When I was a newspaper reporter, vacations tended to be a busman’s holiday: Nearly always, I’d wind up writing a travel story about the trip.
One summer, I worked as a volunteer for a couple of weeks on an organic farm in the highlands of Costa Rica. A subsistence farm means hard work: digging holes in hard red clay, transporting topsoil from a riverbank to sturdy bags and filling in the red clay holes with good soil, knocking down breakfast mangoes with a long pole, and wearing tall boots as a safeguard against local snakes.
We saw two fer-de-lances — fat, ugly snakes whose venom often is fatal, especially if you’re at least 90 minutes from the nearest hospital.
Sounds like fun, right? When I was soaked in sweat, I’d imagine what undocumented workers back home would say about the crazy gringa who spent her “vacation” doing hard labor.
So maybe it wasn’t always fun, exactly, but I learned a lot about farming and planting and wildlife. And guess what? All those sweaty, hyper-alert days made for a great travel story (and a tax break on that trip’s expenses).
How do you turn your vacation (miserable or not) into a marketable travel article? Here are a few tips:
Be prepared to take notes, written or visual. Pack a camera (a good smart phone will do, too), three or four pens, a large envelope, and a notebook.
Write down your travel expenses as they occur, so you can include those details to let readers know how to budget – and also so you can deduct some or all of your own expenses at tax time.
Take brochures and other printed information from lodging, cafés, museums, attractions, shops, and businesses. Keep everything in that big envelope and you’ll have the details to add names, addresses, phone numbers, and websites for the how-to sidebar that most editors expect along with your narrative story.
In the notebook, write a couple of paragraphs every day before you sleep. Sketch a drawing or make side notes; they can jog your memory later when you write. If something surprises or startles you, jot down a few sentences about it as soon as you can. (Life pro tip: Wait until you’re safely distant from a threatening fer-de-lance.)
Take time composing your photographs and look for images unique to the area. Think detail. Broad landscape shots can be generic. In Soller, Majorca, I photographed close-ups of hand-painted, weathered house numbers and hardware on the local cable car. On assignment in Navajo country, I photographed the weathered hands of jewelers, rug weavers at work, and the strata of layered aging linoleum on a hogan floor.
Read up before you go, so you know about the main attractions – but remember, those are usually exhaustively covered in travel guides. Then when you’re on the road, talk to the locals. Ask about your particular interests, and inquire about their favorite local spots. I’ve written about Danish thrift stores (great for inexpensive gifts and souvenirs), art house film venues, eccentric museums, a Quito park that regularly hosts dog-agility trials, custom-made ice cream shops, and a Newport saltwater taffy shop whose candy — jalapeño-salted butterscotch – totally annihilates the competition.
Finally, don’t shy away from writing about something just because it’s not conventional travel article material. Your task is to help readers understand what a place is really like, warts and all. That honesty elevates readers’ confidence in your work, and it makes your stories far more interesting than the generic cliché-riddled articles that seem always to describe towns as “nestling” (don’t!), the people as “colorful” (don’t), and the scenery as “breathtaking” (eyeroll).
There’s a photographer who’s made a career out of turning his lens away from Machu Picchu, the Louvre, the Lincoln Monument, and other icons, instead of taking a picture of the view from those sites. Turning around to see where you’ve been is as important as looking ahead to see where you’re going.
Unless, of course, you’re within striking range of a fer-de-lance. In that case, keep your head up.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about how you can fund your travels and make an extra income with photography, travel writing, blogging, and more in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel. Sign up here today and we’ll send you a new report, Five Fun Ways To Get Paid To Travel: A Quick-Start Guide, completely FREE.]