How to Tap the Travel-Blog Trend—and Get Paid
Justin Hall, the man credited with creating the internet’s first blog, once revealed an interesting detail about his younger years. “I used to take my journal and hand it to people,” he said. “The rule was that they could read any page they wanted, but they had to write something as well.”
Little did this Chicago native know at the time, he was already setting the template for how blog culture would grow and dominate the internet. Those who read his first blog posts in 1994 were inspired to share their own stories online. Today, the trend continues, with the number of blogs well into the millions, spanning every continent, and covering every conceivable subject.
The beauty of blogging is that anyone can do it. It doesn’t require polished writing skills or an in-depth knowledge of web design. In fact, many successful bloggers start with no experience at all but can still build their blog into a real money-maker.
For travel bloggers, in particular, being genuine and having a good story is far more important to readers than any kind of professional expertise or polished persona. People want to hear travel recommendations from real travelers, and that means they turn to bloggers.
Nathan Aguilera was two years into what was supposed to be a six-month tour of Southeast Asia when he decided to start his blog, Foodie Flashpacker. “I had begun to get a bit burned out from traveling, but I still wasn’t ready to quit and go home. I wanted something to help structure my time, to give me focus and direction.”
Two years later, Nathan is still on the road. He has visited nearly 60 countries across four continents and has no plans to stop anytime soon. His food-focused travel blog has helped sustain his nomadic lifestyle by giving him a way to create an income and get free travel perks. However, when he began he had no experience at all with blogging.
“When I started out, I had no plan in place,” he says. “But as I put more time and energy into the blog, I began to think of it as more of a business. Now, I want the blog to be a resource for other food-obsessed travelers like myself. When readers arrive in a new destination, I want them to have dish suggestions they are excited to try and recommendations about where they can find the best meals.”
People get into travel blogging for all kinds of reasons. Anda Galffy started back in 2013 after losing her mother to cancer. “It was a tough time in my life,” says Anda. “I was trying to find meaning in my own existence and cope with my grief. I started my blog as an emotional crutch, but it was actually born out of my passion for travel and photography.”
Travel Notes & Beyond is Anda’s collection of stories, travel tips, and photography from her wanderings around Europe, South America, and beyond. “My goal is to inspire, inform, and encourage independent traveling at any age,” she says. “My posts focus primarily on the cultural aspect of a destination. I enjoy experiencing a new place by connecting to its people, culture, and history.”
Although Anda hadn’t originally intended on monetizing her blog, as her following grew, and she put more and more time into it, she felt it was necessary. “This was my personal blog— my baby—and I didn’t want to turn it into a commercial platform for the sake of making a few bucks. However, as time went by, monetizing it became necessary if I wanted to bring it to the next level.”
For Connie Reed, the income aspect of blogging was a light at the end of the tunnel. Her two-hour commute to her corporate job wasn’t the type of travel she had hoped she would be doing in her late 50s, but blogging offered her a way out. “I took a travel writing course and a blog building course. I set up my blog and then spent my lunch hour and my commute time—since I took a train to work— writing articles and building a following through social media,” she says.
“A couple of years later my job was eliminated. But rather than panicking, I celebrated. I was completely free…and I had my blog income to support me.”
Connie discovered that to be a travel writer you don’t need to be traveling the world. Her blog, Midwest Wanderer, focuses exclusively on the U.S. Midwest, so she didn’t need an airline ticket to write her first post. She was able to visit attractions, restaurants, hotels, and activities that were close to home.
“On the weekends my husband and I went on road trips around the region, giving me topics to write about,” says Connie. “Writing about local attractions is probably no different than writing about international destinations, except that the attractions are easier to reach and there are no language barriers.
“It’s amazing how many fascinating things I continue to discover in the Midwest—and I’ve lived here all my life. We have gorgeous national parks, beautiful caves, and with thousands of miles of Great Lakes shoreline, a lot of water and beach attractions.”
Create Your Blog
Your options for creating a blog are nearly as boundless as the number of topics you can blog about. The first things you’ll need to consider before choosing how to build your blog is what your expectations are and what degree of control you want to have over the design.
Free blog platforms like Tumblr, Blogger, Weebly, and WordPress are immensely popular, and a great place to start. But if you want to be able to create an income from blogging, then having a blog that gives you more control is optimal.
“Many beginner bloggers start out on a completely free website platform, but there are limitations to those sites,” says Connie. “For instance, you can’t run ads. Instead, the company runs their own ads on your site. In addition, you don’t have full control over your own domain name.”
Connie had no experience creating a blog, but with the help of a blogging program from Great Escape Publishing, she was able to create her own little corner of the internet. “It wasn’t difficult at all to build my blog. Although I’ve used computers for years, I don’t consider myself a techie by any stretch of the imagination.
“After researching top website hosts, I bought my domain name for a few dollars from GoDaddy and used the same company to host my website on their servers. I still use GoDaddy today because I’m impressed with their customer service. I pay an annual fee for hosting, but you can pay monthly, if you wish.
“Besides needing a company to host your website, you also need a platform on which to build your website. I opted for the most commonly used blog building site, WordPress.org. From within my GoDaddy account, I clicked a button to build a WordPress site and followed the prompts, including choosing a theme. A ‘theme’ is a template, which you can think of as your site’s skin. Each theme has a different look and feel. I started with a free theme. But a few years later, when I knew I’d be keeping my blog for a long time, I purchased a different theme, which has nicer aesthetics and more flexibility.”
Nathan went one step further and learned the basics of coding in order to have as much control over the blog as possible. “I’m not a tech savvy person. I didn’t know how to code or anything like that, so I had to learn the basics. It was very intimidating in the beginning, but I tried to look at it as a challenge. And, like most challenges, when you make some progress it bolsters your confidence to tackle the next obstacle,” he says.
“I took courses, watched YouTube videos and joined every blogging group on Facebook I could find hoping to soak up as much free knowledge as possible. Finally, after a lot of trial and error, I had a site I was reasonably happy with and ready to launch. Once the site went live I asked for feedback and constructive criticism from friends and fellow bloggers and implemented their suggestions.”
Build Your Following
When you first start your blog you shouldn’t expect to have a large following right off the bat. The internet is vast and getting your blog in front of eyeballs takes a little time. But there are plenty of different strategies you can use to help the process along.
Anda emphasizes the importance of social media as a tool for building an audience. “You absolutely need to join some social media platforms (like Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest) and let the world know that your blog exists by promoting your posts.”
Through social media you can encourage friends and family to share your posts and help you reach more readers. It’s also the best channel for finding like-minded bloggers.
“The fastest way to get followers on these platforms is by joining groups dedicated to the topic you blog about,” says Anda. “One important thing to keep in mind is that the other bloggers are not your competition but your friends. They will become your first readers and subscribers, and they will be the ones to give you tips on blogging. In groups like these, people usually help each other and share very useful information.”
However, promoting yourself on social media can be time consuming, and according to Connie, there are more effective ways of gaining exposure. “Today, over 85% of my page views are from search engines. That’s important, because although social media is an important part of blogging, you never know what will happen if algorithms change or if a social media platform you rely on suddenly no longer exists.”
To increase her ranking on search engines, Connie focuses on SEO (search engine optimization). Despite the name, SEO isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Search engines like Google have a set of rules to define how far up the list of search results your page should be, and by adhering to those rules as best as you can, you can significantly improve the chances that someone will find your blog.
One of the best ways to utilize SEO is to use keywords effectively. To put it simply, if you write a post about visiting Paris, be sure that the word “Paris” features prominently in your post. You can use plug-in software to help you in this process. “I use the Yoast SEO plug-in [compatible with WordPress], which flags me if I haven’t used the keyword in the first paragraph of my article or if I haven’t used the keyword enough,” says Connie.
“There are many other plug-ins available to help grow your website, as well. Some that I use are Shareaholic, which prompts readers to share my articles on social media, and Subscribe2, which prompts readers to subscribe to my blog.”
Of course, if you don’t want the hassle of dealing with social media or new software, it’s still possible to find success using more old-fashioned methods of promotion.
Richard Nahem, whose blog, I Prefer Paris, an insider look at life in the City of Light, first started blogging in 2006, before social media had really taken off. “I emailed all the people I had on my email list to read and subscribe to my blog. Whenever I met anyone socially, I would ask for their card and email them immediately and ask if I could subscribe them. I also had contests on the blog to see who could sign up the most people and they would win a prize. And I wrote guest posts on other blogs to help build up my readership.”
Richard moved to Paris in 2005. He was a chef and caterer in New York, but in Paris he was looking for something new to do. “I fulfilled a lifelong dream to live in Paris and wasn’t sure what kind of work I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to cater or cook anymore,” he says. “With blogging, I discovered a new way to make an income.”
5 Ways to Earn
The success of a company lives and dies on the ability to get their product or service noticed by potential customers. So, if you have a sizeable readership on your blog, you can be sure that advertisers will take notice.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to create an income from your blog is through advertising. But as Anda points out, there are many different approaches you can take. “There is pay-per-click (advertiser pays when someone clicks on their ad), pay-per-action (blogger gets paid when someone purchases the advertised product), or pay-per-impression (blogger gets paid each time the ad appears on the blog). You may choose to display text links, pop-ups, or do sponsored posts.”
A popular pay-per-click option that Connie uses is Google AdSense. “With Google AdSense, you get paid anytime someone clicks into the ad. It doesn’t pay much but once you set it up you can forget about it. I have only one Google AdSense ad on my blog, but the more ads you put in, the more money you can earn.”
However, Connie has seen better results with affiliate (also known as payper-action) ads. “Here’s how it works: You register with an affiliate company, like CJ.com. Once you’re accepted by them, you request affiliation with their partners who might be a good fit for your blog. For instance, I requested affiliation with TripAdvisor. Once TripAdvisor accepted me as a partner, I began including an ad for them on my website. In addition, at the end of every article, I mention the accommodation I stayed at and include a link to the TripAdvisor rates and reviews. When someone clicks the link and follows up within 30 days to book a room, I get paid a commission.
“Another popular affiliate program is with Amazon. Once accepted into the program, you can place banner ads on your site or link to individual products and earn a commission if someone makes a purchase through your link,” says Connie.
Perhaps the most lucrative form of blog advertising is sponsored posting. Richard says that he makes between $85 and $150 per sponsored post featuring two relevant links. “Most of the time the client will have someone on their team write the article, according to my guidelines, and I will post it. Sometimes they ask me to write the article, but I charge more for that,” he says.
While you can make good money from sponsored posts, Nathan advises that you make sure the product or service is one you have used or are familiar with. “A good rule of thumb for sponsored posts is to ask yourself if the product or service is one you would recommend even without the paycheck.
“If you promote absolutely anything, you’ll quickly lose your audience’s trust. To that same point, I recommend you also promote things that you feel would be of value to your audience, even when you aren’t being paid to do so,” he says.
Of course, once you have an established platform and a captive audience, there is really no limit to different ways you can turn it into a money-maker. Richard uses it to get freelance writing assignments and to sell his photos. “I’m making $7,500 a year writing articles. And in 2009 I caught the attention of an editor at a well-known website for travel agents, and he’s assigned me a monthly article ever since.”
On top of that, Richard can use his blog to promote his tours of Paris. “I advertise my tours on the bottom of each post. I’ve had many readers, long-term and short-term, take my tours after reading the blog. My minimum charge for a tour is $250 for a private tour and sometimes they book more than one tour. Also, many readers recommend my tours to their friends and colleagues, even though they never met me or took one of my tours, recommending me on blind faith.”
Enjoy Free Travel
Being a blogger with a good following comes with many benefits. Not only does it allow you to make money from advertising, it can land you with free trips to tourist destinations, free meals, and free hotel stays.
“I get lots of freebies because of my blog,” says Connie. “Recently, my husband and I spent two weeks driving part of the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. We paid for only three hotel nights. Five different destinations hosted us, each providing two nights’ accommodations and area attraction admissions.”
These free trips are known as familiarization (or FAM) trips, and they’re often offered by tourist boards looking to promote tourism in their region.
“Earlier this year I went on my fifth FAM trip in as many years with one of the Midwest state tourism offices. They paid for everything—transportation costs, meals, accommodations, and attractions. On this year’s trip we visited area museums, hiked at a nature center, rode a miniature train, and ate at several restaurants, including lunch at a lavender farm. On other FAM trips, I’ve ridden in a helicopter, gone horseback riding, and driven a huge farm tractor.”
For Anda, the best part of FAM trips is the special behind-the-scenes access it gives her. “A few years ago I was part of a small group of writers who had been invited to visit the Swedish castles in Södermland (a beautiful region about 90 miles south of Stockholm). One of the places on our itinerary was Sparreholm Castle, a gorgeous manor that belonged to a wealthy guy (Helge Karinen). The unusual thing about this castle was that its owner had a passion for collecting things. From old gramophones, bicycles, vacuums, typewriters, radios and TV sets, to toys, clocks, and record players. Karinen also had one of Europe’s largest collection of automobiles from the 1800s to the present day (over 65 of them).”
But you don’t have to go through tourist boards in order to nab yourself a few freebies. You can also contact hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, or tourist attractions directly and see if they’d be willing to accommodate you in exchange for coverage in your blog.
Nathan’s advice is to target businesses that fit your niche. “I’ve seen budget travelers pitch the Shangri La. That makes no sense. Ideally, it would be a company or service you have previously worked with or you are familiar with,” he says.
“Send an email introducing yourself and explaining the story you will be writing and how and why their product/ service/property would be a good fit for your audience. And explain what they can get out of it, whether that’s a social media promotion, a blog post, or a YouTube video. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.”
Written by The Savvy Retiree Staff