For Decades, I’ve Traveled the World for Free. Here’s How You Can Do the Same…
“You have one of the nicest rooms,” the hotel clerk insisted as she walked me up a flight of wooden stairs. She pushed open the door to a spacious room and steered me to a set of French doors that she flung open, almost cinematically, to reveal the ancient, Venetian port of Chania, Greece just below—a port so quintessentially quaint that one might swear Disney’s “Imagineers” hand-crafted the place. I immediately posted a photo of my view on Instagram, to the envy of my online squad.
I’d landed on Crete for a week of touring the island for various travel and other stories, and, frankly, this—the view of a 750-year-old port from a small veranda at the equally small Hotel Amphora—was quite the auspicious start. It underscored one of the primary reasons I love travel writing: The chance to happen upon moments such as this one, when you are surprisingly awestruck by what you have unexpectedly stumbled upon.
I’ve been pitching travel stories in one form or another since my earliest days as a newspaper reporter in Southern California back in the late-80s. I’ve traveled from Alaska’s Bristol Bay to Uruguay’s coastal party capital, Punta del Este. I’ve walked oceanfront links-style golf courses in Northern Ireland’s Country Antrim, and the path of Russian tsars and Soviet leaders in the Crimean beach town of Yalta. I’ve been kidnapped in China; gotten so sick in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma) that I lost 13 pounds; and had the best lemon ice cream in my life at a mom-and-pop shop in the Seychelles, off the east coast of Africa.
All because of travel writing.
Before I go on…yes, I realize that me yapping about travel writing during a pandemic-induced lockdown that has shut off Americans from much of the world reeks of tin-eared entitlement. But travel writing is not confined to jetting off to a Greek island or Northern Ireland or some over-the-top, treehouse hotel that has Instagram atwitter at any given moment. Travel writing can be finding that overlooked campsite an hour from where you live and writing about it for a local newspaper. It can be houseboating on a nearby lake and writing about it for a regional magazine.
But here’s the bigger point: This moment shall pass, and the world will return to something that resembles normalcy. And as I routinely write, preparing for tomorrow, rather than reacting to today, separates success and mediocrity.
My non-journalist friends are often envious of the places I end up (Michelin-starred restaurants or deep in the picturesque Andes) and they say they wish they could write travel stories and see the world on someone else’s dime.
In truth, they can.
This isn’t an exclusive club. You don’t need years of experience or specialized training. Indeed, I recently recorded a video-chat with a colleague, Noreen Kompanik, who left a career in nursing about six years ago to pursue her dream of writing travel stories. In her first year, she had 47 bylines. Today, travel writing is her full-time gig.
Like Noreen, all you need is a desire to write, an insatiable urge to explore your world, and some rudimentary knowledge in how to approach the people most likely to buy the travel stories you pitch. I run into travel writers on the road from time to time, and they’ve come from a diverse background. Many are former journalists, sure, but others left careers in restaurants, pharmaceutical sales, law, construction, or, like Noreen, nursing. The only commonality is that they were chasing a second career after retiring, or they felt unfulfilled in their current job and they hated the reality that their capacity to travel was limited to a couple weeks a year, or a few long weekends here and there.
So, they started working on building the lifestyle they really wanted: travel, and writing about it for newspapers, magazines, and, often, their own blogs (which they’ve monetized). To a person, they say they’re happier than they ever were in their previous job. Some are making more money. Others are making less—but they’re happier and, better yet, they’re living wherever they want to live rather than being tied to a single place because of a job. There’s a psychic value in that which money cannot buy.
The last time I smelled jet fuel was the first week of March, when I was returning to Prague from a week in southern Ireland. Six months without exercising my passport—that’s the longest I’ve gone without traveling since at least 2004. But I’ve recently pitched a story that an editor wants: traveling by night train in Europe, which will have me on a train between Prague and a beach town along Croatia’s Adriatic coast. And my girlfriend (stuck in Russia) and I have plans to meet in Istanbul at the end of September, and I will definitely find a way to turn that into a travel story of some sort, too (maybe the ins and outs of hunting for an engagement ring in the Grand Bazaar…shhhh—don’t tell her).
While COVID-19 has certainly screwed up travel, it’s a temporary phenomenon. Every day we are 24 hours closer to a vaccine that will put this crazy year behind us. So if ever you’ve dreamed of earning a paycheck traveling, now is the moment to begin putting the pieces into place: jotting down your ideas and learning where to find and how to approach editors who are most likely to accept your pitch.
Because when COVID’s under control, travelers will invade the world like Mongol Huns. And there’s going to be big demand for writers to tell the story of travel in a post-coronavirus world.
By Jeff D. Opdyke