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Ten Lessons Learned in 3 Years of Travel Blogging

You’ve just nailed the basics of your travel blog (domain name, hosting, custom theme, social media handles, first new and shiny blog post) and decided to join some Facebook groups with fellow travel bloggers because you’re eager to know more and to be part of this thriving, supportive community.

But suddenly you land on a status update where everyone is dropping strange names and acronyms (DA, PA, SEO, plugins, Yoast, FAM trips, comped stays) and discussing the ethical implications of a “dofollow” link versus a “nofollow” link. You feel like you somehow missed a turn and you joined the marathon when everyone’s closer to the finish line than to the starting line, where you were supposed to be. Sounds familiar?

Three years ago, I started a travel blog, not because I wanted to be a travel influencer, but because I had just quit my corporate job to pursue my true calling (writing) and needed to convince the world that I had the skills to do it. It’s not the romantic “quit your job to travel the world” but the pain points and lessons learned along the way are common to every travel blogger starting out.

1. Cut through the noise of helpful tips

Ask a generic question to fellow travel bloggers on a Facebook group and you’ll get dozens (possibly hundreds) of different answers. Like in any other business, you have all sorts of people in the travel blogging community. You have those who’ll look at this opportunity to brag and gloat about their achievements, those who’ll see an opportunity to drop a couple of affiliate links to a product or course they’re recommending or selling themselves, those who’ll answer in a way to push you off the track (yes, it’s happened to me), and a few that are actually not afraid to share knowledge because they were once in your shoes.

You need to start focusing on those people who answer your question with another question. Why are you blogging about this topic? What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to be? Who do you want to reach?

Answers like “I did this” won’t be of any help to you because (spoiler alert) you’re not the same person, you probably don’t have the same goals, heck, there’s a chance you don’t even like that person’s blog!

Tip: before jumping on board the first recommendation, save the post, step away, come back later, and read again.

2. Be inspired by others but set your own goals

Let’s do a little exercise together. How many travel bloggers (that you know well or know from the web) started out at the same time as you did? Now, how many of those bloggers are (according to your perspective) ahead of you? And how many of those bloggers are behind you?

My answers are five, two, and three, respectively. The last answer referring to three blogs that, literally, imploded and disappeared from the face of the online world less than a year after they started.

Now, for months I stubbornly focused on those two that were ahead of me and immediately ruled myself out as a failed travel blogger. You see, I wasn’t even considering the three that had crashed and burned, nor others that were in the same level as I was.

Then, I read a little book called “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek and it completely changed my perspective. You might be thinking “what does a marketing book have to do with any of this” and I’ll say everything. Your “why” rules everything you do in your life because it’s set in your core values.

You can (you should) be inspired by others but your goals and your path are yours and yours alone. Your background matters, your financial situation at the time you started matters, your learned set of skills or your willingness (and time) to learn more matter, the tools you afford to have access to when you start out matter.

It’s like running a marathon. Everyone starts from the same place and almost everyone reaches the finish line – at different times, at different paces, and after overcoming different obstacles.

Tip: grab a notebook (not the notes app on your phone, an actual notebook), write your “why”, and put a date on it. Come back often to read old notes and write new ones.

3. Build a blog business plan

I know how corporate-y this sounds and I fought against building my own for at least a year. What was the consequence of not having a cohesive business model? I was inconsistent.

I’ve seen my fair amount of travel bloggers media kits in the past three years to know that 90% of them don’t know what they’re doing (and that included my own, less than one year ago). They want to be all over the place and work on everything that could be a source of income. I’m not judging. But this is what not cutting through the noise and not knowing your “why” leads to – a confused mass of semi-skilled professionals, who have no expertise and who will (unfortunately) work for peanuts.

A business plan is basically a simple way to outline what you will do and what you won’t do in your travel blog and brand (don’t worry, it’s okay to change your mind later and adjust the plan). Think sponsored posts, banner ads, Instagram takeovers, Facebook shout-outs, selling photography, copywriting, freelance writing, etc.

If you know from day one what services fit your brand and what don’t, it’s easier to pitch to potential clients and it’s easier to turn down pesky chain-mail offers to include unrelated paid links in your top-ranking blog post.

My motto is, “if I’m trying too hard to love what I do, then I’m not doing what I love”. I never want to go back to doing tasks I have to do for the sake of doing them (like it was back in my corporate job) and I only want to work to achieve the goals that fit my “why”.

Tip: I used the template from byregina.com, tweaked it to my needs, and it’s still the model I use (and build upon) today.

4. Be professional at all times

Whether you’re travel blogging as a hobby or haven’t started to earn enough money from it to make a decent living, be professional at all times. Please. For all of us in the travel blogging industry.

On my second year of travel blogging, I pitched my first hotel for a complimentary stay. Seconds after sending that email, I prepared myself for one of three possible outcomes: a resounding no, an enthusiastic yes, or complete radio silence. I didn’t expect a fourth option, which was the one I got and accepted, the discounted media rate.

During my post-check-in usual conversation with the owner about deliverables and hotel details, she told me why she had accepted my offer on the condition of a discounted media rate. A couple of months after they opened, a blogger with thousands of Instagram followers reached out to them for a free stay in exchange for social media coverage and a blog post. They were thrilled to have the attention of such a major influencer and said yes.

The blogger stayed for almost a week and behaved like a diva the whole time (making snarky remarks about everything from the bedroom décor to the homemade cake at breakfast), didn’t reach out to the owners one single time to know more about their hotel, and (surprise, surprise) didn’t produce one single piece of content as promised.

Needless to say, I went above and beyond to exceed their expectations and prove to them that some of us care about being professional. In return, when someone asks them about working with me, they highly recommend it.

Tip: don’t promise more than you can deliver but leave room to exceed their expectations and completely blow their minds. Nine out of ten times (there’s always that one rotten egg), it will grant you a praise and a testimonial that you can add to your media kit.

5. Write like no one cares…

… edit like the whole world is reading.

Writing a blog postCurrent Sandra is going back to all those old posts she wrote in 2014 and that she published without thinking twice (some of them are gone for good). *cringe*

You see, I’ve had different blogs since 2004 and I thought that not much had changed in the blogosphere in 10 years. So, I produced content, and produced, and produced. Oh yes, my pageviews were skyrocketing within 3 months (not).

In 2016, after sitting down to build my blog’s business plan, I made significant changes to my writing routine. These days, I set up an editorial calendar, I write from the heart, I let that post sit for a couple of days, and then I go back to it to proofread and edit (and since 2017, to SEO it like there’s no tomorrow but more on that in a while).

It’s not a coincidence that the year I mapped all the goals for my blog and began to care about my voice and niche (more to come on this, too) was also the year when I got more freelance writing work offers (including, freelancing as a Lisbon Local for Lonely Planet).

I don’t believe in luck. I believe in hard work and commitment. I also believe that opportunities are always there but you only see them when you’re ready to grab them.

You are not a content-spitting machine. You are your own boss. You don’t have an editor shouting at you from the corner office to finish that article quickly because the deadline has moved (again). Also, and I won’t say this kindly if you have no passion at all for writing if writing is not your preferred way to communicate, why are you still producing written content in the first place?

Tip: I use Trello to organize my editorial calendar and Grammarly to police my sentence structure (since English is not my native language). Do not fret for the tiniest grammar slip that you only noticed after you hit publish; it happens. You go back, and you edit. If someone spotted it for you, you acknowledge, say thank you, and edit.

6. Be yourself

Your voice matters more than you think. It’s also pretty difficult to know what your voice is in the beginning, especially if you’re following the crowd.

My early content has no soul and it took me almost a year to make peace with the kind of travel blogger I wanted to be. Do you ever have that sensation that you’re forcing yourself to write something you don’t feel like? If yes, that’s your gut feeling and you should listen to it more often.

The first blog post I wrote in my voice it’s still one of my highest-ranking blog posts and one I use as template for every piece of content I write – be it a story, a listicle, a sponsored post, or a review of a comped stay.

It’s easy to get carried away when someone in a group says “my listicle of ultimate top things to do in the winter in La La Land is steady on page one of Google”. When you’re starting out (and eagerly want to make it as a travel blogger because you need to convince your parents, your best friend, and the house cat that you can do this), despite the fact that this person is just saying “this worked for me”, what you really hear is “oh I must write a listicle of ultimate top things to do in the winter in La La Land too”.

Well, you can write a similar post (especially if the monthly search volume is favorable) if and only if it reeks of your personality and style.

Tip: if you have a topic in mind for a blog post, do the keyword research first and check out the top ten bloggers who have written about it before. Will yours be different? Will you have a different angle, a different structure, different photos, etc. What will make this new piece of content yours and yours alone?

7. Assess the niche elephant in the room

This has got to be the hottest topic and most asked question in all Facebook groups for travel bloggers: what is your niche?

Unless you’re a grounded blogger who knows your brand from its very first second of inception (I salute you!), your answer to this question will be a mumbled “travel…?”

I’m assuming you write about travel because you enjoy traveling. But what is your style? What is it that you like doing when you’re traveling? How do you travel? What is that common theme that keeps popping up in your writing or in your travel plans?

I got my wakeup call after visiting three museums in Lisbon while striking up random conversations with employees. I know I always seek culture, local businesses, and meaningful conversations with residents, wherever I’m traveling in the world. I also avoid tour packages or guided tours without a maximum set number of people (the ideal is under 10). I managed to “niche it out” into sustainable cultural tourism and it was like a lightbulb went on. Every single blog post, Instagram shot, and social media status update became effortlessly cohesive.

You have to write about what you love, otherwise, it will be a burden. The “boring” part of your blogging life should be admin tasks like scheduling posts or organize your editorial calendar (and when you can afford to outsource it, do it), not write content.

Tip: list all the things you love and hate about traveling (and always go back to your “why”). Build up a persona based on that and write for and with her/him in mind.


8. SEO is not the same as selling your (blogging) soul

Someone said one day in a Facebook group, “I don’t care about SEO, I’m a storyteller.”

That was me, in 2015. And then the Universe came knocking on my door in early 2016, just to give me one of those life lessons that pulls the rug from under your feet. And, let me tell you, the fall was hard and painful.

I had a contract to write a certain amount of sponsored blog posts on my blog. But, because the number of pageviews that came via organic search was pathetic, they decided I wasn’t worth the return on investment and dropped me (like I would too if I was on that side of the fence). Today, writing sponsored blog posts aren’t part of my business model anymore, but at the time it was my only source of income.

The year after, I turned to platforms like Upwork to scrape up any gigs I could find (in case you don’t know, unless you have an outstanding set of skills, most clients pay peanuts) and it was a painful year until I got a steady non-travel-related client who needed a web content writer with basic SEO knowledge.

I took a deep dive into SEO’s lessons by Neil Patel and Backlinko’s Brian Dean and applied different techniques to my blog to practice (at this point I was still convinced I was a storyteller, therefore I had no use for SEO on the blog).

I’ll cut this short: in two months, organic search went from being my last source of traffic to my second, and my blog was suddenly so “findable”, that I got steady, well-paid freelance work after this and invitations to go on FAM trips (100% in tune with my niche).

You can write an SEO-based post to answer a searcher’s questions about something you’re an expert on AND add your own voice to it. It doesn’t have to be a soulless listicle and you can choose if you want all of your content to be SEO-based or go for a 50/50 balance or whatever matches your brand.

Tip: Make Traffic Happen is the best Facebook group you could be a part of right now if you’re overwhelmed with SEO. Forget everything you heard in other groups, this is that safe place where you want to be.

9. Grow the social media outlets that matter for your goals

Securing all social media handles is a pretty basic advice for all travel bloggers (and I do believe you should secure,at least, the four major ones, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. Choosing which one to focus your whole undivided attention first is trickier.

You have dozens of “how to” blog posts (some, by other travel bloggers), twice that number of whining threads on Facebook groups about Facebook’s algorithm (oh, the irony), and the occasional viral exposé of travel bloggers gaming the system of Instagram followers on (reputable) online newspapers.

My main goal was to have my blog serve as my online portfolio, and it still is. Obviously, I wanted to focus on the social media outlets that would bring more people to my content (including potential clients). For me, and for many other bloggers, that social media is Pinterest. It’s where I have the most followers and it’s also where I invest the most of my time (including investing money in paying for the scheduling tool Tailwind).

I have fun with Facebook and Instagram, and they’re a cohesive brand extension (in content and in the demographics of people following me, which match my blog’s).

Twitter, I’m afraid, is my neglected child in the social media realm. I check it out occasionally, retweet or like something when I’m bored, and only check my follower count when someone asks for a potential brand partnership.

Ask the travel blogging universe, and most people will tell you you MUST be on ALL outlets at ALL times. Remember lesson number 1? What works for others may not work for you. It’s all about your blog goals, your niche, your voice, and where your ideal reader hangs out the most.

Tip: Slaying Social is a website run by Christina Guan and Lia Garcia who tell it like it is in every single blog post. They have the background, the expertise, and the numbers to back up what they preach. I managed to kill some of my frustrations with Twitter, just by figuring out what I wanted out of it through one of their step-by-step actionable tips.

10. The difference between “working for exposure” and brand awareness

The old quarrel whether travel bloggers should say yes or no to working “for exposure”. Let me tell you what I’ve learned about marketing in the last 3 years (and what I learned from working with the marketing and the PR department for 7, back at my corporate job). If they can get away with paying peanuts or convincing you to do it for free, they will be, in no time, the kings and queens of the office for the whole year.

A friend of mine, who is a well-established professional videographer, was negotiating a contract with a reputable cosmetics brand about a year ago, and they were constantly trying to push him to lower his fee. When he got to a point when he couldn’t get much lower and explained to them why that was his final offer, they showed him the Instagram profile of a local influencer they were using instead. “See, she’ll make all shots we want, plus share it with her followers, and won’t charge us more than €50 for the whole shoot, no matter how long it takes” (I’m paraphrasing, but this was more or less what they told him).

This was a new influencer, with a little over 10k followers, who was delighted to work with such a big brand. Them, on the other hand, were delighted they were getting away with a bargain and still have the big ROI numbers to appease their managers.

For her, it was a win. For the brand, it was a win. For my friend, it was a sour loss.

This was clearly a miscommunication between all parties since the brand should have been straightforward from the beginning about whether they wanted a professional shoot or an influencer campaign. But the thought in the back of my friend’s mind is that influencers and bloggers are unprofessional and unskilled people who will work for exposure or very little pay.

There are times, especially in the beginning of your travel blogging career, when you will need to work for exposure, but ONLY to raise awareness to your brand or improve your backlink profile (I promise that if you follow my tip on lesson number 8 you’ll get what I’m talking about).

Don’t work for exposure as a system, or because you have a steady job and travel blogging is your side gig, or because you’re not comfortable asking for pay. Please. For the sake of the professional travel blogging industry and for the sake of all the freelance web content writers out there who go to great lengths to convince clients of the worth of their work.

Before accepting or declining an offer for a “work for exposure” opportunity, analyze that brand to the core (social media presence, stuff people are saying about it, domain authority, monthly traffic, how good will it look on YOUR portfolio). I use Moz’s Open Site Explorer tool to check the domain authority and SimilarWeb chrome extension to see that website’s traffic (it’s fairly accurate).

Tip: Always pitch or propose a topic that is fairly easy and quick to write for you (my latest barter gig, in exchange for a “dofollow” link, was written in 30 minutes), so you don’t lose focus from your current cash cow.

About the Author
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer born in the Azores and based in Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2014, she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog about sustainable cultural tourism.

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