Nell McShane Wulfhart is a professional travel writer and decision coach, which means she gets paid to help you make decisions. She lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, with her boyfriend, a union organizer, and writes a column for the New York Times, where she asks notable people what they bring in their carry-on. She wrote about a motorcycle trip through Patagonia and has spent 36 hours in everywhere from Galway to Porto to Philadelphia. She never travels anywhere without a pair of slippers, and her favorite place she’s visited recently is Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Here’s how she gets it all done.
On a typical day in her life when she’s on assignment:
Let’s say I’m doing a “36 Hours” column. I do so much prep before I even leave for the day. I have a Google Map all set up with lists of places people have told me about, or that I found online, or that sound cool or unmissable. I realistically try to get out the door by ten, especially if the hotel I’m staying in has breakfast and I can fuel up with coffee. I spend a lot of time walking around, checking out as many things as possible, eating five meals a day. I stop as much as possible for coffee along the way. I try to stop by bars, go out for dinner, and then hopefully I’m back home by midnight, but that’s not always the case.
I always bring my phone with me, and when I’m traveling, I buy SIM cards in whatever country I’m going to, so I have a local number to call businesses and make reservations at restaurants. I get data with the SIM cards, too, so I can look up things on the fly. I have a collection of SIM cards at home in Uruguay. I have a system for dealing with currency from other countries: I use little boxes from IKEA. My boyfriend travels for work, too, so each box has a Post-it on top with each different country. So it’s like, a box for Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia. That way, it’s all there and at the ready.
On a typical day in her life when she’s not on the road:
My day is kind of divided between researching new articles, working on existing assignments, interviewing people, and then a little bit of my time goes to my decision-coaching business. One day last week, I interviewed Anthony Bourdain in the morning, then I was writing, looking for new ideas, pitching those ideas to editors, responding to pushy PR people. In the afternoon, I had a call with a client for my decision-coaching business. All day, as I’m writing or researching, I basically survive on coffee and seltzer. I drink probably five liters of seltzer all day, and four or five cups of coffee. I’m starting to wonder if seltzer is bad for my teeth.
I try to establish a difference between work time and playtime, so at the end of the afternoon, when I’m done writing, I try to go for a run or a long walk. I don’t cook, and takeout here is really expensive, so I might go out to a restaurant at night, or have people over for drinks. I’m so obsessed with getting nine hours of sleep, that if I get to bed at 2 a.m., I make sure I wake up at eleven. Everything I do is centered around getting nine hours of sleep.
On how she finds the next travel story she wants to work on:
I travel a lot not just for work but for pleasure, so I’m always collecting ideas. If I even hear a sniff something interesting, I try to follow it. Somebody I knew was recently talking about how when she moved to Puerto Rico, she found this tiny corner of the country where New Yorkers were moving and setting up businesses. I was like, now that’s a story.
But otherwise, it’s a lot of investigating on the ground, sending out emails, calling bartenders, talking to hotel owners. When I’m traveling, I’m having a lot of conversations with people, trying to see what they know that I don’t.
On how she got into the “decision coaching” business, and why people put their life in her hands:
Decision coaching was something I was doing for free for friends and family all the time. I am a fairly analytical and fairly decisive person, so if someone I knew was dithering for days or weeks or months about a decision, they’d come to me and ask what they should do. It’s something I really enjoy doing — I enjoy helping people figure out what they actually want. I’m a big fan of asking for what you want and also taking risks.
I do about one or two coaching sessions a week. People usually contact me directly, or they Google decision coach, and they reach out with an issue they’re having. The sessions are one-on-one, and they’re usually decisions that sometimes aren’t even that huge; they’re just something the person has gotten stuck on and can’t move forward with. They need a neutral third party who can contribute input. Before I get on a call with a client, I get them to focus on their values — not moral values, but the things that are actually important them, whether it’s spending time with family. Whether it’s being able to wear sweatpants every day, like me. Whether it’s working in a team, or being close to the beach. Then I try to get them to work backward: What do they want their life to look like in 20 years, ten years, five years? With this decision they’re making, is it going to put them on that path?
On why she rarely travels with anything more than a carry-on, but will never go anywhere without a pair of slippers:
I’ve done trips for five weeks in four different countries with only a carry-on. Airlines are so much better about not losing luggage than they used to be. I just don’t want to shlep and deal with a big suitcase when I’m on the road. When I’m on assignment, I always have my iPad Mini and a Bluetooth keyboard that I can shove in my purse when I’m out for the day. If I need to stop and take notes, I don’t have to shlep my whole laptop, look for a charging station. I just type it up on my iPad.
My No. 1 packing tip, and the thing I can’t travel without, is a pair of slippers. I lived in Asia for many years, so I never wear shoes in the house. It’s so disgusting to me now. As soon as I get on the plane, I take off my shoes and put on my slippers, and then I don’t feel like I’m getting covered in disgusting plane germs. Hotel rooms are always filthy, too, so if I have my slippers, I feel a thousand times better. I don’t have a particular kind that I use, but I always go for the tiniest little pull-on ones that you can shove into a bag. I also love my Kindle. I absolutely love it. That is something that really changed my life. I read a ton, and I used to carry five or so books with me wherever I went, so when e-books became a thing, it really changed everything.
On the feast or famine lifestyle of the travel-writing business:
Just like any freelance job, you basically always have to hustle. I’ll pitch an assignment, and I might not get the check for nine months. It’s why I’m exploring more book and podcast ideas now — I feel like it’s not really sustainable to pitch individual articles to individual editors forever. My desktop is divided into quadrants, and if the one with assignments isn’t full, or at least has a certain number that I’m comfortable with, that’s really stressful.
One of the problems with travel writing is that unless you get one of those fancy travel magazines where they pay all your expenses, you’re putting money up front to do a bulk of the research. It’s a lot of money you’re paying up front. If I have a “36 Hours” column, I’ll try to find other assignments in that area. I’ll do my research. I’ll pitch other stories. If I can go somewhere with two or three assignments, that’s ideal.
On what — besides traveling the world — is so great about being a travel writer:
The best part of this job is the physical freedom. Of course, I love the travel, but it’s so great to get up whenever I want in the morning, being able to work from home. Not having to be at an office at a certain time. I used to be the type of person who needed to a have a paycheck every two weeks or I’d freak out. But now I know that I can always make some money doing something. Even if I have to take some kind of crap assignments, I can come up with some money. It’s great to be able to be the boss of my own space.
On the best travel advice she’s ever given:
I would tell people to be a little less cautious. Here in Uruguay, there is almost no violent crime, but people talk about it like the crime is terrible. What they mean is that you have to lock your door at night. I don’t know if I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, or what it is. I basically try to blend in as much as possible. I don’t carry a big backpack. I’m not paranoid about my phone. If everyone else is walking around with their phone, then I will, too. I drink the water; I eat the street food. I don’t try to be precious. The more anxious you look, the more you look like a target. People worry too much, and it really sucks some of the fun out of the trip. You might turn down an invitation because you’re too nervous about what will happen. Say yes to things.