They Pay You to Do What?

December 1988: I’ve got no job, no money, and seemingly no prospects. Maybe you’d rate digging around in 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: I’ve got the most glamorous job in the world, enough money to give me a very comfortable lifestyle, and the prospect (no, the certainty) of all-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 become a globetrotter who stays in luxury hotels, dines out on gourmet meals, and knows how to order beer in at least 15 languages?

Easy. I became a travel writer. And 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 clips. And, eventually, there’ll come a day when you won’t even have to look for assignments. Editors will be calling and asking you to visit far-flung shores.

Now I won’t pretend that 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. I’d had to travel to three counties to find it.

Whilst I was building up my clip file, I traveled around Ireland some more. The pieces I wrote then were about Irish pilgrimages, horse fairs, and oyster festivals. And after getting them published in England, I sold the same stories 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 “seannachie” (keeper of lore and traditions) 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 you can market your articles nationally — even internationally.

Wherever you live may be home, but it’s a foreign destination for many of the editors you’ll write for. And someone who lives in West Virginia or London may regard New York, Chicago, or San Francisco as fairly exotic.

That brings me to my 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.

Let’s rewind and go back to the early 1990s. 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 the same publisher be interested in articles on Lisbon and northern Portugal for the paper’s travel section? Yes, indeed. For those two articles, I got paid $350.

Then I asked Columbia, a Catholic U.S. publication, if they would like a story about the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago di Compostela. I was going to be there on 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 something on 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.) I just wish I’d known then what I know now. In those days, I didn’t have a clue about the freebies and perks that are readily available to travel writers!

So, third piece of advice…

Build up relationships with editors. Once you’ve had one article published, go back to the same publication with an idea for another story… and another… and another. Once they know 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. I’d had Irish travel-related stories published by an English newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. One day, completely out of the blue, the editor called and 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 in Kuala Lumpur, sipping gin slings?

Welcome to the desperately hard life of a travel writer.

[Ed. Note: Does life as a travel writer appeal to you? It could be a lucrative side business or you could do it full-time. Either way, it’ll be fun — and that’s the best way to make money. That’s the philosophy of ETR’s Liberty Street League. Sure, they tackle serious investments (in real estate, precious metals, and stocks, for example)… but they also focus on fun ways to make and save money, often with little side businesses that don’t take much time or energy.

You can find out all about the Liberty Street League here.

Steenie Harvey left school at 15 to live in a hippy squat house in London. She’s tended bar in a strip joint… inspected bolts at a factory… waitressed in a Chinese restaurant. Today, she gets paid to visit white-sand Caribbean beaches… wildlife sanctuaries in Borneo… Indian Ocean hideaways… Rome… Paris… London.

She’s not doing anything that you can’t learn to do. So if being a travel writer sounds interesting (how could it not!), visit: for details.