Monday, March 23, 2015

Planning a trip? Don't do it without Chris Christensen, aka The Amateur Traveler

Chris Christensen is one of America's top travel reporters. His podcasts, website, and videos feature the most interesting people and places in the world. I dare say it would be impossible for your Bucket List to not expand dramatically as you listen to and read his reports. 

by Jim Cords
Chris's iconic image, found on
the Amateur Traveler podcasts
The website,, is an incredibly handy site for perusing various destinations, deciding what you want to do once you get there, and choosing the best way to travel there and home again. If Chris hasn’t been there, he knows someone who has and will share their insights. It truly is a travel community.

One of the things I most appreciate about Chris’s interviews is that through his Dick-Cavettesque questioning style, you learn not only information about a place, but the biases of the interviewee. That can be invaluable, and you don’t get that from travel books.

The Amateur Traveler, his podcast, often includes the kind of information you usually don't find in tour books. Most importantly, his podcasts are completely entertaining. If you've never heard them, make a beeline for iTunes. The podcasts are free.

First, Chris, this interview is being conducted following an extended boat trip off the coast of South America. Tell us where you went and what you were doing there. I was on a cruise around Cape Horn from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile. I was sponsored by Holland America to take this cruise. We saw penguins in the Falklands, tango in Buenos Aires, and glaciers in the fjords of Chile.

Mr. Christensen's Penguins,
photographed during his trip to South America
I believe your professional career was originally centered around Silicon Valley. How did you transition from that to being a professional travel writer? I actually still make my living from software, both my own start-up company ( and part time contracting work for my old employer, TripAdvisor. I used to be their director of engineering for TripAdvisor Flights and SeatGuru. Travel writing and podcasting are my third job.

You call yourself and your website The Amateur Traveler, but I just referred to you a professional travel writer. That sounds like a contradiction, but I know it's not. Clarify that for us. When I chose the name Amateur Traveler, I had in mind “travel for the love of it.” Amateur meaning to do something for love. Remember you used to have to be an amateur to be an Olympic athlete, yet they were considered the best in the world. The ark was built by an amateur and the Titanic was built by professionals.

Chris took this picture at the Great Wall
While people might think about travel writing as a fairly right-brained activity, what I see is that you approached this in a very left-brained way. Tell us about The Amateur Traveler as a business. I think I find the travel writing is right brained, creative; but being a travel blogger or podcaster also means that you are not just a writer, but a publisher, with all that implies. You need to sell ads if you are going to have them, set schedules, set and meet deadlines. Some parts of that I have done better than others. I am not the best salesperson for instance.

You have well over four hundred podcasts available through iTunes and on your website, Talk about what's involved in putting a show on the air. An episode of Amateur Traveler probably takes about eight to nine hours of production work starting with the interview, then editing the interview, adding in other elements, publishing, and publicizing. We also do "This Week in Travel" which takes less because we don’t edit that show. Fortunately, I hire an editor to take care of the editing of the audio, and also adding in the photos and links that we have in the iTunes enhanced version of the show. That takes 5 hours off my plate.

How do you select guests for your show? I find they are all extremely effective communicators. What's your audition process? I reach out to some people directly who I have heard speak, or ask the travel blogging community who would be a great guest for a specific destination. I also get unsolicited pitches ( for being on the show. You need to pitch a place, not a person. Sometimes the shows just don’t work. Not every interview gets aired.

Chris as Yosemite
What are some of the highlights of your own travels? If you were putting together a "greatest hits" list of your adventures, what would make the cut? Some of the most memorable destinations would include Tanzania, Egypt, Istanbul, China, and Japan. Rafting down the Green River in Dinosaur National Park and blackwater rafting in New Zealand were some memorable adventures. The most unusual may have been working as a photo journalist for the day in Jordan covering a visit by the pope and the royal family ( or an invitation last December to the White House (

You've traveled all over the world. What locations are still on your bucket list? I have published a Bucket List ( and am working through checking things off. I also use the UNESCO World Heritage list ( and the list of U.S. National Parks as a bucket list.

A walk among the ruins
with Chris Christensen
How do you see your work as being unique from, say, travel books like Frommers or websites like Tripadvisor? I am a big fan of both Frommers -- I consider Pauline Frommer a friend -- and TripAdvisor. I sometimes describe an Amateur Traveler episode as an audio guidebook for a destination. We won’t provide all the information you will need to go there but we will help you decide if you want to go there.

In addition to writing about travel, you are also periodically leading travel groups. Tell us about that. We have not done that very often but in April we are having the second Amateur Traveler group trip ( We will be with a group of eleven people, or a few more if anyone is interested, counting my wife and I heading to Morocco. We did an Amateur Traveler photo tour of Egypt back in 2010, just before the Arab Spring. That trip was part of a larger group trip, so I am looking forward to a more intimate trip. I am working with a great tour company that is doing all the logistics.

The Amateur Traveler,
Chris Christensen
I believe I am correct in saying that you come from a Lutheran background. Your website also has links to some Bible study options. What is the connection, in your mind, between our physical journeys and our spiritual journey? Yes, in addition to three jobs and two travel podcasts, I also lead two bible studies a week. One is a podcast, The Bible Study Podcast (, and the other is in a lock-down unit for violent youth offenders in the local Juvenile Hall. I view all of life as a journey, only some of which comes with jet lag.

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