If there is one question I get asked more than anything in the world, it has to be the dreaded “how do you make money?”
I kid you not, 99 out of 100 times when I tell people I am a professional travel blogger, that question pops up at one point or another, generally accompanied with a look on their faces like I’ve grown a second head. Sometimes it’s subtly snuck into the conversation masked with hoity toity language like, “so do you find travel blogging to be a fiscally sustainable option in this day and age?” but mostly I hear, “I don’t get it. You actually make money doing this blog-thingy AND you get to travel for free? Fuck you.”
Trust me, it gets old fast, and I have to remind myself, that if our roles were reversed, I would undoubtedly be curious too. After all, it IS a weird job. Weirdly awesome.
I’ve just gotten sick of having the same conversation over and over again, I’ve begun to invent new professions for myself, usually when wine is involved.
But I digress.
So let’s have an open conversation.
If you have been around with me since the beginning, since I started blogging in Spain way back when in 2010, you would have followed me on my blogging journey of what I could have never expected would turn into a full-time job with over 50,000 followers on social media and over 1 million annual visitors on my site. Holy shit.
And not only in terms of getting paid to travel. But all the super sexy perks that go along with it.
Just within the past year, my little old travel blog has taken me on a whirlwind adventure around the world.
From swimming with sea turtles on the Great Barrier Reef to skydiving over the Swiss Alps to roadtripping through Iceland to hot air ballooning in Turkey to riding donkeys at Petra in Jordan to caving underneath glowworms in New Zealand (cough cough all on somebody else’s dime), I could have never EVER imagined that my blog would make all my travel dreams come true and MORE.
I could have never believed that I would both get to travel all around the world for free AND get paid on top of it. But how did that happen?
While I started blogging in March of 2010, it wasn’t until August of 2012 was when I decided to take my travel blog to the next level and try to turn it into a full time job. 6 months later I took my first media trip to Turkey and 2 months after that I was able to quit my hellhole of an office job to blog and travel full time.
What a crazy journey this has been!
Boiling it all down, I owe much of my success as a blogger to three groups. I joined in at the BlogHouse in Spain where I spent a few days being mentored by top travel bloggers as well as joining and participating in Travel Blog Success. Recently I have joined the PTBA, the Professional Travel Bloggers Association as a way to gain new industry contacts and be a part of the movement to “legitimize” blogging as an actual profession.
Before that, I knew absolutely nothing about blogging and social media. I mean NOTHING.
So if I can go from knowing zip about being a professional blogger to owning one of the top travel blogs in the industry in less than two years, you can as well. There was hope for me, and there’s hope for you too.
So how do I make money?
The truth is, I don’t make that much money.
I should be making a lot more than I do but I have been happy to squeak by and have epic adventures instead. With the nature of this work my income varies widely, but it’s safe to assume that I make around $3,000 to $9,000 a month. I wish I could be more concrete than that but it depends on luck, how motivated I am, and of course if people remember to pay me on time.
Needless to say, most of what I earn gets funneled back into this blog in one way or another.
I get paid in a variety of different ways. From advertising on my blog itself (not very much) to freelancing (also not very much), social media consulting and managing, sponsored social media campaigns and sponsored blog posts (rare), ongoing campaigns as a brand ambassador and strategic paid partnerships along with the occasional paid press trip, these are some of the ways I foot the bills.
Now, over the past year, I made the executive decision to move away from talking about the abstract concept of blogging on my blog and instead focus my efforts on telling stories and writing about topics and themes that interest me. After all, I write for myself, first and foremost, and secondly for other ordinary people like me, not other bloggers.
However, I’ve got a lot of opinions about travel blogging that I generally keep to myself but I thought I would take this opportunity to stick them all into once place. So this one time I’ll break my rule and take you behind the scenes step by step on how to build a successful travel blog (if you wish). I’ll share what’s worked for me along with what hasn’t, and how I’ve managed to build up this crazy little blog to become my full time job.
Like always, I can only share my opinions and my experiences; I am sure there are plenty out there who might disagree with me, but like with all blogs, I can only share what I know and believe.
So follow me, little ones, down this gnarly rabbit hole into the mildly incestuous world of professional travel blogging!
1. What’s your passion?
This is an important question to ask yourself before you start blogging or if/when you decide to take the leap of faith and turn your blog into a business.
What are you passionate about? What do you love so much you would do for free a million times over? And how does that fit in with your blog?
I suppose I could call myself a passionate person since I have so many things I am passionate about. Coffee. Game of Thrones. Oh, and travel.
What makes me tick? What wakes me up morning after morning (besides the promise of hot coffee)? Travel. Travel writing. Sharing stories about my adventures around the world and encouraging and inspiring other people to do the same. I LOVE breaking down barriers and stereotypes, making travel accessible to everyone and showing people that the world isn’t the big bad scary place you might have thought it was.
It took me two years of blogging and writing to figure that out. You can read about how blogging saved me here.
Professional travel blogging is hard and a MASSIVE commitment. Dare I say, enormous? You will have to keep at it for a long time before you even begin to get the faintest whispers of a return or a reward. I love blogging so much I can remember when I was working 40 hours a week back home in DC, trying to build my site, that I would wake up excited on the weekends early, knowing I had the whole day ahead of me to write. Now that’s love.
In my humble opinion, your best bet with travel blogging is jumping in feet first and sticking with it because you love it. I could rant about this until I’m blue in the face but nowadays I don’t see enough passion in travel blogs.
And if you don’t love it, why should I, the reader, love it? End of story.
Trust me, people have a way of seeing through the bullshit and can tell if you mean what you blog.
2. Have a purpose
As important as it is to follow your passion with blogging, if you want to successfully make the leap into doing it full time and getting paid to travel, you really need to have a purpose.
And by purpose, I mean, direction, or better put, a niche.
Nothing irks me more than generic “global nomad” bloggers. You know, those people who quit their corporate America jobs, sold their houses and have been on the road ever since, in a new country every month and have no in-depth knowledge, profound opinions or ideas about the places they visit. Their blogs are filled with generic posts like “top 10 things to do in Thailand” and “where to dine on a budget in Paris.”
These blogs idealize blogging so much and sugar coat the entire world, rarely giving honest opinions about a place and almost look down on those who chose a different path in life.
If you spent 10 days in Thailand, you are NOT an authority on Thailand, so don’t pretend otherwise. The other day I got very angry with a blogger who wrote a story about how expensive Jordan was. She spent 3 days there and only went to Petra. Excuse me, do you really have the experience to be making such sweeping generalizations about a country? The answer is a firm HELL NO.
3. Become an authority
These types of “global nomad” blogs don’t cut it anymore.
5-6 years ago, these blogs were popular because they were the first, had no competition and were able to build an audience through sheer novelty. Now there are thousands of similar ones you are competing with so DON’T copy what other people have done. And let me let you in on a little secret – normal people both don’t give a crap about your broad, general tips about a place AND they are not going to take your advice over the voice of an authority.
Why on earth would a normal person googling travel tips chose yours over Lonely Planet, Wikipedia or Tripadvisor? They’re not, that’s what.
I think nowadays people are so wrapped up in “looking professional” on their blogs that they have stopped being creative and started to become boring.
The entire point of a blog is to share your voice and your opinion. As soon as you take that away, people stop listening. You are never going to build a successful, engaged audience if you are opinionless, writing the exact same thing that hundreds of other people have already said before you.
For me, I have become an authority on moving and working abroad, solo female travel, traveling with a food allergy, Spain and New Zealand to name a few. Somehow I have also become known as the “honest blogger” which my god, if that doesn’t tell you about the problems in blogging, I don’t know what will. And anything else I write has a very careful story, background and narrative attached to it that people trust and follow.
If you want to be a successful travel blogger, you have to find your purpose and become an authority on something so that people trust what you say. Discover what makes your voice and your site unique and special, and run with it. Like the wind.
4. Keep at it, be prolific
I think most people fail at blogs because they don’t realize the massive time commitment involved in it. I am talking years here people. Go back to step 1. Passion. If you don’t have the passion for it, no worries, keep it casual. But if you are thinking long-term and want to be a full-time blogger, you have got to put in the time.
My goal for 4 years has always been to publish 3 times a week. I fail at this regularly but it keeps me motivated.
In over 4 years of blogging I’ve popped out more than 400 articles on my own site. That’s a lot, but necessary. And everyone has to start somewhere, right?
The more you write, the better you write. The more you write, the better your voice becomes. The more you write, the more you realize what works and what doesn’t work with blogging.
So keep at it and don’t give up. And love what you do – remember that.
5. Join Travel Blog Success
If there is one thing you should invest in as a blogger, even before you start making money from your site, it’s on learning the ins and the outs of the industry, and the absolute best way to do that is with Travel Blog Success.
Trying to shift through all the material online alone is a nightmare, and you don’t have anyone you can ask basic questions to, like how to embed links properly and make bold font, things I used to struggle with along with countless others. What happens when you need tips and advice for pitching press trips, self-hosting and negotiating Facebook ads and affiliate marketing tactics?
TBS has everything you need in one place and it’s a great community of hundreds of bloggers willing to share ideas and help each other out in the forums and in a secret Facebook group. Here you can freely ask all the questions on your mind, share your thoughts and opinions and in general be around folks who are just as geeky about blogging as you are.
Travel Blog Success will help you take your travel blog to the next level and make the transition from hobby blog to professional blog.
Here you can learn about how to make industry contacts, how to improve your search rankings and SEO, the value of attending blogging conferences (yes they exist), what should go in your media kit (yes you must have one) and most importantly, how to pitch brands and tourism boards AND how to monetize your blog.
6. Set goals and build your audience
Easier said than done, am I right?
When I moved home in the fall of 2012, it was with the precise goal in mind of building my travel blog into a full-time job and being able to take the trips I wanted to take around the world.
I had (still have) a beautiful Moleskine notebook where I would outline all my goals for each month, and slowly work towards checking them off. I would also write outlines of potential post ideas in here and tweak and modify them before I would actually start writing.
My goals were anything from trying to get featured on different publications to growing my unique monthly visitors to getting more and more comments to growing my social media following. What could I actively do to make that happen?
My first word of advice – do not target bloggers. I repeat, do not target bloggers. There is zero value in having bloggers being your main audience, not to mention that won’t get you anywhere. Why would anyone want to work with you if your main audience are other bloggers? That’s weird and ineffective.
Personally, I find commenting on other people’s blogs completely useless. I never do it. Ever. The only time I comment is if a story has really inspired a reaction in me, or it’s exciting news from a friend. And I’ve been doing just fine. In fact, I average around 80 to 100 comments an article most of whom aren’t bloggers. This is one way I have been able to show my value to the people I want to work with. Lots of comments equals an engaged audience.
How do you get a lot of comments? Have an opinion. Be honest. Be creative. Produce quality stuff.
I can safely say that one of my main factors of success has been my ability to carefully watch what works and what doesn’t work on my blog, and focus my energy on reaching the right people. Do not waste your time on something that isn’t working, let it go.
While guest posting on bigger blogs is a good way to gain new readers in the beginning, it’s not really that effective. Only time, dedication and good content will bring in new readers. And Google.
Once your site grows and you start to become an authority, another good way to gain followers is getting featured on bigger sites and publications, though oftentimes you have no control over this, other times you do.
I was featured on Huffington Post ages ago which still sends me a lot of traffic and then I worked hard to get linked on National Geographic. From there it was easier to get quoted and linked on huge sites like CNN, Forbes, Buzzfeed, Stuff.co.nz and the Travel Channel – none of which I actively looked for.
7. Jump on the social media train
Ah how much easier would our lives be without social media?
I almost don’t even want to think about it.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, travel blogging is inherently and physically linked to social media (pun intended).
While one part of your blogging package is your site, the other half is your social media following. The main contenders are Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but are quickly being caught up with Google +, Youtube (if you do videos) and Pinterest.
While all are important and have value, in my opinion, if you had to focus on one of these, depending on your blog and niche, I’d go with Pinterest followed up with Instagram. Focus your energy on these two sites and I promise good things will come.
Both are used by the masses in depth and both are visual/image heavy which is what’s needed in this day and age where the average social media using adult has the attention span of a toddler. While Pinterest is a great tool to drive traffic to your site, it also has the most potential for an image (with attached link) to “go viral,” every blogger’s dream.
Instagram I personally find totally useless in for travel tips or planning but it is a great way to visually captivate people and get them excited about a trip, destination or activity, and great photos tend to be rewarded with great engagement. Hashtagging is key, as well as reaching out to new people, but Instagram has opened a lot of doors for me, especially since I was featured on the official page back in December.
I have been invited on trips solely for having 17,000+ Instagram followers.
8. Know (and own) your value
While I have mentioned above at some point or another that I get freebies and get to go on paid press trips, that’s not exactly true. Nothing is for free and nobody gives me these things expecting nothing in return.
In short, I work for it. And take my word for it, I work hard.
While on the outside a press trip or blog post might look like beautiful beaches and tasty cocktails served up with an epic adventure, that’s not exactly the case. What you don’t see are the long hours put in during the trip, taking advantage of all the wifi you can get, sometimes staying up all night scheduling, posting, tagging and sharing everything you need to. And then of course there are all the hours that going into the stories once you are back home.
Because blogging is still considered “new media” you will meet plenty of skeptics on the road who are more than willing to devalue your work. Don’t be afraid to say no and ask for what you think you deserve.
Sometimes I can’t believe the nerve of people. Not exaggerating, I probably receive about a dozen messages a day asking me to do something free for someone. If we aren’t close friends, it is not appropriate to ask me to use my business to promote, help or share something for free. If other people are willing to pay me, why on earth would do something like that for free. Or worse, people trying to sneak things by me. My blog would quickly degenerate into a spammy shithole.
To clarify I am speaking commercially, about other businesses and brands who are trying to get out of using a marketing budget and not pay for advertising. Sneaky bastards.
At the end of the day you need to respect your blog and the work that goes into it, and know that it has value and shouldn’t be bought cheaply.
9. Have integrity and be ethical
A touchy subject but one that is close to my heart and one that I can’t leave out of this post.
While for the most part I think travel bloggers are doing amazing things, it needs to be noted there are plenty of duds out there who are risking our reputation as a whole. Travel blogging is a baby in terms of media, and most of the time we all have to work together as ambassadors for the business, showing people that bloggers are both valuable and are worth investing in. Whenever I work with someone, I make a point to exceed expectations and do the best I possibly can in the hopes that it will open doors for both me and other bloggers in the future.
You get one bad egg, and it shuts many many doors for everyone. I know several bloggers who make promises to the moon and back to get the trip that they want and then don’t deliver. That is shady.
My advice – apart from always deliver what you promise, you should also OVERdeliver.
It’s also crucial to know your blog well enough that you can turn down opportunities that don’t fit with your brand.
Don’t be afraid to say no to something. Every single time, even now, when an opportunity comes my way I think long and hard about it. I normally ask myself a few questions like, would I pay for this out my own pocket? Am I happy to recommend it to my readers who trust me, and once it’s over, is it something I am still going to be excited to write and share, knowing how much time goes into that weeks or months down the road?
It’s easy to get caught up in the glamor of a free trip somewhere, but you have got to train your brain to think long term and really, really decide if it’s something that fits with your site.
Sometimes I see trips that fellow bloggers go on and I raise my eyebrows knowing it’s only going to end badly. Or global nomads who describe themselves as every possible niche hoping to get trips. Don’t be greedy!
My personal favorite is when I see bloggers describe themselves as being both budget and luxury travelers. GOOD JOKE, how does that work exactly? Please enlighten me.
I’ll tell you how it works, it’s that they’ll accept any type of accommodation or famil in exchange for a free trip somewhere or to get paid. If that doesn’t raise red flags and start alarm bells going off in your head as a reader, I don’t know what will.
That is NOT having integrity or being ethical.
It’s also important to think ethically. Many times a brand or destination is relying on you to deliver something. If you know it’s the wrong fit and you are not going to be reaching the people they hope you are, it’s your responsibility to man up and say no. Don’t be selfish and just focus on the freebies and perks.
Personally, I turn down at least half of the things I get invited on because they are not a good fit. I am also really picky and I prefer to plan out my own trips, even if that means paying out of my own pocket. Cruising the Caribbean? My god, can you imagine? I would kill every one the ship within 24 hrs!
I also always think about the return. Do our values line up?
I honestly couldn’t live with myself if I was being deceptive with a brand in order to get something in return. Many of the people I work with are small business owners taking a chance on working with a blogger. I want to make sure they not only get a return on their investment and have trust in me, that they get even more than they were expecting. I not only take an active interest in promoting them correctly BUT also that other people stand up and take notice!
Don’t have a blog yet? Check out my post on 10 Tips for Starting a Kickass Travel Blog. Let me help you on your way!
10. Produce good content
Finally, my best and most important tip for last. Write good shit.
While there are so many tips and hacks out there to help you improve your travel blog, at the end of the day, great content speaks for itself and is the best way to judge success.
About a year ago I decided to focus less and less on SEO, link exchanges and optimization and other nitty gritty details in blogging, and put all of my effort into improving my writing, coming up with new and creative ideas and projects and in general producing top-notch stories.
Also space out your sponsored content, and write things that have no ties to press trips frequently.
Every time I sat down to write and come up with a story, I would ask myself, “now how can I make this even better?”
Don’t become complacent – a lot of top travel bloggers have become complacent this past year, depending on their reputation and numbers to get them where they want to go. Let me tell you a secret – that means there are places for you, up and coming bloggers to fill in.
While my blog could certainly be more flash, the results of my efforts are clear in my audience and my traffic. At the end of the day people respond to quality content, and if that’s where you put your efforts, I promise it will pay off.
If you take only one thing away from this novel of an article, let it be this. SEO, catchy web design, guest posting and interlinking will only get you so far. If you want to really, really become the best blogger out there, focus all your efforts on producing top-notch quality content.
Keeping with this being a spirit of open dialogue, feel free to ask me any question (within reason) in the comments about blogging, my love life, and what have you, and I promise to answer truthfully.
Are you curious to hear me talk more about blogging or have you had enough?