Today we speak to Laura Knight, a lady who has combined her three biggest loves – travel, motorbikes and writing – to make the world her office. Laura has been riding motorbikes for over 10 years, a passion which has opened her up to many life-changing experiences and inspired her to give something back to the travel industry. Here she shares her story and top tips for making it as travel writer…
A few months into a great job at a hedge fund, I decided to pack up my New York City life into a tiny orange R.E.I. backpack, sublet my cosy bedroom, and hit the road. I didn’t know where I was going or what I’d end up doing to stay fed and sheltered, but I knew that working a desk job just wasn’t for me.
Fast-forward three months and here I am: writing this from a vegan coffee shop near my new digs for the week – my travel friend’s apartment in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Working from coffee shops around the world – that’s what’s in store for you as a travel writer. And, to be honest, the Wi-Fi in Cambodia is spot on!
So… how did I get here?
I love to travel. Meeting people from cool places, sampling new cuisines, and experiencing some of the most beautiful places in the world are all things that I want to do. Every. Single. Day.
As a motorcycle travel writer, I get to ride roads like this, then write about them. Then I get paid. Why would anyone want to work in an office again?! But the starting wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies…
Until I found myself in Bangalore, India, I hadn’t really given the money issue much thought. I have a brain and can string coherent sentences together, so I figured (all too nonchalantly) that I’d just be a freelance writer.
One slight problem – you need contracts if you want to get paid for writing freelance. And those contracts don’t just materialise the instant you decide you want to write for money. Only now, after working my butt off, I’m finally earning enough to support myself (albeit in Southeast Asia, which is an incredibly affordable place to live).
Here are a few things I wish I’d known before I launched my new writing career…
There are two ways you can slice this pie. You can:
- go full out sink-or-swim, quit your day-job and book a flight (like I did). The advantage here is that you are really putting yourself in a situation where you MUST succeed. No ifs, buts or maybes. No procrastinating. For those of you who are motivated by pressure like this, take the leap!
- keep your job and slowly start to build out a portfolio of work and develop a few long-term clients that will sustain you once you finally get to the flight-booking stage.
Either way, you’re going to have to do step number two, it just depends on how much pressure you want to throw into the mix.
Plan… a bit
When I left the States, I had about $1,000 in my savings and checkings combined, as well as a credit line of about $4,000 left for emergencies only.
The money disappeared fast and looking back, I wish I’d concentrated on building up my client base and generating an income before making any big travel moves. I should have made time to actually sit down and look at the daily cost of living in the places I wanted to go, and then doubled it (or at least added on a few bucks) to come up with my daily budget.
If you are ever in a situation where you are running out of money, my advice is to be an adult about it and don’t bury your head in the sand. Find a cheap hostel (or better yet, someone to host you on their couch via CouchSurfing), then put on some tunes and rock out those job applications.
Decide on your niche
As a travel writer, you still need to come up with a more defined notion of who you are in terms of your voice and target audience. This is the topic you’ll be writing about day in and day out, and you’ll have to adjust your content to match.
I write about two things, both of which I have firsthand experience – motorcycle travel and cycling travel. The motorcycle travelling pieces are easy and fun, I just tell my cycling adventures in written form and throw in a few buzzwords and the writing is good to go.
Using your own travels as inspiration and getting paid for it is one of the coolest parts about travel writing!
But, at the end of the day, if you are travelling and writing, you need money to continue to travel and write about your travels. So, I also write some career consulting and resume advice columns. While not travel-related, these are my chance to maintain well-paid and consistent contracts which allow me to fund more travels and write more about the topic I love… travel!
Do some research and figure out what options exist for you
Look into websites like Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr, and even Craigslist for job opportunities. I rely entirely on contract work through Upwork, and it’s enough to keep me going from Vietnam to Cambodia to Thailand, and beyond!
There will be highs and lows
Don’t get me wrong, there have been lows. My biggest was the day I realised I had only $15 cash left in my pocket and nowhere to stay. I had spent the week before lounging around on a beach hammock in Koh Rong, an island off the coast of Cambodia, blissfully unaware of the financial impact taking a week off work before developing a steady flow of writing jobs would have.
By the time I realised it, I had only enough (almost to the cent) for a night bus to Siem Reap, where old travel friends were willing to host me until I could earn enough to keep moving. Fortunately in this instance, good luck and timing were on my side but I won’t make this mistake again in a hurry.
At the same time, being a digital nomad can bring the highest of highs, especially when you aren’t expecting them. My biggest high came out of the blue one morning when I was scheduling my full day’s work as a “professional” person. I suddenly realized that I’d actually done it: I’d created a life where I could be self-sufficient, save a little, and travel around some incredible places. This was the moment I knew I’d done the right thing by taking a risk and quitting my life in NYC. My new life was totally worth it.
Don’t give up.
Yes, I know it’s the most clichéd advice anyone could give someone making a bold career move or a life change, but SERIOUSLY, do not give up. All too often I meet folks who tried their hand at freelancing and travelling only to not make it in the first few months, pack up their backpack, and return to their cubicle.
Working from the beach is so much nicer than being stuck in a cubicle all day. Stay focused and this could be your workplace, too
If that’s what truly makes you happy, by all means, work from cubicle to corner office. But if it isn’t, and for many of you reading this, it probably isn’t, stick tight to your dream.
Over the course of a couple weeks, when I was living entirely off my dwindling savings, I applied to 10 jobs per day. At certain points, I was sending out nearly 50 applications every two days only to hear back from two potential clients.
In my experience, Upwork is brilliant for allowing you to work when you want, where you want, and it offers any type of job you can think of. I enjoy writing about things that interest me, so I use it to apply for travel and career-related writing gigs.
My only advice is to do a bit of background research before sending out your first job proposal as a cover letter on Upwork is a little different to a full-on professional cover letter.
Beginning to land contracts on Upwork is interesting. My first day I landed a $35 contract writing a travel guide on an island in the Philippines that I had never been to.
It wasn’t until I started receiving more regular contracts, where I could be certain of additional work coming in after I turned in each article, that I started to really feel a bit of financial security and even excitement about the work! Instead of spending all day proposing to new jobs, I was able to just continue on, writing about topics I found interesting. But as I learned, you won’t get there overnight (or even in a few weeks). Patience, grasshoppers!
You’re your own boss now!
Don’t make excuses. The thing that nobody realises when they are getting into freelance, especially when you are transitioning from a 9-to-5 office environment, is that you are your own boss. You need to stay motivated, apply to jobs, meet your deadlines, and turn in high-quality work. Being the very best you can be is the key to gaining more contracts (especially the challenging ones that you’ll learn and grow most from!).
Whether this travelling, writing and wandering lasts or not, there have been a few things that I’ve learned about myself from diving right in to a new life as a freelance travel writer.
- First and foremost, that balancing savings and spending (that’s getting to a point where I earn more than I spend) takes a huge amount of dedication, discipline, and willpower.
- That you do have to plan ahead, be organised and work really hard.
- Ultimately, that whatever I end up doing in the future, whether it’s continuing to travel the world, or settling down with a hoard of cats, I know that I have the brainpower and the chutzpah to make it.
Good luck fellow wanderlusters, may the Wi-Fi be speedy and the coffee be plentiful and locally ground, wherever in the world you are!
In addition to her work as a freelance writer, Laura has also created MotorManner.com, in which she shares the best information about motorcycling and travelling to help people get the most from their adventures. Visit her blog for useful motorcycle travelling gear reviews and helpful travel tips.