“Travel is the frivolous part of serious lives, and the serious part of frivolous ones.” – Anne Sophie Swetchine
December 1988: No job, no money, and seemingly no prospects. Maybe you’d rate delving around an organic vegetable plot in western Ireland as a fantastic prospect, but not me. I can tell you that organic gardening is bloody hard work for little reward. Rain… mud… frostbitten toes. Slugs… snails… rabbits. The end result? Lettuces and cabbages that resemble lace curtains.
Today: The most glamorous job in the world, enough money to give me a very comfortable lifestyle, and the prospect (no, the certainty) of expenses-paid trips to China, Estonia, Barcelona, Malaysia, and the Cape Verde Islands.
That’s my upcoming itinerary. Already this year I’ve visited Thailand, Argentina, and the fabulous city of Granada in Spain.
How did I go from the no-star lifestyle to becoming a globetrotter who stays in luxury hotels, dines out on gourmet meals, and knows how to order wine in at least 15 languages?
Easy. I became a travel writer.
How to Crack the Market
You can do it too. I have no qualifications whatsoever. I never went to college. And I’m certainly not a trust-fund baby.
The secret to becoming a travel writer is simple. All you need to do is WRITE. Write with color, pay attention to detail, and, above all, write with enthusiasm. You’ll soon build up a catalog of writing samples (“clips”). And eventually there’ll come a day when you won’t even have to look for assignments. Editors will be asking you to visit the Cape Verdes and other far-flung shores.
Now, I won’t pretend I set out to become a globetrotter. Back in 1988, all I was seeking was a way to earn some money. Writing seemed to offer a solution – and I soon discovered I had a knack for telling a story.
The first piece I ever wrote got published by an English newspaper. It was real estate-related, but you could say it was travel-related too. It was a humorous tale about my search for a bargain cottage in Ireland (where I live). I’d had to travel around three western counties to find it.
Whilst I was building up my clip file, I traveled around Ireland some more. I got more real estate pieces published in English newspapers and with International Living – and they all involved traveling somewhere in Ireland. I wrote about Irish pilgrimages, horse fairs, and oyster festivals. And after my stories were published in England, I sold the same ones to American and Australian publications.
For a local publication, the Irish Press, I wrote about a Buddhist monk in county Cavan, a biodynamic therapist in county Mayo, coal-pit closures in county Leitrim, and an 11-year-old traditional storyteller who’d won major prizes at festivals.
So here’s my first piece of advice…
Start out by writing about your own city or locality. It’s definitely one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to kick-start your career. What fascinating events or festivals are happening? Has a new restaurant opened? Are there any interesting people you could profile? Whether you live in Nebraska or Hawaii, there’s a whole swathe of regional and local publications that are always hungry for new stories and fresh slants.
And think of it this way. Ireland is my home, but it’s a foreign destination for many of the editors I write for. Even way back when, I guess they regarded me as a travel writer!
Someone who lives in West Virginia may regard New York, Chicago, and San Francisco as fairly exotic destinations. Just because you’re writing about your own hometown doesn’t mean you’re not a travel writer.
How to Turn Your Compost Into Gold
But let’s rewind and go back to the early 1990s. Given my own experiences with worm-infested compost heaps, you’d think I’d have run a mile from anything to do with organic gardening. But no. I traveled down to county Kildare near Dublin to write a story for the Irish Press about WWOOFing (working weekends on organic farms).
Second piece of advice…
Write about what you know. It doesn’t necessarily have to be travel-related – though if you can tie in travel, that’s great. You might be knowledgeable about antiques, fishing – even beer. (Any micro-breweries in your area?)
When you’re starting out, the most important thing is to build up clips – to show editors that you can tell a story.
Write for Web magazines, small publications – anywhere you can place your story. They might not pay a lot, but you have to be realistic. You’re unlikely to get an assignment to investigate the vineyards of New Zealand from a prestigious dollar-a-word travel magazine until an editor has some proof that you can write.
The Importance of Relationships
By this time, I’d had around half a dozen pieces published by the Irish Press. And I’d managed to scrape together enough money for a jaunt to Portugal and Spain. Would they be interested in articles on Lisbon and northern Portugal for their travel section? Indeed they would. For those two articles, I got paid the equivalent of about 350 U.S. dollars
I asked Columbia (a Catholic publication in the U.S.)if they would like a story about the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago di Compostela. I was going to be there on the Feast of St. James, the city’s major feast day. (Columbia had already published my story about the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain.) The editor said “Send it in.” He offered me $500 with more money for photos.
International Living? Would they be interested in Portuguese real estate? I got another “yes.” Another $300 in the bag.
With those four assignments, my trip to Spain and Portugal almost paid for itself. (Back then, those countries were incredibly cheap to visit.) But I just wish I’d known then what I know now. At that time, I didn’t have a clue about the freebies and perks that are readily available to travel writers.
So, third piece of advice…
Build relationships with editors. Once you’ve had one article published, go back to that same editor with an idea for another story… and another… and another. Once they know that you can come up with the goods, they’ll think of you when a juicy assignment comes up.
That’s how I landed my first-ever all-expenses-paid trip. One day, completely out of the blue, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, an English newspaper that had published some of my Irish travel-related stories, asked me if I’d be interested in going on assignment – to the jungles of Borneo. Rather than a staff writer, they wanted a freelancer who had never been to Asia before… someone who would see things “with fresh eyes.”
Would you have turned down an offer to meet headhunters and orangutans… to snorkel in the South China Sea… to loll about on a hammock in the Shangri-La hotel, sipping gin slings?
Welcome to the desperately hard life of a travel writer…