Vacation and Get Paid: Confessions of a Travel Writer

Steenie Harvey travels more than any other person I know. Of course, she’s a travel writer—plane hopping comes with the territory. But even if she didn’t make a living writing about her trips, Steenie would still travel—a lot—because she loves it.

FYL caught up with Steenie, below, to ask her for tips on how to become a travel writer…get paid to explore…and generally enjoy the perks of the job.

FYL: You used to tend bar in a strip joint—how do you go from that to being a globetrotting travel writer?

Steenie: It’s funny, I never enjoyed work—that’s why I ended up doing all those weird jobs that kept changing every few months. I hated putting in the hours. But now I work at something I love, I find I’m working way more than I ever did when I had a regular job.

I could never settle in one job—a symptom of my wanderlust. If you want to be a travel writer, that’s the only qualification you need: wanderlust.

In the late 1980s I was living in England. I lost my job, so did my husband. We moved to Ireland. They didn’t have any jobs either. So, I wrote about what we were doing at the time—looking for a cheap Irish cottage to buy. Other stories I wrote back then were all to do with what was going on in my own local area. Horse festivals. Pilgrimages. Irish cottages. My first foreign assignment was to Lisbon in Portugal—although I sent myself. But I lined up enough commissions from editors of Irish newspapers that I was able to make the trip pay for itself. It was a vacation, so it didn’t feel like work at all. That’s when I started thinking there might be a future to this travel writing lark.

FYL: You make it sound easy. But if no-one’s ever paid me to write before…and I don’t know any editors…how can I get a job like yours?

Steenie: Where you live is a destination for someone else. Write what you know. Ireland would seem foreign to many people reading this—but it’s my home. A travel writer breezes in and out of a destination, but you know more about your hometown than he ever will. You bring a level of knowledge that gives you the edge over any travel writer. For publications, the AWAI have a massive list on their website.

FYL: AWAI—that’s the American Writers & Artists, Inc. What’s your involvement with their Travel Writing program?

Steenie: I teach workshops in the States, to people who want to become travel writers and who need a hand to get started. I share the things I did wrong. It’s really a short cut. There was nothing like it when I started out. It would have saved me a lot of time if there was! Some of my recent presentations are on tape here.

FYL: Where are the best and worst places for a travel writer to go?

Steenie: China and India will give you the most stories for the time you spend there. But really, once you know what to look for, you can get several stories from any destination. When you arrive, look around and ask yourself: What will the other travel writers be writing about? Then figure out what else is going on. That’s the story everyone will want to read (and therefore, editors will want to buy).

The worst assignment I can recall was to Bucharest, Romania. It was so gray and dreary. I didn’t have a good time. Also, any pure beach resort can be a stretch for me because they don’t interest me personally. But I love city assignments, because cities are more interesting—Barcelona, Spain was my favorite trip.

FYL: You travel a huge amount. You might be in Asia one week…Italy the next…all while planning an upcoming trip to Ecuador. Do you ever get bored of all the travel?

Steenie: No, I love it. Even when I have time off, I travel. Whether or not I’m on assignment, stories seem to fall in my lap. If a month goes by and I haven’t traveled somewhere I get itchy feet.

The worst thing about this job, maybe the only bad thing, is the plane delays. If there’s a worse way to spend your time than waiting for a plane that’s already late, I don’t know what it is.

FYL: You have a reputation for being a bit outrageous. You’re definitely outspoken. I think this is a huge advantage in travel writing, as it makes your copy stand out. What’s the most outrageous thing that’s happened to you on your trips?

Steenie: In northern Brazil I needed a place to stay for a few hours, so I ended up booking into a brothel. The story I wrote that got the most outrageous reaction from readers was a piece about bull fighting in Spain. When you’re a travel writer, you have to take a stance. You write about what moves you. That bull fighting piece probably got as many negative comments as it did positive comments. Either way, it’s the job of a travel writer to be read.

FYL: OK, let’s lay it on the line: Can you really make a living as a travel writer?

Steenie: Well, I do. I suppose I’m living proof. This isn’t the job to turn you into a millionaire. But I don’t think anyone does it for the money. I do it for the lifestyle.

Money is important, but if you don’t have wanderlust you’re wasting your time. When you’re starting out, there are ways to get the most out of every trip. I’m not going to get into technical matters involving different rights in different jurisdictions, like first North American rights or whatever. But in general, you should be able to use one trip to produce several stories for several different publications. For example, stories about travel and where to go with kids are for different markets.

When I started out, I didn’t just write travel pieces. I wrote about coal mines…monks operating peace centers in Northern Ireland…real estate…because these were the things that were happening where I lived.

One last thing, a quick tip: There are far more travel supplements in the UK newspapers than in the U.S. That market is bigger and the pay is better.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about flexible, work-anywhere ways you can pay for your life overseas, sign up for Fund Your Life Overseas, a free e-letter from International Living. Sign up here and we’ll send you a free report: Fund Your New Life Overseas With These 4 Portable Careers.