Is it possible to make a full time living from travel blogging?

David Whitley March 9, 2013 1

With travel bloggers getting book deals, is it possible to earn a good living from travel blogging alone? David Whitley asked a few of the industry’s biggest names.

Like many travellers, Torre DeRoche started her blog as a modern day equivalent of the postcard home. She’d decided to sail across the Pacific with an Argentinean boyfriend that her parents had never met, and figured a regularly updated blog would put their minds – at least partially – at ease.

“I started my blog to let my parents know that I hadn’t been kidnapped, mauled by wild animals, or locked up in a third-world prison,” says Torre.

“My blog recounted stories of the mishaps and discoveries of our voyage, and it found a small audience of regular readers.”

In the not too distant future, a few more readers will be getting to know about those mishaps and discoveries. A couple of out-of-the-blue approaches via her Twitter account have led to book deals in the UK, Australia and North America, whilst Hollywood has come a-knocking for the film rights.

Love With A Chance Of Drowning is due out in 2013, but Torre isn’t the only one managing to turn her online travel musings – now at FearfulAdventurer.com – into something more lucrative.

In the world of travel blogging, Gary Arndt is one of the big fish. A serial internet entrepreneur, he decided to travel the world in 2007. He says: “Given my background in the Internet, starting a blog was a natural thing for me to do.”

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Four years later, Everything-Everywhere.com has turned into another business – he employs an assistant to do most of his travel planning and pays commissions to a manager and agent.

Of course, there’s nothing new about people earning money by writing about their travels. The tradition goes way back past Bill Bryson (and magazines such as National Geographic Traveler in the US), through Robert Louis Stevenson and arguably back to Arabian adventurers such as Ibn Batutta. What the web has done is eradicate most of the costs and cut out the need for middlemen in the publishing process.

It’s free to set up a blog with the likes of Blogger.com and WordPress.com, while buying your own domain name and web hosting can cost less than £10 a year. It’s also remarkably easy to get adverts alongside what you write by using Google’s Adsense programme or affiliate networks such as Commission Junction or Tradedoubler. Adsense gives you small sums every time someone clicks on one of your ads, affiliates give you commission payments every time someone clicks through and then buys something, such as a flight or hotel room.

So can anyone set up a blog, write about their travels and make a living from it? Gary Arndt reckons there’s a big gap between in theory and in practice.

“Is it possible? Sure. It is probable? No,” he argues.

“Travel writing has always been a difficult field. Everyone wants to travel around the world. There is no shortage of potential travel writers. While the internet has removed many of the barriers to finding an audience, it has also massively increased the competition. Of the top 100 travel blogs on the web, I’d say maybe 10-15% are able to make a full time living at it, and there are a lot more than 100 travel blogs in the world.”

Fellow success story Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt agrees: “Monetisation is always the hard part,” he says. “It’s a lot more than just putting ads up.

“I have to market my website, I have to create products, I have put the right ads on the right pages. With the internet, you need to really focus your ads to your audience. I would say that all the successful people I know online have their hands in many pots. You need to diversify your income from as many different sources as possible.”

For Matt, that diversification includes writing travel budgeting articles for personal finance websites and selling eBooks. Other bloggers run separate sites from their main blog that are more focused on things that sell – reviewing travel clothing and equipment, for example.

By the standards of Torre, Gary and Matt, my own entry into the world of travel blogging is feeble small fry. I set up GrumpyTraveller.com because, as with many old school paper-and-ink journalists, I wanted to get some kind of foothold in the brave new online world. It also offered an opportunity to publish whatever came into my head and I felt like writing about. I didn’t need to pitch and sell an idea to an editor, I didn’t need to rewrite it to fit a storyline that suited the publication better, and I didn’t need to wait months for it to get published.

I update it in my spare time, and I earn £1,000 to £2,000 a year from it in advertising (although this is increasing since I redesigned it in July 2012). To all intents and purposes, it tootles along as an enjoyable hobby. From experience, I know that it’s remarkably easy to get a few people to visit your site, read the content and talk about it – but to get them to do so in such numbers that serious money can be made takes a lot of effort, strategy and marketing nous.

In 2011, I attended a fairly informal travel blogger meet-up in London. Around 100 people were there, most of whom have reasonably well known blogs. An illuminating question was asked: Whose blog earns them more than £1,000 a month? That’s pretty much the wages you’d get working full time in a fast food restaurant. Only one hand went up. The general conclusion was that it’s not too hard to earn a bit of cash to fund your travels, but getting to the stage where you can pack in the day job and make a proper living is a much bigger step.

This, of course, is assuming that you’re trying to make money from the blog directly. Some bloggers are – rather successfully – using a different strategy. Former optometrist and management consultant Andy Jarosz decided that his blog was best used as a shop window.

“I didn’t want to plaster my site with ads and spend my time managing multiple debtors for small amounts,” says Andy. “I figured if I have created my own blog from scratch into one that attracts a respectable audience size, I could provide the same service for travel companies. They would benefit from well-written, fresh and regular content that improves their online visibility while attracting potential customers to their site.

“I currently write for four regular clients and sell occasional posts to others on an ad-hoc basis. This makes up the bulk of my income.”

Jodi Ettenberg works on similar principles. She says: “I get a few offers a week, as I suspect most bloggers do, but I’ve turned down all advertising and paid text links for the site. I declined them because I wanted Legal Nomads to remain a platform for my passions and my interests without having to think about page views.

“Instead, I’ve used the site as a platform for other things – guidebooks, freelance writing, associations with travel companies I like, etc – but not on my site, on their respective platforms.

“Writing about travel is only one of my interests (and one I love very much) but I’m also interested in continuing public speaking roles, in food history and in social media consulting.”

I’ve found this a more effective route too. The people who are interested in my travel might not pay me, but people who are interested in my writing will. There’s an important distinction between earning money whilst travelling and earning money from writing about travel. There’s more to the craft of writing well than just putting words on a page and hoping people click on the adverts next to them – it’s a skill that some people have and other people can learn. But, at the very least, an interest in that skill is vital.

This is a factor that can lead to friction. Blogging is a world where the barriers to entry are so low that just about anyone can have a bash. The editorial gatekeepers are done away with and traditional processes of publishing travel writing are torn up. Attitudes are rapidly changing, but some established travel journalists still have a sniffy attitude towards bloggers.

Matt Kepnes says he stills sees a lot of resentment. “Sometimes I think it’s jealousy,” he suggests. “A writer can work his whole life to get to where he is, while a blogger can hit upon a good idea and – because of the way the internet works – be successful overnight.  That said, there are many journalists who get that new media is here to stay and they tend to view bloggers more favourably.”

Gary Arndt reckons the animosity comes from a small minority: “99% of the travel writers I’ve met are trying hard to understand new media and really want to integrate it into what they do,” he says. “The 1% is a very cynical and vocal bunch that seems frightened of the changes which are happening. They also don’t seem to have very successful careers to begin with.”

From my experience, the writers and bloggers attaining any degree of success really don’t care about the labels – they prefer to learn from each other. Attitudes are shifting very fast – most trainee journalists are encouraged to set up their own blog, and quality bloggers who have had no previous paid writing experience elsewhere are recognised as genuine authorities.

Some of the old guard, however, have forged a third way on the web. There’s no hard and fast definition of what a blog actually entails, but most travel blogs err towards the inspirational, conversational and evocative. There are, however, individually-run sites that concentrate on cold, hard information.

Tom Brosnahan’s TurkeyTravelPlanner.com is a great example. Tom applied the knowledge and methods he learned writing guidebooks for the likes of Lonely Planet and Frommer’s to his own site. It’s now a huge, in-depth resource for anyone wishing to travel to Turkey.

Stuart McDonald of Travelfish.org applies a similar approach to South-East Asia. There are some more blog-style articles on there, but the main focus is on planning – where to stay, how to get from A to B, where to get a good feed for relatively little money. Essentially, it’s the sort of information you’d get in a guide book, but being on the web means that it can be kept up-to-date. If something closes or changes, it takes a few minutes to rewrite or remove the relevant information.

Unsurprisingly, Stuart’s background is in writing guide books, but he’s succeeded in making those skills pay online.

He says: “We were profitable from early on – though barely – because we did all the work ourselves and didn’t rent flash office space or, indeed, any office space.

“We were living somewhere very inexpensive (Phnom Penh then Jakarta) and we both still work from laptops.”

He sees no reason why someone needs to have sat through a journalism degree or training course to be able to do something similar.

“Could anyone do it? To an extent, of course!” says Stuart. But he has a warning. “Anyone can learn to write and hone the craft; and anyone who is crazy enough to traipse through 20 guesthouses on a beautiful beach in the tropical heat instead of lazing on said beach can be a travel researcher.”

This is a common theme amongst those making money out of online travel writing. Everyone I spoke to was keen to stress that it’s not just about travelling, writing about it, then reaping in the money. To make a decent living, you’re going to have to work hard and make certain sacrifices.

Matt Kepnes says: “I don’t clock in or out but, like any small business owner, I’m always working. I am the CEO, editor, writer, web guru, and marketer for my site. It takes a lot of work.

“If I’m not out doing something, I am inside working on my website. I put it in a lot of hours and it seems that the more successful the website becomes, the more hours I have to put in.”

Torre DeRoche agrees: “Successful travel bloggers are exceptionally driven individuals with a range of skills. Some are gifted at creative writing, while others are skilled with technology. They’re all entrepreneurial, persistent and hard-working. A travel blog is essentially a small business, and all businesses require bucket loads of blood, sweat and tears.

“On weekends, while Average Joe is out draining kegs with his buddies, travel bloggers are generally snuggled up with their best friend – a laptop – as they resolve web coding issues, plan out their next strategic move, and design blog posts that will reach a wide audience.

“Society doesn’t yet acknowledge blogging and social media as a valid career path, so bloggers go blue in the face trying to explain their vision to family and friends. Try telling your parents that you’re quitting your job to start a blog and see what they say – they’ll probably urge you to join the circus instead.”

Travel blogging is, however, becoming a credible industry. Tourist boards are running all-expenses-paid familiarisation trips purely for influential bloggers, while travel companies increasingly want people to write quality content for their own site. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a widespread feeling that a generational shift with advertising executives will soon see the ad dollars shift significantly from print to online.

It’s an industry that’s still foetal, and no-one really knows what will happen in the next few years. But Gutenberg probably didn’t foresee today’s mass media and the Wright Brothers probably couldn’t have predicted the scale of today’s airline industry. The answer to the question – can you make money from setting up your own travel blog or site – is a highly qualified yes. You’ll have to work extraordinarily hard, learn a lot more skills than you may imagine and abandon the concept of a holiday. But the opportunity of a career – and even Hollywood stardom – is theoretically there.

 

This story was originally written for National Geographic Traveller (UK) and published in early 2012.

 

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