Organizing Your Overseas Writing Vacation By Roy Stevenson

Have you, as a freelance writer, ever considered taking an extended writing vacation? A holiday where you travel to a sunny, exotic, far off country, set up your writing shop, and continue to pound out your articles, stories, and books, while escaping the short, gray, rainy winter days back home. Sounds like the sort of thing Ernest Hemingway and R.L. Stevenson would have done, doesn’t it?

Most of us freelancers get so comfortable in our offices, or feel so chained to them, that the idea of writing anywhere else is out of our comfort zone. But the beauty of writing is that it’s a portable occupation you can do from anywhere. And if you’re selective about your destination, with careful planning you can take several weeks away from home, while continuing to write and maintain your productivity and income.

For a year, my wife and I had discussed the idea of taking an annual writing vacation. Then, through a convergence of events in our lives we were finally able to take a large block of time to travel. Linda had just retired from a 25-year stint with a large American corporation, and my freelance writing was starting to take off, with several regular writing gigs. We now had the time and motivation to take a 6-week writing vacation, as an experiment to see if this could be done annually.

Our planning had to be thorough so we wouldn’t lose money on the trip. The idea was to live as cheaply as we could, and spend less money in our 6 weeks away, than if we had stayed back in Seattle’s dreary winter. But to do this I had to maintain my productivity.

First, we had to select a country with a low cost of living. It also had to be politically stable – we weren’t interested in being caught in the middle of a coup by the local military junta. Our destination also had to have a sizeable number of tourist attractions, because as a travel writer, I would need to mine its tourist assets for saleable articles to pay for the trip.

After much research, my wife selected Ecuador. She’d get there a couple of weeks early to take some Spanish lessons, while I cranked out my backlog of articles that were due to several editors. So far, so good. We used our air miles to pay for the airline tickets, saving some money. My wife arranged accommodations at a hostel in Quito, through her Spanish language school, which only cost us $9/day – and ultimately proved very suitable for our purposes.

My goal was to write all morning, followed by lunch and then sightseeing for a few hours. Essentially I’d be working half time, writing in the mornings, then doing research and photography for travel stories while we were sightseeing. As a travel writer I’d still be “working” even when we were exploring.

I would need to be disciplined with my writing – no straying from my computer in the mornings when I was supposed to be writing. And it worked well. To help me stay on track, I wrote down my objectives to refer to when I arrived in Quito.

My Writing Objectives

  1. Maintain standard “maintenance” of freelance writing administration such as proofing galleys from editors, as they arrived in my inbox.
  2. Complete other freelance writing administrative tasks (e.g. create distribution lists for some magazines and newspapers, create new brochure for one of my sideline writing businesses)
  3. Continue to write assigned articles
  4. Continue to pitch new story ideas to editors
  5. Pitch resale articles
  6. Search for new travel article ideas to defray the costs of the vacation
  7. Work on my writer’s website
  8. Start writing a booklet that has been a back burner project
  9. Start writing booklets to sell on my website
  10. Have some down time from writing
  11. Go somewhere I’ve never been before

Was My Writing Vacation Productive?

In a word, Yes! I managed to write nine new articles, resold a few reprints, and rewrote a couple of stories for resale and sent them out to some interested editors. I also kept up with all incoming correspondence from editors, proofed some galleys they sent to me, and generally kept up with my billing and administration. The total income from the articles I wrote or resold is over $3,000 (and that’s not counting the repeat sales income I will eventually generate from the new stories I wrote).

I gathered materials and photos for at least a dozen solid travel stories. My experience in the past has been to sell about half of my travel stories within a year of returning from such trips. I should do well from these planned travel articles, and anticipate earning of a minimum of $1,500-$2,500.

How does this income measure up against our expenses? Overall, I’ll probably break even or even make a little money on my writing vacation. Certainly my writing will eventually pay for the trip after I’ve sold some stories about Ecuador within the next year.

Here’s some advice that will help you plan your writing vacation so you can get away from the winter rain, fog or snow for a few weeks.

First though, what are the prerequisites for a writing vacation? You need regular, assigned writing from several magazines before you leave, and it helps to be a travel writer so you can capitalize on your sightseeing. That’s the beauty of travel writing – any place you go is a potential story.

Selecting a Destination for Your Writing Vacation

The key to a cost-effective writing vacation is selecting an inexpensive country to stay in. Paris would not be a good place for a writing vacation because of its high cost of living.

We chose a developing country, where food and accommodation costs are very low. Resources like THE WORLD’S CHEAPEST DESTINATIONS: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune will help you select a list of possible countries. For example, 3 meals a day in Quito cost us as little as $10-$15 when we chose smaller neighborhood places to eat. In reality, we ended up spending closer to $30/day because we didn’t always look for budget restaurants.

Finding Inexpensive Accommodations

For less expensive accommodations, you’ll need to select long-term accommodations, like apartments, hostels, or home stays, versus hotels. The Internet is invaluable for this sort of search. We chose a hostel in Quito as our writing base for $9/day. Even when travelling out of Quito for overnight trips, we didn’t feel like we were losing any money by paying for our Quito hostel.

Preparing for Your Writing Vacation

Get as many articles written before you leave, and prepare your reference materials for the rest. Saving reference materials in pdf format to your laptop computer is paper free, and saves you from lugging books around.

You’ll find that when you travel away from your writing base, your opportunities for writing will be limited. Travel eats away at your writing time, so there will be days when you do no writing at all, or will be too tired to write in the evenings. Instead, look at those days as “travel research” days, and don’t feel guilty about it. Collect as much literature about the place and shoot as many photos as you can, for your archives. Eventually you’ll sell stories about those places, so your sightseeing time will have been productive.

Problems We Encountered on Our Writing Vacation

Fortunately, no major problems happened to impact my writing. Ecuador was going through a series of rolling power cuts, which hit Quito between 1-4 p.m. This meant no access to the Internet during this time. But, “no problema, senor” – I was out sightseeing at that time. If this sort of thing happens on your writing vacation, it becomes a matter of working around it.

Some minor administrative inconveniences cropped up. One editor sent me a contract to sign and mail back, while another editor needed a W9 Tax form filled out and sent to her office. Neither editor minded waiting until I returned to Seattle. Hardly earth shattering problems. If I’d stayed any longer than six weeks, I would have hunted down a photocopy place where I could scan, print and mail documents.

What Lessons Did I Learn?

Next time, we’ll establish our destination early, instead of two months before leaving. This will give me more time to research potential articles and try to sell them in advance to magazines and newspapers.

We’ll set our writing base up in a smaller town than Quito (2.1 million people). We’ll look for a quieter city with less hustle, and less pollution, etc. At the end of our trip, we spent a week in Cuenca, and decided that would have been ideal for a writing base.

I’ll also pitch resort and spa magazines stories in advance, and perhaps try to arrange some free accommodations.

We’re considering Bali, Thailand, Vietnam, and India for our next writing vacation because all are exotic places with a low cost of living.

I hope this opens your eyes to the possibility of taking an extended writing vacation in an exotic place without it costing any more than if you remained at home. If you choose an exotic place with good potential for story ideas, and have some assigned work, you should have an extremely inexpensive writing vacation. And of course, with the added advantage of escaping the short, gray, fog shrouded, rainy days in North America.

Roy Stevenson is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. Over 380 of his articles have been published in more than 120 regional, national, and international magazines, newspapers, in-flights and e-zines in the U.S.A., Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. He writes on travel and culture, military history, art, communications, health, fitness, running, triathlons, sports and film festival reviews. To see some of his stories, please go to Writing magazines featuring his stories include The Writer, Writer’s News, The New Writer, Writer’s Forum, and The Right Way To Travel.