fact, you can do much better than merely defraying your costs. I have one travel writer colleague who generated a whopping $12,000 from a single trip by selling and reselling the stories he wrote and the photos he took.

And consider my freelancing friend Susan Doub: She and her husband spent a week on a boat in the waters off Belize, diving twice a day, sunning on the deck, eating meals prepared by the boat’s gourmet chef, and enjoying the company of a handful of fellow scuba diving enthusiasts. Before she booked the trip, she approached the company that runs the program and was able — as a travel writer — to arrange a discounted rate for the all-inclusive vacation. And then, when she returned home, she sold an article about it and made a few hundred dollars to help cover her costs.

Once you have some track record as a travel writer — a couple of published stories to your name — you’ll be able to do the same sort of thing. Plus you may be able to take deductions on your taxes for the “business expenses” associated with your travel and writing.

Get The Details On The Ultimate Travel Writers Program

Travel writing is about more than just the good-value travel deals, though. It’s also about seeing the world in a new way. It demands you pay greater attention to where you are than you might if you were just passing through as a tourist. You must train yourself to notice the smells, the sounds, the tastes, the cultural differences…what people are wearing and what they’re talking about.

To me, it’s this meeting people and this uncovering of the universal truths and fundamental differences about destinations the world over that gives life its greatest texture and interest.

Freedom and flexibility

Whether you choose to launch a full-time career as a travel writer or you’re planning to do it on the side, it will prove an accommodatingly flexible “job.”

I, for example, am a full-time writer (though I write other things, too, not just travel articles). And I’m also a mother. Working from home, as I do, I’ve been able to watch my little guys grow up. I’m not so misguided as to believe I can put coherent words on paper while I’m babysitting, mind you — I find somebody else to corral the kids when I’m writing.

But nevertheless, I’m around a lot more than many moms I know. I work when I want to. I take my Fridays off. I’ll often write early in the mornings and late at night, but at least I’m doing so at home, where I can dump a load of laundry into the machine or take a break and run around the corner to the grocery store. And I work for myself, which gives me a measure of freedom I value greatly.

Plus travel writing allows you to live anywhere in the world you prefer.

Seven steps to get you started

If you want to be a travel writer, you need to read travel articles. You won’t be any good if you can’t identify what “good” is. So subscribe to at least three travel publications –some can be free travel newsletters you get online, others should be print publications –and set aside some time to read them.

You’ll find that, in broad strokes, the articles will fall into seven categories, which I’ve listed below. As you read the publications you’ve subscribed to, begin to categorize the articles in them and think about what types you like most, what you might like to write, and what sort of piece might best suit a particular idea you have.

  • A destination article focuses all its attention on the place you’re writing about. Taking a broad view, its goal is to convince the reader to run out and buy a ticket to that same destination.
  • A special-interest article deals with a specific topic as it relates to travel. It could be about dining in a particular city, or perhaps some sporting activity, art, antiques, or even something like a long tour aboard a canal boat.
  • A side-trip article “spins off” from a major destination. Maybe you could write about an overnight trip to Ybor City — the historic cigar-making center in Tampa, Florida — to be taken from some nearby urban center or tourist destination like Disney World in Orlando.
  • A holiday or special event article links a destination to a holiday — perhaps Thanksgiving (an article about Plymouth Town in Massachusetts), or President’s Day (a feature about Abe Lincoln’s birthplace) — or some other event such as the opening of a new museum.
  • A journey article tells the story of how you got from “here” to “there” — focusing on the trip itself as it attempts to unfold the mood and the romance of travel. Often in such articles, the destination itself is as important as the discoveries you make along the way.
  • A “roundup” or “survey” article collects information about a half-dozen or so destinations that are linked by some common thread. It might be, for example, the three best B&B’s in Ireland or the best places to fly fish in the Caribbean.
  • A review article gives an opinion and/or summary of a destination, activity, or event. Often reviews play a critical role in other, longer articles.

Train yourself to notice more

The best travel writers are, simply put, observant travelers. They’ve trained themselves to notice things.

You can, too.

In fact, it’s a critical habit to foster. Because the more you notice — the more specific, interesting details you pick up, that is — the more rich material you have to include in your articles. And it’s those rich details that editors like.

How do you do it?

Rely on more than just your eyes. Certainly, pay attention to what you see. But also take note of what you hear, what you smell, how things taste, how they feel. If there’s a low, stone wall surrounding a village cemetery, don’t just scribble in your notebook “low, stone wall.” Go up to it and check if the top is dusty. Exactly how low is it? What sounds do you hear as you lean on it? Is there cheerful chatter from the kids sent to leave flowers? Or is it utterly silent, save for the occasional bird call and the scratching of squirrels?

Count. How many steps must you climb to reach the top of that lighthouse? How many steeples do you see jutting up above the rooftops? How many tables does the café hold? How many tourists are standing in line? Specific numbers help provide the precise details strong articles always include.

Pick up papersmaps, brochures, local newspapers and magazines, brochures, postcards, menus, business cards. I keep a one-gallon Ziploc bag in my suitcase when I travel, and at the end of each day, I toss into it whatever papers I’ve gathered. If I got a business card from somebody I spoke with, I make a note on the back, reminding myself who that person is. If I got a menu from a place where I enjoyed lunch, I scribble on it what I had and what I thought of it. I’ll flip through a local paper, scanning for odd-ball items and ideas about what I might do the next day, making note of local politics, finding out what controversies are raging. You won’t likely use all this material in your article, but it’s all useful as you piece together a context for this place you’re visiting.

Talk with locals. No matter where you are — in a bar, a café, a shop, a taxi — strike up a conversation with a local. Ask directions. Ask for suggestions about what you might do or where you might eat. Inquire as to how things have changed in the past decade or more. Ask this person where he or she takes family and friends who visit.

Shop with locals. Poke your head into as many “tourist” shops as you like, but make sure you also spend some time where the locals shop. Go to a grocery store and pay attention to what’s on offer. Investigate an outdoor market or a hardware store. By paying attention to how the locals shop, what they buy, and how much things cost, you’ll uncover all sorts of interesting quirks you’d never find out if all you shopped for were t-shirts, snow-globes, and fridge magnets.

Get into a local’s home. I’m not suggesting you climb in a window! Get yourself invited for tea or lunch or dinner…or just a quick tour. It’s amazing what you’ll learn once you step over a threshold into the private world tourists never see. You’ll instantly know more about people’s priorities, about how they order their lives…indeed, maybe a good bit about how that society is ordered. Here, again, notice how things look, feel, taste, and smell. (How do you get invited in, you ask? I promise: Strike up conversations, and you’ll be surprised at how hospitable people become.)

Travel more. The more you travel, the more places you see, the better able you’ll be to distinguish something that’s really unusual. You’ll develop a more well-rounded perspective. And you’ll gain something else there’s no other way to come by: judgment.

by Jennifer Stevens,
Freelance Travel Writer and Author of AWAI’s Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program

Long a writer for and the past editor of International Living, Jennifer Stevens has spent the balance of the last decade gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean — to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Belize and beyond reporting on and writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment. Jennifer is the author of The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course, published by the American Writers & Artists Inc. You can sign up for her free four-times a week e-letter at: http://www.thetravelwriterslife.com/eletter/wc/index.php

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