Making money to fund my ravenous appetite for international travel started as a challenge. I told my husband, Gustavo, “I’m going to buy the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program. I promise to recoup the price.” And I did, over a hundredfold, with nearly 150 bylines in 19 newspapers and magazines plus a steady gig with our local paper. I did all this while working full-time and continually reinventing myself for today’s ever-evolving marketplace.
What should you do first after finishing the program? I wanted to send out queries willy-nilly, to anyone and everyone. But that’s not what I was taught. You write about what editors want. You have mere seconds to pique their interest while following their guidelines to the letter. It’s the difference between acceptance and the trash.
But breaking into the travel writing world requires a lot of planning before you even scribble your first word. Initially, I created a “Writer’s Bible” of sorts. While home on surgical leave, I spent six weeks scouring the web for submission guidelines to every magazine, website, and newspaper I hoped to write for.
I decided to query International Living first, since their travel course promised an “in” with the editor if you identified yourself as a program participant. Meanwhile, I queried a Canadian wellness magazine that I subscribed to. Before I realized they didn’t pay their contributors, the editor showed interest in my article. Both submissions marked my entry into the travel writing world. And when the magazine expanded into the print market, who do you think she recruited? I ended up making $400 CAD for my efforts.
Never underestimate the power of communication and the potential for coincidence. While attending our son’s high school graduation, my husband and I rescued the county newspaper’s editor-in-chief who had fallen into a hole in the parking lot. Nursing a twisted ankle, she couldn’t attend the function. I offered to send photos and cover the event. “By the way, I’m a freelance travel writer, too.” That eventually garnered me a travel column with the paper.
After all my experiences, I have a few tips for success:
Before you travel, brainstorm. Make an extensive submissions list of different themes. Promote those to the appropriate editors. Consider niche publications. Obviously, if traveling, you can pitch to travel magazines. Are you visiting Nicaragua to enjoy the planet’s most exotic biodiversity? Target nature, birding, and outdoor magazines. Check out guidelines prior to your trip so you know exactly what those editors will be expecting; direct your wanderings accordingly.
For example, a 10-day stay in Guyana with the indigenous Lokono-Arawaks spawned six articles: two travel webzines, three bird magazines, and a reptile periodical out of Australia. I continue to write for those three niches.
You can also add new genres to your resume. Regale that same tale to a children’s journal, geared to their reading level. With the pandemic slowing a bit, go after in-flight magazines. The sky’s the limit.
But remember, if you send out queries beforehand, and they’re accepted, be prepared if things go awry. Even the best-planned trips don’t always go as intended. Things beyond your control happen. Mother Nature sends unexpected weather…a goat path road swallows your rental car…a fiery eruption forces an evacuation. Don’t panic…simply refocus and have a back-up plan.
During your travels, look for the opener for your stories. I try to pre-write some openers—just a sentence or two—before I leave, to keep myself on track. Then I look for something amazing to go along—a humorous sign, perhaps: “Warthog crossing” (Miami Zoo) or “Children: No horseplay on the boardwalk. Violators will be thrown to the alligators” (Gator Beach, Florida).
I anticipate that perfect quote, unusual smell, sound, or sensation. Gurgling mud from a boiling pit…sulfur stench from a fissure…hair-raising howler monkey bellows. Sometimes, I’ll find that perfect metaphor: the volcano that becomes a sleeping dragon or a Parisian subway train transformed into a trusty steed.
After your travels, deliver the perfect product to the editor. Just as you advertised.
Believe in yourself. Show editors what you, and you alone, can offer.