The Conversation We Would Be Having
I met you at a party. Or maybe a bar. We’re friends of friends. Very likely total strangers.
I hope that right now you and I are talking about life in New York. Or hilarious dating disasters. Or our favorite slow cooker meals. Or the fact that we’re still not over how Bill Murray lost the Oscar for Lost in Translation. Or you. I want to know all about you, your life, your work, and what excites you.
Basically, I’m trying to avoid “The Conversation” and I haven’t figured out a polite way to do that yet.
I have The Conversation several times a week. People find out that I’m a professional travel blogger and ask me several questions about it — the same exact questions each time. Open-ended, complicated questions that aren’t answerable in quick sound bites. And while I know it comes with the territory, having The Conversation is one of my least favorite things to do.
I totally understand why people want to talk about this. I have what a lot of people consider a dream career, and yet there’s no barrier to entry. People want to know how it’s possible.
I’m writing this post because at the last two parties I attended, I ended up having The Conversation over and over for half the party and wished I had spent that time making new friends instead of repeating the same things again and again. I didn’t even bring travel blogging up — it tends to travel through the grapevine.
So, instead, I’m writing this post. I hope in the future I’m able to smile at a party guest like yourself and say, “You know, I actually get burned out on talking about work and I’d rather spend my time getting to know you. I can send you a link to a page where I answer all those questions. For now, can we talk about something else instead?”
Here are your questions and my answers:
So, what’s your favorite place?
The truth? Most travel bloggers hate this question. It’s so hard to condense so many years of travel, a whirl of countries and cities and experiences, down to just one place. It’s practically impossible, which is why a lot of bloggers refuse to answer.
But I know you want an answer, and this is as close as I can get to my “favorite place”:
My top five favorite countries are Croatia, South Africa, Italy, Japan, and Thailand.
Beyond that, a few more: my favorite region in the world is the Balkans; I also love Central America and the Nordics.
Some of my favorite cities are Paris, New York, Melbourne, Bangkok, Berlin, Edinburgh, Savannah, Granada (Spain), Bologna, New Orleans, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Boston.
Some of my favorite culinary destinations are northern Italy (particularly Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria), Japan, Vietnam, Paris, Mexico, and the American South.
And one place that means a lot to me is the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my favorite place in the world, but if I had to pick one, that would probably be a finalist.
What about the worst place you’ve ever been?
Poipet, Cambodia. It smells like rotten fish and waiting for hours at the border is a hellish experience.
Manila. So dirty and unpleasant, it makes my skin crawl. (No offense to my wonderful friends who live there.)
Port Authority in New York. It’s like the Twilight Zone.
So you’ve been everywhere, right?
Not remotely! I’ve been to 67 countries at the time of publication. That number is probably somewhere in the middle as far as full-time travel bloggers go. I know some travel bloggers around my age who have been to 90+ countries; I also know a lot who hover in the 30s or so.
Could I have been to more places in that time period? Sure. But keep in mind that I’m only one woman — there’s only so much time and money that can be spent on my travels without me losing my mind! I also prefer not to duck into a capital for two days and then move on to the next country. I like to explore three different destinations within a country when possible.
I have no desire to visit every country in the world. It’s not my thing.
I do have a list of destination goals, though: the Galapagos, New Zealand, Brazil, Madagascar, the Caucasus, and Hawaii are high on my list of priorities.
How did you get so many followers?
The most important factor to keep in mind is that I started in 2010. That is a lifetime ago in digital years, and the internet was a completely different place. Instagram didn’t even exist when I started. Back then, the only relevant social network was Twitter, with a few bloggers making inroads into Facebook and YouTube.
So you can’t do what I did and expect the same results. It’s just impossible.
What I personally did was network with bloggers, joining groups, being active on Twitter, and constantly linking to other bloggers and letting them know I linked to them, hoping they would share my posts (and they often did).
If you’re looking to grow your audience, the single best thing you can do is produce quality content, followed by networking and being active on social media. I also recommend the Travel Blog Success course, which is the single best resource on the web for travel bloggers looking to go professional.
How do you make money?
This is where the questions start to make me uncomfortable. Would you ask this question to someone in a traditional industry? Probably not.
At the same time, though, I get the curiosity. Again, it’s a cool-seeming industry with no barrier to entry. Here’s how I do it:
Affiliate marketing. I link to products I use and recommend, and if you click through and buy them, I get a commission (at no extra cost to anyone).
Campaigns. I work with tourism boards or travel companies on campaigns designed to promote the destination or company. Sometimes this takes the form of content on my site or one of my social media accounts; sometimes it’s producing written or photo content for their own sites and marketing materials.
Advertising. I run advertising on the blog and my social media channels. I only choose ads that are for relevant products (very often contests to win trips to destinations), and I write the ads in a way that will get them read and enjoyed by my readers. There’s also display advertising on the site.
Photo sales. I sell my photos to magazines, tourism boards, and travel companies.
Tours. I co-ran two tours in Central America in 2015. There are no plans to do another tour at this time, but I would love to partner with a professional tour company in the future. As much as I loved running these tours, I’m nervous about what would happen if someone got seriously ill or injured, and I’d want to partner with “real” company for that reason.
Writing/consulting/etc. There’s a lot of random work that finds its way to me.
Beyond that, I’m not going to tell you exactly how I do these things — it took me nearly seven years of figuring it out on my own. I don’t give away those secrets.
How much money do you make?
Dude, honestly? That’s a rude question.
I live alone in Manhattan; that should answer whether travel blogging can be financially sustainable.
Why do you live in New York if everywhere else is so much cheaper?
Well, why would you live anywhere else if you could live in the place you loved?
I get the merits of basing yourself somewhere cheap. Most full-time travel bloggers do that. Chiang Mai and Bangkok and Playa del Carmen and Medellín and Berlin are some of the hotspots. Sayulita was big one year. Oaxaca was super-popular last year.
But these places have drawbacks. It can be exhausting to live 24/7 in a culture that’s not your own, especially if you don’t speak the language. It’s tough to live somewhere with a revolving door of expats, where your friends arrive and depart on a regular basis and nobody really sticks around.
I live in New York because I love it. My sister lives four blocks from me, my best friend lives a subway ride away, and I have tons of friends scattered across the five boroughs, including friends I’ve met on my travels. My travel blogger friends are always passing through and I love hosting them. I’m a 4.5-hour bus ride away from my parents in Massachusetts.
But most importantly — New York will never bore me. I might decide to live somewhere else in the future, but for right now, New York is where I’m meant to be.
(Plus, it’s not quite the most expensive place I could be! Rent is more expensive in San Francisco. And my day-to-day costs would be much higher in places like Australia, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. London is relatively on par with New York, but it’s a bit cheaper now if you earn a non-GBP salary.)
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in?
I was shipwrecked in Indonesia in 2011. We hit a reef in the middle of the night and had to swim to shore before we were rescued by a nearby dive boat. Later, I realized that the waters could have been shark-infested and the island could have been home to man-eating dragons.
Beyond that, nothing too dangerous has happened to me. I’ve been pickpocketed a few times. I’ve spent a few nights lying wide awake because I didn’t feel safe and my intuition was pinging like crazy. I get catcalled in most places in the world, and sometimes it escalates to me being threatened. There was one driver in Cape Town who had no idea what he was doing and he scared me to death.
It’s worth noting that two of the scariest incidents actually happened in my hometown of Boston. I was violently mugged in front of my Fenway apartment; I was assaulted two days in a row by the same man on an orange line train on my morning commute. Bad things can happen if you never leave the country.
So, how can I get free flights?
Free flights don’t exist.
You can play the points and miles game, which can earn you very cheap flights if you’re crafty (and you always have to pay some kind of fee for award travel), but totally free flights for no reason at all do not exist. People don’t give away something in exchange for nothing.
On the same wavelength, you can’t get a free upgrade to business class if you just dress up and act polite. This is one of the biggest lies in pop culture! The best way to get a free upgrade to business class is to become a loyal flyer with one airline and earn status.
Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain sometime?
No. I know you mean well, and I appreciate your offer, but I don’t do this. I’ve spent years developing my skills and for that reason, companies pay me to pick my brain. It’s worth more than the cost of a cup of coffee that I can’t even enjoy because I’m busy helping you.
For more on why, I’ve always appreciate this piece: No, you can’t pick my brain — it costs too much.
If I want to do this, too, how do I get started?
You’re in luck — I wrote a whole post on how to start a travel blog. The advice still holds today!
I’m planning a trip soon but I’m having some trouble — can you help me?
If it’s something I can answer off the top of my head, I’d love to help you! I love helping people plan their travels! Especially when you’ve already done most of the planning but are having trouble with an issue or two.
Should we take a cab from Heathrow Airport? Not unless you want to spend a lot of money. Take the tube or Heathrow Express. It’s easy, even with bags.
Should we go to the Caribbean in November? I wouldn’t. The weather tends to be its worst then.
Where’s somewhere cheap and awesome? Guatemala if you’re in the States. Macedonia and Albania if you’re in Europe.
I just have one request — this could quickly turn into an all-night conversation, so please let me have time to socialize with other people, too.
Thanks for being understanding.
I really appreciate it.