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Travel Writing Guide

How to Be a Travel Writer

Become a Generous Teacher of Travel, Not a Travel Agent

I’m on the train to the Rhine. The burnt marshmallow-colored spires of Köln’s cathedral loom in the window of my solitary compartment. A few minutes later, the train pulls into Beethoven’s Bonn.

A spunky American tourist with a too big bag shops her way down the train car in search of just the right compartment for viewing the upcoming castles. Poking her head into my compartment, she says with mock excitement, “Rick Steves? The Rick Steves!”

Saying “may I” without a hint of a question, she hefts my bag to the luggage rack above my head, takes its place across from me, and pulls a copy of my guidebook from her daybag. As she matches my back cover mug shot to my real life face, the train pulls out with a jolt.

Without a sentence of small talk, she gets right to the point, “My name’s Colleen. I’d kill for your job. How did you get started?” Without waiting for me to answer, she continues, “You wrote the book I should have written ages ago.”

First, Learn How to Travel

Intrigued by her energy and realizing we were stuck together on the train, I gave her a more complete than usual answer to this tired topic.

“You can’t just want to be a travel writer,” I said. “You have to be a traveler first. I traveled for six summers purely for kicks. Europe Through the Back Door was born from Europe Through the Gutter. The best travel is on a shoestring . . . not just meeting people but needing people.

“From the start, I followed one strict rule. Never finish a day without writing it up. Accidentally, by finding scenes I could bottle and sell back home, taking careful notes, and teaching my love of travel, I became a writer.”

“I’m taking a travel writing class,” Colleen said, looking at me as if I had a rucksack packed full of extra credits.

“I never did. I learned to write by giving talks. I talk and talk and talk to groups about travel and sharpen my message. Then I talk the same way to the page,” I said, feeling curiously threatened. “I read one book--On Writing Well by William Zinsser. When I feel like I should read another book to fine-tune my writing, I read Zinsser again. And I travel. Travel writing means going great places and taking your reader with you. You need to really be there.”

“Sense of place,” she said, as if on Jeopardy.

“Right.” Borrowing her copy of my guidebook, I flipped through the pages and said, “Read this out loud. See it like a tour guide in wonderland as you do.”

She read:

“You’re walking along a ridge high in the Alps. On one side of you spreads the greatest Alpine panorama: the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. On the other, lakes stretch all the way to Germany. And ahead of you, the long legato tones of an alp horn announce that just around the corner there's a helicopter-stocked hut . . . and the coffee schnapps is on.”

She slipped a bottle of wine out of her daybag. “But,” she persisted, pouring me a plastic glass, “how do you make money at travel?”

How to Make Money

I hadn’t really thought of the formula before. The wine was good and she was bubbly, so I took a long sip and, sounding both professorial and fatherly, I traced the evolution of my business.

“First you travel. Then you give talks with a slideshow. Be generous with your information. There’s a huge demand for entertaining and practical talks--libraries, schools, businesses, clubs.

“After lots of lecturing, a book evolves in your mind. Write your book like you’re giving your talk to the paper. Self-publish it. That takes only time and money. I typed the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door on a rented IBM Selectric. I pasted in sketches my college roommate drew of my favorite slides. The first cover of Europe Through the Back Door was so basic that people in the media mistook it for a pre-publication edition. Holding my finished product, they’d ask, “And when will this be out?”

“When you write a book, people think you’re an expert—even if you’re not. That respect gives you the momentum to become an expert. Get your teaching out there anyway you can. Keep giving free talks. Let newspapers use your writing for free. Teach first. Sell second. But don’t quit your day job. You’re still not making much money.

“Actually, to make any serious money,” I said, finding myself progressively more interested in putting my peculiar business formula into words, “you need to organize a mini-bus tour which you promote through your lectures. Think of it as a nonprofit communal adventure. Charge only enough to cover your trip costs. Limit the group to eight. Be selective. Assemble a gang of friends. Take lots of photos showing you and the group having a blast.

“I did mini-bus tours for years. We were a gang of adventurers. We had no reservations and no firm itinerary. We’d blitz into town, park on the main square and I'd say, ‘Okay, fan out and find rooms. We'll meet back here in 20 minutes to compare our hotel options.’

“Repeat your tour over and over. Crank up the profitability through the marketing help of happy customers and promotional slides slipped into your lectures. Develop an expertise on a certain country or region and keep that focus.”

As Colleen pondered allying herself with a travel agency, I interrupted, “Don’t become a travel agent and don’t expect help from the travel industry. Anyway you cut it, you will be considered dangerous competition. You are a teacher of travel. Not a travel agent. Continue being generous with your information. Be passionate about the beauty of travel--a Johnny Appleseed of travel dreams. If you doggedly keep teaching and let your love of travel shine, eventually you might make some money.”

Parting of Ways

By now my enthusiasm was raging but her once eager eyes looked weary as she slowly deflated. Squeezing the last of her wine into her glass, she said, “I could just come and work for you.”

Then from a bridge over the Mosel River we saw the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm on a prancing horse gracing that piece of Koblenz real estate called the Deutsche Ecke where the Rhine and Mosel meet.

Koblenz is Latin for confluence. But for Colleen and me it meant exactly the opposite. I thanked her for the wine, invited her to send me her resume, and bundled and tumbled.

The trackside schedule listed a train to my Rhine target in two minutes and not another for two hours. I had been planning to catch the boat instead, but didn’t know if and when it went. The conductor looked at me as if to ask, “Well, are you with us or not?” Quickly reviewing my options, I follow that marvelous old travelers’ axiom: a train at hand is worth jumping on.

Moments later, I’m rolling along the riverside track, the wind in my face and the Rhine in my viewfinder.

Web Editor's Note: Rick Steves wrote this piece for Transitions Abroad Magazine in 1997. See the Travel Writing Guide for more perspectives on travel writing.