By: Aly Hamrick
Writing about travel doesn't always have to be an advisory article. For many, travel writing is a storytelling employment that intertwines emotion with tips and tricks on which companies are best (Trivago, Kayak, Travelocity, etc.) They usually seek out travel hotspots, which include restaurants, events, national parks, or general things that interest the readers. Travel writers also cover cultural phenomenon in many countries throughout the world. For example, National Geographic Traveler Editor-at-Large, whom we will meet later, just recently covered the influence of the Dalai Lama on the peopler of Bhutan. This is something an established travel writer will take on.
A commonly heard phrase may be "freelance" writer or journalist. Keep in mind that adding freelance before any editorial writing occupation gives it a completely different connotation. Freelance writers are self-employed and sell their stories to publications in hopes of landing a contract with a publication. This is very different from a travel writer, who is solidified with a publication such as National Geographic Traveler or Backpacker Magazine. Sometimes large corporations such as these will collaborate with freelance writers, but may not hire them as a full time staff reporter.
First Hand Career Information
How did you get started traveling?
Well, if you asked my mother, she would tell you that I had wanderlust since I was a child, always walking off to try and explore some place, such as the time when I was 5 years old and was found by the local police in Toms River, New Jersey, "hiking" along the riverfront. But my real travels kicked off when a high school girlfriend told me about a school called Friends World College that boasted, "The world is our campus" before that phrase became a cliche. I traveled around the world for three years keeping a daily journal of my experiences that I turned in at the end of each semester to my academic director. This was off grid travel in the deepest sense, literally getting lost in the back of beyond, from Africa to Asia to South America. No smart phones, no email. It was hard travel, out of communication for weeks, sometimes months at a time, staying in villages, sleeping on boats, eating at street stalls. Probably the most difficult travel I have ever done. But it was also immensely satisfying. I credit that totally immersive travel education for laying the foundation for everything that followed in my life as a writer and traveler.
How did you get started writing?
I never set out to become a writer. I wanted to be a traveler and explorer. But in keeping a daily journal while doing independent study abroad I got into the habit of writing, and slowly became better at it. More than anything, I liked telling travel stories around the table with friends and they prompted me by saying, "Wow, you should really write about that experience." So I did.
What do you consider your first "break" as a writer?
I happened to be in Asia when China first opened its doors in the early 1980s and began offering limited entry visas for independent travelers. I spent a month traveling on my own in China when everyone was still dressed in Mao suits, and just the sight of a foreigner would result in massive crowds coming to look me. So I bought a Mao suit and a local beret so I could blend in and not cause mob scenes at intersections and in train stations. A small New Jersey town newspaper called The Ocean County Recorder agreed to publish my story about traveling in China. It was my first published piece.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Making sure I take time every day to write up my field notes. It is essential to jot down the more mundane things like names, time of day, etc., for writing up a story later. I used to find travel press trips challenging as it is very difficult to get original material with a group of travel writers all on the same itinerary meeting the same people and having the same experiences. The entire concept of a "press trip" seems to me at odds with real travel writing. So stopped doing press trips years ago.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Research I find fascinating, and I enjoy doing it. The biggest challenge in writing for me is literally sitting. I am an active person and I do not like to sit for long periods. After that, it is coming up with a perfect lead at the start of a story and a great kicker at the end.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
My biggest challenge for a long time was getting a major newspaper or magazine to sign me on for a column or as a masthead writer delivering a steady paycheck. That finally happened and I have been on the National Geographic payroll as a writer and editor for the last 10 years and I am also on the payroll of Virtuoso Life magazine as a travel writer. The steady income helps but it was a long slog as a freelancer to get there.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I have and I still do. Given I ended up becoming one of the early pioneers of the ecotourism movement and am now helping to spearhead sustainable tourism practices globally (including environmentally-friendly travel, supporting the social and economic well-being of local people, and protecting biodiversity), this allows me to advise companies and countries on their tourism development strategies.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin have all influenced me. Jane Goodall's book Reason for Hope. Wilfred Thesiger's writings, among others.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Go into it with passion and not with fame or fortune in mind. And be patient. Never think that a local newspaper or some free publication is too small or not worth getting published in. Instead, savor every chance you can to be published in any media, whether online or print, big or small, well known or unheard of. Just keep at it. Bigger doors will eventually open.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Hearing from readers that have found inspiration in my work. And also meeting amazing people. I was invited to join Peter Matthiessen on what ended up being his last expedition. We went to Mongolia and then traveled to the Kazakhstan border together to learn about nomadic culture. In Kenya, I got to know Wilfred Thesiger (we first met, no kidding, when he picked me up hitch hiking from Mombasa to Nairobi). He was in his 80s and advised me to make a journey to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which proved to be an incredible adventure and became one of my early published stories. Most of all, I love to travel and I find storytelling a lot of fun, even if the actual act of writing in front of a computer is...well let's just say, I'd rather be outside in my garden planting vegetables.
High School Suggestions
Journalism/School Newspaper - It might be wise to join your school newspaper or take a journalism class in order to understand how newspapers, magazines, or other mediums of mass communication operate in relation to the public and how the newsroom atmosphere operates. This would also introduce you to the AP style of writing, which is utilized internationally in news formats.
Creative Writing Courses - Not all of travel writing include formal and purposeful language. Many travel writers will tell you that a majority of their writing can be seen as storytelling. Participating in a course that allows this section of writing to flourish would benefit you in a travel writing career.
Personal Finance - Many travel writers fund their own travel until they are associated with a specific newspaper or magazine, or until they have made it far enough into their career. This would mean that financial management would be an important skill to grasp in high school and perhaps keep up with throughout college.
Emerson College - Boston, MA
Emerson College provides a dynamic approach to journalism that immerses their students in a culture of storytelling and stresses the use of social media platforms in order to reach the majority of the public. Their being in a large city like Boston provides a fast-paced environment and proximity to large publications, most famous being The Boston Globe. Students who graduate with a degree in journalism from Emerson College generally have high starting salaries and land more solid jobs than their competitors due to their cultivation as a journalist.
University of Texas-Austin - Austin, TX
UT-Austin is generally considered a more affordable option in comparison to Emerson. It's a world renowned public university in that it offers a broader approach to journalism. Austin's open-minded journalism major integrates communications and media studies, as well as the newly-popularized digital communication to accommodate for the generational shift from paper to technological journalism. Austin's Department of Journalism has graduated a running total of 18 Pulitzer Prize winners.
Northwestern University - Evanston, IL
Northwestern offers a unique approach to journalism that includes hands-on residency experiences to students. This program matches students with media outlets across the country and abroad in order to immerse them in the real world of journalism. Journalism is the most popular major at the prestigious university due to its well-roundedness and its liberal arts approach to learning.