From travel writing and photography to working with animals, getting paid to travel is many people’s dream job. Here, 12 experts in their fields tell you the highs, lows and what it takes to succeed...
What’s so great about it? I love the unknown. Travel is one of the only surefire ways of jumping into the unknown. Every time I do something, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’ve always loved meeting new cultures. I like the romance of travel, like arriving at a bazaar in the Middle East and finding people with their faces covered and strange music playing. I’m still hooked on that experience. Nowadays, you have to go to the ends of the earth to get it, but it’s still the reason why I travel. Mongolia is always a favourite. Visiting the Wodaabe in Niger was incredible, and the Bayaka in the Central African Republic. I want that ‘pinch myself’ feeling when I’m doing something completely alien to my own lifestyle.
The hard reality: As you get older, your priorities change. I do a lot more production from the office now. I have young kids, so I’ve had to curtail trips because I can’t stand being away for more than three weeks, whereas 10 years ago, I’d have been away for 11 months. You can prepare yourself for physical hardships but the emotional stuff - missing home, the frustration when things don’t go according to plan… - can cause intense mental and emotional problems. Most places I’ve travelled to have been off-the-beaten-track and less well-developed, so the sanitation and living standards are very low. I’m quite prepared to put up with discomfort in order to get the experience.
Skills and Qualifications: There are no rules anymore. When I started, I worked at a national newspaper in the UK, which was brilliant training for the ability to deliver pictures even if conditions aren’t what you want or expect. You can train anyway you want, but for most people it comes from doing it for a long period of time. In photography, the main qualification you need is enthusiasm. With my first job, my portfolio was nothing special, but I was super enthusiastic and that’s why I got the break. If the newspaper rang me at 6am on a Sunday morning and asked me to go on a job, I’d just say ‘yes’. What you can learn from college is how to take a good photo. The only part of photography that’s hard to learn is your ability to interact with people, which is a huge part of the job. That comes from your personality and life experience. You have to be original. You really have to be excited about what you’re doing. Find your own voice and do that thing that’s you.
What’s so great about it? I love that I get to live out my passion to help both vulnerable wildlife and rural communities living with wildlife in Africa. I’ve worked all over East Africa, along with Sri Lanka. My favourite places to work are Zambia’s Luangwa Valley and the Masai Mara in Kenya. Both have bountiful wildlife, breathtaking landscape and some of the richest local culture on the continent. Highlights of my career to date have been rescuing over 550 primates from the illegal bushmeat and pet trades in Zambia and returning them to the wild, along with helping the Maasai tribe overcome years of exploitation to benefit from cultural tourism to their manyattas (settlements).
The hard reality: Cutting through the reams of government red tape and overcoming corruption is a constant struggle and sometimes makes you lose heart. I then see a wild animal we’ve rescued from the most horrendous conditions back in the bush, living a totally free life, and I remember why I’m doing this. The wildlife gives me my motivation and strength. You also need to be prepared for long hours in the bush, living in really basic conditions: a tent, a bucket shower and a long drop toilet, with lions sometimes for company when you need to go pee in the night.
Skills and Qualifications: I did a Masters in Conservation Biology at DICE, University of Kent in the UK. It’s a really great course, very practical and engaging. More important than qualifications though is to get lots of experience of conservation under your belt by volunteering on working conservation projects. Check out the Born Free website for volunteering experiences in Zambia, Malawi and South Africa.
What’s so great about it? Mountain flying is my passion and where I’m happiest. Highlights of my career as a pilot so far include operating in some very mountainous and challenging environments, such as New Zealand’s Southern Alps and the St Elias Mountain Range in Canada’s remote Yukon Territory. I’ve flown various aircraft, from Nomads to Helio Courier ski planes. I really enjoy flying and showing folks from all over the world these incredible landscapes and remote areas, whether they are mountaineers, scientists or tourists, and seeing the joy and excitement of exploring wilderness areas that are untouched and unspoilt.
The hard reality: The job certainly has it’s challenges, largely weather-related, or inaccessibility with various conditions such as snow, wind or poor lighting at the landing sites. On these occasions, you feel like you are actually ‘working’. Flying is a passion and even on the toughest of days, the flying is still fun. If any of the conditions present an unsafe environment to operate, then we won’t, so it’s largely about mitigating risk, but at the same time getting the job done, being productive, but not at the expense of safety. Often it’s very hard when climbers are running low on food, fuel, and morale, telling them the weather isn’t suitable to get them out. They know that is a risk before going in, but you still feel that sense of responsibility to their well-being, knowing you are their only way out.
Skills and Qualifications: A basic Commercial Pilot’s License is the first part. Typically you need 200 hours of flight time, written exams completed and other things to qualify to sit a Commercial Flight Test. Operations like Icefield Discovery will look for candidates who have completed a minimum of 1000 hours, significant tail wheel experience and time on ski-equipped aircraft, with mountain flying experience. Practical experience is hard to come by for many, so we do train the ‘right’ candidates that meet other criteria. Being passionate about mountain flying and having an eagerness to learn is a good start.
What’s so great about it? Travel writing opens up the world. In the last 10 years, I’ve motorcycled across the salt flats of Bolivia, paraglided with vultures in Nepal, cycled through Burma, dived with manta rays in Hawaii, snowshoed in Japan and met remote Amazon tribes in Peru. It’s an exciting, fast-moving job, with never the same day twice. You can be in the Botswana desert one day, a colourful coastal town in Norway the next. You’re constantly learning about the world, discovering new things about places, people, politics, wildlife and nature. Being on assignment can push you to travel in a deeper way. You keep your eyes open, alert to details. You interview people, talk more, ask questions, and consider places from different angles. There’s great pleasure too in the writing process: collecting your ideas and research, crafting your story, and ultimately seeing your article laid out, along with your photos, in a magazine or newspaper. The more of the world you see, the more you want to see. This is a job for people who are curious and adventurous.
The hard reality: Travel writing is fiercely competitive. You have to have talent and great ideas, and you’ll need to develop industry contacts and find original story ideas. You’ll spend a lot of time pitching ideas to editors, many of which might be ignored or rejected. You need to work even harder to break through. Life on the road is exciting, but it can also be disorienting and sometimes lonely. Living out of a bag isn’t for everyone, nor is spending so much time away from family, friends and ‘normality’. It’s a job with early mornings, long hours in planes, buses, airports and train stations, and often very basic living conditions. You need to be adaptable. Very few travel writers become millionaires; if money is your primary goal, there are better way to get rich.
Skills and Qualifications: There are travel writers out there with a Journalism qualification, a degree in English Literature or other courses related to writing. They’re a good way to practice writing and pick up skills. Writing classes or seminars are also a way to develop skills and get helpful feedback from experts. Many people think they can write, but you don’t know until you challenge yourself with genuine serious feedback from professionals, such as editors and working journalists. Look at the publications you want to write for and analyse what they do: tone, style, structure... The best advice is to get started. Having a blog or writing articles for smaller websites or publications will give you practice and experience, as well as something solid to demonstrate your abilities to editors. Be enthusiastic. If you do get an opportunity, take it with both hands. Hand in brilliant and error-free pieces on or ahead of deadline. You should really only do this job if you love writing, as much as you love travel.
What’s so great about it? For people passionate about the outdoors and wildlife, there isn’t really anything better. It’s a role that lets you travel the world and spend a lot of time observing and watching animal behaviour, usually at the best time too. Because we are often documenting ‘events’, such as migrations, spawning, courtship or predator/prey interactions, we go at the peak of activity and spend from dawn to dusk with the animals. I’ve worked in the Bering Sea filming Humpback whales and shearwaters and in Patagonia filming the iconic orcas of Peninsula Valdez beach-stranding to hunt seals. I’ve filmed pufferfish in Japan making sand castles for Planet Earth 2, filmed the marine iguanas and snakes of the Galapagos, as well as jaguars, dolphins and spider monkeys in South America. Ski touring after mountain goats in Glacier National Park, USA, was a definite highlight.
The hard reality: We spend an awful lot of time away, which is great, but you miss out on birthdays, weddings and friends’ lives. On average, I spend between 6-8 months a year away. Once on location, we are so focused on the story that you rarely get to see much of the rest of the country or location, and once we’ve finished filming, we head home. On average, I travel with 15-20 cases, which can weigh between 300-500kg, so airports aren’t fun. When we were filming mountain goats, we were working about 18-20 hours per day for a month non-stop, which includes all the filming, the daily travel to the area and the admin at the end of the day because you need to download the footage and charge batteries. I had an alarm on every hour to get up and check the download, so in that month I worked around 540 hours. The plus side was I got really fit and lost a lot of weight.
Skills and Qualifications: I have a BSc in Marine Science and an MSc Natural Resource Management. However, I really learnt on the job. I learnt black and white photography and developing when I was ten, and that was a good foundation in the properties of light. I loved photography as a result. After my degree, I used to go to Patagonia and Antarctica for about four years working on Blue and Humpback whale research, as well as photography assignments, and when I came back to the UK, I went to speak to some producers at the BBC’s Natural History Unit who were working up ‘Ocean Giants’. One thing led to another and I ended up at the NHU. I was 28, a runner, and I took a big pay cut, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
What’s so great about it? It feels like the best job in the world. What could be better than helping people to have the adventure of a lifetime in the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the world, working with so many fantastic local people along the way? This is a job that’s taken me all over the world. My favourite places are sometimes those that are not the obvious popular destinations, like the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan. Western Mongolia, Tibet and Central Asia are at the top of my list, but everyone, including me, has a big place in their heart for Nepal’s amazing mountains and wonderful people. My favourite trip is usually the last one I lead or the one I’m leading at the time.
The hard reality: On any trip, problems can be encountered. I was in Istanbul airport during the attempted coup in 2016, for example. Sometimes I might need to sort out ways around landslides on mountain roads, assist carrying a sick group member down a mountain and arrange a helicopter rescue, deal with other medical problems in our group, or retrace steps for hours to find a forgotten camera or passport. Perhaps I have been lucky, as I’d estimate that about 98 per cent of everyone who’s been with me have been an absolute delight to be with.
Skills and Qualifications: I first climbed and trekked in the Himalaya in 1979 and have been exploring the wild places of the world with and without groups ever since. A passion for it and the desire to share the adventure with others are the most important things. Being strong enough to deal with any situation, whether it is a petty border official or a rock slide blocking your path, with calmness and good humour is also essential. Qualifications such as the Summer and Winter Mountain Leader and Mountain First Aid are essential requirements these days to overlay lots and lots of experience of doing your own thing and having your own adventures.
What’s so great about it? Being a travel blogger has allowed us to make a living doing what we love. We are lucky because we get to travel and work together as a couple. We take on different adventures every day. We get to meet new people and learn about the world. What we love is being able to share our experience with our readers. We get to introduce them to new destinations and help them understand the ways the different cultures live. Travel is the best education. We have learned so much and we have the privilege of sharing that knowledge with our followers. Being a travel blogger has taken us to all seven continents, giving us the chance to take on adventures that we never thought possible. We’ve kayaked in Antarctica, walked with polar bears in the Arctic, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and come face to face with great white sharks. What seemed like only a dream a decade ago has turned into the most amazing reality.
The hard reality: Travel blogging is a business and it takes a lot of hard work. Our travels are not vacations. We spend our time documenting every moment through photography, video, writing and social media. It is a 24/7 job that takes up every waking moment. We spend our days doing adventures and activities, but we go back to our hotel room at night to work, edit and sift through our notes. We don’t get to relax like the rest of the people on vacation after an amazing day at the beach or on an excursion. Once the adventure is done, the work begins. Because we are on the road so much, we don’t have a close group of friends. Most of our relationships are now online and we miss having the camaraderie of every day friendships. It can be lonely.
Skills and Qualifications: A writing course is very helpful. You want to learn how to craft a story. Photography courses are a must. The Internet is a visual medium and your articles will grab people’s attention with beautiful photos. Video editing and shooting skills are important too. People want to watch videos. They don’t want to have to think a lot about the destination, but want to be brought into the location, which video does beautifully. There are many online training courses that you can take for video, photography and writing. The best thing you can do when getting started is to get experience. Write a lot. Take a lot of photographs and take a lot of video, then work at getting better. Join a photography club. Join online forums and Facebook groups. Have people critique your work and look at successful people for inspiration and guidance. It takes a lot of work but if you keep at it, you will find it’s the most rewarding job on Earth.
What’s so great about it? I became a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor in Thailand in 2001, fully intent on returning to the London rat race within six months. My life-changing journey took almost eight years, as it became my passport to travel, live and dive the destinations some may struggle to find on the map, including places like Aruba, St Kitts and Micronesia. I’ve made over 4000 dives in Australia, the Red Sea, Indonesia, Fiji, Palau, Yap, the USA, the Bahamas and others, including the UK. Highlights have been to make worldwide friends, introduce people to this amazing ‘other world’, and diving with a humpback whale and calf. I also value my small collection of Megalodon shark teeth.
The hard reality: Many thought my life was all about getting a tan and chatting to girls with the occasional dip in the ocean. Those in the know quickly realise it can be very hard work. I was working over 90-hour weeks on liveaboards. Repetitive decompression diving is tiring on the joints. I was married to the job, with few places to hide from the more difficult clients. Perhaps the lowest point was having two kidney stones on a liveaboard in Truk Lagoon. 600 miles from a decent hospital, I was forced to suck it up and deal with the pain. I was back diving the same day.
Skills and Qualifications: Patience, communication and clarity are key attributes. You cannot talk underwater, so you must be clear and calm. How would you cope when your light fails in a wreck, your back-up also fails and you find yourself alone at a big depth? It is time to listen to your heartbeat. Almost all instructors are on their second career, and large egos cost lives. All dive agencies, such as PADI and BASC, have a structured career path to follow to become an instructor.
What’s so great about it? Managing safari camps in Africa has taken me and my husband Roelof all over, including Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya and South Africa. One gets to experience, live and breathe some of the most diverse and beautiful protected landscapes that are left on an ever-changing continent, and that is truly special. Living right inside raw nature that most other people on Earth will only get a glimpse off from a documentary on television makes the job great. You can’t get any closer to nature than this. There are so many highlights, from getting to know people from all over the globe to living and guiding in one of the most remote and wild places in Africa - the Zambezi Valley in Zambia – for four years. The light in the Zambezi floodplain forests, the mighty Zambezi river and the unequalled sunrises and sunsets glistening on waters will always be close to our hearts.
The hard reality: Daily life in a safari camp in Africa might sound like a permanent holiday, but the reality is that you are on duty 24 hours a day, and that logistics in remote wilderness areas are nothing less than very challenging. You have to be everything, from a wildlife specialist, nurse, electrician, mechanic, host, plumber, HR manager, chef, builder… The list is never-ending. It’s exhausting work, with many balls to juggle, from demanding guests to big teams of camp staff working away from their families for long periods. The challenge is part of what makes and keeps the job interesting. It’s also a lifestyle choice, as one will never become rich doing this sort of thing.
Skills and Qualifications: The industry norm is to have a couple where one organises the camp and logistics, and the other focus more on activities and guiding guests, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. My hsuband and I both have National Diplomas in Nature Conservation from a University in South Africa, which stood us in good stead in the field. Various short courses and qualifications in hospitality, catering and safari guiding also help. Get as many licences as possible for Guiding, as different countries have different guiding requirements and schools. South Africa seems to be the most well-developed and offers good solid courses, right up up to leading Walking Safaris in dangerous game areas and reserves. You could also consider becoming a specialist Marine or Bird Guide. You also need good people skills, a background in hospitality, an interest in food & drink, and a whole lot of passion and enthusiasm. The best way to get experience is the good ‘old school’ way: start at the bottom, take and make use of any opportunity, gain experience slowly and work your way up to management level.
What’s so great about it: I love being able to get up in the morning and feel proud about what I do. Making sure people in crisis have a safe place to sleep at night is a massive motivation and keeps me going, even when I’m working at all hours of the day in the midst of an emergency response. I work with so many different people, from Palestinian and Syrian staff in the refugee crisis to Nepali staff walking miles across mountains to reach villages hit by earthquakes in the foothills of the Himalayas. I get to discover now places, cultures and personalities. I don’t know who I’ll be talking to each day or which country I may be flying to, whether it will be the Philippines, because of a typhoon, or Malawi, because of a flood. I get to meet very brave and resilient people across the world who’ve been subjected to disasters or conflicts. I get to work with families and local organisations to support the most vulnerable people to get the assistance they need, be it help with the rent, materials to repair their home or money to buy mattresses and blankets.
The hard reality: As emergencies are very unpredictable, it’s very difficult to make plans in my life, and I have to be ready to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice. The places I work are often troubled by war or severe poverty, and that can be difficult to see and experience. But these challenges and social injustices act as a driver for me to work harder, as I try to achieve the best result for the people we’re mandated to help, especially women and girls who are disproportionally affected by the impact of emergencies. In Nepal, we rose early at the crack of dawn and spent time sleeping in tents in the mountains, but I adapt quickly to different routines and enjoy the variety in my life.
Skills and Qualifications: I studied Architecture at university and became interested in how architecture and design can improve the living conditions of people who may not be able to have what we refer to as a basic right: adequate shelter, privacy and security, a healthy place to live and somewhere they can call home. After working in Haiti during the earthquake response in 2010, I also realised that having a good understanding of project management, communication, diplomacy and how to effectively manage teams, sometimes working in a second language, is essential to the job. The job also involves really good communication skills, as you work with communities who are often in shock and very vulnerable, as well as excellent diplomacy and negotiation skills.
What’s so great about it? This job seriously is my dream job. I love meeting new people and learning about their cultures. I love opening people’s eyes through travel, changing their lives and making friends from all over the world. I guide in Egypt. One of my personal highlights was the last tour before my wedding. It was a 10-day trip and my group threw me three bachelor parties. They were treating me as their friend, not their tour guide. Another time I dislocated my shoulder on one of my trips and fortunately I had a physio in my group. She spared two hours of her holiday time every day to make sure my shoulder was fixed.
The hard reality: Every job has hardships. The hardest part of my job making sure everyone in the group gets the most out of their travel experience, especially when group dynamics can vary from trip to trip. It’s also difficult having travellers who have some personal issues going on at the time. In times like this, I have to be a firm leader, a kind friend and a successful problem-solver.
Skills and Qualifications: You need to confident and also a ‘people person’. It’s important to be a great communicator, collaborative and courageous. You also need to be a great listener, knowledgeable and honest. But the most important thing of all is being loving and friendly. I can highly recommend training in leadership for this job, too. To be a guide in Egypt, in particular, you are required to hold a Bachelor degree and at least a two year diploma in History and Egyptology. I’m also a qualified First Aider.
What’s so great about it? I love words and I love putting together magazines. The whole process is what keeps a smile on my face. I work with passionate people. I like having deadlines and I thrive on dealing with the challenges being an editor throws up, and how you have to think on your feet when something goes wrong. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the same things I love about travel: putting trips together, meeting new people, thinking on your feet. My job has taken me across Siberia on a train, allowed me to reach and sleep at Everest Base Camp, taken me beyond the Antarctic Circle for a polar plunge, and allowed me to reach remote Inuit communites up in Nunavik, all things I have to pinch myself about even now. Career highlights include walking part of the Camino de Santiago, meeting a porter from the 1953 Everest Expedition in Namche Bazar, Nepal, and seeing my first grizzly in Glacier National Park, Montana, not to mention meeting my hero Bill Bryson.
The hard reality: The truth is, as magazine editor, my day is like a lot of people’s office-based jobs. As well as logistically putting a magazine together and the fun parts, like dreaming up feature ideas, there’s also a lot of reading through proposals (I get several hundred a week), commissioning articles (and dealing with people’s disappointment when they’re not commissioned), loads of emails to go through (endless emails), lots of meetings, networking events in the evenings, planning workshops and seminars, dealing with budgets and managing a team. Most people think being editor of a travel magazine involves a lot of actual travelling, and while I can’t complain (I work hard so that I can fit in some travel), the reality is that I have to turn down a lot of dream trips and often end up sending someone else on my dream trip, which never gets any easier.
Skills and Qualifications: A good, successful travel writer is a writer who travels, not a traveller who writes, and it’s exactly the same for a travel editor. The editing has to come first. You have to love journalism and magazine craft as much - if not more - than travel itself, and don’t expect to be on the road an awful lot. But editing means you get to plan issues, commission and craft other people's words and take pride from the fact that you can make someone else's article sound the best it possibly can. Everyone’s way into the job is different.I did a combined Honours degree in Journalism and an MA in English, and still had to do an internship on a newspaper and even an NCTJ course before I got my first job as staff writer on a magazine in Sydney. You need to write well, understand journalism and work hard. People always told me I’d never be able to get this job. But I always remind people that the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is that the ones who made it never gave up.
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