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This weekend, I’ll be in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where my lodging, meals, and admission tickets for tours will be free. A month ago, I was in Guatemala boating on the Rio Dulce and swimming under hot waterfalls.

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe it — but I’m actually living my dream.

A few years ago, I ordered Great Escape Publishing’s travel writing course and started subscribing to newsletters and information on writing and becoming a travel writer.

As someone who traveled extensively with my family when I was growing up, wanderlust was in my blood. Getting paid to travel seemed like the perfect career — and definitely a lot more fun than my current job preparing tax returns!

Several months after I completed the Great Escape Publishing course materials, a friend told me about a regional magazine that covered areas around where I lived at the time, Palm Beach, FL.

I e-mailed the editor. And I pitched her my idea for a column. I suggested I write about Florida locations — easy day trips from the area. And she liked it.

I had my first assignment. I had officially gotten my start in travel writing.

The magazine was just getting started, so the editor wasn’t paying contributors at the time. But I knew from what I’d learned in my Great Escape Publishing materials that writers often need to start by writing for free. My by-line was my payment at first.

So for my first story, I decided to feature parks in the Central Florida area — something besides theme parks! I was already familiar with the parks but I did a little more research on each and headed up to Orlando. My daughter came with me to take the photos.

After my visit, I wrote the article, sent it in with the photos, and anxiously waited for the next issue of the magazine to arrive. I have to say there is nothing like receiving a magazine, opening the pages, and finding your words — and by-line — in print!

The next month, I decided to write about one of my favorite places in Florida – Palm Island Resort. Since I now had a by-line (although only one!), I searched the resort website and found contact information for the press relations person. I sent out an e-mail and a copy of my published article and asked if he could provide assistance to me in writing about Palm Island Resort. It can’t hurt to ask, I told myself!

To my amazement, he called and said he was making reservations for me for two nights’ lodging, scheduling time for me to meet with resort personnel, and providing vouchers for meals in the resort’s restaurant!

I was beyond excited…no one could have wiped the big smile off my face the day I packed a bag and drove over to the island!

I have continued the column — which is no longer limited to Florida destinations. It has led to numerous free trips and invitations to media events. I now have a chocolate column that often features chocolate-themed destinations — one of my favorite projects, because it comes with lots of chocolate samples!

I managed to get this far just by following the guidance of the Great Escape Publishing programs, but I knew that if I really wanted to have travel writing as my career, I needed to kick things up a notch… chocolate doesn’t exactly pay the rent! So, I attended the Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in Chicago last August.

It was a thrill to be at a live event and meet editors and other writers. I was happy in the realization that I already had several published articles, but in the quest for more — and a paycheck — I soaked in all the information I could about sending query letters and targeting publications.

Networking is key, and the conference gave ample opportunities for networking with editors as well as other writers. I was able to land an assignment writing an article for ChicagoSCENE Magazine while at the conference.

Several attendees decided to keep the momentum we gained at the workshop alive by creating a Facebook group. The group is used to offer support to each other, share information on writers’ guidelines, and post articles we have published. The exposure I gained from posting articles on our Facebook page led me to assignments with International Living magazine!

I have learned on this journey that one thing leads to another…and another…and another. Here are some practical tips to get you started on your own journey:

1. Check out local magazines and newspapers to see if any travel information is provided. If not, contact the editor and pitch the idea. Never hurts to ask!

2. Start local and write about something you are familiar with — it’s inexpensive and often free. Do your research, take notes, and write your article as soon as possible after your visit while the ideas are fresh.

3. Once you have that first by-line, don’t be afraid to reach out to the contact person for press relations for resorts and destinations. I’ve learned that meeting one person usually leads to another introduction and then another. Don’t be shy!

4. Always send a thank you note to anyone who assists you with travel arrangements, research or introductions. The contacts you make along the way may be your ticket to fully realizing your dream!

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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