This is part 2 of a story about Chris McGinnis’ fantastic voyage as a travel writer. You can read part 1 right here.
Like many of my trips, my path to becoming a travel writer took a circuitous route; the road I took was “the one less traveled by,” to quote Robert Frost’s famous poem.
I never took a journalism course in my life, and I even earned an F in English in eighth grade, which is probably why I still make typos and grammatical errors, most of which are thankfully caught by better-trained copy editors. But thanks to a few good English teachers, voracious reading, a habit of letter writing and keeping a journal throughout my early life, I honed my ability to write.
As mentioned in the previous post (part 1 of this story), my education was in international business. As a management consultant, I used my writing skills a lot, assigned to write up the letters and various reports my company submitted to clients. That part of my job was somewhat rewarding, but the greatest reward of my consulting work was that I got to travel — and travel a lot. For several years, I was flying two or three times a week on the company dime, taking mental notes and learning the tricks of the frequent flying trade.
As it ended up, I loved the travel, but hated the corporate part of my consulting job — the actual work was just not appealing. So after several months working on a project at a copper mine in Australia’s outback, I quit. With a nest egg earned from consulting, and the frequent flier miles I’d racked up, I decided to, you guessed it, travel, taking the long road home to Atlanta via New Zealand, Hawaii and California.
Taking that time off gave my brain a rest, and helped me come up with a new career path. I would take the skills I learned as a trainer (part of my job as a consultant) and combine them with my encyclopedic knowledge of travel to form my own company, Travel Skills Group. My product? A traveler training program that I would sell to large corporations to help their travelers learn how to save money, stay safe and not burn out by learning “the art of traveling smart.”
The idea caught, and I was soon delivering seminars across the country, doing well, but not really making enough money to survive. I had to drum up more business.
Using those writing skills I’d honed, I was a master at penning and promoting press releases about my new company and ended up snagging a lot of ink in big publications, such as USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. I became a regular, quotable source for my local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, so much so that I convinced editors there to let me write a column in the paper’s business section about business travel. This was 1990, and a travel column in a newspaper business section was a novel idea.
The Business Traveler column very quickly became one of the paper’s most popular features given that Atlanta was such a large travel hub, and there was a hunger among business travelers for news and practical advice to make travel better — and take advantage of those still nascent frequent flier programs. It was a unique, helpful tool that no other local paper offered back then and filled a vacant niche, which would ultimately be filled by the internet.
Landing a weekly column at one of the largest newspapers in the country was my “big break” into travel writing, and a position I held on to for 10 years. As a newly minted freelance writer, I used that experience and exposure to land several other jobs, such as writing for Entrepreneur and Fortune magazines. To pad my income further, I wrote business travel newsletters for big corporate travel agencies and picked up a few speaking gigs.
It was at this point I learned an important lesson: making a career as a travel writer was not only about “traveling around the world and writing about it,” as many people frequently assume. To earn a living at it meant being an entrepreneur, taking risks, hustling multiple gigs, doing great work and being asked back to do more. This meant spending at least half of my time in the office, writing, researching, making connections, sending out invoices and searching for my next gig.
In 1994, an editor for McGraw-Hill read my AJC column when flying through Atlanta and asked me to write a book, “202 Tips Even the Best Business Travelers May Not Know,” which elevated me even further from not just columnist, but also “author.” (The first edition did so well, the publisher had me write a second edition four years later called “The Unofficial Business Travelers Pocket Guide.”)
Since I was located in Atlanta, and so was CNN, I became a regularly cited source there as well, and eventually parlayed that into a stint as an on-air travel correspondent in 1995 that lasted in various forms through 2005. (You can see my on-air reel here or below, which shows snippets from a grueling, but energizing year, post-9/11, when I rose every morning at 4 a.m. to deliver travel news to a nation frightened by the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.)
Around that time, I dove into another one of those life-changing, long-distance relationships, and ended up flying back and forth every couple weeks to San Francisco, and finally, moved there. I brought with me The Ticket, a popular travel newsletter I was writing in Atlanta, which eventually morphed into the TravelSkills newsletter with a West Coast spin.
At the same time, I picked up a job as travel columnist for BBC.com, wrote the quarterly Expedia Travel Trendwatch report and served as Expedia’s spokesperson and travel expert on morning shows like Good Morning America. Eventually, editors at SFGATE took notice that a travel expert was in town, and I began to share my content here until I came on as a full-time contributor in 2018.
So that’s how I created a career that started out as a kid flipping through National Geographic magazines in bed at night and dreaming of a far-flung life, which eventually ended up in San Francisco.
Now let’s talk about one of the best parts of being a travel writer: the trips! Over the past 30 years, I’ve had many. Here are some highlights:
The most chic: Flying the Concorde, twice!
In 1999, I was asked to appear on a media panel at the World Travel and Tourism Council meeting in Berlin. The WTTC is a club of CEOs of the world’s top travel companies — like American Express, British Airways, Hertz and the like — the type of people for whom a journey on the Concorde is a normal part of doing business. And lucky for me, part of the deal for appearing on the panel was a trans-Atlantic leg on British Airways’ supersonic Concorde. Here’s a post about my experience.
Most thrilling: Virgin America flight alongside a spacecraft
On a bright spring day in 2011, Virgin America was celebrating the opening of SFO’s Terminal 2 and its new Virgin Galactic spacecraft. In typical Virgin style, it was a big to-do. Richard Branson was there. So were Buzz Aldrin and his wife. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, too. There were also plenty of airport dignitaries and a handful of lucky media! Watch the exciting video of my experience here.
Most historic: Taking the first US cruise ship to enter Cuba in 50 years
Like many Americans, I felt the rush of excitement when President Barack Obama normalized relations with Cuba in 2016 and was thrilled to ride on the first U.S. cruise ship to land in Havana in 50 years. Here’s the complicated story of that historic voyage.
Most star-studded: Visiting Elton John
Way back in 1992, at the beginning of my travel writing career, Elton John invited me to London for a whirlwind trip that included being backstage for his concerts at Wembley Stadium, staying over at his townhouse in central London and his rambling estate in Windsor, meeting royals, attending a star-studded garden party and racing around town in police-escorted Bentley limousines. Read about this amazing trip here.
Best behind the scenes: Secret staircase to the crew rest area
An exciting part of travel writing is going behind the scenes, like I was able to do on a Cathay Pacific “delivery flight” from the Boeing factory near Seattle to Hong Kong with only a handful of people onboard. Here’s my most viewed video ever, showing the crew rest area on a Boeing 777.
Best seatmate: Queen Latifah!
Queen Latifah invited me to LA for a travel tips interview in front of a live audience from two first class airline seats in the middle of the set! She was warm, personable and a LOT of fun (I expected no less!). Did you know that Queen Latifah’s real name is Dana Owens? That’s what everyone backstage was calling her. (I just called her “your majesty!”) See the segment video here.
Coolest assignment: Taping an Air France A380 landing from SFO ramp and runways
Back when Airbus A380 sightings were new and exciting, Air France asked me to make a video of its first A380 arrival at SFO on a cold rainy day in 2011. To be on the ramps, runways and up close and personal with a big bird like that was quite a thrill! See the video here.
Most fun: Writing about Sydney’s hotel scene
Visiting cities to write about their newest business class hotels was a regular part of my beat for BBC and SFGATE. One trip to Sydney, Australia, coincided with the city’s big, raucous Mardi Gras celebration, which included a drag queen welcome at the airport, which got the trip off to a fun start! Here’s my post from the most recent trip.
Contact Chris McGinnis via email here.