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The sun is creating an impossible glare on my laptop screen here in the front seat of our 2005 Toyota Sienna minivan. Behind me, strapped into their car seats, my three boys have their heads tilted to the left or right, eyes closed.

Three hours ago, we put them gingerly — and still in their footie pajamas — into the car. We drove out of our garage in Colorado Springs. Now, here we are at 7:00 a.m., angling for the Nebraska border, eyes peeled for the next McDonalds. Breakfast.

We’ve got nine more hours of driving ahead of us. And while I like to boast that my children’s favorite snack is edamame and that they careen into the kitchen at the mere mention of pate… It must be said: Nobody argues with McDonald’s.

And that’s just as well. Because that’s all there is to eat along this stretch of American prairie. Six hundred miles of yellow grasses and drifted snow.

We are headed, first, to Hartington, Nebraska — my husband’s hometown — a pinpoint-sized dot on the map, an eighth of an inch from the Iowa border. We’ll spend Easter there at the family farm.

The rest of the week is all boondoggle.

On Monday, we’ll head south to Omaha. I’ll write a cover story about that city for an airline magazine. My husband will shoot the photos. And, for our troubles, we’ll earn about $2,500.

Since we’ve got all sorts of reduced “press rates” around town, we won’t spend much on this trip. And the magazine is going to pick up any expenses we don’t get covered. Essentially, it’s a free vacation.

Let me tell you how we landed this gig — and how you, too, can put yourself in line for great assignments and travel perks.

** Go introduce yourself to your local tourist board.
Don’t underestimate the benefits of working with your local tourist board. A few years back, I made an appointment to meet with the Media Liaison at ours in Colorado Springs. I brought my business card and a few clips (that is, articles I’ve had published before) and simply introduced myself as a travel writer based here in town.

I asked that she put me on her press-release list. And she did.

You should do the same.

Even if you don’t yet have published articles to show, never mind. Go anyway. Bring your card (which should say “travel writer” or “freelance writer” or “photographer,” whatever best describes you).

You simply want that person to know you’re around.

That connection has served me well. When an airline started flying new routes to Colorado Springs, the editor of that airline’s in-flight magazine e-mailed my contact at the tourist board and asked if she knew of a local writer. And who did she think of? Me.

Instant job. I wrote a piece about the Garden of the Gods, which is about 13 minutes from our house. My husband shot the photos.

And we earned, all told, $950 for that package.

The editor liked what she got and asked us to do a cover story on the city. Again, I wrote the words and my husband shot the photos (including the cover) — and we earned another $2,550 for that package.

And again, the editor was pleased with what she received. From a few conversations we’d had, she knew we had a “Nebraska connection.” So, when she needed an Omaha cover story, she e-mailed me to ask if we’d do it.

We figured, why not? We could go visit the family for the weekend and then head the three hours south to Omaha for a few days of R&R with the children.

And that’s why we’re in the car, scouting for those Golden Arches…

My message here to you is, really, two-fold:

** 1. Take the time to introduce yourself to your local tourist board.

It’ll take you 15 minutes max. And it can lead to all sorts of perks…

Certainly, paying article assignments, like I got. Editors really do call tourist boards.

But, also — since you’ll be on the press-release list — you’ll get invites to local special events, free press passes, and more…

And, once you’re on the press-release list, you’ll be the first to know when new opportunities for articles present themselves.

** 2. When you’re covering a place outside your home, make sure you check in with the tourist board there, too.

In preparation for this assignment, I had a very productive conversation with the Media Liaison at the Omaha tourist board.

She e-mailed me a list of the “media” contacts at their member organizations around town — that is, all the biggest tourist sites. I spent this past week contacting them all, arranging for complimentary passes and reduced rates.

I could have found these people on my own, no doubt. But you get a great credibility boost when you can say, “Jane Smith at the tourist board gave me your name and suggested I contact you.” They’re more likely to take you seriously and offer you a good deal.

My Omaha tourist board contact also gave me the name of the media contact for a splendid boutique hotel in town that I’d already read about and where I wanted to stay.

I got in touch with her, explained that the tourist board had passed along her name and contact info, and she immediately offered me a press rate for $75 a night. That’s down from the $129 a night rack rate. And, it comes with breakfast…and free cookies and milk at night.

What’s more, I was able to “pick the brain” of my tourist board contact. I asked her all sorts of things, fishing for angles and looking for the unusual.

I found out about the next, up-and-coming neighborhood and what music bloggers are starting to call “the Omaha sound.” Turns out there’s a big indie music scene burgeoning in town and it’s drawing hip young folks from around the nation. It’s the next Seattle. Who knew?

Of course, I won’t write an article that merely regurgitates what the tourist board says. But, I was able to use my contact’s insights and suggestions to better plan our trip. We’ll see and do more and waste no time guessing about whether a particular site is worth our while or not.

You should do the same.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Have you ever heard of Yeah Baby Magazine? It’s an in-flight magazine for Bmibaby Airlines. Heck, have you even heard of Bmibaby Airlines? Truth is, there are hundreds of magazines like Yeah Baby that you’ve never heard of. And, as a rule, they pay just about as well as the big guys. Plus, more often than not, the editors of these magazines are starved for stories — on almost any conceivable topic, set in any country on the planet.

Even if a magazine isn’t written entirely in English, there’s invariably some English content. Features and articles have to be wide-ranging enough that every passenger can find something of interest to them.

Not to mention, airlines are filling more seats than ever before. After years of flirting with bankruptcy, they are making money again. With advertising revenues on the increase, these magazines are getting thicker. In a recent review, the Washington Post noted that United Airlines’ Hemispheres had expanded in four years from 114 to 163 pages.

And, all of this means more opportunity for you. If you’ve never written for an in-flight magazine — even if you’ve never had an article published anywhere — with this secret formula you can easily and quickly break in.

As Jen puts it: “That market is glamorous, fun, and a lot easier to break into than you probably think. Plus — the pay is fabulous. It really is a great place to turn your passion for travel into paychecks.”]

[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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