A three-time Emmy award-winning writer, reporter and host, Karen Schaler is the author of Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go? Karen has written for publications such as The New Yorker, the Boston Globe, Town and Country, Elite Traveler, and Islands, and she has appeared on television shows such as Good Morning America, The Today Show, FOX & Friends, and CNN. She has traveled to more than 30 countries, and she is the creator and editor of the “Travel Therapy” website and its daily updated blog at www.traveltherapytrips.com. Originally from the Seattle area, Schaler has lived in ten different states and currently is based in New York.
How did you get started traveling?
I was bitten by the travel bug at a very young age. When my grandparents from Washington State decided to be “Snowbirds” and move south for the winter, went to Mexico. For more than twenty years they had a home in a small town called Alamos. My first trip out of the country was to visit them when I was about ten and even as a child I feel in love with exploring someplace new.
How did you get started writing?
My mom will tell you I started telling stories as soon as I could talk and have never stopped talking since, but the first time I remember actually writing something down on a regular basis was when I started my first diary when I was in third grade. Every day I would fill the pages with what happened at school, who said what, what people were wearing and doing. It was part reporting and part personal feelings, and I loved it. I wrote in journals daily all the way through college. Now my blogs and other writing projects are my “voice”.
What do you consider your first break as a writer?
That’s a tough one because it’s a different story for writing for broadcast and writing for print. I think the one people are most surprised to hear is the first time I was ever published in a national publication it was when I freelanced a piece for The New Yorker. As an Emmy award-winning television reporter I had been writing broadcast stories, daily, for years but was having a hard time breaking into print. I had a great story idea that I couldn’t get on at my TV station so I decided to try and sell it to a top magazine and picked The New Yorker. I didn’t have any contacts at the magazine so I Googled and found the email of the Pulitzer prize winning editor David Remnick and sent him a quick email about my story. A few days later I was contacted by someone with the “Talk of the Town” department asking me about what I had. When they wanted to see “clips” of my other work I quickly said I would just send them the piece on spec instead. I didn’t have any clips because I’d never been published in print, but didn’t want to be judged on that, so I whipped up the piece in about two hours and sent it off. Having that piece run in The New Yorker made other print editors take me seriously and helped open the door to the print writing world.
As a traveler, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
That’s easy. Coming home. Unlike some people who travel who love the experience but are eager to get back home after a week or so, I have a hard time leaving a destination because I know there is still so much to explore and discover. I’m usually up against tight deadlines with my writing assignments so I can’t extend my stay so I have a long list of places I want to go back to. Even for my longer trips I only travel with carry-on luggage so I don’t have to deal with luggage getting lost. I went to Africa for a month with just a carry-on, and it made traveling so much easier. My only other small challenge is that I have to sit in an aisle seat when I fly. A claustrophobic travel writer — crazy right?
What is the biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
In my book Travel Therapy I feature more than 100 destinations from around the world based on what you’re going through in life. The biggest challenge when writing a book like this, and working as a freelance travel writer, is making sure you personally visit the destinations. I truly feel as a travel writer you have to actually immerse yourself in the destination to write about it. Sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many travel writers just take information from press releases and public relations folks. It’s not always possible to experience every nuance of a destination, but if I don’t know about a restaurant or hotel firsthand I make sure to talk to people who do. I have a long list of trusted travel contacts all around the world that I can count on for an honest assessment.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Ummm…making money. I love traveling so much that I forget I’m actually supposed to be making money doing this. I jump at any chance to take a trip and I might be gone for two weeks exploring someplace fabulous and only be making a few hundred dollars for the story I’m writing. Ideally you want to travel and then sell several different stories about the destination, but I often write one story and then I’m off on another trip. Like any aspect of journalism this isn’t something to do if you’re looking to get rich, but you still need to pay your bills! With the economy crashing, a lot of the magazine and online outlets I write for are cutting back or folding altogether, making it even more of a scramble to make ends meet.
Have you over done other work to make ends meet?
Once I finished the Travel Therapy book I knew I needed to replenish my bank account, so I went back to my “old life” of TV and now work two days a week behind the scenes as a freelance writer for television. This still allows me to travel for my “primary” job as a travel author and freelance writer, and I’m thankful to have the steady work.
What travel authors or books might you recommend that have influenced you?
I bought my first real travel book when I was in college and headed to Europe for the summer. It was my first big trip and I was on a very tight budget, so I picked up the Frommer’s Guide to Europe and that book became my bible. This was before we had “Google,” so this resource was invaluable! I read every single page before I left for my trip, and mapped out my entire two months. Whenever I arrived in a new city I would pull out my Frommer’s and call the people listed in the book who had rooms in their home for rent, and that’s how I traveled for two months. Having that book helped me make the most of the time and money I had.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
My advice is to get into travel writing for the right reasons. If you’re thinking travel writing is a great way to score free trips, think again. PR folks quickly learn who the scammers are, and you get blacklisted fast. If you’re genuine about your love of travel and wanting to share your knowledge and experience with others, it’s a fantastic fit — but don’t quit your day job unless your independently wealthy. Also, remember that your name and reputation is all you have. If you want people and potential editors to trust you, you have to be professional, meet every deadline and write authentically. Also be sure to find the right “home” for your articles. Ultimately the best advice is, write every day. Whether it’s in a blog, a journal, get in the habit of writing and pretty soon you won’t be able to stop.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Personally, the biggest reward in travel writing for me is the people I have met on my journeys. I am blessed that my love of travel and writing has taken me to more than 30 countries. What I have learned about myself on these trips is invaluable. My goal now is to share the Travel Therapy concept, because I’ve experience firsthand how travel can change lives. I know it has changed mine!