I’ve been writing about travel for 30 years, and one of the most frequent questions from readers is it how it all started and how I ended up with what many people (including me!) think of as one of the best jobs in the world.
I am a self-taught world traveler, and my education began way back in the 1960s. In those days, there was no internet, and among the few ways for kids to learn about the world beyond their hometowns was the stack of World Book encyclopedias that nearly every mid-century household stored unread in a dusty corner, and the monthly issue of National Geographic magazine. I was a voracious reader of both as my young mind dreamt of escape and adventure.
Seriously, I would randomly grab from the stack of thick, heavy encyclopedia books and scan through them to see the maps, photos, geographic references and read about faraway places. But it was the National Geographics that really wrangled my attention. Back then, people did not throw away those thick, glossy magazines once read. Instead, they were stored in big yellow stacks for future reference. In our house, a bookshelf in my room was the repository for National Geographics, and for many years I would grab two of them before I went to bed, and stay up late reading about Greenland, the moon, Zanzibar, Kyoto or the Amazon.
In fifth grade, our class joined a global pen-pal organization, and I remember wanting to correspond with someone in a country as far away from Atlanta as possible. I chose South Africa, and began writing back and forth with Mariette G., which started out innocently enough with me telling her about my suburban American life, and she telling me about growing in on a farm near Pretoria. As we got older, our conversations evolved into talk of apartheid there and the Civil Rights Movement in the South where I was growing up. I dreamed of one day flying there to meet her, a pretty worldly dream for a kid growing up in suburban Atlanta!
I did have a leg up on a lot of other kids when it came to a broad world view because my mother was an immigrant from Canada, and learning how people speak and live differently in other countries was normalized early on. Summer vacations were usually far flung, with big trips on Eastern Airlines to Ottawa and Montreal. When I was 7, we attended Expo ’67 in Montreal, which was like walking around inside a National Geographic with all the colorful pavilions from various countries, surrounded by people from all over the world speaking different languages and wearing unusual clothing. I was hooked! I could not wait to get out and see more of the world. But it would be many more years until I could do this on my own. Who knew this was laying the groundwork for a globetrotting career that would define my later life.
By the time I reached my rebellious teens, and felt the oppression of growing up gay in the conservative South (more about that here), my curiosity for travel and faraway places grew stronger, fueled by escapism. I would lay in bed at night before our big family vacations in Winnebagos up the eastern seaboard to Canada, or out west to the Rocky Mountains. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d go back to my stack of National Geographics and find issues with articles about the places we were planning to see. Instead of the psychedelic posters of rock stars or Farrah Fawcett other kids tacked to their bedroom walls, I covered mine with the big maps that would frequently come tucked inside the National Geographics.
Childhood trips to Canada sparked an early interest in international travel. Pictured here are Canada’s gloriously gothic Parliament buildings in Ottawa, which looked like something out of the Wizard of Oz to a curious 7 year old.
During my senior year in high school I read a book by James Michener called “The Drifters,” about a group of American kids who ran off to Spain, bought an old VW camper van and rambled around that country, which added fuel to the fire growing in me to get out of town. After a year at the University of Georgia, I found my first opportunity to skedaddle on my own steam. Frontier Airlines was just starting up flights between Atlanta and Denver, offering special introductory fare of just $75 each way. Using money I had save up from summer jobs over the years, I bought a one-way ticket and announced to my family that I was leaving Georgia for the holidays and the rest of the winter to go find a job at a ski resort in Colorado. I ended up at Crested Butte, and had the time of my life with a free ski pass and a fun job working with a bunch of runaways from all over the country.
I ended up staying in Colorado, and graduating from the University of Colorado, with a degree in — no surprise — international affairs. I wanted to be one of those guys I saw on planes, carrying briefcases, wearing London Fog trench coats, and traveling the world. Maybe I could work for a big international relief organization, which would fly me to a far off place like India or Bangladesh. I could be a diplomat or a spy in Europe, I thought, or an executive meeting clients in Japan or Thailand.
While at CU-Boulder, I’d work jobs at local restaurants to pay for spring break in Mexico, where I’d buy a “Peanuts” fare on Texas International Airlines and fly through Houston to Cozumel, an island of Mexico’s Yucatan coast, sleep on the beach in a hammock and practice Spanish, and hang around with Europeans in places like Isla Mujeres. These were my first international trips under my own steam, and they thrilled me. Among the friends from around the world I met on these trips, I’d strike up voracious letter-writing relationships, which I think served as a precursor to my writing career.
A professor at CU suggested I continue my international studies at a school in Arizona, The American Graduate School of International Management, also known as Thunderbird. Since my attempts at finding a job with my undergraduate degree were not all that fruitful (the economy was sputtering in 1983 when I graduated) I jumped at the chance, applied, and miraculously was admitted to Thunderbird. But I decided to defer that and take a whirlwind, backpack-on-my-back trip through Europe first. I moved back to Atlanta and lived in my parents basement while I worked as a waiter to pay for this trip, which I hoped would end up like something out of “The Drifters.” I still remember going to a travel agency in Atlanta to buy my roundtrip ticket on Sabena Airlines from Atlanta to Brussels and back for $715 — not cheap! That $715 economy class ticket in 1983 would cost about $1,900 in 2020.
Prior to that trip, I read every guidebook possible (leaning heavily on Harvard’s Let’s Go Guides) about seeing Europe on the cheap, planning and re-planning my trip over and over not knowing how this journey would end up being such a big part of my career. It ended up as quite a trip spanning five months, starting out in Brussels and Bruges, then Amsterdam and London, down to Paris, then slowly across France and Spain to Santiago, Madrid, Portugal’s Algarve, the back up to Barcelona, over to Italy, then across the the Greek Isles, up through Yugoslavia to Austria and Germany, then over the Scotland, and finally back to Brussels and Atlanta. Staying in youth hostels, hitchhiking and eating at local markets, I did it on about $30 a day. After that, I was hooked. International travel was going to define my life, come hell or high water!
National Geographic played a big role in shaping Chris McGinnis’ path toward a career in travel writing.
B.K. Bangash/Associated Press
So off to Thunderbird I went, with an emphasis on marketing, Spanish and Latin American studies. For a summer semester, I took a bus to Chihuahua, then a train across the Sierra Madre to the coast, then south Guadalajara, Mexico, on a university exchange program soaking up the language and the culture. After that I returned to Arizona and graduated, snagging my first big international job at the age of 25 with Sea-Land, a huge containerized shipping company based in New York. I still remember flying into Newark for the interview, wearing my trench coat and carrying a briefcase… I had become “that guy.”
Sea-Land sent me to Puerto Rico for training, which was perfect based on my language and business studies. There, I fell in love for the first time in my life, and started a long distance relationship, which had me racking up my first frequent flier miles since I flew back and forth regularly once Sea-Land moved me to Manhattan. At that time (1985) AIDS was ravaging the gay community and I was terrified and lonely in the big dark city. So I took a big chance, quit my job and moved to San Juan, renting a tiny apartment by the beach and immersing myself in the local culture.
In Puerto Rico, I ended up finding a job with Alexander Proudfoot, an international consulting firm that had landed a big project with the local government, and was hiring bilingual people with graduate business degrees. Bingo! I stayed on the job there for about 18 months, and as my steamy romance was falling apart, the company asked if I’d be interested in a new project they had going in Australia. Of course I jumped at the chance, flew to New York City to get my work visa, then flew in business class (my first big trip in a big seat) from Newark to Honolulu, on to Papeete, Auckland and eventually, Sydney on a Continental Airlines DC-10 and believe it or not, my current United frequent flier number is the same one I used back then to earn OnePass miles on that trip.
That launched the beginning of my life as a frequent traveler, which eventually morphed into a new career in travel writing. Come back for part two of my fantastic voyage to becoming a travel writer by convincing a big newspaper let me pen a column about business travel in 1990, cranking out two books, a 10-year stint as an on-air travel correspondent for CNN, my most memorable trips, and how I eventually ended up at SFGATE…
Contact Chris McGinnis via email here.