How Do You Become a Travel Writer?

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn't in the hotel elevator. It's on the beach:)

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn’t in the hotel elevator. It’s on the beach:)

If travel writers got paid a dollar every time someone asked how they got their job, they’d really be living the dream. I don’t even get a dime every time someone asks me, and frankly, I loathe this question. The act of asking it doesn’t annoy me. It’s the fact I don’t have a fool-proof answer. My path was less like Chutes and Ladders and more like Mouse Trap. Instead of playing Pipe Dream, it’s like playing pinball. The following are a few steps that led up to my curious career. And I use the word “career” very, very loosely.

  1. It Was Not My Schooling – My degree is in business and marketing. Words are rather subjective, so I consider myself a numbers person. I’ve never taken a journalism class. I have vague recollections of taking a creative writing class as a college sophomore. I don’t remember my own writing as much as peer reviewing a Muslim colleague’s true story about his dad being in a World Trade Center Tower during September 11, and a Chinese classmate’s true (?) story about how she keeps reincarnating. Despite her 20 alleged years, she had a very old soul.
  2. Hunter S. Who? – I’ve never finished a book by Hunter S. Thompson. Jack Kerouac confuses me, and if you ask who my favorite travel writer is, I’ll probably stutter for a minute before admitting it’s Chuck Thompson (self-disgraced travel writer and author of Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer). While I have respect for the accomplished men and women who belong in the Travel Writing Hall of Fame, they’re not the reason I write.
  3. Carmen on the Other Hand – Geography has always amazed me. When I was about nine years old, I used my allowance—I think I was making $1/week (minus $.10 for tithing)—to buy a big red atlas. It blew my mind that while one country was experiencing winter, another was in the midst of summer. I read that book cover to cover (granted, there were a lot of photos) and even tried to get my brother interested in it. I would be the teacher and give him lessons. I think he hated them.
  4. A Pseudo United Nations – When I was in 8th grade I went to a “leadership camp” that started with a military-esque overnight mission in a swamp in Minnesota. The mosquitoes annihilated us, but I ate peanut butter from a jar and slept on the rough ground next to a Hmong girl from St. Paul, a black kid from Brooklyn and several Native American boys from Red Cloud. Tall, dark and handsome, Farshad was also in my group. He was the first Persian I had ever met, and I had a huge crush on him. Unfortunately, I learned that most Persians have to marry other Persians. Still, this sparked my curiosity in diversity. At times I hated camp (we had to watch Disney movies and would pause and discuss the racist parts), but it made me wonder about where all these people, and their strange customs, came from.
  5. Interest Meets Opportunity – Once upon a time, back in the days of dial-up internet, the 16-year-old in me went to Google (or most likely, Ask Jeeves) and asked, “What is the most diverse place in the world?” The query results indicated it was Queens, NY. That’s how I ended up going to school in New York City. Forget about the financial capital of the world, I think the “City” as residents call it, is the opportunity capital of the world. If it’s not what you know, but who you know, then I think the City is home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of the who’s you should know.
  6. Fake It Till You Make It – The lie began, “Dear Harper Collins…” I was not on staff at The Torch, St. John’s University’s newspaper. Nor did I know anyone who was. But still, I wanted a media pass to Norman Mailer’s memorial service at Carnegie Hall so badly I broke the 9th commandment and sent an email to his publisher’s publicist. This was when I realized that this title of “writer” was sort of like having a back door key to the world. While most other 18-year-olds were sneaking into clubs, I was sneaking into memorial services. But it was exhilarating. (You can read my Mailer memorial service recap here.)
  7. Call Me Intern – During college, I had two incredible internships that opened many doors for me. The first was at NY1 News. I was 20 years old, writing scripts for anchors and traveling to all five boroughs (and even the Jets’ locker room in New Jersey) with news crews. I also spent a summer writing for Dan’s Papers, the largest newspaper in the Hamptons. Dan’s office was located in Bridgehampton, about 5 miles from where I was living in Sag Harbor. I didn’t have a car at the time so I rode my bike—rain or shine. It wasn’t paid, but it got me into wakeboarding camp, Lily Pond (one of the most exclusive clubs in the Hamptons) and a long conversation with the legendary Alan Houston who I had the pleasure of interviewing for my first feature.
  8. A Traveling Salesman – I got the Dan’s Papers internship because I was relentless in hounding the editor. I sat in my dorm room in Dublin and called her on Skype and sent one email after another selling myself and my interest (I didn’t have many skills) while my friends were probably at the pub, a few pints in. Years later, when I was working full time at a public relations agency and wanted to dip my toe in the travel writing realm, I spent my lunch break pacing on the sidewalk, calling Veronica Stoddart, the travel editor at USA Today. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she took a chance on me. Granted, it took about 13 calls before I even got her on the line. At that point I was so shocked to hear her voice that I almost forgot my elevator pitch. I shudder to think what would have happened, or not happened, if I had given up after call 12.
  9. Balancing Relationships and Roundups – Being published on USA Today’s website was a big deal for me. With that byline, PR people assumed I was an established writer and the offers for gear and trips started trickling in. The more I wrote ((all on the weekends, in my free time) and was published the more offers that poured in. My relationships definitely suffered. Instead of having a social life or paying proper attention to my boyfriend at the time, I was working on a roundup of 12 Ways to Stay Active While Traveling or 5 Reasons Traveling Solo Doesn’t Suck.
  10. From Part Time to Paying the Bills – Because of an illness, I had to quit my full time “real” job. I eventually got better, but instead of trying to get back into the “real” workforce, I have been saying yes to some of the story ideas in my head and the trip invitations in my inbox. Confession: I have to say yes to some non-travel related writing—interior design, gardening and real estate—but I’m able to work on these pieces from anywhere. When I was on a wooden gullet cruising around the islands of Turkey I spent a lot of time writing a piece on how to reupholster an antique chair. I should have been swimming, but swimming doesn’t pay the bills. Unless you’re Michael Phelps.

 

 

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