Camels, chocolate, goats, and Ben Affleck: All in a day’s work for travel writer, Kristin Luna

Kristin on Lake Louise

 Kristin on Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada 

What was your commute like last year?  I logged just over 2600 km to and from work.  Travel writer and blogger, Kristin Luna, however, flew 140 177 km in 2007 in the name of her career.  That is a whole lotta ground covered!  Kristin offered LOADED BOW a glimpse of what it means to travel the globe for a living and shares stories of turning emails into a career, smuggling refugees, and being held at gunpoint while on the clock.

LOADED BOW:  You made the decision to become a travel writer while overlooking the waters of Lake Como in Italy (I completely understand how this happened – the area is serious fairytale material). Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey into this career?

Kristin Luna:  I grew up with a mother who liked to travel a lot.  My sister and I were fortunate to see much of the United States as children (at 19, my sis Kari has visited 49 of the 50 states; I’m slightly behind at “just” 44!). Aside from trips to Mexico and the Caribbean, I first left the country at 15 and immediately fell in love with Europe. In the subsequent five years, I would make many return trips over the Atlantic, but it was when I took it upon myself to make a solo backpacking trek across Western Europe at the age of 20, prior to a semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, that I was really infected with the travel bug.

Kristin in Iceland
Kristin in Iceland

I had always known I wanted to be a journalist and worked for local newspapers and media outlets from the time I was 14 on, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could travel the world and get paid for it. While backpacking alone, I faced many challenges and obstacles, but was also met with humorous situations. I wrote all of these up as travelogues, which were periodically sent to 300 or so of my contacts back home by e-mail. Several recipients, including past professors and media professionals, suggested I publish my stories. I didn’t know where to start until a newspaper in Tennessee offered me a weekly Sunday column: the perfect forum for my ventures and the start of my career as a travel writer.

When I was chased down a mountain in Lake Como by a pack of rabid goats with menacing horns that resulted in a sprained ankle (the very shorthand version of the story), I had an epiphany: “Does this sort of stuff happen to regular people on a normal basis? I don’t think so-maybe I should write about it?!”

Kristin in Capri

Kristin in Capri, Italy

LB:  Freelancing has given you the freedom and flexibility you were looking for. What have been the biggest challenges as a freelance writer? What would you recommend to others looking for freelance work?

KL:  Finding balance. Time management. It’s easy when you work from home to be distracted by a hundred different things on any given day. You think: The house needs to be cleaned, I should vacuum; the pantry is empty, I need to hit up the supermarket; the cat needs to be groomed; the car washed – there are always menial tasks that need to be taken care of around the house. I feel guilty when my boyfriend comes home from work and there’s still a large pile of dishes in the sink that have been left unattended, but at the same time, most days I haven’t left my desk from the time he left for work early in the morning, so it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around all day watching soap operas and not doing anything!

I’ve also found it difficult because when you’re a freelancer, you never really know when the next paycheck is coming. I’ll pitch several ideas to my various outlets months in advance, then much later, the editors – all independent of one another – will wind up assigning me the stories I pitched with the same deadlines. In July, for example, I had roughly 25 stories due throughout the month, on top of part of a guidebook manuscript, and the constant travel that goes with taking on a big job like a guidebook. That doesn’t include all of the interviews that many stories require. I never turn down an assignment (well, one that pays a fair enough wage), because I fear that that particular editor will stop calling me, so I often bite off more than I can chew. But at the end of the day, I always do get it done – it just often feels like I’m back in college and cramming for exams with all-nighters and a steady stream of caffeine!

Kristin and Ben Affleck
Kristin and Ben Affleck

Freelancers wear many hats at once. Although I consider myself first and foremost a travel writer, I do many other forms of writing, as well. From the time I moved to New York and started a career in magazines, I’ve doubled as a red reporter for various outlets – first In Touch, then I moved on to bigger fish like Entertainment Weekly and InStyle, and am now a freelance correspondent for PEOPLE magazine. Again, it’s not a regular gig – sometimes I may have three events a week; other times, it’s one per month – but when they do call me to cover something, it’s supplemental income to pad the bank account. I also take on the odd assignment for women’s magazines like Glamour. So, in essence, the key to my success? Never say no!

LB:  Recently, Chuck Thompson wrote Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer where he denounces the travel writing industry for pandering to its commercial interests and pressuring writers to exclude their juiciest, most interesting tales while doling out dull, sentimental overviews that please advertisers. Has this been an issue for you? If so, how have you reconciled with it and how have you responded?

KL:  I don’t mind addressing this. To be quite honest, I’ve never faced this problem. That could be because I’ve never worked on staff for a travel magazine. I’ve worked in-house at various publications – Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Lucky, Us Weekly, etc. – but my travel writing was always strictly on a for-hire basis, meaning I would pitch magazines and websites my own ideas and they would assign me articles as they saw fit. This escalated to several recurring writing gigs, primarily for Newsweek, Forbes Traveler and the Travel Channel, but the process has remained the same: I come up with the ideas, and they send me a contract if they like them. I’ve never in any way been steered to write about a certain destination, resort, company or the like, nor have any of my stories been edited accordingly to pander to advertisers. That said, I’m sure this happens occasionally, maybe even frequently, for travel magazine staffers, but in my personal experience, I have yet to encounter it.

Iceland

On a similar note, particularly when writing for the Web, the stories that receive the most favourable responses and, in return, generate the most traffic are the round-up pieces (e.g. 10 Best Warm Weather Spots South of the Equator, Where Celebrities Go to Tie the Knot; 5 Best Scuba Spots, that sort of thing), which means these are the kind of stories editors want you to pitch. This sort of writing can get a bit formulaic and monotonous at times, especially when the majority of research is done remotely (i.e. you don’t actually visit all, sometimes any, of the places), but it makes it all the more fun when I get assigned a lengthy destination piece that I can play around with.

LB:  So we are all terribly jealous that you are able to travel for a living. Any horror stories that will make us feel better about our own work?

KL:  Of course! Many of them conveniently happened on trains, which is ironic as train is my favorite way to travel (I’m actually answering these questions from the beautiful Rocky Mountaineer in Alberta, Canada). One overnight trip from Austria, I was in a sleeper car with two emaciated, teenage African sisters and a lady from Ghana (who I referred to lovingly as “Big Mama”). It turns out the sisters were refugees in Austria and living under very harsh conditions. They were trying to escape to Italy, but when the scary Austrian border control police were checking passports in our car, they realized the sisters didn’t have proper documentation and told them they would be arrested after we crossed the border. Big Mama was not having this, so we put a plan in action. She sat sentry at the bar to watch for when the Italian police were checking train cars, and when she signalled to us, the sisters hid under the beds, which it should be said were a mere foot or two above the ground (this is how sickly thin they were), and I blocked them in with my luggage. We stripped the other beds of sheets and balled them up and hid them in the pillow, as to make it look like I was the sole passenger in that particular car. I then pretended to be asleep, as it was 3am, when the Italian police barged in. They took one look at my sleeping self and decided not to bother me and moved on to the next car. My heart was pounding so hard, and I feared what would happen to me if we all got caught. Luckily, that didn’t happen!

Another time, I was occupying a train compartment alone-in Italy, again-and a stowaway slipped into my car. I didn’t know what to do, because he hid under the bed opposite me and made a motion indicating he had a gun that he would use on me if I were to tip the train attendants off to his presence. I didn’t want to sleep for fear he would rob me, or do something even worse, but I couldn’t leave the car or he would take out his gun (if he indeed even had one, which I was pretty certain he did). Lucky for me, the door was slightly ajar and he popped out from under the bed to ask something of me-in Italian, a language I don’t speak-at the very time an attendant walked by. The attendant quickly ran and got the cops, and there was a mad chase that resulted in him being escorted off the train in handcuffs.

Then there have been many occurrences when I tried to take a roundabout way to get somewhere, when I was traveling on a very small budget just to get the cheapest deal possible (even when travel publications do give you expenses, it’s often very little and you wind up footing much of the bill yourself). A friend and I were living in Holland and wanted to go to Morocco for pleasure, and after weeks of research deduced the cheapest way would be a flight from Amsterdam to London, a flight from London to Seville, Spain, a train from Seville to TK, a bus from TK to Algeciras, then a ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, Morocco. Well, as you can imagine, one small delay can throw off your entire plan. We reached Seville and missed the last train by a matter of minutes, so we walked to the bus station, our heavy packs on our backs, only to find the next bus didn’t leave until 6am, so we had to sleep in the bus station for the night (a haven for bums), which wasn’t allowed, but a kindly police officer took pity on us and locked us in the station for the night for our own protection. We ended up having further delays when we finally reached the ferry station in southern Spain, then finally reached Morocco to find that due to a recent Daylight Saving’s Time, there was a three-hour time change from Spain that we hadn’t accounted for, and again, we missed the only train out of Tangier that day. It took us over two days to finally reach Marrakesh, and in the end, it would have probably been cheaper just to fly directly from Amsterdam to Morocco, but then you inevitably never have quite the stories!

Kristin on Camel

Now, I’ve learned the most economical way is often just a direct flight, because when it comes down to it, the added stress isn’t worth it, and if one thing goes wrong, as it did in our case, you often end up paying far more to compensate for it.

Also, for anyone who thinks I have the “dream job,” I encourage them to read Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? which is an accurate portrayal of the treatment of travel writers, the trials we face, and how many of us often go into severe debt for the sake of an assignment! While most of my friends work normal 9-5, Monday-Friday jobs, I find myself up until midnight on a Saturday frequently log hours seven days a week. I love the flexibility of working from home and for myself, but I still do have daily deadlines and feel like I’m often under far more stress than I was when working in an office!

LB:  This month LOADED BOW is looking at partnerships. You must meet heaps of people along the way, but I imagine that you work primarily on your own. What is this like for you?

KL:  I always joke that my job title is “professional networker” more than anything else. In my position, as a freelancer, it’s important to maintain close ties with publicists. Because I’m not working on staff at a magazine, publicists keep me tuned in to what is going on with their clients. Knowing the right people also dictates what kind of access you get to certain people and properties. For example, when I’m working in entertainment journalism, I am much more likely to land a celebrity interview if I know the celeb’s publicist on a personal basis than if I just put in a cold call.

The same goes for properties. If I want to do a story on a certain property, I often reach out to the hotel’s PR or sales and marketing team. The majority of the time, they’re extremely helpful even if I’ve never been in touch before, because people in the tourism industry are always eager for press, but it just speeds up the process if you have previously established rapport with the team.

Kristin and Rihanna
Kristin and Rihanna

Luckily, I’ve always been an extrovert, so I actually love the schmoozing part of the job. I genuinely just like meeting new people, so the various events, dinners, and junkets I attend to advance my career don’t really feel like work at all. A couple weeks ago, I had a restaurant launch at the W, a dinner with a new marketing firm, a fashion show for Nordstrom’s, and a Best of the Bay magazine party to attend all in one week, all for the sake of my career-but can you really call any of that “work”?! I’d do it all on my own time anyway!

LB:  Camels & Chocolate, your fabulous blog, was born out of a New Years Resolution in 2007 (kudos to you for keeping it!!). Is it primarily a personal outlet for you? You mentioned that Google has blown your cover for the site. Do you see your blog furthering your career?

KL:  There’s a fine line you must walk when blogging for personal reasons. To be honest, I started my blog out of boredom more than anything else – I was working a freelance editing gig at a monthly fashion magazine for a year, and it was my first time not working at a weekly, which moves on a much faster scale. I wasn’t accustomed to the slow pace of work, so I started blogging to fill my days – I figured I spent enough time reading other random strangers’ blogs that I might as well commit myself to the blogosphere, as well. I only sent my link to a couple of people: friends, my mom and sister, and my boyfriend. Before I knew it, I would get e-mails from people who I hadn’t talked to in years, saying something to the effect of, “So and so sent me your blog link. I read it every day and am fascinated by your life.” When I realized more people were reading than I initially thought, I figured I needed to be particularly careful about what I put online, because you never know who is reading.

This was further illustrated to me after I humorously blogged about a wedding I was in. It turns out I really offended the bride, who I later found out was a frequent reader, and while I still don’t think I said anything wrong or mean, I do feel horrible that I upset her so. I’m snarky by nature, and most people who know me personally know that I’m sarcastic much of the time, but this doesn’t always translate to the Web. I also learned one thing women do not joke around about is their weddings!

I don’t mind if people who read my blog know who I am. I’ve never gone out and posted my whole name at any one time, but if people cared enough, they could find it. My main reason for not wanting my name attached is because editors frequently Google writers with whom they don’t already have a professional relationship, and I would much rather them stumble upon my published clips in national magazines than my unedited, unpolished blog. While the style and tone of my blog are 100 percent me and would be reflected if I were to, say, write a novel, journalism is a much different, more regimented type of writing, and I fear someone would read my blog before bothering to peruse my actual travel clips. But Google is smart and if you search my name, my blog now comes up on the first page of results, so I just have to come to terms with if I willingly put myself out on the Web, people are going to find me.

At the same time, one my close blogger pals, Holly of Nothing but Bonfires, landed her gig as a writer/editor of Travelocity simply from having a popular, well-received blog. So it can work in your favor, as well. I think, truthfully, editors do like to see your raw editing, because when reading your clips, they can never be certain how heavy a hand your former editors have had in the revise process. So it’s just something I need to get a little more comfortable with.

Another reason I was hoping to stay incognito was because I haven’t actually taken the time to design my blog. I’m still using a free Blogger template, and I feel like it would look far more polished if I had Camels & Chocolate designed like my professional site. But I have purchased the URL, http://www.camelsandchocolate.com, and enlisted the help of my graphic designer cousin Kelly, so it’s just a matter of time until my blog gets a much-needed facelift!

gen+loadedbow

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3 Responses to “Camels, chocolate, goats, and Ben Affleck: All in a day’s work for travel writer, Kristin Luna”

  1. […] Camels, chocolate, goats, and Ben Affleck: All in a day?s work for … By loadedbow Kristin and Ben Affleck. Kristin and Ben Affleck. Freelancers wear many hats at once. Although I consider myself first and foremost a travel writer, I do many other forms of writing, as well. From the time I moved to New York and … Loaded Bow – https://loadedbow.wordpress.com […]

  2. […] Camels, chocolate, goats, and Ben Affleck: All in a day’s work for …The majority of the time, they’re extremely helpful even if I’ve never been in touch before, because people in the tourism industry are always eager for press, but it just speeds up the process if you have previously established rapport … […]

  3. […] Camels, chocolate, goats, and Ben Affleck: All in a day’s work for …Kristin on Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. What was your commute like last year? I logged just over 2600 km to and from work. Travel writer and blogger, Kristin Luna, however, flew 140 177 km in 2007 in the name of her career. … […]

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