I Want To Be… A Travel Writer!

Kristin Luna

Travel writing — for many it may sound like a dream job, but it comes with its own challenges! Enter Kristin Luna, travel writer & truth-teller! She was kind enough to answer some of my questions about what it really means to be a travel writer, & you might be surprised at what you read!

By the way, her personal travel blog, Camels & Chocolate, is fantastic! I just had a big read through & love it, it’s very inspiring & it reminds me to do more travelling!

Tell us about what you do.

I’m a travel writer. I travel anywhere from five to seven months out of the year for a variety of guidebook, magazine and newspaper assignments. I also take a lot of pictures–more as a hobby and a scrapbook of my travels than anything–and I also pen a personal travel blog on the side.

What does an average day at work look like for you?

It varies by the day–that’s what I love about my job. When I’m at home in San Francisco, I spend mornings in front of the computer pitching, researching and writing stories, and often afternoons and evenings meeting with visiting tourism officials or attending media events.

While on the road, my “average” day can consist of anything from mingling with sharks in the Bahamas to swimming in the Arctic Ocean in a bikini to gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

Do you work alone or with other people?

When I’m not traveling, I spend most days alone in my home office. I interact with my editors via e-mail, of course, but I go hours without speaking an audible word to anybody. It can be lonely at times, but that’s why my husband and I recently adopted a Maltese puppy–now I have a constant companion!

While on the road, there are always people around–whether other travel writers or tour guides helping me with a story or interviewees. It’s the best of both worlds, I think: I spend a lot of time interacting with people in other parts of the the world, but I also get my quiet time, too.

Is this what you wanted to do as a child? Did you end up in this job by “accident” or was it a planned career choice?

Ever since I was two years old and dictated my first “book” (about Disney princesses, naturally) to my mother, I’ve said I wanted to be a writer. By the age of 14, I knew I would major in journalism once I went to college, so I started out with gigs and internships at local newspapers. It never really occurred to me, though, until I hit my early 20s that I could travel full time doing what I love, writing, and call it a career. When I was in college, I landed my first weekly travel column and, a year later while living in Europe, scored my first guidebook contract with Frommer’s. It took awhile to make travel writing a full-time paid job, but once I figured it out, I knew I was doing what I was meant to do!

How long ago did you start on this path?

I’ve been working in some form of journalism for nearly 14 years now. Travel, in particular, has been my focus for the past six.

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?

I started foraying into travel about six years ago. At the time, I was working in New York at a fashion magazine by day and covering the red carpet circuit for a variety of women’s and entertainment magazines by night. I wrote all my freelance travel articles in my “downtime” (i.e. when I wasn’t working on anything in the office or else at home on weekends). Travel writing is a very difficult industry to break into–and doesn’t pay that much in the beginning–so it was important that I had a steady stream of income while I was getting my feet wet. Having what were essentially two full-time jobs while getting started allowed me to afford to do just that.

I still take the occasional women’s magazine assignment, editing gig or celebrity event as supplemental income. One thing you must acknowledge upfront if you want to be a travel writer is that it’s never going to be a particularly lucrative career; therefore, I rarely say no to a non-travel assignment that lands in my lap. But, for me, the benefits of doing what I do far outweigh a lofty salary.

Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?

All small steps. The media industry is tiny–sometimes alarmingly so–so I’d do one big project for one editor, who would then refer me to an editor at another magazine, and slowly my career snowballed from there.

What kind of education do you have?

I have a bachelor’s of science in journalism and electronic media from the University of Tennessee, with minors in magazine writing, newspaper journalism and photography. I studied abroad during my junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and I’m pretty sure it was that semester and the solo backpacking I did before the course that cemented my love for travel. I was fortunate to grow up with a mom who loved to travel and took my sister and I all over the United States, but prior to that semester, the only international travel I’d done was to England, Italy, Mexico and the Caribbean. After graduating, I completed a one-year post-graduate degree in international journalism and world politics in Holland and Denmark, though to be honest, that was just an excuse to live abroad again and get some more traveling under my belt. But I met my husband through that very program, so I’d say it paid off in the end!

Kristin Luna

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?

In all forms of journalism, it’s more about experience and less about education. I think everyone should go to undergrad and get some sort of degree in the media field to make sure it’s what they really want to do, but in most cases, any degree higher than that doesn’t necessarily pay off if you simply want to be a writer or an editor. Rather, it often sets you back: While you’re out spending another year or two in a classroom, your peers, your competition, are out getting a leg up on you by working and gaining actual field experience. Having a few internships is very necessary in landing a staff job. A lot of full-time staffers were also first in-house freelancers, so that’s another way to go–trying to get a temporary gig as a researcher or copy editor–if you can’t get in the door the traditional way.

And sadly it is a field that is much about “who you know,” so networking is crucial. I knew no one when I first moved to New York, but connected with two alumni from my university who helped me land interviews in the beginning. One of those interviews resulted in a job at Newsweek.

For travel specifically, having a region you specialize in, an area you know inside and out–whether it’s where you currently live or have spent significant amounts of time in the past–is key. Now that I’ve established myself as a California “expert,” I frequently have magazines approach me about doing stories from San Francisco, LA and Wine Country. Aiming to specialize in areas that are either remote–like Nepal, where there aren’t a whole lot of English-fluent travel writers on tap–or are widely covered, like London are Paris, are smart moves. If international travel is your desire, knowing multiple languages obviously helps significantly.

If you went to school, did you enjoy studying? Could you see where it might lead you at the time? What advice would you give to someone else who might be studying to get into your industry?

I loved every last one of my journalism school classes, from copy editing to broadcast reporting. I would highly encourage anyone wanting to pursue a travel writing career, or just journalism in general, to go to J-School and take as many varied classes within the field that you can. You might go in thinking you’d like to be a features writer for a travel magazine but come out realizing the TV side of things is more for you.

What do you think is the best thing about what you do?

I get to see the world on someone else’s dime! I also would like to think I’m a more open-minded, well-rounded individual thanks to all the places I’ve seen and people I’ve met. I grew up in a small community in the heart of the Bible Belt, where many people have never been west of the Mississippi, so my work has allowed me to expand my horizons a bit.

What’s the worst thing?

People, without fail, tell you you have “the dream job.” And sure there are parts of it that rock. But–just like with any job–there are parts that suck, too. My friends tend to see the amazing trips I get to go on, but not know the 18-hour days I log, all the hotels I have to inspect, tourism officials I meet with, the hours late at night and very early in the morning before my day even begins where I’m stuck in front of a computer trying to meet deadlines, the days of sitting in my home office in San Francisco when I’m not actually traveling, the pitching a story 27 times before someone finally shows interest. I’m never really off the clock. I pretty much work in some form or another seven days a week, and it’s hard to separate my work and professional life–much to the dismay of my husband, who would like more of my undivided attention.

You also have to be ready to pack up and go at a moment’s notice, or be willing to pull all-nighters for several days straight when an editor offers you a last minutes assignment with a quick turnaround. In essence, it may sound like a fun job, which it is some of the time, but it’s not all lounging on beaches and staying in five-star resorts. And it’s tough to maintain some semblance of normalcy or a routine in your home base if you’re always on the go.

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?

Without a doubt, yes. I’d like to be less of a workaholic, but in the current state of the media where page space is limited and publications have slashed their rates, I find myself doing double the work I was doing two years ago for no more money. I do think this is fairly standard in my industry–especially now with the number of magazines that have folded and jobs that have been cut in the last three years.

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?

Get out there and travel on your own first. Know that it’s what you want to do before you pursue it as a career, because one thing’s for certain: It will be a long metaphorical road ahead of you should you choose this path. As an unknown writer, no one is going to pay to send you around the world. In the beginning, you need to have an initial pool of trips from which to write. You don’t have to exhaust your savings fund to do it either. When I was starting out, I did a lot of cheap backpacking by using CouchSurfing as a means to stay in many different countries for free.

Kristin Luna

…How about number two?

Intern. Don’t ever say no to an opportunity, even if it pays very little or not at all. Nothing’s going to be handed to you on a silver platter–not in the travel writing world. You have to be scrappy to make it in this industry.

Start a blog. Even if no one reads it, it will get you in a habit of writing daily–and you never know who in the industry might stumble upon it and be impressed by your writing panache.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?

That people will do what they have to to get ahead. Hailing from the South, I was pre-wired to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume that all people had good intentions, and that came back to kick me in the ass many times. Have a thick skin, and look out for yourself. I won’t say don’t trust anyone, but definitely watch out who you do. Again, it’s a small industry–particularly the magazine world–and people will have no qualms with slandering your name if it means they get something in return. It’s sad but unfortunately true.

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?

That it’s easy. That’s it’s not really “a job.” Often, people just see the travel side of things and think I “vacation for a living.” The travel is the easy part–well, jetlag and insane amounts of time spent inside airports and planes aside–the fun stuff if you will. The hours of time spent behind a computer trying to sell your work, meet ridiculous deadlines and condense a two-week trip into 1,000 words–or much less–is when it gets hard.

People also tend to think that a) I must get to fly first class everywhere (I wish!) and b) I must have mega miles. Not true on either part. If I’m on an assignment, the person footing the bill picks the airline (the cheapest seat and most convenient route, I imagine), and when I fly for personal reasons, I always wind up buying the most inexpensive ticket out there. What this means is that I do have hundreds of thousands of miles, but they’re scattered among a good 10 airlines or so, which doesn’t do me much good at all!

Do you ever have any ethical dilemmas with the work you do?

For sure. Magazines and guidebook companies are hardly footing writers’ bills anymore, meaning we often rely on comps from boards of tourism, hotels and restaurants. Obviously, when a hotel knows you’re coming, they are going to try to show you their best side. You have to keep this in mind when writing your review. Thus, I always like to read a variety of consumer feedback from sites like Trip Advisor to see what other people think. That said, I’ve been to some places where I was staying for free and didn’t end up writing about–or else, wrote bad things, the truth–because they simply weren’t up to par. If a place sucks, I’m not going to say nice things just because they put me up for the night. But I think a lot of travel writers do, which is why people often question what we write–and rightly so.

Companies also like to approach journalists to review products, and especially now with the far reach of the Internet, so many writers and bloggers are eager to take the product and write a glowing review in exchange for free stuff. Not me. I get a lot of these requests through my blog. I’m not a free billboard. I’m happy to sell ad space or write up products I use on a regular basis or am truly passionate about, but nine times out of 10 I decline such offers.

What is the best thing that’s happened to you as a consequence of the work you do?

I learned to scuba dive. I was deathly afraid of the ocean until I went to the Maldives on an assignment a few years ago and was coaxed into diving on a dare, more or less. Today, I try to plan the majority of trips around where I can dive–my husband and I went to Borneo on our honeymoon to do just that–and never would have imagined I could turn my crippling fear into an all-consuming passion.

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?

Knowing that there’s still so much of the world to see. Last I counted, I’d visited in the neighborhood of 80 countries, which means I’ve yet to explore a good two-thirds of the globe!

Kristin Luna

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?

Andrew Evans. He’s a fellow travel writer, who is now a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler, and he’s such a hustler and gets things done. For example, his lifelong dream was to go to Antarctica, and he made that happen this spring by coming up with this fascinating concept in which he spent 10 weeks taking a series of buses from DC to the tip of South America, then boarded a Nat Geo boat that sailed the Southern Ocean. I loved following his Twitter and video footage on his journey; he’s just so poetic and can really convey the spirit of a place in a mere 140 characters. I’m also a fan of the work of Andrew McCarthy–yes, that Andrew McCarthy. He recently nabbed the biggest award in the travel industry, and it was much deserved!

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.

80. I’d like to be doing more long-form features and less 200-word pieces here and there, but it’s all about paying one’s dues, right?

Is there much career progression available to you? What would you like to do next?

Eventually–like, 10 years down the line–I see myself doing less commercial travel writing and delving more into the humanitarian side of things, as well as lesser known cultures and their people. I’d also like to pen book-length travel narratives, like Bill Bryson, but perhaps with more a fictional slant.

Do you think you’ll continue doing this for the rest of your life?

I will definitely be continuing to travel–and for a job–in one form or the other for as long as I continue to work. Ditto to writing. Whether or not magazines specifically are my future depends largely on the outcome of the industry and whether or not it can survive the Internet take over. My fingers are crossed!