I'm sitting on a bus meandering its way down the coast of southern Sri Lanka. The soft hum of the tour guide's voice is forming a soundtrack to our journey, as he tells us devastating tales of destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami and how Sri Lanka is finally on the road to recovering. I glance out the window at the scenery passing then look back down at my laptop, and continue typing up my latest update on the travel blogger.
If you had asked me a year ago what my dream job would be, I no doubt would have said, “Getting paid to travel the world”. Along with every other person on the planet.
In truth the reality of being a full-time travel blogger is not nearly as glamorous as our social media accounts would have you believe. I’m writing this article to give an insight into a job many struggle to understand. My parents still struggle with how one can get paid to travel the world, a concern shared by many of my friends.
Rewind to August 2015. I am sitting at a desk in Dublin, working in a PR job and wondering if there’s more to life than the 9-to-5 slog I have always hated so much. My travel blog had been up and running for five years but has quite a small following and readership is sporadic, at best.
Nevertheless, blogging has always been my biggest passion in life. I would spend every spare moment working on it, researching articles, editing photographs and desperately trying to find my readership.
I sometimes found myself staying in the office close to midnight, determined to write a blog post that will get noticed. Long nights teaching myself the ins and outs of SEO (search engine optimisation – essentially trying to rank my site on Google), learning how to build an engaged social media following. Traffic to my blog started to increase as I veered away from “Dear Diary” posts and focused on writing content worth reading and content worth sharing.
I discovered that travel tips on how to find the cheapest flights, how to save money on hotels, what it’s really like to stay on strangers’ couches in exotic locations around the world started to gain traction.
Soon after, publications such as National Geographic and The Huffington Post started to notice me. I started getting dream offers to go on press trips, requests to write travel features, and offers of payment for sponsored posts on my little travel blog. People actually wanted to pay me to write about travel on my own site.
My journey to becoming a full-time blogger, while seemingly long, was actually a sudden one. Once my blog traffic hit a certain point and offers of press trips and paid travel assignments started flowing into my inbox, I knew the time was right.
I was 29 years old, had a bit of money saved and was not in any serious relationship. Freedom was just around the corner and such an opportunity might not arise again. I handed in my one-month notice and set off on an unfamiliar journey that took me around the world in more ways than one.
To become a successful travel blogger, there are no evenings and no weekends, there are simply 24 hours in every day that you must make the most of. People always ask me why I always seem so busy when I have the “easiest job in the world”.
I’d like to take this opportunity to shed some light on the life of travel blogger and what one must do to be successful.
Getting started on your journey
1 Grow your social media following
In 2016, social media is everything. It's the first thing a prospective client will look at, the first thing a PR agency will ask you about and the best way to establish a loyal fan-base. To make money, and there's lots of money to be made, you need a large following of active and engaged followers. This means you can forget about buying followers in any shape or form. Seriously, don't even think about it. You need to spend up to one hour every day working on your social media profiles. Take part in Twitter chats and see what's trending. Follow people who already follow like-minded accounts. Comment on other people's Instagram photos and like, like, like. The really successful influencers simply love what they do, and so none of this really feels like work at all.
While it’s important to grow all social media channels, it’s best to focus most of your efforts on one. The one that gets you noticed. If you love photography and are a dab hand at editing, focus your efforts on Instagram.
The internet is awash with articles on how to perfect your profile and build a following fast. If you're confident in front of a camera, YouTube is the way to go. As is Snapchat, which is by far my personal favourite as it lets your audience to see a totally unedited, behind-the-scenes version of your life.
The more real you are, the more people can relate and thus will in turn become loyal and engaged readers of your blog. Which is always the end goal.
2 Build your brand
When it comes to being a blogger and influencer, building your own personal brand is so important if you want people to recognise you, talk about you and recommend you. "Oh, she's the girl who always travels alone," or "That's the guy who always takes those funny animal selfies."
Whatever your niche is, you need to always build on it and refine it.
Whether I land on your Instagram, Facebook or blog, I should know who you are and what you write about in mere seconds.
Stick to your niche, be it solo travel, luxury or family vacations.
3 Increase your web traffic
There are good ways and bad ways to approach this, of which I've, regrettably, done both. The good way is to work hard on your SEO and Pinterest (this is where bloggers get most of their traffic from these days) and to consistently write good content that gets read, shared and will hopefully rank well on Google in due course. The bad way to increase traffic is to create clickbait articles with snappy titles. These will cause people to share without thinking, click but hate what they're reading and, finally can cause some heated debates if the topic of the article is quite contentious.
As a primarily solo, female traveller, I once wrote an article about the worst elements of travelling alone. I wrote it after a stressful day and needed to vent. It only took about 30 minutes maximum to write, I included no photos and then strategically shared it in some groups and forums that actively promote “girl power” and solo travel where I knew it would create a storm.
The article nearly brought my site down within the first 12 hours and it had 20,000 hits and 2,000 Facebook shares by day two. Sure, it went viral and I was delighted with the traffic, but it also led to abusive comments, hate mail and the loss of some loyal readers. A mistake I will never make again.
Once your website is established, your social media following secure, money-making opportunities will start to pop up. As I’m a travel blogger, these are all based on my personal experiences. I think beauty and fashion bloggers have many of the same financial opportunities, and maybe more.
How bloggers make money
1 Paid press trips
When you begin blogging, everyone is delighted to be offered a free trip. However, as you become more established and your audience begins to grow quite large, a point comes when you need to to value your time. If you accept free press trips every week of the year, you will have no time to actually earn your income. Depending on your level of influence and size of your following, you can ask tourism boards for either a day rate or a trip rate for press trips. I know bloggers who charge up to €500 a day while others may charge that per week.
You may be expected to fulfil certain requirements such as professional photography of the property or just a set number of positive social media posts per day. I say positive, as sometimes that is exactly what the client expects.
Rewind to February of this year, for example. I was on a blogger trip to Kerala, India, with 30 travel bloggers from around the world. Organised by Tourism Kerala, we were given a no-expenses spared tour of India's richest state. We spent two full weeks tweeting, snapchatting and uploading photos of us lying in hammocks, on safari and climbing mountains (while still looking good, of course!).
What we were not shown, however, was the real India. There was no mention of poverty or street kids by our tour guide. No discussions about levels of unemployment or education or inequality between rich and poor. There was no beeping horns and crazy smells. We never had the opportunity to share true feelings with our followers as we never had the opportunity to experience them.
2 Sponsored posts
Sponsored posts can take many shapes or forms. First off, they can either be on your blog itself or on one of your social media accounts. I receive tonnes of emails every day from people trying to set me up with a social media influencer account on their new platform. I'm now on so many platforms my head wants to explode when I receive a new email. These platforms link bloggers with brands who are willing to pay the bloggers to promote their products or services.
I know travel bloggers who get paid between €100 and €600 for each sponsored post that they do. This could be a simple Instagram post, a tweet or a lengthy blog post on your website. All sponsored links and posts must be disclosed to your readers, with a simple #ad or #spon to let them know you’re being paid to promote this service.
3 Affiliate links
Affiliate links are a great way to make a passive income. If you land on my site and read a post about the best hostels in South Africa and then click through to book one of these hostels, a small percentage of that booking fee comes to me. Same goes for travel books, TEFL courses, flights, hotels and anything else you might want to purchase through my site. Fashion bloggers make a lot of money this way, as people specifically go to their site when hoping to buy a new outfit or new make-up. I came across a budget blogger recently who earned €40,000 last month just from affiliate links. I also know US travel bloggers making upwards of €3,000 every month from a single link.
4 Google advertising
Unless your site is getting a crazy amount of traffic, this method won't earn you very much money. My site currently gets about 50,000 unique hits a month, a number that brings me in about €120 from Google advertising. Not exactly enough to start thinking about a mortgage or a new car, but certainly not nothing. You can also sell box and banner adverts direct to advertisers, which can make you a lot more money if your have a targeted niche blog or destination blog.
5 Freelance writing
Many large companies and brands ask bloggers to contribute articles to their company blog. This is a great way to make extra money, raise your profile and be associated with some high-tier brands.
The brand is mainly using you for your social media influence (think of all the new followers they will get) while you can benefit by getting great links from their site to yours. Payment for this type of freelance work can range from €100 to €500, depending on the length of the article, how much research is needed and the size of the following you are expected to share with.
6 Social media takeovers
These are becoming more and more popular and are an easy way to make extra money while going about your normal day. Companies pay "big influencers" to take over their Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter in a bid to gain more followers. You need to be very good at what you do, as the companies are trusting you fully for a 24-hour period. Bloggers can charge up to €200 (or more, if you already have quite a large following) for Snapchat takeovers, for example, which really only take a few minutes of your day and can be done in combinations with lots of other tasks.
Everyone’s definition of success is different. While some people are happy to get free trips, many now have their sights set on turning their blog into a profitable business. There are travel bloggers out there making hundreds of thousands of euro, simply by doing what they love.
If you have high goals, and aspire to make a full-time income out of this way of life, then you will need to look at your site as a business rather than a blog.
You will also need to get more creative with how you plan to monetise it, such as pitching large brands to be their ambassador, selling professional photography or destination video clips, writing e-books and securing public speaking engagements. You will need to be networking online and offline every waking hour and your bag will never be unpacked. At least that’s my experience.
The life can be tough and there’s really no way of switching off. You need to be tuned in 24/7 and you will, at times, feel as if social media is taking over your life.
And in truth, it probably is.