Travel writing as a second career—An interview with Lee Harrison

By David Hammond

Lee Harrison
When it comes to writing about expat life in Latin America, Lee Harrison stands tall.

With 15 years in the travel-writing business, Lee has traveled all over Latin America and been to Spain and Ireland.

His writing credits include hundreds of e-letters and printed magazine articles, as well as four country guides.

Lee is also a speaker. He's appeared at about 75 events so far, presenting on real estate investing, retiring abroad, and the overseas living experience.

In this Post:
  • Lee's story of accidentally becoming a travel writer at age 49
  • The best aspects and occasional challenges of life as a travel writer 
  • Plus, expert advice on breaking into travel writing as a second career 

 Accidentally becoming a travel writer at age 49

Lee Harrison’s second career as a travel writer started by accident in 2001. He and his wife Julie retired early at age 49. With a limited pension, they moved from the US to Ecuador to take advantage of the lower cost of living.

"I was a subscriber to International Living and sent a note to the editor after moving to Ecuador, describing our experience buying a home there. She wrote back and offered me $50 if she could publish my email.

"Two weeks later, I sent another note, about selecting an international mover, which was also published.

"Within five years, I had a full travel and writing schedule. This was an odd outcome, considering I had no writing experience.

"I think one secret to success was the niche. The world is brimming with travel writers, but no one writes about retiring overseas," says Lee.

Lee's wife, Julie, is a classical pianist.
When she is not performing, she often
accompanies Lee on writing assignments.
"It’s helpful to have the perspective of
another person, especially the different
perspective a woman brings,"
says Lee.
The best aspects of life as a travel writer

"Easily, the best feature is that it gives travel a purpose. Today—even if I’m just traveling for pleasure—I’ll dig into a place quickly and thoroughly and learn it well.

"When I traveled as a tourist, it was more superficial…once I developed writers’ habits, it became more meaningful.

“Close behind that is the portability of the career. You can work anywhere and at your own pace. You work as much or as little as you want or need to,” says Lee.

The topic Lee likes writing about most is real estate, followed by unusual cultural experiences that convey the flavor of a place for expats. "For example, Day of the Dead celebrations in Ecuador," says Lee.

In regard to exploring new places, the main attraction for Lee is learning about local cultures.

"The thrill of “attractions” wears off early on. But what always keeps its appeal is learning the local customs and language variations, and meeting the people. We’ll go to the theater, enjoy the live music, and just talk to people we meet," says Lee.

One interesting discovery Lee and Julie made during their travels was Uruguay, where they ended up living for several years. "I’d expected your typical Spanish Colonial environment, but loved the wonderful mix of Italian/European/South American influences. We still miss Uruguay," says Lee.

Occasional challenges  

So what's the downside to travel writing as a second career?

"The travel can wear you down. I over-committed in 2006 and traveled to 17 countries. It was more of a demanding work schedule than I wanted.

"Also, there are times when you really want to lay on the beach. But instead, you’ve got to put on good clothes and interview lawyers and real estate agents.

"I almost spent a week on Roatan without even seeing the famous reef," says Lee.

Sidebar: Among Lee's travel "discoveries" was his first road-side pig roast in Ecuador: "They roast the pig on a sawhorse using blow torches, with each portion being cooked and then sliced off to order," reports Lee. 

Lee's advice to help you break into travel writing as a second career
  • "First, read, read, and read! Get your hands on everything you can that relates to your type of writing, and read it. Get to know what publishers want.
  • "Before submitting anything, read as much as you can from the publication that you hope to work with. Get to know their style, voice, length, etc.
  • "Bring a new perspective—either by visiting a relatively unknown place, or focusing in on a unique and little-known aspect of a well-known place. For example, in Paris, don’t start with the Eiffel Tower. Start with the third item down, on the back page of a menu in an unknown cafe, and work “upwards” from there.
  • "Before traveling, make a tentative plan considering who you’ll ultimately submit to. That is, determine what information you need to come away with and make a plan to get it.
  • "And when traveling, take LOTS of notes (I use a voice recorder). Make a note of every impression you have, and everything you see. Those details will provide years of info for future, yet-unknown articles. Small, observed details are what makes the story real," says Lee.
And one more thing: "When writing, don’t be afraid to assume the role of an expert—the person who “knows.” Readers appreciate that, and like unequivocal opinions, even when they don’t agree with them," says Lee.