In August of 2010, I had just returned from an epic, two-week adventure in the Norwegian Arctic. Two glorious weeks without sunsets, spent in the company of Nobel Prize winners, retirees, and everyone in between, drinking in the sublimely biting cold that is a constant reminder that you’re a mere 600 miles south of the North Pole.
After 14 days learning about polar bears and puffin, kayaking among belugas, and exploring a little Arctic romance, I decided that I wanted to find a career in the travel field. I had to. These were the people and the moments that energized me, and I was determined to figure out a way to weave them all into my day-to-day (and still be able to pay rent).
Having just returned to my East Village studio, I proceeded to have a bit of a meltdown—both figuratively and literally—as I endured yet another NYC heat wave while adjusting to the idea that I was back at square one, professionally speaking. Less than a year into a government job that I had intended to be a career, and I already wanted to make a big fat change. Yikes.
And as much as I envy folks who sell their crap and take that leap into the great unknown, it’s just not my style. I’m a planner. A worrier. A nice Jewish girl from Long Island. But, hey! Spoiler alert: I figured it out, and three years later, I have a job that I love in the wonderful world of volunteer travel.
So here’s a bit of advice for those of you who want to make the switch into the travel sector in a way that your Type A brain can handle:
You don’t have to be a home-base-less wanderer.
One of the most important things I realized when I began to explore my options was that I’m just not the type of girl who can happily live out of a backpack forever. I like to set up shop; I’m a nester. Sure, I wanted to work for a company that focused on travel (and encouraged me to do the same), but I also wanted a home base that allowed me to stay close to family and friends. This helped me rule out gigs like guiding, and more seasonally dependent work in the hospitality field. Discovering what I wasn’t looking for really helped me to narrow down my search.
Is more education the way to go?
I got as far as submitting an application for a master’s in sustainable tourism when I decided that another degree just wasn’t my best option. And it wasn’t just that a second master’s would throw me under mountains of debt, force me to quit my full-time job, and move away from my beloved NYC. When I thought long and hard about it, I realized that I already had a lot of what I needed right there in my other degrees (a bachelor’s in Native American studies and a master’s in public policy and nonprofit management). After all, I wanted to work with other cultures (oh, hey there, degree in Native American studies) and I wanted to get involved in the travel sector in a way that was economically and environmentally sustainable (there’s actually quite a bit of overlap among sustainable tourism, economic development, and public policy). I had enough of the right academic components that I could spin into something relatively applicable. It was a good start. So while I’d never discourage anyone from pursuing education as a means to a career change, I’d also urge you to take a fine-toothed comb to the experience that you’ve got on your resume. You may be surprised with what you find.
Keep your eyes open, dammit!
Isn’t it amazing the way that when the time is right, certain things just reveal themselves? Like that time I was getting a haircut and casually flipping through a magazine when I came across an article about Paul von Zielbauer, Founder and CEO of Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy. Helping folks “travel different,” as he puts it, Roadmonkey is an outfitter that organizes two-week long expeditions that combine volunteering and adventure travel.
Once I read about Paul, Roadmonkey, and all of the kickass adventures that he was making possible for his clients, I shot him an email to see if he had room for me on his staff. Turns out, he didn’t. They were very much in start-up mode and didn’t have room on the payroll for a newbie like me. So we struck a deal that was almost as good. I joined the team, working about 10-15 hours a week, but I wouldn’t get a paycheck. Instead, I’d get a spiffy title (ahem, resume experience), a company email address, and eventually I’d have a chance to join an expedition as a nice little reward for all of my hard work. I spent about a year and a half working for them in this capacity, and in the end, I think that it was the Roadmonkey experience on my resume (and not my master’s, or my full-time job) that ultimately caught the attention of my current employer.
So there you have it! The long story short version of how I came to work for Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit specializing in international volunteer and cultural immersion programs. I work, I travel, I volunteer, life is good! If nothing else, I hope that you realize that even if you aren’t the type to throw a dart at a map, and just go, you can still find a comfy little place for yourself to earn a living working in the travel sector.
What other ways can you think of to break into a career in travel?