How I got my travel writing career started

For the past seven years, I’ve been asking my various travel writer interview subjects how they got started writing. Frank Bures recently asked me that same question for a travel-writing class he’s teaching, and this is what I told him:

My writing aspirations can be traced back to about age 13, when I started writing horror stories in the style of Stephen King. This horror-writing phase didn’t last long, but it helped winnow the creative urge, and familiarize me with the basics of putting a prose narrative together. Later I became involved with my high school newspaper, and I wrote a humor column for my campus newspaper in college. After college, I traveled the United States for eight months, living out of a VW van. Fancying myself a kind of new Jack Kerouac, I tried to write a book about this travel experience, but that ultimately failed when I couldn’t interest any agents or editors. Out of money and not sure what to do next, I went to Korea to teach English for a couple years.

In Korea, I learned how to live within another culture, and I became a more seasoned, instinctive traveler. I also learned from the shortcomings of my failed USA travel book, and sharpened my writing, keeping in mind the narrative needs of my readers. During my second year in Korea, I rewrote one of my USA book chapters (about Las Vegas) and sold it to’s travel section. Encouraged by this small success, I strengthened my relationship with my Salon editor by writing some travel stories about Korea. He published about five of them.

At this point, I’d saved a lot of money from teaching, and I’d planned on traveling through Asia and Europe for over a year. Since I had an editorial contact at Salon, I decided to pitch him with a travel column idea. He wasn’t sure about this idea at first, so I hit the road on my trip and continued to write stories. It just so happened that Leonardo DiCaprio was shooting the travel-oriented movie “The Beach” in Thailand, so I decided to try and sneak onto the set of the movie as an experiment about the motivations and idiosyncrasies of travel. My attempt to sneak onto the movie set failed, but the resulting story, “Storming ‘The Beach'”, made the cover of Salon and landed in the 2000 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. I got the travel column at Salon, and that turned out to be a big turning point in my career, as it raised my exposure one-hundred-fold. Editors of glossy magazines like Condé Nast Traveler invited me to write for them, and I’ve been freelancing for various travel venues — National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Slate, Islands, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. — ever since. My book, Vagabonding, came out in 2003. I’ve also maintained an author website since 1998, and a blog since 2002, and both have been good for promoting and showcasing my work.

These days, travel is still the core of my work, though I occasionally write literary criticism, interviews, and other types of writing. I’d say travel writing is 80% of what I do.

Posted by | Comments (17)  | April 23, 2007
Category: Rolf's News and Updates, Vagabonding Advice

17 Responses to “How I got my travel writing career started”

  1. Phil Says:

    Thanks for the tips, Rolf. Have you written any newspaper articles? If so, how is the approach to a newspaper travel feature different from writing a magazine article?


  2. Dennis Says:

    Hi there sir!
    I’m glad I came across your site today. At least I got a good idea now what to do with my travelling blog although it’s not much. Feel free to comment on it if you have free time passing tru it. Just started on it, so not much to read. sigh. Enjoyed reading your blog. =)

  3. Craig Tansley Says:

    My God! You wrote the Beach story when you were still so relatively inexperienced!! That story was far and away the best one in the 2000 Best Travel Writing Series – it was unbelievable! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the thing, it’s inspired me a billion times in my own travel writing… that’s freakish!

  4. elizabeth Says:

    For anyone interested in travel-writing, is full of good links like Vagabonding. For those who are interested in doing it long-term, or are interested in the grittier, business-side of travelwriting, one of the best places I’ve found is, funnily enough,
    Look at their newbies section, it’ll answer all your questions and help you hone what you’re looking to do. Advice is typically given by people like Rolf who’ve got extensive experience.

  5. Rolf Says:

    Cheers, Craig! Glad you enjoyed that story. It was indeed one of my earlier published travel pieces — though I had been writing seriously for quite some time before then (I was just waiting for the right break, which came with Salon).

    Phil, newspaper writing tends to be more service-oriented and destination-oriented than magazine writing (though magazines are skewing toward service these days as well). Study some of your favorite travel mags and newspaper travel sections to see the format, then try to write to that format. For spec articles, newspapers are probably the best way to break in. For magazines, try the shorter news and service pieces at the front of the magazine if you want to break in. Good luck!

  6. Eunbyul Says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. I’m an aspiring travel journalist too and I see now that it’s normal to face difficult obstacles in the beginning.

  7. Rajesh Rambade Says:

    Hi Rolf,

    I am a guy from India, exactly from Mumbai city. I have a lot of interest in travelling. I am currently working for a software company in Mumbai. I am least interested in the current job, but cant quit cause of financial aid that i recieve through it. I want to travel to explore new places and i think am very adventorous , though never got an opportunity to showcase d adventorous side of mine.
    As Travelling involves lot of spending. I want to earn money while i travel.
    Can u please guide me through my querry ?

  8. Liv Says:

    Thank you for writing this piece, Rolf! It’s always good to know how successful people got their start. I’ve been living in Japan for the past 2 years and it’s done so much for my writing that I’ve had the confidence to actually start pitching some pieces here and there. We’ll see what happens. I’ll have to check out your Beach piece; I was on Maya Beach last year and would like to read about it when it wasn’t swarming with tourists.

  9. Amy Says:

    Hi Rolf,

    I have been drudging away my adult life in an office, shuffling papers. I have always had an interest in writing, however it has been no more than a dream. I travelled to India this year and since returning I have constantly wondered what it would be like to travel and write about those experiences. Currently I am trying to enroll in a writing course at the local college. I have also been researching this subject online to see if it is a feasible career. I read this blog and LOVED the amount of information you have provided. Thank you for sharing, you are truly inspiring. I fully intend to read your book Vagabonding! (Hastings here I come! haha..) I dont know what the future holds, but at the age of 34, perhaps a new career is feasible? Life is an adventure, thanks for sharing yours!

  10. The Lost Girls » Blog Archive » Rolf Potts On Travel Writing Says:

    […] From the author: “Way back in 1999, when I was first cutting my teeth as a travel columnist for, lots of readers wrote in to ask me how they, too, could get jobs as travel writers. This question kind of caught me off guard, since I didn’t know much about the travel-writing trade; I only knew my own experiences with it. […]

  11. Titus Kakembo Says:

    That piece gave me inspiration. Keep us posted

  12. Simone Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Rolf! At the time, was it unusual that Salon published you, even though you had no real portfolio? That seems like it’d be quite difficult these days. What I’m looking for is that important moment of transition — how do go from the smaller publications to the bigger ones? From the web to print? I would love to hear about that.

  13. Miss Tee Says:

    Amazing! I just graduated 2 weeks ago and this is my dream job. I’m so inspired!

  14. Dani Good Says:

    Nice! I love traveling to, I wish I can make money doing something so interesting and fun! Great job, congrats

  15. Titus Kakembo Says:

    Next time you are in Uganda, give me a buzz, I write newpaper travel stories. I am looking forward to publishing a book on destinations here.
    Uganda is the country where Idi Amin was a president. There after it hit headlines with the notorious Lords Resistance Army which abducted children.
    Besides that, there are lots of attractions in store.

  16. Kara Aiello Says:

    hi Rolf,
    My name is Kara and I am an aspiring writer who was very fortunate to come across your website. My passion stems from simply loving to travel but as a person with a physical disabilty, i know how scary and exiting an opportunity of travel can be and would love to write some articles of my experiences to share with others with an without disabilities. I love in Philly and have written articles for the Philadelphia Inquire but not having luck currently. I have traveled throughout the US including a dog sled trip in northern MN and a Kayak trip on Lake Superior near the Apostle Islands. I have traveled to Peru, Ecuador and much of Western Europe and several cruises. Any input/feedback for me that i could look into/locate to do some writing? I think this would be a great benefit for people who love but are more hesitant to to travel due to disabilities. Thanks so much Kara

  17. Eric Says:

    Great tips! I’ll be absorbing your website for some time.